Ramifications is another interesting offering from Charco Press, which specializes in literature from Latin America and has doled out gems such as Dead Girls by Selva Almada, Fish Soup by Margarita Garcia Robayo and The German Room by Carla Maliandi.
The memories we return to most frequently are the most inaccurate, the least faithful to reality…
Set in Mexico, Ramifications is a moving portrait of arrested development, a tale of a boy growing up in a broken family and trying to survive in an environment where machismo and secrecy rule the roost.
First I have to write the story through to the end, fill this spiral-bound notebook with my scribblings to the very last page, drop it by the bed, open the next notebook, and continue writing until that one, too, is full. Not because writing is an act of salvation, but because there’s no other way I can tell myself the things I don’t even dare think when I’m alone. Only when I’ve written it all down will I be able to look at myself in the mirror and not see the face of someone else, the other that stalks me from within.
Our unnamed narrator begins his story by highlighting a defining event in his childhood, a development which pretty much dictates how the rest of his life pans out – his mother abandons their family to move to Chiapas. A woman aspiring for greater heights, she feels stifled by the drudgery of an abusive marriage and motherhood. Participating in the Zapatista movement (the uprising that shook Mexico in 1994) appears to her as the perfect outlet to refocus her energies.
Meanwhile, our narrator, his father and his elder sister Mariana are left to fend for themselves and come to terms with this loss. The father, emotionally distant, has not much clue about running a household and bringing up children. The role of caring for the boy falls on Mariana, who is much more interested in her social life. Thus, the narrator, who is aged ten at the time, is largely left to his own devices and to his own thoughts of which plenty abound. He takes refuge in making origami figures although he has no talent for it, and spends days reading Choose Your Own Adventure books and hiding in his Zero Luminosity Capsule (which is nothing but his wardrobe). Beset by aching loneliness, he is prone to concocting various imaginary scenarios that entail his mother returning to the family.
Trying to comprehend his mother’s abandonment forms the central focus of this narrative. Gradually, a portrait of the family is revealed to us – how the parents have different political ideologies, the mother has a rebellious outlook and detests her husband for his far right views. The father is also a man prone to violent bursts of temper, raging and ranting.
The narrator is a misfit in school too. Suffering the consequences of his mother’s actions, he is trolled and bullied mercilessly. The school, which he once considered a refuge from the toxic atmosphere at home, is no longer so. It’s as if the two environs have blurred and merged into one.
Daniel Saldana’s storytelling is not linear and there are a plethora of stark focal points in the narrator’s life that stand out like beams in the dark – his mother’s disappearance, her death around six months later (we learn of this in the opening chapter too), his father’s inability to form a close bond with his children and his subsequent death by cancer, and how the siblings thereafter construct their own lives.
While the tone of the novel is largely reflective, certain moments instill a creeping sense of dread. A set-piece in the middle of the book, particularly, injects a kind of tension to the tale. Just months after his mother disappears, our narrator decides to hunt for her in Chiapas and boards a bus alone. In the middle of the night, the bus is stopped by soldiers and the narrator is struck by immense terror when he and some passengers are randomly questioned.
Now in his early thirties, the narrator has cut himself from the world, spends most of this time in bed, and unfolds his memories, trying to come to terms with events that shaped his childhood and the subsequent years.
Memory, loss, grief, masculinity and revolution are some of the dominant themes that are touched upon. Reflections on memory run consistently throughout the book…
Memories are fabrications that bear little relationship to their supposed origins, and each and every time we recall something, that memory becomes more autonomous, more detached from the past, as if the cord holding it to life itself is fraying until one day, it snaps and the memory bolts, runs free through the fallow field of the spirit, like a liberated goat taking to the hills.
Grief and coping with loss is also central to the narrative. Our narrator finds solace in his strange rituals, but they only serve to alienate him further from those around him. Grappling with expected norms of masculinity is another thread that weaves the story together. Our narrator desperately yearns to resemble his mother both in looks and temperament, and is dejected to learn that he is increasingly turning into his father. The shattering impact of the revolution (which in the book is in the background) on the family unit also forms an essence of the novel.
Ramifications, then, is a poignant depiction of a child’s attempts to interpret events beyond his understanding. Saldaña París’ writing is simple and elegant and there’s almost a fairy tale like quality to the prose as we are taken inside the tormented psyche of a child. Despite a few places where the pace drags a bit, it is overall a strong read and the final allusion to the truth of his mother’s death gives the reader a lot to think about.