Even when it’s not explicitly about sex, Daniel Sada’s Almost Never has such a constant, manic, libidinous energy running through it that even the day-to-day scenes of its hero city-hopping around Mexico in the 1940s feel like a sneaky kind of foreplay. The novel is a dispatch straight from Sada’s id. And thanks to its singular narrative voice, as well as some stellar translation by Katherine Silver, it makes for a bold first impression that English-language audiences won’t soon forget.
Sada’s hero is an agronomist named Demetrio Sordo, whose affections, mainly carnal, are torn between two very different women: a prostitute named Mireya, who Demetrio sleeps with as often and as passionately as her profession will allow, and an upstanding small-town girl named Renata. The latter has marriage material written all over her, but to get there, Demetrio would have to delicately court her over many months and possibly years—and he’s having trouble seeing the benefits of doing so, considering how much sex he’s already getting on the side. If this is a love triangle, it’s about as scalene as you can get.
The best parts of Almost Never dismantle old-fashioned notions of romance by laying bare all of their tediousness and empty ceremony on the page. Both Demetrio and Renata feel the pressures of overbearing, overly traditional maternal figures behind the scenes; only Demetrio, thanks to his covert sexual awakening, is bold enough to rebel and state his desires plainly. This gets him publicly shunned on more than one occasion—even from Renata herself, who has been trained to subordinate her own pleasure at all costs.
And if Mexican society in the novel frowns upon the openly erotic, Sada’s narration scores major points for honestly depicting—celebrating, in fact—how shot through our everyday lives are with the dogged pursuit of our next orgasm.
Even his punctuation follows suit. Look how breathlessly Sada describes Demetrio bathing in preparation for a meeting with Mireya:
Further delays, but that’s what Demetrio did the third time and thereafter: quite a chore this coming and going with buckets: four in all: slow considering what preceded and followed: stealing an hour from the workday—indeed!
I don’t know that I’ve ever seen such a gleeful misuse of colons. You’ve got to know the rules to break the rules. (And that’s not even the end of the sentence.)
I’ve also decided to avoid revealing which woman Demetrio chooses, even though it’s decided well before the novel’s midway point. Suffice it to say that he has to settle down and forge an adult life for himself either way. Yet the downside to this inevitability is that Sada’s project becomes much smaller. His lunatic narrative style, which made a lot of sense when seen through the prism of constant horniness, feels lost for the long stretch when Demetrio gives up sex and instead saves up to buy supplies for his new billiard hall. The eventual build-up to his wedding night feels similarly underwhelming, given what’s already come to pass.
Yet there are rumblings that Almost Never isn’t even Sada’s best work (he died in late 2011, while the translation of this book was nearing completion), and that the remainder of his collected works may yield even sweeter fruit.
This raises a very exciting thought. Almost Never was most likely chosen as Sada’s most accessible book, the one that might be the most palatable to the English-speaking market. And if that’s true, what degree of literary insanity—in the form of eight other novels, as well as a whack of short stories and poetry—is on the horizon?
Translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. Graywolf, 320 pp, $17.95, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, July 5, 2012)