A Zero-Sum Game

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Move over George Orwell, Jonathan Swift, Candide and make room for Eduardo Rabasa, a young Mexican writer whose debut novel, A ZERO-SUM GAME, satirizes contemporary society in a savagely comic way that few can match. Published by Deep Vellum in a translation by Christina MacSweeney, the novel manages to sustain its all-out attack on consumerism and fake democracy from beginning to end.

Rabasa’s societal microcosm is Villa Miserias, a huge residential estate owned by Selon Perdumes, a mysterious Trump-like figure whose cardinal doctrine is “Quietism in Motion.” Perdumes is also a master at manipulating the lives of his renters and employees. “Like an expert dentist who extracts a molar without his anaesthetized patient being aware, his magnetism attracted confessions that enabled him to understand people via their weaknesses.”

Perdumes’ goal is to alter the way life was lived in Villa Miserias in earlier days. He works craftily to take control of everyone’s thoughts, activities and fantasies, but in a mock-benevolent, seemingly-caring way. It is fascism with a smiley face.

One of his ploys is to sponsor an election for the presidency of a residents’ committee. Candidate Max Michels is a lowly clerk with an anti-authoritarian streak inherited from his decrepit but idealistic father whose motto was: “The measure of each man lies in the dose of truth he can withstand.” Max, who suffers from black-dog depression and often hears voices in his head, is a reluctant campaigner, but he is spurred on by his bohemian pals and his girlfriend, Nelly Lopez, a journalist whose specialty is international relations, which the author defines as “the history of regimented aggression.”

To summarize the sprawling, populous plot of A ZERO-SUM GAME would take pages. Suffice to say that the author dramatizes his main theme–-man against power–in a fiercely intelligent, always-ironic way which provokes laughter and tears in equal amounts.