Translator Christina MacSweeney seems to have a keen eye for young, slacker, thirtysomething Mexican writers. She brought the English-speaking world’s attention to Valeria Luiselli. The protagonist of her first novel, Faces in the Crowd, is a translator, a playful liar, and an expatriate, bored with the malaise of modern life and capitalist aims, so much so that she creates problems and false writings in order to make something interesting happen.
With Among Strange Victims, MacSweeney now brings to life the bumbling characters created by Daniel Saldaña París. These characters echo the feelings and moods that Luiselli has expressed; it’s hard not to see them in conversation with one another. Among Strange Victims revolves around Rodrigo, who begins the novel as a “knowledge administrator” at a local museum. He spends “hours on end writing texts related to the [museum’s] site: press releases, salon notes, letters and speeches for the director and so on.” In many ways, he is another translator.
Rodrigo moves passively through life-changing events. “My life has the disadvantage of not being completely my own,” he thinks. His favorite activity is watching a hen in the vacant lot neighboring his apartment. The hen, pecking at food, seems to do more than he does all day. Rodrigo’s marriage begins as a practical joke: someone drops a note on to the desk of one of his female colleagues, Cecilia. The note says that Rodrigo is in love with her. Rodrigo plays along with it—and just like that, they’re married. This is despite the fact that, in his mind, Rodrigo knows his mother would say, “getting married is one of the most serious blunders anyone can make.”
Rodrigo openly admits that he needs a project, “the only other possible solution to overcoming the lethal sense of dissatisfaction into which [he’s] sunk (for how long?).” Little does he know his prayers are about to be answered. After trying to go after the hen in the vacant lot, he is hit on the back of the head, “like Alice when she falls while following the rabbit.” When he wakes up, he returns back to his apartment to find that someone has broken in—not to take anything, not to sniff his or his wife’s underwear, but “a more serious perversion: in the geometric center of the bed lies a coiled piece of shit. A perfect turd on the tiger-striped bedspread.”
This defecation allows Rodrigo to see his relationship to his wife, and to the rest of the world, a bit clearer. They visit Rodrigo’s mother and her new lover, and this new intimacy forces him to reconsider his wife. He’s disgusted by her reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. He doesn’t like her believing in self-help gurus. He finds her childish when she admits that her mother lost two children, “one of them was still in her tummy,” tummy being the off-putting word. As their relationship deteriorates, Rodrigo forms a bond with his mother’s lover, Marcelo, an academic working on a book about a mysterious Mexican boxer and poet—someone very much like Fernando Pessoa, if even the narrator disagrees with me here—whose love of Beatrice Langley (yes, think Dante) is a catalyst for his aesthetic work.
If this is starting to sound a bit crowded and complicated, I haven’t yet added the “hypnotic fetishes” that happen toward the end of the novel, which attempt to tie all the strands and side plots of this novel together. Clearly this is an ambitious fictional project. But Saldaña París is most convincing when he writes about the interiority of the mind, when he allows for first person narration, than when he writes at a distance, seeing these characters’ worlds in third person. The “I” of Rodrigo proves amusing in his ennui, a decent man stuck in his own mind. The third person narrated sections require more of a balance in exposition, action, interiority, and analysis. In the second section, when Saldaña París introduces Marcelo and his intellectual subjects, a sense of why should I care? hangs about these overly informative descriptions.
Still, there are keen observations in these sections that build the novel’s dialogue and intrigue.
Loneliness is always the same, but not the lonely. The discourse we hold back in front of others has a different weight to that which we speak aloud when no one is listening. In a certain sense, one offers inner comfort since it is a form of intimacy. The other, in contrast, makes a hollow in the world, in whose further corners the words ricochet to remind us that they have no taste.
Despite this sentiment, and despite Rodrigo’s mother’s opinions against marriage, partnership is what drives these characters to try new things. Partnership pushes the narrative forward from self-pity and navel gazing. Partnership is important, says this young, slacker, thirtysomething Mexican writer, even if it’s only with a hen in a vacant lot.