In July every year, the Winstonsdad’s Blog invites everyone to sample Spanish- and Portuguese-language literature, and while I’m a bit late to the party, I’ll be finishing off the month with a few eligible reviews. That starts today with a look at a short novel I’ve been meaning to try for a while now, a story that takes us to Mexico in the 1990s. To begin with, it might seem like just another family drama, but there’s a little more to it than that, with an event in a boy’s childhood having major consequences for his later life…
Daniel Saldaña París’ Ramifications (translated by Christina MacSweeney, review copy courtesy of Charco Press) is a story told by a man in his early thirties, someone who spends most of his time in bed writing about his youth. The bulk of his tale takes the reader back to 1994, when the then ten-year-old boy’s mother leaves unexpectedly one day, explaining why in a short letter to her husband:
When he got back that evening, my father read the letter. Then he sat with us in the living room (my sister was watching music videos while I was trying to make an origami figure ) and explained that Mum had gone away. ‘Camping,’ I thought. One Tuesday in July or August 1994, she – my mother, Teresa – went camping.
p.2 (Charco Press, 2020)
While surprising, the mother’s absence is initially unthinkingly accepted, with the rest of the family struggling along in her absence.
However, even our slightly naive pre-teen has limits to his patience, and it isn’t long before he starts to wonder where his mother has gone, eventually setting off to find her. That doesn’t work out, and decades later, he still wonders what happened, and why she left. She’s not around to ask, and after his father’s death, it seems the secret of his mother’s disappearance has gone with him – but will the letter she left behind all those years ago clear up the mystery?
Ramifications is a clever work with a two-strand approach. In the first, the writer looks back at his childhood, seeing once again the young boy he used to be coping with huge upheaval. The other shows the writer more than twenty years on as an adult, wryly reflecting on his current state. As he lies in bed, attempting to work through his issues, we can clearly see the shadows both his parents cast over his life
In addition to dealing with different timeframes, the novel is divided into three parts. The first of these focuses mainly on the boy and the events of 1994. We’re introduced to a slightly introverted, immature child, obviously deeply affected by his mother’s departure. While his father’s out at work, the children are left to their own devices, and if his sister, Mariana, chooses to spend her days out in the living room being a teen, with her boyfriend, beers and cigarettes, the younger brother has a rather different approach to working through his feelings. Confining himself to his room, he decides to lock himself away in his wardrobe (or the Zero Luminosity Capsule as he calls it), ostensibly to hide from the bogeyman, in truth simply to get away from the world.
The second part of the book is more of a mix between now and then, featuring both the young boy’s vain search for his mother, including the scary incidents this entails, and the events surrounding the later death of the writer’s father. The concluding part then goes on to examine the aftermath of the boy’s adventure and the man he becomes, a recluse attempting to come to terms with the legacy of his parents’ fraught relationship.
Perhaps the most notable feature of the early parts of the book is the portrait of the boy. It’s a wry examination of childhood trauma, with the writer keeping his younger self at a distance:
It warmed my heart to hear my father use the very same expression the commentator had employed just a few seconds before. Or maybe I’m feeling that warmth now, and projecting the emotion onto the ten-year-old boy I was then. It’s hard to say. (p.14)
As the story unfolds, we’re told of the boy’s bed-wetting, and his naive beliefs (not knowing exactly where his mother has gone), and even if all this is underplayed in the narrative, we gradually realise how much this has affected the writer.
For me, though, the story improves as it goes on, and we learn more of the man he’s become. There are powerful scenes in which the writer must cope with his father’s terminal illness, struggling to come to terms with the death of a man he’s never been able to really love. Quite besides this, there’s still the mystery of what exactly it is that’s led to his withdrawal from the world. Just what is it that has brought him to the point of lying in bed writing, his only contact with the world text messages with his sister and brief chats with the cleaning lady she sends to him once a week?
Although Ramifications may be a family drama on the surface, the key to it all is the violence that pervades the work. The most obvious example of this is the social unrest fomenting in 1994, with Teresa running off to join the Zapatista uprising, but there are many other kinds, too. This ranges from the threats of the soldiers who stop the boy’s bus, using and abusing their power, to the cruelty of the boys at school and at an ill-fated birthday party. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both these events involve taunting the boy’s masculinity, accusing him of being a girl.
And this theme of male rage only gets stronger as the novel progresses. The boy senses his father’s suppressed anger, and as he grows up, the writer fears that this lies latent in him, too:
What that pattern held in store for my own life was frightening: the world was a place infested with cowardly men who spilled beer down their clean shirts, and the women who put up with them for a time. At that instant, it occurred to me that if I wanted to do something worthwhile with my time on earth, I should, at least symbolically, become the woman whom destiny or genetics had prevented me from being at the moment of conception. If not, I’d be condemned to repeating the mistakes of my father and Rat, to crying over matches lost in overtime or hanging around on the neighbourhood streets, my hair freshly washed, accompanied by my minions, without the courage to do anything by myself. (p.67)
Despite his longing to take after his absent mother, he can’t help but see traces of the father in the mirror, pulling him towards a tradition of toxic masculinity he’s afraid of. No wonder he’d rather stay in bed…
Ramifications is an excellent story that improves as it unfolds, culminating in a Marías-like moment when the writer learns that all is not as he believed. When the revelation arrives, it comes as a punch in the guts, one the reader feels as much as the narrator does. Ramifications, then, is an apt title for Saldaña París’ novel, a story of how certain events can affect you for your whole life. You see, while you might want to just hide away, once an action occurs, there’s no avoiding the consequences.