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
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.
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
“A tome that keeps you on your toes, dancing between various characters’ perspectives, different styles of narration, and abstract political lecturing… Christina MacSweeney… preserves the complicated structure and alternating voices of the novel impressively.” —Madeline Jones, Asymptote Journal
“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
“Sprawling, unwieldy, hilarious, and terrifying… Rabasa’s book mercilessly scrutinizes and critiques modern consumerism and the democratic state.” —Rachel Cordasco, Bookriot
“An insightful political dystopia.” —Andrea Gregovich, Fiction Advocate
“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
“Rich with the absurdity and excess of human folly, A Zero-Sum Game is a satire bursting with invention. Eduardo Rabasa displays the keen eye of a Huxley or a Vonnegut, mocking our obsession with progress, our endless consumerism and our desire for utopia. Villa Miserias could be a stand-in for any city in any country in the world. Hilarious and original, Rabasa’s debut is pure joy and the introduction of an exciting new voice.” —Mark Haber, bookseller, Brazos Bookstore (Houston, Texas)
“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
“Collects outbursts of passionate love, the conflicted relationship between a father and a son, and, above all, a critique of democracy in the shape of political satire…Rabasa provides an unexpected twist to the genre of social criticism novels, a literary tradition from which the author hopes to obtain the formula that allows him to think and understand the present.” —Leonardo Tarifeño, Revista Vice
“A satirical and hallucinatory debut.” —Donato M. Plata, Revista Cinepremiere
“A Zero-Sum Game is not only a brilliant novel: it may well be thebrilliant 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. If humans are reading novels a hundred years from now, they will be reading A Zero-Sum Game, and laughing and weeping in equal measure.” —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
"An amazing novel. On reading it, I felt myself to be immersed in a world that, as in certain works by Bolaño, transcends the characteristics typically associated with the Latin American novel. 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. Few recent novels have managed to surprise me so greatly as A Zero-Sum Game. —Eduardo Lago, author of Call Me Brooklyn
"This is an important novel. In terms of narrative, what the literary critics might call the central theme —power, our relationship with power, the power of power—is very deftly handled, and is combined with stories that interweave in perfect harmony. Rabasa’s decision to set the novel in an insignificant place, which works as a mirror to anywhere in the world, was a very wise one; more wise still is the satirical tone which reveals itself in his functional prose (that is, prose that functions well). Nowhere in recent times have I read a better portrait of how things are shaped – or how those things, over time, shape us." —Juan Bonilla
"Rabasa’s satirical vocation is cristallized 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
"By using diverse narrative resources (…) Rabasa manages to maintain from the beginning to the end a sensation of breathing inside a gray and oppressive bubble in which the [Nietzschean] motto 'the measure of every man lies in the dose of truth which he can handle' takes on a disturbing sense. This sense points out, without the need of being violent, that we are always whipped by an invisible watchman, intransigent and ruthless." —Lobsang Castañeda, Revista Más cultura
"By using a satirical tone, Eduardo Rabasa allows himself to explore the limits of political coexistence while at the same time offering fragments that come out of an overflowing imagination. His novel becomes a carnival in which the reader cannot help but find similarities with what has happened to our country, to mention just one of the possibilities. And, in doing so, he manages to outline deep reflections on the concepts of truth, of the greater good, and of the individual." —Jorge Gudiño, La Jornada
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. In exchange for their privileged position, they had to endure the swaying motion of the building, some of which was caused by the passage of buses on the broad road surrounding the estate. One such resident, who had a panoramic view of the earthquake that reduced the neighboring estate to rubble, defined the spectacle as a waltz danced by flexible concrete colossi.
Perdumes delighted in the improbable equilibrium of successful social engineering. His conversion into Villa Miserias’ foremost resident was a gradual process. He’d arrived on the estate as a businessman of mysterious origins and activities. Each person who spoke to him received an explanation as vague as it was different to the others. To give a clearer idea of his character, one only has to say that—so far—it’s reasonable to imagine they were all true.
He moved into apartment 4B in Building 10, having offered its owner, the widow Inocencia Roca, a year’s rent in advance in exchange for a substantial discount. The inhabitants of Villa Miserias—accustomed to the traditional barter system—weren’t prepared for the way Selon Perdumes flashed the greenbacks. Señora Roca was unaware that she would soon be signing over the apartment to him.
Sightings of him were rare: he kept them to the bare minimum. In order to introduce himself to his neighbors, he invited them individually for coffee. He was charming in the most chameleonic sense of the term. His eyes were the shade of grey that can be taken as either blue or green. He was able to guess the most deeply hidden fears of each of his guests and had an amazing talent for giving solidity to fantasies, then offering the finance needed to make them real. The calculated non-payment of a proportion of his creditors was, for him, a great blessing since he practiced a different sort of usury. In exchange for the possibility of being ruined, he sought to acquire loyalties and secrets. 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.
The young couple in 4A became the subjects of one of his first laboratory experiments. After an informal chat, Perdumes noted the tensions inherent in their different origins. The young man had followed in his father’s footsteps to become a public accountant; she’d studied literature in a state university thanks to the family Popsicle business. He’d been stagnating in an accountancy firm for two years; she worked as the assistant of an impressively learned academic.
Perdumes explained to them that when it came to making an impression, appearances were everything. Enveloping them in the gleam of his alabaster smile, he told the young man that he should change his old car and buy a new watch. Fine, but that was impossible, they could scarcely cover the mortgage… Eyes downcast, she confessed that her mother helped pay for her painting classes. Marvelous! Don’t worry, replied Perdumes’ smile. I’ll loan you as much as you need and you can pay me back in installments. He was a master of the art of silence. Without moving from his seat, his presence seemed to lose density while the couple made their decision. Of course, they would repay him as soon as possible. It’s just a springboard… Great! No problem. Would you like more coffee?
He also happened to know that some women in the building were interested in forming a reading group. Why didn’t she organize it? This time the silence was more ephemeral. The girl’s eyes lit up with an enthusiasm her husband hadn’t seen for a long time. Phenomenal! Don’t say another word. Would you excuse me a moment?
Within a few weeks everything was different. The young man was driving a modest new car; he checked the time regularly on his elegant casual watch. Every week, she listened to the heavily made-up ladies who spoke about anything but the books they had briefly skimmed through. His employers noted the change and began shake his hand when they met. They once asked him to join them for lunch in the small restaurant near the office. She was able to pay for her painting classes for as long as Perdumes’ clandestine subsidy to the ladies of the reading group lasted. Every weekend, the couple turned up with radiant smiles to present their repayments.
To explain his theory of secrets, Perdumes used the analogy of the reversible red velvet bags used by magicians. The first step is to show the audience that the bag is empty inside and out. Nothing hidden there. However, the trick consists in inserting a hand in the right place. The commonest secrets are as innocent as white rabbits. Then come the shameful secrets, greasy stains that can be removed with a little effort. As he honed his extraction technique, Perdumes became interested in the secrets that could only be invoked by a black magic ritual. They were barbs that gave pain by their mere existence: the smallest movement lacerated the soul in which they were embedded.
On one occasion, Perdumes noticed that the logo on a young neighbor’s trainers had an A too many and was missing an E. When little Jorge felt the gleam of Perdumes’ smile scrutinizing his footwear, he knew the secret was out. He subjected his mother to a weeklong tantrum that only abated with the arrival of a box containing a pair of authentic trainers. There was also the elderly lady in 4A who used to fill the bottles of holy water she sprinkled on her grandchildren on Sundays from the tap. Or the aged bureaucrat in 2C who boasted of his mistreatment of the Villa Miserias cleaning staff: “Better harness the donkey than carry the load yourself”.
Perdumes’ prying was sustained by an age-old activity: gossip. Having gained a little of a person’s confidence, he was able to access what they knew, suspected or had invented about others. It was an unashamed downward spiral: other people’s dirty laundry covered your own to the point where you created a hotchpotch of stinking gibberish, crying out in a muffled voice: “Deep down, we’re all disgusting, so there’s nothing to worry about”. It made no difference that the secret was an invention. What mattered was the perception of that dark thing and its tangled strata. Everyone had something to hide; other people found out about it. The gossip came alive, spreading like a virus that by nature mutated on infecting each new host. Attempts to deny the gossip gave rise to other, more poisonous rumors. Making use of the most innocent gestures, Perdumes would communicate that he knew the very thing no other person should know.
Very soon Perdumes had fabricated a network of correspondences woven from founded and unfounded rumors. Whether out of gratitude, respect or fear, the residents in his building adored him: all collective decisions passed through his hands. His indefatigable mind processed the situation until it hit on the two pillars of Quietism in Motion: the theories of the sword and the tea bag.
The former was based on the equilibrium of unequal things, the distinctive characteristic of a good sword. It may be the blade that cuts, but it’s the hilt that is in control. When wielding a Samurai sword, in order to obtain horizontal equilibrium, the extended finger must be placed on the juncture of the hilt and the blade. If the finger bears down slightly harder toward the blade, the greater weight of the hilt is magnified and wins the day. And from this came the Perdumesian maxim: cannon fodder should respect the rank of the person who holds the weapon. Hence the Quietism.
The motion came from the tea bag. Perdumes would ceremoniously pour the hot water from his antique porcelain jug into a white cup and slowly remove the tea bag from its paper wrapping, allowing his audience to confirm the absolute transparency of the water. The tea bag was then gradually introduced into the cup at an angle of ninety degrees to the surface of the water. Initially, nothing happened. Then, when the tea could no longer bear the scalding water, it exuded a thin, blackish thread that diffused into the water. Perdumes would accentuate the effect by a series of upward jerks. The tea seeped out evenly in all directions until the correct hue was attained. But if one were to move the bag around without rhyme or reason, what would happen, he would ask rhetorically. You might say, exactly the same, he then quickly replied, yet turbid tea is acidic and doesn’t have the same flavor. The motion is necessary, in its proper time and place.
After his informal conquest of the building, Perdumes’ foot soldiers went out to spread the word. Secondhand Samurai swords began to be found everywhere. Others made their own from what looked like sharpened clubs, so producing an epidemic of three-legged chairs. At times, the tea was replaced by other herbs: toloache, or devil’s weed, diffused like a form of plasma, slowly encapsulating the boiling water. But in the end, no one could ever give a precise explanation of what Perdumes was talking about: Quietism in Motion had been born. When a couple of disheveled university types knocked on his door to reprove him, Perdumes knew that his spiritual conquest was complete. It was time to move on to action.