Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Among Strange Victims is Daniel Saldaña París's first novel published in the US, fluidly brought into English through the polished and effortless-feeling translation of the talented Christina MacSweeney. Saldaña París is a Montreal-based poet, essayist, and novelist, born in Mexico City, and, as this darkly humorous and thoughtful novel -- both in the sense of being contemplative and packed full of an onrush of thoughts -- proves, is a welcome infusion of vitality into North American literature.
Among Strange Victims is divided into four parts and an epilogue, with the final three parts having the enticing titles "Fundamental Considerations on Something," "Shrubs of the Terrestrial Sphere," and "The Future of Art." In part I "The Third Person," we meet Rodrigo Saldívar, who seems to be something of the twenty-first-century offspring of Dostoevsky's Underground Man and Ellison's Invisible one. A disenchanted, disconnected young man of twenty-seven, Rodrigo lives alone in a damp apartment in Mexico City, which he has come to occupy by virtue of its having been the only he could find for rent adjacent to a vacant lot.
A highly intelligent societal and college dropout, he works in a museum under the lofty, esoteric, and self-given title "knowledge administrator," which he gleaned from "a billboard on the Periférico beltway advertising the new degrees of a private university"; his duties include "writing texts related to the site: press releases, salon notes, letters and speeches for the director, [...] meeting and repelling the impromptu visitors who turn up to propose ridiculous exhibitions." He is a bewildered misanthrope, given to melodrama and exaggeration, who feels, as many a conscious person before has felt, like a misfit out of time and out of step with the concerns of humanity's masses -- and like those masses have probably come out on the easier end of the deal:
When it rains, I don't get melancholy. Quite the reverse. I simply have the impression that the weather is, finally, doing justice to the general grayness of existence. Good-bye, tropical hypocrisy; let the sun return to its corner of the galaxy and for once leave us to contemplate the unrelieved darkness that looms over us, sad mortals attired in fake Nike tennis shoes covered in mud.
He is also a man of almost invariable routine, one whose Sundays "consist [...] of twenty-four wasted hours of which I will remember nothing the following day," Monday, "the beginning of the reign of inertia, whose only function is to carry me along smoothly, as if floating on a cloud of certainties, to the next Saturday," the day which is marked by bookending his walk around the neighborhood with masturbating twice. Leaving the museum one day, for the first time ever and for reasons unknown, he opts to walk home above ground, rather than take the metro, something that had never even occurred to him as a possibility. In a café that serves no coffee, he purchases instead a cup of cheap black tea. Integrating this deviation into his weekday routine, he begins collecting and stapling the used tea bags to his wall -- tea, sin, and marriage being the things in life to leave a permanent stain. This small variation will -- or so it will seem in a later "teleological murmur" -- set off a cascade of changes that, like everything else, are beyond his power to understand or to govern.
Through a misunderstanding, or possibly a colleague's joke made in poor taste, and the continuing flow of a life out of his control, Rodrigo becomes engaged to, and then quickly marries, Cecilia, the museum director's secretary, essentially the avatar of all mundane tastes and pursuits he finds incomprehensible.
Rodrigo's only real interest comes in the form of obsession with a filthy hen that has inexplicably taken up residence in the garbage-strewn lot beneath his apartment window. In another unprecedented deviation from routine, Rodrigo calls off from work one day, feigning illness to stay home and study the hen up close in her own environment, only to be knocked out with a blow to the head while lying in the lot. When he comes to, upstairs he finds "in the geometric center of the bed lies a coiled piece of shit. A perfect turd on [Cecilia's beloved] tiger-striped bedspread."
A new obsession is born: the mystery of who has disturbed his domestic security, and with such a brazen move, and what it could possibly mean. What a metaphor for an unhappy marriage in a disconnected life -- the perfectly placed excrement on the gaudy, cheap bedspread. The discovery will continue to haunt him until, under the mystical guidance of a fugitive gringo named Jimmie and Micaela, the teenage girl he is essentially holding captive, Rodrigo arrives at, if not a necessarily literal explanation of the bedspread shit's appearance, then at least the symbolism and call to action contained within the gesture.
Part two brings Marcelo Valente to Mexico, a philosophy professor from Madrid in the "limited field of the aesthetics of the avant-garde" and "the perfect mixture [...] of an unresolved inferiority complex and a pretty face."
Marcelo comes to the small dust-covered university town of Los Girasoles for a sabbatical year to search for the unknown end of a forgotten pugilist-poet named Edmond Belafonte Desjardins, who had come to Mexico under the pseudonym Richard Foret a century before. Foret is based on Swiss-born poet Arthur Cravan, whose words compose the epigraph to the novel:
On park benches
Among strange victims
The poet and amputees come sit together.
Foret convinced poet Beatrice Langley, based on Cravan's wife, the great Mina Loy, to join him in Mexico City and become his wife, and after a turbulent stay, he disappeared never to be seen again.
While in Los Girasoles, Marcelo hopes to find Foret's as-yet-undiscovered final notebook and do a little womanizing on the side. Once arrived, he meets none other than Rodrigo's mother, Adela, a verifiable badass who holds a PhD in history, as well as an undergraduate degree in law, a master's in human rights, and works dispensing "free legal advice to women harassed by the 'patriarchal system of the administration of justice,'" "deeply real areas of human existence [Marcelo's] Madrid theoretical outlook will never manage to comprehend."
Though when Rodrigo and Marcelo meet, "the tension caused by [Marcelo's] Spanish blood gets in the way of [his] noble intent, and his amiability ends up being offensive, grating, uncivilized," and though Rodrigo overhears Marcelo having sex with his mother, an episode so disconcerting he vomits, the two begin to discover their inherent compatibility. Marcelo takes a genuine, almost fatherly interest in Rodrigo, laying the bridge between them with the simple yet sincere question, "What have you been thinking?" To Rodrigo's amazement, real human connection is possible, and all it took was conversation with a congruous mind.
What I found most remarkable about Marcelo's character is that, though still prone to displays of bravado and posturing among the rather despicable companions he falls in with -- a professor from the university named Velásquez and the American fugitive, Jimmie -- his is perhaps one of the most compelling developments of a sexist character I can recall reading...maybe ever? Rather than scrape out the definitive monograph on the long-gone hyper-masculine boxer-poet, he does something even more amazing, given the egotistical tenor of his character and his aspirations toward academic fame: he forges a real relationship based on mutual respect and affection, and contemplates a life with Adela; undertakes the arduous process of extracting his pretty, pretentious head from his own ass; and acknowledges that his academic interests have begun to shift from Foret to Langley:
Foret's life is the stuff films are made of; Langley's is the stuff of a novel that, rather than ending with a bang, extends over hundreds of pages until the ink begins to fade and the words become illegible.
In fact, brief flashes of structural misogyny, the ubiquitous presence of drug cartels, and gender-based violence crackle throughout the book, gesturing to a surrounding world full of commonplace violence that exists outside the characters' personal obsessions and crises, or, perhaps more accurately, which the characters' obsessions and crises exist within the context of. It was especially refreshing to me that Saldaña París depicted adult male characters actually questioning their fascination with and attraction to adolescent girls, which happens too little in life, and probably even less in literature. Among Strange Victims could easily have ended on a more swaggery male-fantasy-gratifying note, and -- having read my share of novels and been an adolescent girl for a time myself -- it wouldn't have been surprising. That it is surprising and exciting that he avoids this is one of the great disappointments of the world, but it is also to Saldaña París's credit as an observer of that world. I say this not as a head-pat from the feminist literati, but as an exhortation to strive for a higher standard in the portrayal of women and the damages meted out in daily in life under the "rigorous patriarchy in which they [live]."
"Scratch a cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist," George Carlin used to say (think of him what you will). Rodrigo, whose "life has the disadvantage of not being completely [his] own," nonetheless makes these small struggles against the riptide of his existence, leading him to perhaps the first intentional, positive action of his young life. As the walls between him and the world start to crack and fall, it becomes clear that if we have any hope at all of overcoming the relentless onslaught of fake Nikes and tiger-striped bedspreads, of small talk and complacency, of obsession with image over knowledge, it is to chuck our routines, seek our psychic kindred, and step out into the light.
Among Strange Victims by Daniel Saldaña París, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press