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A Zero-Sum Game

A Zero-Sum Game

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By Eduardo Rabasa

Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

This debut from a Mexico-recognized author examines humanity's dark side in a fatalistic satire of consumer society and the cult of the individual.

Publication Date: November 29, 2016

Paperback: 9781941920381

eBook: 9781941920398 


Villa Miserias is a suburb of a suburb where everyone knows their place and nothing ever changes. Every two years, elections are held for the presidency of the residents’ committee, and every two years there are no surprises. But the balance begins to shift with the arrival of Selon Perdumes and his theory of Quietism in Motion. With his alabaster smile, he uncovers the deepest secrets of the unwary residents, and transforms their fantasies in reality with the help of the loans he offers them. Growing rich from money-lending, Perdumes gradually becomes the spectral power behind the community. But when Max Michels, sunk in an obsessive relationship with the beautiful, black-eyed Nelly, and, struggling to silence the multiple dissenting voices in his head, decides to run for president without Perdumes’ permission, the battle lines are drawn.

A Zero Sum Game is a biting satire of contemporary consumer society and the cult of the individual, liberally sprinkled with humor and chilling realism. Rabasa’s clear, steady gaze rests on the sophistry and rationalizations that mask the actual situation where, for all the choices we are offered, we have little power over our destinies. Swift would raise his hat to this debut novelist.

Biographical Note

Eduardo Rabasa studied political science at Mexico’s National University (UNAM) where he graduated with a thesis on the concept of power in the work of George Orwell. He writes a weekly column for the national newspaper Milenio and has translated books of authors like Morris Berman, George Orwell and W. Somerset Maugham. In 2002 he co-founded Sexto Piso, recognized as one of Mexico's leading independent publishers, where he currently serves as editorial director. A Zero-Sum Game is his debut novel, published in Mexico by Surplus Ediciones (Sur+), in Spain by Pepitas de calabaza, in Argentina by Godot Ediciones, in France by Éditions Piranha, and in the US by Deep Vellum. In 2015, he was selected among the best 20 young Mexican contemporary authors in the Hay Festival's México20 project.

Christina MacSweeney is a literary translator specializing in Latin American fiction. Her translations of Valeria Luiselli's works were published by Granta and Coffee House Press in 2012 and 2013 and 2015 respectively; her translation of Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award in 2015, and The Story of My Teeth was a finalist for the same award in 2016 and won the Los Angeles Times Fiction Prize. Her work has also appeared in the anthologies México20 and Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare (And Other Stories, 2016). Her most recent published translation, Daniel Saldaña París's Among Strange Victims, was published by Coffee House Press in spring 2016, and a short story, "Piñata," by the same author was included in the 2016 National Translation Month publications.


“Rabasa uses various narrative devices to make a rambunctious journey through the layers of corruption and the various faces of power in a housing complex that could be anywhere.” —Jane Ciabattari, BBC Culture

“Rabasa’s novel is built much like the sprawling housing complex it portrays: a complex but self-contained set of ideas populated by funny and frightening characters. Rabasa has crafted an Orwellian satire of low-level bureaucrats, urban dreamers, and political power.” Publishers Weekly

“With echoes of 1984 and Brave New World, Rabasa delivers a forceful, hysterical debut that’s one for the political ages. This timely novel riffs on challenges that are at the fore globally—drugs, poverty, and class division. A Zero-Sum Game is a welcome addition to contemporary Mexican literature, with a voice and intellect that is astute and vibrant, providing much-needed commentary on Mexican-American relations and the abuses of capitalism.” —Monica Carter, Foreword Reviews

“Rabasa uses the charged atmosphere to crack dry, wry jokes that manage to lend sympathy to both sides: those in power, who find themselves caught between empowerment and selling out, and those outside of it, who find themselves wanting to be part of a revolution. It’s complex, intense, and would be heavy were the book not so charmingly funny.” —Cassidy Foust, Literary Hub

“A very impressive piece of work, in particular also in its creative approach to the concept of ‘political fiction’, and in suggesting what fiction can still do.” —M.A. Orthofer, The Complete Review

“An outstanding political fantasy. Eduardo Rabasa has written a futuristic novel set in the present; its inventiveness is not based on new technologies but rather on new kinds of relationships. It’s a novel about the most complicated of extreme sports: cohabitation.” —Juan Villoro, author of The Guilty

“Meticulous, written with a harsh language, this is the portrait of a suffocating microcosm in which hierarchies are fixed by the illusion of a social progress that will never arrive. Rabasa dismantles with precision the mechanisms of a false democracy, in which no political alternative is possible.” —Ariane Singer, Le Monde

A Zero-Sum Game...may well be the brilliant novel of our time, a book that captures all of the delusion, deceit, and absurdity of a world given over entirely to the dictates of capitalism.  Eduardo Rabasa has written a tragedy, to be sure, a twisted boundary-pushing tragedy that also happens to be insanely funny.” —Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

“A critique like this on the potential pitfalls of democracy rings with an eerily relevant timbre.” —Gabriel García Ochoa, Harvard Review

"The comparisons to 1984 are inevitable . . . However, A Zero-Sum Game is closer to A Brave New World than to Orwellian dystopia." —Victor Parkas, El País

“A compelling mix of satirical humor and chilling realism.” —Jen Rickard Blair, World Literature Today

"A Zero-Sum Game carries readers to regions of the imagination which subtly suggest the best of the Central European tradition. The sensation is as real as it is unsettling and, somehow, after a time, gives rise to an awareness of where we actually are. The prose rests firmly on a set of coordinates that can only be Mexican, revealing a totality of truths that reflect the complex texture of a country and a society immersed in a moment of violent convulsion.—Eduardo Lago, author of Call Me Brooklyn

"Rabasa’s satirical vocation is crystallized in a cumulative effect that at times recalls the transversal cut with which Georges Perec sketched the life of the tenants of a building, or the eagle-eye with which Damián Tabarovsky followed the comings and goings of a leaf that glides over a street of Buenos Aires." —Guillermo Núñez, Frente


All I ever wanted was to be just another invisible coward, Max Michels silently grumbled as a drop of blood dribbled down his freshly shaved throat. Almost unconsciously, he’d put off until the very last moment the decision that, once taken, seemed as surprising as it was irrevocable. He was about to break the cardinal rule of Villa Miserias: to stand as a candidate in the elections for the president of the residents’ association without the consent of Selon Perdumes.

With the force of a rusty spring unexpectedly uncoiling, the memory of an era before Perdumes’ arrival materialized in his mind. Max clearly recalled the principal feature of the day the modernization began: jubilation at the sight of the dust. There was no lack of people who gladly inhaled the first particles of the future. Poor devils, Max now thought. The dust had never cleared: Villa Miserias was a perpetual work in progress.

At that time the residential estate had functioned like clockwork; it still did, although the model was now completely different. Every two years there were elections for the presidency of the estate’s board. For eleven days, the residents were bombarded with election leaflets. The most distinguished ladies received chocolates and flowers; those of lower standing had to make do with bags of rice and dried beans. In essence, all the candidates were competing to convince the voters they were the one who would make absolutely no alterations to the established order. There was even a physical prototype for those in charge of running the estate that included, in equal measure, the fat, the short, the dark and bald: it was a bearing, a gaze, a malleable voice. There was no friction between the election manifestos and the everyday state of affairs.

The foundations of Villa Miserias were conceived on the same basis as Selon Perdumes’ fundamental doctrine: Quietism in Motion. Its forty-nine buildings were constructed using an engineering technique designed to allow shaking while avoiding collapse. The urban blot to which it belonged was prone to lethal earthquakes, but the flexible structure of the buildings had prevented catastrophe on more than one occasion.

In the time before the reforms, all the apartments had been identical; now they were symmetrically unequal. Each building had ten in total, distributed in inverse proportion to the corresponding floor. In general, the demography was also predictable: in the tiny apartments on the lowest floor, multiple generations of humans and animals lived together. In contrast, the penthouse apartments were usually inhabited by young executives with or without wives and children.