Sex is the first word and ironic driving force of Daniel Sada’s Almost Never. It is the activity the agronomist Demetrio Sordo decides upon to break up the monotony of nightly strolls, cups of coffee, and games of dominos. The only way this can work, he decides, is if he partakes every 24 hours, and so he goes to the red-light district where he meets Mareya, a prostitute who falls for him. Soon he is in the small town of Sacramento for a wedding, though, where he sees and covets Renata, the last virgin daughter of an upstanding family. The novel can be broken down as a farcical takedown of the macho and the pastoral, as a fun play on the oldest dichotomy—virgins and whores—and it is those things, but Sada’s senses of rhythm and humor elevate it. They dust off these old tropes and present them anew.
Almost Never, originally published as Casi Nunca in 2008, has been translated by Katherine Silver, who’s done exceptional work on Horacio Castellanos Moya and César Aira. Before his death in November of last year, Sada published nine novels, eight short-story collections, and three books of poetry. He was a student of Juan Rulfo’s, and is viewed as the maximalist counter to Rulfo’s extreme minimalism. Though Sada is most lauded in the Spanish-speaking world for his 1999 novel Porque parece mentira, la verdad nunca se sabe, which was written in various meters, this is his first novel to be translated into English. It was not written in meter, but its structurally fascinating rhythm is pushed forward by Sada’s poetic use of colons, em-dashes, and ellipses to stop and propel the action, enacting Demetrio’s back-and-forth.
Self-sacrificing but conniving mothers and mother figures, thieving members of the lower class, pimps with guns—this is Demetrio’s world, even as global change is happening. When his landlady attempts to discuss news of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, he gives her a nihilistic brush-off and we move on to the mechanics of his next lay. These are small lives that Sada seems to relish blowing up, in a manner akin to Manuel Puig. For both these writers, the objective is to act as an unseen voyeur, bringing humor and unmatched style to the ordinary. Whereas Puig excels at understanding and enacting the feminine, Sada takes a far more masculine approach; he tears down bravado even as he clearly deeply understands its motives and origins. He doesn’t go deep within interior lives, but stands to the side like a bemused bystander.
As it turned out, the half hour passed in a trice. Then the immaculately platitudinous good-byes we can well surmise: no embrace, no fleeting kiss (not even) on the sweetheart’s forehead: a most respectful one on the face (still so far away), nothing! Then, damn, both their hands moving at chest level (arms bent) while he sketched out his plans to return soon to Sacramento to see her—see her! see her!! The looks in the eyes of two saints who, buried deep down in their spirits, longed to be a bit like dirty devils. That’s another story.
Throughout the novel, as Demetrio goes between Mireya and Renata, brothels and chaste courtship, he also jumps from work on farms as an agronomist, to gambling, to opening up a billiards hall. It is this open foray into what is perceived in the small-town mind-set as depravity that allows him to make his final move. Demetrio’s fate is almost incidental, though, as it’s been the way Sada’s pushed and pulled that’s drawn you in, into a long-gone world studded with timeless characters and contemporary humor. If this was not even his best, according to the Spanish-speaking world, we have much to look forward to.