Note: WINNER of many prizes for his individual novels, Sada was also WINNER of Mexico’s National Prize for Arts and Sciences, Literature, for his complete bibliography in 2011.
“One out of two, or two in one, or what? The Gamal sisters were identical…the same age, the same height, and wearing, by choice the same hairdo…One is the other, and the other sometimes denies it, though always secretly, of course…Do they ever grow weary of one another? Possibly, though if they did, their souls would be void. The thing is: their sole importance has only ever been this similitude – a double meaning that just might be single.”
One out of Two, an early (1994) novel by award-winning Mexican author Daniel Sada, has just been published in English translation for the first time – a tragicomic classic by an author whom both Roberto Bolano and Carlos Fuentes have highly praised for his “contributions to literature in the Spanish language.” It joins Almost Never (2008) as one of only two books by Sada available in English, to date. Though the book appears, at first, to be a simple morality tale, Sada is an adventurous novelist who endows his main characters with more than the flat, stereotypical behaviors and thoughts which one usually associates with stories written to illustrate a moral lesson. While keeping his style uncomplicated, he shows his characters as they live their ordinary lives and make some remarkable decisions which cause unexpected complications for them. The mood is light and the action often very funny, though equally often, it is ironic or edgy. The cumulative result is farcical rather than pedantic, serious rather than lightweight.
The main characters, the Gamal sisters, both seamstresses, are forty-year-old identical twins, about whom the narrator notes that “their identity has been a long and difficult compromise, minute by minute and day by day forging them into one accidental and unambiguous joint spirit. One can almost say that the Gamal sisters “are saints: a single pureness.” The sisters believe that if they work hard enough that they will be prosperous, and they believe that they have been successful, “if making do with little is a boon.” They have been dependent upon each other since early childhood, comfortable with each other and unfazed by the outside world, despite its uncertainties. When they were thirteen, they said goodbye as their parents left on a trip, leaving them alone. For two weeks they remained on their own at home in a “grand apprenticeship: a flourishing sisterhood coming into its own right,” cooking, playing games, and dreaming of the future. It is not until their fourth week alone, that they begin to worry. The arrival of their aunt is not comforting, and after a scene worthy of an ironic noir film, they agree to live with their aunt and get some work in a small garment factory. It is not until years later that they break free of her, her last words to them being to “get married.”
Working very hard to develop their business as seamstresses and maintain a house they purchase, miles away from their aunt, the sisters act efficiently and effectively and succeed. Years pass, and when they are almost forty-two, their aunt invites them back for a visit to attend the wedding of her son, giving them advice about how to do their hair more attractively and how to dress as individuals even before they have accepted. They are so busy with their business, however, that only one twin can attend the wedding: the other must stay home and work double to meet their obligations to customers. The stay-at-home sister resents, for the first time, that her sister was the one who got to go to the wedding, and, as every reader will expect, the inevitable happens. Her sister returns from the wedding to announce, “I danced all night with a slender man of interesting age.” Oscar Segura, who still lives with his parents, buys and sells pigs and goats, working hard so that he can purchase a truck to transport his own livestock. The sisters talk over the situation, and the stay-at-home sister reveals that since she has spent the entire time that her sister was away, working till midnight every day, that it is now her sister’s obligation to return the favor.
Oscar Segura, is planning to visit the following Sunday, and the twins develop a plan for dealing with his visit. To say more would risk giving spoilers, though the author himself includes a good deal of foreshadowing regarding the future. Nosy neighbors who have heard about the new boyfriend, want information, so the twins put up a sign in their shop: “RESTRICT YOURSELF TO THE BUSINESS AT HAND,” and they refuse to answer any questions. When their aunt, who does not know which sister was the one who attended her son’s wedding, requests more information and wants them to visit her again, they refuse. At the halfway point of the novella, Oscar Segura’s own take on his relationship becomes the focus, and as Oscar continues to visit on Sundays, the sisters spend each week “teeter[ing] on the verge of hysteria” and engaging in hypocrisy so as not to offend each other while sharing a house and business. In private conversations, Oscar chats about his favorite subjects – the weaning of she-goats and the complications that arise from fattening swine – and shares his long-term goal of opening a huge restaurant. As the relationship develops further, the sisters begin to wonder if they have been cursed by the Devil.
Though the novella is simple to understand, Sada has some remarkably subtle touches, making the reality of the sisters’ love for each other real in proportion to the jealousy of one and the triumph of the other. Their long interdependence has commanded their lives, and the fear of abandonment and hostility is real for both of them. As the action develops, the reader and the twins themselves soon conclude that the Gamals are neither the “saints” nor the “single pureness” which the narrator originally believed them to be. Their separate desires, dreams, and hopes for the future, forged as they are from their noticeably different personalities, surge forth under the stress of Oscar Segura’s courtship. The conclusion may surprise some, but I suspect that most others will find it appropriate, and not the “tragedy” which some reviewers have deemed it. With this easy introduction to the work of Sada, many readers will undoubtedly look forward to reading another of his novels, his much more complex and intriguing Almost Never.
ALSO by Sada: ALMOST NEVER
Photos, in order: The author’s photo is from http://laprensa-sandiego.org/
The image of the Mexican seamstress is by Keith Dannemiller/Corbis and appears on http://www.history.com/
The entrance to Ocampo is from http://www.barksdale-baptist-tx.org
ARC: Graywolf Press