Folding and refolding origami frogs, extracting the symmetrical veins from leaves, retreating to an imaginary world in his closet: after Teresa walked out the door one July afternoon in 1994, her son filled the void she left with a series of unusual rituals. Twenty-three years later, he lies in bed, reconstructing the events surrounding his mother’s disappearance. Did she actually join the Zapatistas in the jungles of Chiapas, as he was led to believe? He dissects his memories of that fateful summer until a startling discovery shatters his conception of his family. Daniel Saldaña París (Among Strange Victims) returns with an emotionally rich anti-coming-of-age novel that wrestles with the inherited privileges and atrocities of masculinity.
Out now from Coffee House Press.
Teresa walked out one Tuesday around midday. I can’t remember exactly which month, but it must have been either the end of July or the beginning of August, because my sister and I were still on vacation. I always hated being left in the care of Mariana, who systematically ignored me for the whole day, barricaded in her bedroom with the music playing at a volume that even to me, a boy of ten, seemed ridiculous. So that Tuesday, I resented it when Mom got up from the table after lunch and announced she was going out. “Look after your brother, Mariana,” she said in a flat voice. That was the way she generally spoke, with hardly any intonation, like a computer giving instructions or someone on the autism spectrum. (Even now, when no one else is around, I sometimes imitate her, and it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that writing this is, in some form, an effort to find an echo of that monotone voice in the written word.)
Teresa, my mother, kissed the crown of my head and then turned to Mariana, who received her farewell peck on the cheek without the least show of emotion or any attempt to return the gesture. “When your dad gets home, tell him there’s a letter for him on his night table,” she said from the door, in the same robotic voice. Then she left, turning the key behind her. She had no luggage besides the large tote bag my father used to make wisecracks about whenever we went somewhere together: “Just what have you got in there? It looks like you’re going camping.”
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 Mom had gone away. “Camping,” I thought.
One Tuesday in July or August 1994, she—my mother, Teresa—went camping.
My interest in origami had begun that same summer, not long before the events just mentioned. At school, during recess, I used to perch on one of the planters and pull leaves off the shrubs. I’d fold each leaf down the middle, hoping to achieve perfect symmetry. Then I’d attempt to extract the petiole and the midrib. (I liked calling the stalk of the leaf the “petiole” and the central axis, from which the veins branch out or ramify, the “midrib”; I had just learned those terms in class and thought that using them made me sound mature and knowledgeable.) I’d remove the midrib and the petiole, put them in the pocket of my pants, and forget all about them. In the afternoon, when I was back home, I’d empty the contents of my pockets and line up the petioles and midribs on my table. Sitting before my booty, I’d take out my sheets of colored paper and my origami manual and, with a patience I no longer have, start folding. I saw my compulsion to fold the leaves of those shrubs as a form of training for origami, a ritual practice I could carry out in secret that would help enhance my manual skills.
But the truth is that I was never much good at origami. For all the effort I put into it, I made no progress at all. Teresa had given me that book with ten basic designs a few weeks before she went camping— before disappearing with her enormous tote bag that Tuesday after lunch. The book included the colored squares of paper, and among the figures it explained how to make were the iconic crane, the frog, and the balloon. In all three cases, my lack of skill was notable. I remember thinking when Teresa handed me the book, wrapped in fluorescent paper, that it was a strange time to give me a present as my birthday was months away and my mother didn’t go in for surprises. But I said nothing. I wasn’t going to complain about an unseasonable gift.
It would be unfair to lay the blame for my failure on the book: I tried using other origami manuals, and the result was just the same. Even now, twenty-three years afterward, I’m still incapable of making that stupid crane. I was never able to work out the diagrams: for me they were indecipherable riddles, with their dotted lines and curved arrows. I never learned to distinguish when they were referring to the front and when the reverse side of the sheets. Now that I’m an adult who never leaves his bed, I’m tempted to say that I still suffer from that problem and that it permeates my understanding of the world: I always confuse front and reverse. But that metaphor isn’t valid, it seems empty of meaning even though it indicates something true. In 1994, everything was charged with meaning, but my confusion of front and reverse was simply the confusion of a boy trying to make origami figures and repeatedly failing in the attempt. And neither can I say that the tenacity I exhibited in continuing to practice origami in the face of constant failure has made me adept in the exercise of patience. What is certain is that origami was a school for being alone: it taught me to spend many hours in silence.
That Tuesday evening, once Mariana and I were in bed, my father went to his room and spent hours talking on the phone. I know because I was awake, unsettled, trying to make sense of an environment that seemed emotionally charged, even if I couldn’t say why.
At eight the following morning I emerged from my bedroom to find the house in a state of tense calm.
The three of us—my father, Mariana, and I—had gotten by on our own before, when Teresa visited a cousin in Guadalajara, but on those occasions the transition was always smooth: my mother left us precise instructions for lunch and dinner as well as suggestions for entertainment, aware that my father was a complete waste of space when it came to even the most basic elements of our upbringing. This time, however, there was a lie involved—implying to my sister and I that she would be back soon—and, despite his attempts to disguise it, my father’s reaction had been quite violent (his tone of voice on the telephone that first night signaled critical levels of exasperation). And that’s why, when I emerged from my room the following morning, I understood that the silence I encountered was just one more of the new experiences that awaited me, changes I’d have to adapt to now that Teresa had gone camping with an enormous tote bag hanging from her shoulder.
I poured cereal into a bowl, added milk, returned to my bedroom, and closed the door. The communal spaces in the house suddenly felt cold, unfamiliar, like those of the hotel in Acapulco where we’d once stayed. With Teresa’s departure, the house in Colonia Educación became a hostile territory that my father, my sister, and I avoided at all costs, taking refuge in the sanctuaries of our respective bedrooms. It was in that solitude, littered with failed origami figures, petioles, and midribs without their ramifying veins, that I spent the first part of the morning—of the first morning of orphanhood that now, twenty-three years later, glimmers in my memory like the first morning of history, as if until that point my life had belonged in the realm of myth, and someone had, without warning, expelled me from paradise, making me fall down a rusty chute into the dirty, violent realm of history.
Through the wall separating my sister’s room from mine, I could hear the same cassette that had been playing nonstop for the last week: a mixtape that one of her best friends had made for her. All the songs sounded the same to me: frenetic guitar riffs and lyrics screamed in an English for which my classes (where we repeated ridiculously enigmatic phrases like “the cat is under the table”) left me unprepared. But that morning, the first morning of history, I understood, or thought I understood, the expressive power of those screams, those clearly furious noises in which Mariana took refuge so as not to hear the suffocating silence of the house.
At around two in the afternoon, my father knocked and, putting his head around my bedroom door, announced that he was going to order pizza. I begged him for a Hawaiian because I knew that, given the exceptional circumstances, he’d give way to almost any of my whims. He agreed to my request with a benevolent nod, and I was pleased, not just because Hawaiian was my favorite pizza but also because my sister hated it. My father was unaware of that; as a rule, he didn’t know much about us.
My sister protested. “Mom always orders half and half,” she complained angrily, and I thought about my frustrated attempts at origami. However hard I tried, I couldn’t manage to fold either the sheets of paper or the leaves of the shrubs exactly down the middle. The middle seemed to be a utopian concept, accessible to the understanding but not applicable to real things. I wondered if it was possible to fold a pizza down the middle, exactly down the middle, and came to the conclusion that it probably wasn’t.
I wolfed down two slices of pizza without uttering a word. My father didn’t say anything either, or my sister. I thought that the silence would continue until my mother returned, if she ever did, from her camping trip, with her giant tote bag on her shoulder, unseasonable gifts for everyone, and new origami books that would finally reveal to me the elusive secret of symmetry.
Translated by Christina MacSweeney
Daniel Saldaña París is an essayist, poet, and novelist born in Mexico City. His first novel, Among Strange Victims, published to critical acclaim in 2016, was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award. He has been a fellow at Union des Écrivaines et des Écrivains Québécois, the Omi International Arts Center, The Banff Centre, and The MacDowell Colony. His work has appeared in BOMB!, Guernica, LitHub, Electric Literature, The Guardian, El País, and on KCRW’s Unfictional, among others. In 2017 he was named by the Hay Festival as one of the best Latin American writers under the age of 40.
Christina MacSweeney was awarded the 2016 Valle Inclán Translation Prize for her translations of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and her translations of Daniel Saldaña París’s novel Among Strange Victims was a finalist in the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. In 2017 she published a translation of Elvira Navarro’s A Working Woman, followed in 2018 by Empty Set (Verónica Gerber Bicecci), and Tomb Song and The House of the Pain of Others (Julián Herbert), all of which have received critical acclaim. Her work has also been included in various anthologies of Latina American Literature. Christina also collaborated with Verónica Gerber Bicecci on the bilingual book Palabras migrantes / Migrant Words. Her translations of Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino (Julián Herbert), On Lighthouses, a book-length essay by Jazmina Barrera, and Elvira Navarro’s short story collection Rabbit Island are forthcoming in 2020.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.