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'One Out of Two' a Quirky and Enlightening Romp

"One Out of Two" by Daniel Sada (trans. from Spanish by Katharine Silver) (New Directions)

Daniel Sada's One Out of Two
Courtesy of Graywolf Press

One Out of Two

Daniel Sada's One Out of Two
One Out of Two

Recently translated into English, Daniel Sada’s novel “One Out of Two” adds a unique twist to the complications of the romantic comedy genre. His two protagonists, identical spinster sisters, face distance, societal expectations, and competition in their quest for love, but these issues are overshadowed by both their belief that their identities are interchangeable and the incredibly strong nature of their familial ties. Maintaining a light-hearted mood throughout, Sada uses colloquial humor, relatable characters, and colorful style to compose an enlightening and entertaining novel.

Sada begins by introducing the conundrum at hand. “Now, how to say it? One out of two, or two in one, or what?” the narrator says. This moment wittily sets the tone for the entire novel, as the identical sisters have always tried to look, act, and be the same. Having been dependent on one another since they were orphaned and taken to live with their pedantic aunt, Gloria and Constitucion Gamal are now forty-two year old spinsters in Ocampo, Mexico, who were unable and unwilling to find husbands in their youth. Things begin to change when Constitucion attends her cousin’s wedding and finds a boyfriend, Oscar Segura. Unable to stop sharing anything, the two sisters ultimately decide to share their boyfriend without his knowledge, setting the novel up for a pleasing if predictable plot. As one sister competes to kiss Oscar more than the other sister and neighbors gossip about the once antisocial women going on dates like teenagers, their boyfriend remains oblivious to the entire situation, simply hoping that Constitucion will cater to his lifelong dream of owning a small Mexican restaurant.

The simplicity of the plot does not detract from the important themes of selfhood, love, and belonging. Having always been confused for one another, the Gamals take pleasure in swapping personas—yet it seems that at some points in the novel they truly begin to believe they share one identity. Constitucion, who is referred to as “the chatterbox,” occasionally tries to be quiet to more closely resemble her sister. On the other hand, so as not to expose the fact that she lacks her sister’s beauty mark, Gloria always hides her shoulder from view. It can be challenging enough to form one’s identity in a normal situation, but Sada suggests that the addition of another identical person does nothing to make the process easier. In the end, the sisters’ need to share everything reveals a strong family tie that nothing can break: while both want to be loved by a man, neither one can bear to hurt the other. As Constitucion tells Gloria, “There are no sensible buts about it, the only thing to say is that what’s mine is yours and that’s all there is to it.”

Even as Sada devotes so much focus to the interaction between the two sisters, he also powerfully explores the effect societal pressures have upon individuals. These pressures are illustrated through the twins’ interaction with their aunt, Soledad Guadarrama, whose only advice to the girls is “get married soon and have loads of children!” Their aunt’s counsel becomes more of an annoyance as the girls mature: despite their ability to open a successful tailoring business, they are not considered successful until they have found a husband. The same could be said about their neighbors, who say, “any courtship is a downright puzzle until finally the date of the wedding can be surmised or is announced.” This maxim is especially the case for these two older women, who not only provide gossip but also are expected to snatch the opportunity to marry any man interested in them while they still have a chance. In such a setting, it is refreshing to see sisters ultimately rely on one another rather than on the men around them.

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Sada successfully incorporates several complex themes into his novel, and his style is equally worthy of praise. Even though this novel was a translation from Spanish, certain distinctive elements such as the conversational syntax, small sentences, and exclamatory phrases allow Sada’s voice to shine through. In one instance, this voice emerges when Gloria kisses Oscar before her sister. “Constitucion’s response was clear, petulant: she immediately let out a chortle, which led the other to follow with her own… A concert of crows… Finally, their nervousness found an outlet, hilarity was preferable to anger, at least it was more roguish,” Sada writes. Like the sisters’ onset of laughter, the repeated use of comma and ellipses in both this quote and the rest of the novel draw one into the story by gradually adding more details to each scene. Sada’s imagery is equally vivid: ”For a moment, let us imagine—we must—the atmosphere and the rhythm framing the action, the magnetism between them: flirtatious Constitucion dimly illuminated and wearing a lovely dress with a definitive girlish touch.” Most striking, however, is the constant use of phrases that join the two sisters, such as “making them one,” “she was her equal,” “two peas in a pod,” and “the other.” These expressions reflect the degree of unity between the sisters, as the women are not even referred to by name at some points. This pattern may add to some confusion, but the disorientation seems natural as identical twins often get mistaken for one another.

“One Out of Two” offers an enjoyable experience from within the plot confines of the usual romantic triangle. The personalities of the two close sisters and the circumstances in which they find themselves feature Sada’s quirky humor, an element which renders the novel accessible to all. Using his linguistic gifts, Sada grants “One Out of Two” a universal appeal grounded in a droll, insightful voice.

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