Spinsterhood and Its Discontents in Daniel Sada's 'One Out of Two'

by Subashini Navaratnam

25 April 2016

A bewitching story about sisterhood, spinsterhood, and identity by a celebrated Mexican writer.
 
cover art

One Out of Two

Daniel Sada

(Graywolf Press)
US: 3 Nov 2015

In Mexican novelist Daniel Sada’s novella One Out of Two, Constitución and Gloria Gamal are twin sisters who have been orphaned since age 13 when their parents were killed in a bus collision while on holiday. They have no other family members save for a meddlesome but kindly aunt with a pudgy husband prone to long naps and a brood of 11 kids, who takes the Gamal sisters in after their parents’ death and raises them in her cramped home. They sleep in a small room with their younger, rambunctious cousins, who are given to lifting the sisters’ skirts to take a peek. This existence is, in a word, “unbearable”.

However, “because it was a favor, the girls didn’t dare complain”. From the start of the book the reader has an idea of the Gamal sisters as cast-off oddities who always find themselves skirting around the edges of social relations. Even their parents, we learn, often took extended jaunts, leaving their daughters behind. In this way, quietly and resourcefully making do with an unbearable life, Gloria and Constitución develop into identical “unsightly young women” who have only their own wits, and each other’s, to rely on to get out of their aunt’s place and finally live with a freedom they long desire, thanks to a small inheritance that came from the sale of their parents’ home.

When the reader meets the Gamal sisters, they are in their 40 and full-fledged spinsters, living a mild but decent life in Ocampo as tailors, a life that is punctuated by routine and work—”dressmaking to the point of shuddering”, as Sada writes, faintly evoking the idea of sublimation of romantic and sexual desire into work that makes up the essence of the Gamal sisters’ life. The sisters, already identical, only seem to grow more alike with age and this is depicted as both their curse and blessing.

When their aunt invites them to the wedding of one of her children, drawing attention to the many single men who might be available, Sada allows us to realise that this is “the key to their perhaps most deeply buried preoccupation”. Like the Bunner sisters in Edith Wharton’s novella, the Gamal sisters have constructed a life of “daily drudgery and vain alienation”, broken only by nighttime conversations between themselves “accompanied by romantic music and generous libations”. The question of their sexuality, and how it wishes to be directed, hovers in the background. It’s not that the Gamal sisters don’t know pleasure; it’s that pleasure is best derived between themselves, with the other.

It becomes clear that this new pleasure, one of wedding parties and single men, cannot be jointly enjoyed by both sisters precisely because they are too alike. This existential problem is made out to be a smaller problem iso that it might be more bearable: who will stay behind to attend the shop?

Thus, the plot advances itself: only one of the two can go, and it is the one with the beauty mark—the more gregarious one, Constitución—who gets to party while Gloria stays back and takes on, as one, work meant for two. The pod has been broken; the peas have separated.

Naturally, Constitución meets a single man at the party, an eminently practical rancher named Oscar, and thus the wheels of deception are set in motion. Faced with the injustice of chance, Sada writes that the “quiet one was finally and ardently showing her mettle”, and so Gloria reminds Constitución that “what’s yours is mine”. As such, the sisters end up sharing Oscar during his weekly Sunday visits to Ocampo. He thinks he’s seeing one woman when he is in fact seeing them both alternately.

As a commonly-depicted ruse that is understood by the rest of us to be the domain of identical twins, this works almost too well: Oscar has no idea that one is actually two. “Intimacy is an idea that unravels”, Sada writes, and pleasure contributes to this unravelling. Gloria, thus having kept her desires for passion well-hidden, is the first sister to allow Oscar to kiss her. “Gloria could boast that she had briefly but forevermore tasted affection, or at least amicable deception”, writes Sada with a wink, and who is unable to relate to that?

As the deception matures into its inevitable resolution, the Gamal sisters have to deal with their increasingly insistent and pesky individual voices, dividing what was once a harmonious unity of two into (however suppressed) a selfish oneupmanship. As both keep their personal passions and desires close to their chest, because both want the same thing but in different ways and can only have it without the other, it becomes more difficult for them to even see each other. Looking into the mirror, they see four versions of themselves and it’s almost too much: “if the reflection is accurate, they were all ghosts, or the other way around”. Gradually, “they almost never looked at each other: a nascent horror of seeing themselves, like a curse, repeated”.

Later, when the beau sees the two of them together for the first time, he makes a curt observation: “Bloodcurdling copies”. The final decision reached by the sisters may or may not be a surprise—destiny, as Sada writes, “is nothing but a trickster demon”, much like his wily prose—and it’s rooted in the realisation that individualism is “nothing but amorphous vanity”. Despite their aunt’s best intentions, the Gamal sisters never showed an inclination towards marriage and conventional heterosexual union, but One Out of Two shows the difficulties and sacrifices of a different type of union. The sisters’ relationship is a kind of marriage, and a refutation of amorphous vanity. Work, for them, is what keeps them from falling into a void where ghosts run wild, and responsibility towards on another is no slight consideration.

Beautifully rendered in Katherine Silver’s translation, Sada’s prose has a unique rhythm and is spry and wiry, leading the reader into unexpected philosophical ruminating that is laced with dry wit and playful humour. His prose is sprinkled liberally with colons and commas, with sentences that are formulated like equations and conventional truth, and meaning that dissembles and deconstructs itself; all of which is likely to be missed by the less-attentive, fast-skimming reader. For example:

The upshot, alas!: love sprouted, and grew, like ever-searching ivy: inwardly: by necessity: never flagging: a secret force that loses its way because it’s all so unfathomable; in the same way, hypocrisy was born: between the twins: how unbecoming!: and although they sensed it, they didn’t utter a peep about this dreary development because they wanted to avoid, they thought, a probably foolish confrontation.

This is a short, deceptively charming book that reads like poetry, with language that demands attention or else the plot, as it were, is lost. Silver, who has also translated works by César Aira and Castellanos Moya, ably conveys what one assumes is the jaunty roguishness of the original in English; it’s clear from the start that Sada takes great pleasure in putting together a sentence, and this pleasure is conveyed to the English-language reader, thanks to Silver’s translation.

If One Out of Two lacks anything, it’s emotional depth due to its brevity and its otherwise delightful style. However, Sada has structured the book as a slim philosophical fable, and its psychological truths will continue to unnerve and reverberate long after one turns the final page.

One Out of Two

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