“One Out of Two” by Daniel Sada [Why This Book Should Win]
This entry in the Why This Book Should Win series is by Lucina Schell, editor of Reading in Translation. We will be running two (or more!) of these posts every business day leading up to the announcement of the finalists.
One Out of Two by Daniel Sada, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver (Mexico, Graywolf Press)
One Out of Two is a philosophical fable disguised as spinster fiction. From the dream team behind Almost Never (Graywolf, 2012), giant of Latin American literature Daniel Sada and acclaimed translator Katherine Silver, this compact hundred-page book is tightly stitched with the same perfectionism as its twin heroines’ tailoring output. On the surface, it is a delightful romp to be devoured in one sitting, but linger longer with the text and it raises profound questions about the desire for union with another person versus personal independence. “Then: intimacy as an idea that unravels.”
The spinster plot concerns Constitución and Gloria Gamal, identical twins who have only grown increasingly alike with age. Rather than trying to distinguish themselves from one another, the twins delight in accentuating their similarities by wearing matching dresses, styling their hair in the same way, and mirroring each other’s mannerisms. The Gamal sisters are as interdependent as they are fiercely independent. Orphaned as children, they flee the aunt who raised them and her constant exhortations to “‘get married soon and have loads of children!’” as soon as they come of age, and use their inheritance to buy a house in a small desert town and start a tailoring business, which quickly thrives due to their strong work ethic.
Their aunt’s advice continues in the form of increasingly contradictory letters, “Get married, you silly girls, and be quick about it! But don’t flirt with the first young man you meet; you have to be coy, give yourselves airs, or you’ll regret it . . .” But the twins don’t much care, focusing their attention instead on their growing business, until one day they receive an invitation to a family wedding. Now 42, and without any prospects, this might be their last chance to snag husbands! Their aunt suggests they distinguish themselves by hair style, but the twins have spent too many years refining their similitude to have any hope of looking different now. Thus, only one will go to the wedding, and they decide which with a coin toss, the first of many perfectly chosen metaphors for their predicament. When Constitución Gamal returns with a suitor, the twins concoct an elaborate ruse to share the man, thus putting their years of studied imitation to the test, because, “what’s mine is yours.” (The repetition of this marital maxim throughout the novel reminds us that the twins are in a sort of marriage already.) The narrative voice, peppered with folksy interjections and perfectly matched idiomatic expressions, reads like an omniscient town gossip, never letting us forget the twins are being watched. Yet, we revel in their abandon as they decide “To wit: let people think whatever the hell they like.”
This all sounds like a fun farce, but we are in the hands of a master stylist. As Sada pushes every cliché to the breaking point, it springs back with deliciously surprising prose. We can feel the pleasure he takes in crafting the bodice-ripper landscape in which Gloria takes the budding romance to the next level on “Constitución’s” second date with Oscar, while her sister watches from a few feet away: “To the chagrin of the observer, this Johnny-come-lately was painting the walls of her own scenario with wild and passionate hues splashed across the distance, cloud pompoms dripping with ocher and deep red settling in between the hills.” Constitución contemplates hurling a stick at her imprudent sister, but worries it will only land in the nearby bush, releasing a cloud of butterflies. In every flight Sada takes, Silver hugs his sentences as tightly as the twins press against walls while spying on each other.
The novel shifts seamlessly between genres and low to high literary diction, as when the twins, each falling in love, evolve from “one out of two or two in one” to, “A triangle, to put it simply: three gnawed points and a conjugation: or to put it indirectly: two similar points and a third one far far away. Passion conjugated: repressed, obsessive, in full conformity with the rules of the game”. The unusual, yet consistent use of colons—at times many in a single cascading sentence—sets up constant equations or analogies, and creates a staccato rhythm that heightens the growing tension as the inevitable marriage proposal approaches. Meanwhile, frequent sentence fragments remind us that the twins are only whole together. On a syntactic level, the novel is refreshingly suspicious of virtuous individualism.
But Oscar, a rancher, is hardly an ideal match for either of the twins, and increasingly, they realize their infatuation with him is more fantasy than true love. Oscar’s greatest ambition is “to one day open, next to any road whatsoever, a huge restaurant for truckers only, serving carnes adobadas and fresh tortillas, where there would be a jukebox and a dance floor and some shabby sluts—who would double as grub-slingers—available for pickup.” As Oscar drones on about his current reality, raising pigs and goats, one of the twins “conjured up abstract images that consisted of small arrows being shot at sentences—we could call them precepts—of the most profound transcendence.”
We expect the proposal to end in tears, the story to end in tragedy, with Oscar rejecting the twins when he finds out the truth. But the subversive, even feminist, conclusion to this fairytale is one of its best features. The deal-breaker ends up being the prospect of losing their business, to join Oscar in his distasteful venture: “because it would be unbecoming for the so-called better halves to compete with each other”. Turning the coin toss on its head, the twins make “An about face!” Together they are better halves than either could ever be with another man.
One Out of Two is much more than two in one. In few pages it manages to cover and subvert various literary genres, virtuosically, hilariously, while leaving us to ponder paradoxes such as, can true independence only come from perfect union with another human?