When I first received Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims to read, I decided only grudgingly to give it a go and I’m a little ashamed to say that my reluctance stemmed from the fact that I disliked the cover of the book. I found the cluttered cartoon, yellowish colour theme and the cactus that, frustratingly, grows out of nothing weirdly off-putting. As such, I’ll admit that I delayed reading it longer than usual, probably imagining that the writing, too, would feature inexplicable cacti that would annoy me just as much. As it happens, there were no such incidents; Among Strange Victims turned out, instead, to probably be my favourite novel of the year.
Daniel Saldaña París is a Mexican author and his work, set in Mexico, was translated from the original Spanish. In Among Strange Victims we see a lot of Paris’s home country, from the questionable allocation of government funds, to narco-just-about-everything. Our primary protagonist, Rodrigo, is a native Mexican who lives in Mexico City, but our second protagonist, Marcelo Valente, is a Spanish academic who has chosen to spend his sabbatical year in Mexico as a break from the stifled monotony of European academia.
Both characters are endearing in their own way, whilst also deplorable.
Rodrigo, in particular, thrives on his lazy mediocrity, content with nothing more than the solitude of his own company, allowing him to dally with pointless hobbies, such as collecting used teabags.
One day, however, he finds himself the butt of a cruel practical joke. A co-worker left a note for the museum secretary, Cecilia, pretending to be Rodrigo and requesting that she marry him. Cecilia tells a stupefied Rodrigo that yes, she would love to marry him, and Rodrigo is faced with the uncomfortable task of informing her that he’d never wanted to marry her in the first place. The best way to avoid this task, he decides, is to just go ahead with the whole thing.
‘…I resolve that first thing tomorrow, I will unravel the enormous tangle that resulted in me getting engaged, in Cecilia sighing tenderly, and, I imagine, some office jokers being doubled over with laughter of secret delight.
And such was, in fact, my intention: to clear up that bad joke, even if it meant doing irreparable harm to the unhappy Cecilia, and return to my routine walks and cups of tea and vacant lots inhabited by clucking hens. But today turned out differently, as if, yet again, against my will.
I am now once more sitting by the telephone in my apartment, waiting to pluck up the courage to call my mom and give her the news of my wedding.’
This occurrence- that is, Rodrigo’s unintentional and unwanted marriage- brought about by nothing other than poor judgement and a lackadaisical attitude to life, is the keystone of Among Strange Victims, in which París explores the concept of inertia. Despite the light-hearted quality to the writing, Daniel Saldaña París is bitingly satirical with his comedic characterisation of Rodrigo. Going about his senselessly repetitive, yet satisfying, existence, Rodrigo’s apparent contentment in living as a chronic underachiever is depicted hilariously. Despite the hilarity, however, the uneasy realisation soon arrives that Rodrigo, whose laughable life decisions mostly depend on circumstance and laziness, is on the road to destruction.
He is also not the only object of Daniel Saldaña París’s satiric gaze. París’s real derision is saved for protagonist number 2, Marcelo Valente, referred to by even his friends as “a cretin with a PHD”. A handsome and arrogant professor who has achieved far more than his intellect warrants, Valente has little true inspiration and yet, by chance, thrives at life.
The superb characterisation of these two men- both of whom eventually find solace in the offbeat territory of rural Mexico, as well as in the arms of beautiful women- leads to the question: what are we living for and why? How do we acknowledge the banalities of life and embrace them, and what makes it worth doing so?
The slight desperation in this question is unavoidable, but thankfully it avoids becoming too heavy a subject matter thanks to a great sense of humour on the part of the author.
As a reader, I finished the book feeling completely different to how I’d started. A reluctant foray into an aesthetically displeasing book had turned out to be something spectacular. There is a depth to Daniel Saldaña París’s colourful language and scathing depiction of menial day-to-day tasks that made me feel very much that this was not an abstract narrative, but the voice of Daniel Saldaña París himself. If this is true, then expanding and developing this cynicism is something he may be keen to do as he grows as a writer (he is only 32, after all). For now, however, as a debut novel, Among Strange Victims is something quite special- an eloquent, insightful and unforgiving insight into how we see fit to get by.