REVIEW // by Holly Hagman

Searching for Symmetry: Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París

Ramifications by Daniel Saldaña París, translated by Christina MacSweeney
Coffee House Press, pre-order here

In a house on a street in Colonia Educación in Mexico City on a Tuesday around midday, a mother makes the decision to leave her husband and children and never return, an action that leaves a distinct mark on the family members’ lives, like the crease left on a folded piece of origami paper. That pivotal moment in the summer of 1994 shapes the course of the narrator’s actions, a ripple effect created by the moment Teresa slings her large tote bag over her shoulder and walks out the door. In his book, Ramifications, Daniel Saldaña París provides perspective on a turbulent time in Mexico from the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy experiencing a different sort of turmoil within his own household, two wars being fought within the same pages.

Our narrator—a character who remains nameless other than being referred to as “Mariana’s brother” in passing—is a highly self-aware young boy whose greatest loves include eavesdropping on his sister’s conversations, eating Hawaiian pizza, and practicing making origami animals. Other times, our narrator is a wizened man in his thirties, grappling with the difficulties of the adult world while reflecting on the pain of learning the truth behind his mother’s disappearance over twenty years later. These narrative personas blend together like a fascinating watercolor, bending light and creating new images on the page. The voice of innocence recounts the fear of the Bogeyman snatching the narrator from his bed in the middle of the night while the voice of experience describes the shadows as they make their advance “like hungry reptiles” before they “disappeared into the unbounded darkness of night.” Through the use of first-person narration, Ramifications creates a closeness with the reader that draws us in, invests us in the story as we search for the truth along with the narrator.

This closeness makes the story feel like an almost-memoir—a story that is rooted heavily in truth and embellished with extraordinary tales of traveling by bus to an unfamiliar town when the vehicle is stopped by armed soldiers or of the amplified guilt of kicking a pigeon before it could fly away. These details are so vivid, so striking, so believable because of the characters who inhabit each story. Teresa, existing solely in flashback, with her cold, unassuming temperament, is juxtaposed with her husband, a boring banker with an explosive attitude and the tendency to oppose his wife’s opinions “like an entomologist who becomes enamored with the flight of a butterfly and then decides to stick a pin in its abdomen.” A combination of those personality traits exists in Mariana, the narrator’s sixteen-year-old sister who tells the most impressive lies and listens to loud music.

These characters are pieces of a broken mirror reflecting their actions to one another in that distorted, funhouse way, creating a wobbly imperfect image. Their exploits—Teresa’s decision to leave the family to help with the unrest in Chiapas, the narrator’s choice to raid his father’s nightstand for the letter in which that information was written, and the father’s choice to keep specific aspects of Teresa’s disappearance from his children—demonstrate distrust, dysfunction, and asymmetry. They exist much like the narrator’s origami frogs—flawed figures scarred from too many complex folds.

This narrative unfolds in a series of locations in Mexico, and each place brings with it a new sensation. Teresa leaves for Chiapas, a place so mysterious and far away from Colonia Educación that it seems almost mystical, a dangerous Neverland. The bus the narrator takes goes to Villahermosa, whose heat and humidity create beads of sweat on the back of the neck akin to the sweat staining the narrator’s sheets from being confined to his bed in his subpar apartment as he recollects these moments from his childhood. His memories—or replicas of replicas of memories—of these places create atmospheres of chaos and peace, comfort and distress, familiarity and confusion, a balancing act that the author manages to keep perfectly aligned.

The reflective nature of the writing highlights the poetic qualities of the language. Paris—a poet in his own right—employs craft components one might see in an epic poem. Returning to the theme of folding origami acts as a sort of refrain, a place the reader can go back to that takes on new meaning with each repetition. The anonymity of the narrator gives us the “everyman” and the ability to see ourselves in the situations he encounters. This craft choice allows us to connect strongly to the language depicting the imperfections of the human condition in a highly symbolic nature. Our narrator confesses that, “however many leaves and sheets of paper I folded down the middle, origami wasn’t going to give meaning to anything at all, because symmetry wasn’t a material state but an invention of the mind; half a sheet of paper was always imperfect and, therefore, the cranes, frogs, pagodas, and kimonos made of folded paper had a lie at their very cores, as do, of course, flesh-and-blood humans: we, too, are formed from a fundamental lie…”

Lies and untruths are a large part of this novel as the mystery unfolds, slowly, like a crumpled piece of paper finally becoming smooth, the remaining creases evidence of unanswered questions, things we may never know. Reading this novel is like trying to fix a piece of paper that has been folded too many times. We flatten out the facts and smooth the edges, only to realize there are still bits we cannot fix, scars we cannot erase. The imperfections keep coming, but we keep going, flawed characters searching for symmetry in an uneven world.