November 14, 2019

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Strangely seductive

Mexican poet's anti-hero rewards patience

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2016 (1237 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/6/2016 (1237 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Rodrigo is a young office worker who drifts through life with no interests aside from watching a chicken that lives in the vacant lot next door, and collecting tea bags from his after-work cuppa.

It’s this passive existence that turns Daniel Saldaña Paris’s debut novel into an odd, sardonic and occasionally surreal look at a detached slacker’s contempt for the world.

Andrea Tejeda K. photo</p><p>Originally from Mexico, author Daniel Saldaña Paris now calls Montreal home.</p></p>

Andrea Tejeda K. photo

Originally from Mexico, author Daniel Saldaña Paris now calls Montreal home.

Among Strange Victims, with Rodrigo as its protaganist, is an accidental, anti-heroic journey toward a life that admits a hint of hope for communion with others.

The novel opens with a first-person section that plants the reader firmly in Rodrigo’s head, with observations such as, "When it rains, I don’t get melancholy. Quite the reverse. I simply have the impression that the weather is, finally, doing justice to the general grayness of existence."

His meaningless, layabout routine is in high contrast to the activist life his professor mother had hoped for him.

"My mother holds youth in very high esteem since hers was intense and madcap, very much in keeping with the times. She therefore hoped my youth would act as a culture medium for a sensitive, decisive character, and not be a fleeting preamble to obesity and tedium."

Just when Rodrigo’s interior monologue gets on the reader’s nerves, the focus shifts to a section on his mother’s boyfriend, Marcelo, who is a Spanish philosopher on a research leave in Mexico to study a French boxer/philosopher of art who disappeared in the country in 1918.

(The fictional historical figure is based on the real-life Arthur Cravan, a Swiss-born poet, literary journal publisher and boxer who disappeared in Mexico in 1918. The title of the novel comes from Cravan’s writings.)

When Rodrigo finds himself out of work, he and his wife, who he married as a result of an office prank, go to stay with his mother and, eventually, Rodrigo gets drawn into a scheme linked to Marcelo’s research.

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Marcelo is curious about evidence the boxer-philosopher met a mysterious time traveller, and so he jumps at the chance when an American drifter tells him stories of a seance technique that will allow participants to travel in time. He brings Rodrigo to the seance and in so doing creates conditions that allow for epiphany and personal growth.

One of the fascinating things about the novel is how thoroughly different Saldaña Paris’s approach is from that of an anglophone writer. North of the Rio Grande, this would be an historical novel about Arthur Cravan or perhaps a campus comedy about Marcelo and his research.

Saldaña Paris turns it into a slightly magical realist’s take on Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground. He intentionally makes it harder to warm to the work, although the reader who sticks to it is rewarded with some great turns of phrase, such as "the supposed need to know oneself irritates me. I can only imagine an introspective journey as a rocky descent in a toboggan made of bloody viscera."

Saldaña Paris, now living in Montreal, was one of 20 Mexican writers under age 40 recently featured in Mexico20: New Voices, Old Traditions.

His adopted city is the setting for a short but important scene in the novel’s story-within-a-story.

If he decides to stick around, he could, as does fellow Montrealer Rawi Hage, play a part in making Canadian writing more intellectually adventurous.

Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer.

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