Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two is a sleeper agent of a book. It is short enough to read in one sitting, but dense enough to resist such a concentrated attack. And so one reads it, lives with it over the course of a distracted week or so, and gets lulled into a sense of comfort with its singular style—only to be hit with the emotional impact days after finishing the book. It is a brilliant, and welcome, act of literary sabotage.
The petite 100-page book tells the simple story of the twin Gamal sisters, Gloria and Constitución, and their quest for, and eventual dismissal of, romantic love in small-town Mexico. The central premise—and conflict—of the book is that the sisters are identical: really identical. Their natural looks make them nearly impossible to tell apart, and they have taken pains to reinforce the confusion by adopting the same hairstyles, wearing the same clothes, practicing the same profession, and living together. Though we are informed early on that there are personality differences (“one is discreet and the other a chatterbox”), not to mention a telltale birthmark, the two are happy to follow the same routines, together, every day. They thus form a perfect dyad, a complete system, and live “without a twinge of longing,” finding joy in hard work, confusing the neighbors, and drinking a few glasses of brandy on the weekends. Trouble comes in the form of a wedding invitation, which suggests the possibility of romance and a different life—but at the cost of the present one. Since no man will fall in love with two identical women, the sisters flip a coin for the privilege of attendance. But once a suitor is hooked, the question arises again: is it really fair for only one of the sisters, who have shared everything, always, to experience love? And so, for a while at least, they use the tricks they know so well and, unbeknownst to Oscar—the somewhat plodding breeder of goats and pigs who’s fallen prey to the charms of the woman he believes to be Constitución—they share him. After months of trading dates that slowly escalate into sexual encounters, which introduce feelings of jealousy and calculation heretofore alien to the sisters, the hoped-for and dreaded marriage proposal comes, and with it, a surprising resolution.
This unusual situation, as well as the inherent value of preserving identicality, is taken for granted, and so the book comes off as a sort of Brechtian fairy tale. The narration is lofty, wry, and aggressively omniscient. It tells rather than shows, and at the same time uses words to tease and obfuscate as much as to reveal. The fable-like set-up allows the book to touch on weighty questions of identity, mortality, and the limits of intimacy, but it does so in a dry, winking sort of way, suggesting that the questions are there for consideration, rather than investigating them.
This distance between reader and subject is enforced by a prose style so unusual it often seems to fight that characterization, making use of devices traditionally reserved for poetry, like internal rhyme and idiosyncratic (though consistent) punctuation. The most striking example of this is the extravagant use of the colon, which often appears three, four, or five times in a single sentence, lightening the density of the writing with a staccato rhythm and of course calling to mind the classic formula of analogy. The book is also peppered with aphorisms: “No possession is worth much when there is so much money to spend,” onomatopoetic interjections: “gulp!” and tableaux: “Hands waving: farewell!” that cast a veil of artificiality over the tale and keep emotional engagement to a minimum. This style is so strong and monolithic in Katherine Silver’s sparkling translation that it made me curious to see the original: not, as sometimes with less capable translators, to catch what might be “lost,” but to fully appreciate her art.
The feeling of distance is so extreme that moments when the sisters’ voices are directly relayed sometimes feel shocking or even jarring. But the technique is clearly calculated, the style crafted specifically to belie the message. Sada erects a wall between reader and subject in order to delay as long as possible the discovery of the sweetness at the book’s core—and thus to both temper this sweetness and to enhance the pleasure it gives. We have been carefully guided to expect a Greek tragedy and instead are given a fairy tale, but one whose conclusion is so hard-won and unexpected that the catharsis it delivers is stunning.
Indeed there are moments when One Out of Two feels like a lost play of Sophocles. The diction and rhythm of lines like “That blockhead already gave herself to him. I hope, at least, she keeps her virginity, that’s the least she can do,” perfectly mimic the colloquial yet slightly stilted voice that is often given to the chorus in translation. There is a sense of hovering fate, and the suggestion that there will be a price to pay for defiance of norms, perhaps even for being born extraordinary:
…they read it in each other’s minds, and saw the long threads that would unravel in its wake. Oh, my goodness! Two-headed snakes, tale-bearers, maquiscoatl witches, who while focused on their stitches struggled to know what mortal sin their parents, now cadavers, had passed on to them that they had to pay with their lives. And each reproached herself for not being devout enough, not even to a saint or to the image of any virgin.
But the heavy blows of fate are averted in a fairy-tale ending that turns the very notion on its head, not by denying the protagonists happiness, but by allowing them to totally redefine the source and shape of their happiness—to their own surprise and ours. Ultimately, it is an ending beautiful for its realism, an ending that finds joy in the loss of illusions. One Out of Two is an unconventional book, and an ode to unconventionality. It is a fable that—against the odds—moves as much as it instructs, and whose impact only grows with time.