Rabelaisian romp? Warped telenovela? Mexican Augie March decked out in a breechclout, erection in hand? Take you pick. Casi Nunca, Sada’s ribald tale, is literary muscle-flexing that joyously merges high literature with romping colloquial speech, thanks to a Katherine Silver translation that makes Sada’s rollicking, staccato Spanish — a uniquely delicious blob of self-sustaining grammar — into comparably exciting English (“Naked imaginings: Yeehaw!”).
The story? How about the (mis)adventures of a randy and gangly “almost thirty” agronomist named Demetrio Sordo — referred by Sada as “the big guy” — who, unsatisfied with his plodding day-to-day life in 1940s Oaxaca, takes to yum-yum whoring, which in rough order yields a prostitute girlfriend Mireya (a fellatio-keen “dark-haired wench,” with whom he elopes), an assortment of maternal and auntly interventions, and a less-than-chance meeting with decorous Renata, a mother-shielded “rural lass,” aka “the green-eyed girl,” introduced as the goal of any middle class male Mexican’s mating intentions (as in proper wife and mother). If only Demetrio Deaf (sordo means deaf in Spanish) weren’t every bit the “sexual agronomist,” eager for the “good parts” in any relationship (“Our lover’s level of abstract thinking never went very far.”)
The narrative uses planes (one), trains, automobiles (horses also) to shunt masturbating Demetrio (“Absentminded madman. though purposeful!”) through backwater Mexico, providing an oozingly vulgar look into a postwar but pre-electricity world in which nothing much goes anywhere fast and scandal is the only entertainment. Male fancies and fantasies are defined by controlling in-laws and prostitutes, hilariously “toxic women” dedicated to making a man what he is, or isn’t, since “flagrant sinner” Demetrio, aside from his veneration of “sex that refines eternal vibrations,” is as passive as they come.
Start to finish, Sada employs a mischievous, sarcastic, and biased third-person person narrator — herein the Rabelaisian heritage — to ensure the reader gets into the fulsome comic book flow (“… we should picture a hovel of a room crammed with furniture, in the middle of which was a powerful radio…”). The novel is like that hovel room’s radio, powerful, but also clever, crammed, compassionate, and deviously funny. Words and people as spasms and emissions.
Nava, widely considered among Mexico’s best novelists and its most devoted experimenters, died in 2012, at 58, prematurely meeting the same fate (kidney failure) as his Chilean fan Roberto Bolaño nine years earlier.