One Out of Two by Daniel Sada
by Daniel Sada, translated by Katherine Silver, Graywolf Press, 100 pages
In contrast to its burlesque forefather, Don Quixote,
One Out of Two is a poignant farce in which surreal touches are infused into seemingly everyday moments. Two identical twins, united by their parents’ death, share a rancher beau unbeknownst to him, until, inevitably, they must tell him about the deception or sunder their sisterly bond. One Out of
Two is a delicious romp of a novel by the late Mexican author Daniel Sada. Katherine Silver translates this book with verve from the original Spanish.
A well-meaning aunt raises the adolescent twins, Gloria and Constitución Gamal, in her crowded home; the twins are smart enough to leave as soon as they become adults and can claim their inheritance. Still, the indefatigable aunt continues to write them letters that eventually become fuel for a bonfire. The substance of these letters is: You Idiots. Get Married.
Instead of marriage, a sewing shop becomes the sisters’ anchor. They keep their noses to the proverbial grindstone, and the precision with which they cut and sew cloth becomes inseparable from their identity. They are perfectionist businesswomen to the core. Their aunt — who maintains that “children are life’s gift to women” — cannot fathom how far their minds have traveled from hers.
The Gamal sisters are also light years ahead of the cultural milieu in Ocampo, the town where they live and work. Sada portrays the town as a place where small talk mushrooms into gossip and where idlers are abundant. Which is why the workaholic sisters put up this priceless sign in their shop: WE ARE BUSY PROFESSIONALS. RESTRICT YOUR CONVERSATION TO THE BUSINESS AT HAND.
Constitución is more talkative than Gloria, but if she takes pains to hide a birthmark and dress like her sister, no one can tell them apart. At first, their sisterly ties seem impenetrable. But love, and the possibility of marriage, does strange things to the sturdiest souls. As their courtship with the rancher, Oscar, progresses (the sisters take turns going on dates), their relationship is darkened by envy, resentment, and scheming. How long can Oscar, who is mostly preoccupied with raising cows and pigs, cleave the two sisters?
Their aunt has taught them the virtue of reserve if they hope to lure their man into marriage. Early on, Constitución plays by the rules. She tells her sister: “At the beginning, when we were alone there in the walnut grove, I could tell he wanted to kiss me on the cheek, or on the forehead, or who knows where; he sidled up close to me while I was grazing out over the horizon, acting like a donkey about to start braying; I: like a surly mare, turned quickly to face him and he politely backed off.”
It’s not surprising to learn that Sada (1953-2011) was a poet and a connoisseur of the rhythmic structures of the Spanish language. The denouement begins with a poetic set piece: On learning the truth, Oscar is so disoriented that he bolts out of a grocery store in the middle of drinking soda, leaving behind the flowers and gift he had gotten for his beloved. The imagery may veer into melodrama, but it is anchored by playful descriptions — he abandons “those disgusting soda cans, one still full, and the other now empty, dripping only with saliva.” Sada creates a specific mood, fueled by the twins’ intelligence and a parodied veneration of their bond, and he is able to sustain this mood throughout the short novel. The novella is something of an anomaly in the U.S., but writers such as Sada and French author, Patrick Modiano, have used the form to excellent atmospheric effect.
In keeping with the Mexican tradition of Día de los Muertos, the twins worry if their actions have offended their dead, and whether providing a proper burial to their parents — who died in a roadside accident and are still in a common grave — will help resolve their situation. They make elaborate plans to return to the roadside grave, until the garrulity of a local grocer renders their departure pointless.
In the end, the twins have to consider this fact: Other than a few initial questions, Oscar has shown no curiosity about their sewing shop. Instead, he dreams of opening a roadside tavern, in which one of the sisters would likely have to slave all day. Woe unto the man who gives no thought to his future wife’s professional interests! Still, love is love, and not much more is left of their youth. Should one sister sacrifice herself for the other? As the novel hurtles giddily to its climax, the sisters walk a tightrope between cultural expectations and their lives as modern professionals. In the meantime, their aunt waits and waits for good news. — Priyanka Kumar