Ramifications (excerpt) — Daniel Saldaña París (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

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 holiday. 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 thatTuesday,I resented it when Mum 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 nightstand,’ she saidfrom 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 Mum had gone away. ‘Camping,’ I thought. One Tuesday in July or August 1994, she – my mother,Teresa – went camping.

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 coloured 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 unsea- sonable 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 later, 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.

Daniel Saldaña París, born in Mexico City in 1984, is a poet, essayist and novelist, considered one of the most important voices in Mexican contemporary literature. His debut novel Among Strange Victims (En medio de extrañas víctimas, 2013) was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award and his follow-up novel Ramifications (El nervio principal, 2018) has brought him even more praise and admiration in Mexico and abroad. He has two poetry collections and his work has been included in several anthologies.

Christina MacSweeney received the 2016 Valle Inclán prize for her translation of Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and her translation of Daniel Saldaña París’ Among Strange Victims was a finalist for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award. Other authors she has translated include Elvira Navarro (A Working Woman), Verónica Gerber Bicecci (Empty SetPalabras migrantes/Migrant Words), and Julián Herbert (Tomb Song; The House of the Pain of Others).

Ramifications is published by Charco Press.