Tragicomic Fiction That Masquerades as an Extended Lawyer Joke

By Jorge Comensal
Translated by Charlotte Whittle

Among other things, “The Mutations,” a feisty first novel by the Mexican writer Jorge Comensal, is a dark, extended lawyer joke, made at the expense of Ramón Martinez. A decadent urban professional about to enjoy another pork sandwich, Ramón becomes a dyspeptic, housebound mute after the sudden pain he feels at his favorite cantina turns out to be a tumor, “which throbbed in his mouth like a tiny, misplaced heart.” Comensal’s brisk, if at times diffusive, storytelling — in a translation by Charlotte Whittle that conveys both his blunt and sharp humor — coheres around the question of how a person (as well as his family members, friends and colleagues) deals with the felt and future consequences of sudden dire news.

After Ramón perceives that he has more to worry about than a missed lunch, the novel proceeds through a cycle of doctors’ appointments, treatments, counseling sessions, recuperations and reckonings with the inevitable. All this activity is marked most dramatically by a “total glossectomy,” the removal of Ramón’s entire tongue. The procedure ends his law practice even as it fails to prevent the cancer from spreading. Comensal moves through several responses to Ramón’s worsening situation, most of which encourage the proud atheist’s fatalistic, interior raging and bleak flights of fancy. After he returns from the hospital to humiliating home-care and insomniac television-watching, he fantasizes about the alpha dad agency he will regain by purchasing Japanese knives advertised on an infomercial: “He pictured himself sauntering through the house with the roast beef knife, carving things up for his own amusement. He would have butchered at least half of the decorative throw pillows Carmela had piled onto the living room armchairs.”

Ramón’s wife, Carmela, is generally patient with him, except when he turns to mercenary estate planning, even if this is motivated by a sincere desire to ensure his family’s future financial security. His obsessive plotting of the prospects of his wife and children is also a pre-emptive move against his wealthy brother, Ernesto, who gives him an extortionate emergency loan and drunkenly serves up insults at Ramón’s 50th-birthday party — until Ramón finally answers him with a champagne bottle to the head. The faux-fratricide results in Ramón going to consult with Teresa, a marijuana-dealing therapist who spends a lot of time in therapy herself. Hers is one of the novel’s straggling secondary plotlines, which generally feature characters connected to Ramón through his illness, none of which hold the same charge of high-stakes black humor as his.

The only other character in the novel that Comensal invests with an interior dimension and sense of life and death capable of matching Ramón’s (if not besting it) is Elodia, the family’s pious Roman Catholic maid. She’s also responsible for providing him with an unorthodox source of palliative care that he cherishes far more than Japanese knives and memories of pork sandwiches: a parrot. Ramón becomes intensely, even jealously focused on the bird, a ragged creature Elodia brings to him from a city market. To his delight and Elodia’s horror, the parrot is only capable of swearing. Unsurprisingly, given the comic, allusive and metaphoric potential of the pairing, Comensal makes much of an angry, dying man’s mute efforts to communicate while accompanied in his final days by a loud, caged bird prone to harsh expressions and indifferent to being understood.

At novel’s end, Comensal turns to a more provocatively ironic situation, when the character most concerned with God’s mercy must decide what kind of mercy she should offer the character who is least interested in it. This makes for a little too neat and obvious a dilemma and resolution, especially when compared with the case Comensal prosecutes elsewhere in “The Mutations” for the funny, messy unexpectedness of life, death and potty-mouthed pet birds.

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