Twins in fiction and mythology are often a clever way to play with a reader's sense of reality. "One Out of Two," a wily, compressed novel by the late Mexican writer Daniel Sada, features spinster twins who at first blush seem most intent on confusing bystanders as to which sister is which.
But lest you think that Gloria and Constitucion Gamal exist solely to teach us conventional lessons of trickery versus truth, look again. Because Sada is a master of subtle subversion, employing a deceptively quick, almost sketch-like style in which other things are happening, even when we think we are taking it all in.
In the way of heroes and heroines marked for tragedy, Gloria and Constitucion are orphaned as adolescents and sent to live with an aunt. Life with this aunt is not as bad as it was for Cinderella under her stepmother, but the girls' lives are a hard slog, quickly filled with crushing hopelessness.
Not all is lost. The twins learn to sew. This enables them to support themselves, for every town needs seamstresses. Doing their own sewing also allows the twins to wear the same dresses, constructing sleeves and collars that erase any subtle physical differences between them.
With a perfect mirroring of manners and style, the twins become inseparable, surviving to adulthood by employing the art of restraint, wanting little more than each other.
They do, however, want their freedom. Their aunt withholds a generous inheritance until they finally demand it. Just before the twins depart to begin life anew, she offers this timeless pearl of advice: "Get married soon and have loads of children! Children are life's gift to women." And yet, asks the narrator, presumably Sada, how can these twins possibly get married when they are so yoked to each other?
"Their tics, gestures, and facial expressions, all the same, as if mirror images. Do they ever grow weary of one another?" The narrator asks, speculating, "Possibly, though if they did, their souls would be void." Surely he is exaggerating. How could twin souls ever truly be void? Could they mirror each other so perfectly that, like electrons and protons, they actually cancel each other out?
The compact narrative proceeds in a series of connected sketches that feel at once breathless and unhurried; Sada is a master of controlled casualness mixed with weighty philosophical questions.
Not long into the story, the sisters, now 42, are invited to a wedding that only one can attend: For the first time, the women are forced to consider a separation. Their aunt implores them to act quickly and strategically; now is the time for them each to find a mate. She instructs them to exaggerate their differences. But the twins, accustomed to echoing each other, cannot imagine dressing contrarilyOne woman attends the wedding, while the other remains at home.
As tradition would have it, the girl who goes to the ball must fall in love — and so she does. "I danced all night with a slender man of interesting age," one sister tells the other. "At that, the loser, both incredulous and wary, looked up. Eyes meet by way of divination, and embarrassment; eyes no longer identical."
Oh, the power of love! There is, for the first time an impediment to the seamless twinned life the women have led. Matters are further complicated when the man, Oscar, comes to call upon the woman in whom he is interested. How can the twin who did not go the party help but impersonate her sister and arrive early to the date, to sample what romance is like?
Sada could have played the weekend meetings in which Oscar unknowingly alternates between twins for maximum laughs. But he is far too skilled a writer and interesting a thinker for something so pedestrian and farcical. Deep into the novel, one of the twins is tempted to run off with Oscar and leave her sister behind.
Sada writes: "For a moment the chosen one had a glimpse of something pathetic, because individualism, which is nothing but amorphous vanity, can sometimes gain momentum, and here was a way to make that happen." This easy dismissal of individualism, so often seen as the crowning achievement of the modern world, is but one example of how Sada casually tosses narrative hand grenades.
Despite the hazards of translation, this ticklish, deceptively slim treat of a novel is suffused with the timelessness of a fable.
One Out of Two
Graywolf: 88 pp., $14 paper