In a society that represses sex, the people are ruled by a desire for it to an absurd degree. That is the primary lesson of Almost Never, author Daniel Sada’s comic novel about the quest of Demetrio to wed, so he can bed, Renata, a beauty from a dusty Mexican town in the last ‘40s. “Sex” is the first word in the book; “sheer relief” are its last.
Demetrio begins his journey in Oaxaca where he holds a steady, promising job as a agronomist. His income is regular, as his sex life. (He is a consistent customer of a prostitute named Mireya.) During a visit to the town of Sacramento with his mother, he spies Renata, whom he immediately desires and decides to marry. This necessitates a lengthy courtship process, during which he briefly runs away with and then abandons Mireya in a fit of frustration and then moves to his aunt’s house in Sacramento in order to be closer to Renata.
Traveling in Mexico, in this time before widespread paved roads, is described as an “exhausting trek”, but everything in this society is an exhausting trek. Renata’s mother controls the courtship process in the most painstakingly slow method possible dictated by a series of arcane and absurd rules. When Demetrio impulsively licks Renata’s hand while kissing it, this serious affront sets him back for months. (The second of the “allocutions” that Renata must follow “concerns the filthy nature of all things carnal, meaning that the beau should never dare kiss any part of the beloved’s body, for kisses in general led to the worst of perversities.”)
Demetrio funnels his thwarted energy towards making money. In these endeavors this society dictates that what is normally considered “sinful” can be glossed over in the interest of material success and he eventually makes his fortune in pool halls. Starting with Mireya, sex and money become increasingly intertwined and Demetrio.
Sada’s satiric aims are directed both at Demetrio’s character and the Mexican society that shapes it, both of which are responsible for his boyishness. Almost Never is often about horniness, the pubescent desire to have an urge satisfied immediately and being stifled at every step. Demetrio appears to be calmest and happiest at the beginning, with a regular income and regular sex. But even then there is always desire for the release that something else—more money, more sex—might be able to provide.
The most clearly defined sexual roles in this world are that of an immature macho man and his preening, protective mother. Both are equally maudlin in their conceptions and both support each other in their neediness. Sada has a lot of fun with the depiction of Demetrio’s Aunt Zulema, another sexually stymied soul who lost a chance with her childhood beau years ago. She attempts to compensate by taking on a warped role for Demetrio and in one of the funniest scenes, she convinces him to let him adopt her as a second mother:
“Okay, I understand what you are proposing… It’s just that for me it’s important to know what being my second mother means to you.”
“Only that you may live in this house whenever you want; only that when I die you will own it.”
A barely concealed sexual tension exists between them; they frequently linger over affectionate kisses for too long.
The mothers help Demetrio decode the arcane traditions governing Renata and her mother and the courtship process. They in turn seem to derive some sort of energy from assisting him in reaching his goal, confirming that he is “good” and that life continues in its proper place.
Sada’s greatest innovation is in his unique stream of conscious style by a third person narrator, who is removed and wry, sometimes trying to capture the interior thoughts in a comical manner. Sada employs heavy use of punctuation to create a rhythmic effects that mirror the stuttering starts and stops of a rambling mind: “In this sense it’s worth emphasizing the vague indifference of he who stared resolutely out the bus window (what might the scatterings in the fields evoke), then turned, like a ghoulish cat, to look at the belly of the pregnant woman… And after that—alas! where precisely should he turn: to the north, the east, the west, straight down the middle, or where…The border, the state of Tamaulipas—yes?”
Sada died in 2011 and his works are now finally being translated into English. His experiments in style and the unique combination of effects in language and punctuation, most likely explain how long it has taken for his works to be translated. Almost Never, which received the Herralde Prize for Spanish literature in 2008, would seem like the ideal place to start. (Graywolf Press is also smartly trumpeting an endorsement from Roberto Bolaño with its release.)
The experimentation in language is largely successful in creating a disjointed, satiric view of a shallow immature man, yet the mocking of a distinctly Mexican and dated style of maudlin masculinity left me a bit cold. Still this is an extraordinary, wittily crass book.