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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Mutations

Jorge Comensal

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To purchase The Mutations

Title: The Mutations
Author: Jorge Comensal
Genre: Novel
Written: 2016 (Eng. 2019)
Length: 184 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: The Mutations - US
Las mutaciones - US
The Mutations - UK
The Mutations - Canada
Les mutations - France
Verwandlungen - Deutschland
Le mutazioni - Italia
Las mutaciones - España
  • Spanish title: Las mutaciones
  • Translated by Charlotte Whittle

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Our Assessment:

B : (too-)loose novel of cancer-variations

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ABC . 11/10/2019 J.M.Pozuelo Yvancos
The NY Times Book Rev. . 19/1/2020 Randy Boyagoda
Wall St. Journal . 8/11/2019 Sam Sacks

  From the Reviews:
  • "Como ocurre con muchas novelas de hoy parece una obra de teatro, pues la trama cuenta diálogos, y escenas ocurridas todas en el interior de la casa o bien en la consulta de Teresa (.....) Para un lector español aumenta el interés el refrescante uso coloquial de la lengua, con voces y locuciones mexicanas cuya plasticidad nada rebuscada le dan a la prosa un relieve especial, pese a haber optado por una estética de sencillez." - José María Pozuelo Yvancos, ABC

  • "At novelís end, Comensal turns to a more provocatively ironic situation, when the character most concerned with Godís 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." - Randy Boyagoda, The New York Times Book Review

  • "In this caustic, pitch-black comic debut, the insights all point toward the fundamental frailty of the body and the overpowering strength of death. (...) In brusque, bitten-off prose, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle, Mr. Comensal captures the patientís rapid and humiliating decline, allowing him nothing in the way of redemption. This is a mean and narrow, if creditably undeluded, little novel." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Mutations centers around fifty-year-old Ramón Martínez, a successful lawyer with his own practice who is married to Carmela; they have two teenage children, Mateo and Paulina. Ramón relies on his tongue in his work, from sweet-talking clients to arguing their cases for them:

I make a living from words, from giving people a voice in front of the authorities so that they can protect their rights, demand accountability, resolve conflicts ... I represent my clients. I speak for them.
       When the novel opens, he's feeling some pain in his tongue; when he gets it examined, he learns that it's cancer -- a virulent rhabdomyosarcoma. The only option is to remove the tongue, rendering Ramón mute -- he is forced to rely on writing out any communication after that. The procedure also does not stop the cancer, which eventually also appears in his lungs. Treatment prolongs Ramón's life, but basically he is a goner, The Mutations in part a chronicle of his fairly rapid decline and how he and those in his household adjust to it (basically: not particularly well).
       If centered on Ramón and his family -- which includes a devoted housekeeper, Elodia -- there are also several other figures of varying significance in the novel, with varying degrees of overlap with Ramón's story. There's his oncologist, Joaquín Aldama, who is fascinated and baffled by this unusual case -- rhabdomyosarcoma is a childhood phenomenon, and it's highly unusual to find it in someone of Ramón's age. Perhaps some unusual genetic mutation is behind it ? And perhaps Aldama can publish on this unusual case ? Briefly, he wonders if it might not hold the key to: "a universal cure for cancer, the Holy Grail of oncology". But, like Ramón, Aldama ultimately doesn't find much more than disappointment.
       There's also psychoanalyst Teresa de la Vega, herself a cancer-survivor who now specializes in psychotherapy for women with cancer. She also believes in the medicinal value of marijuana, and grows her own -- some of which she dispenses to her patients. Ramón eventually becomes a patient of hers, but for much of the novel her story runs entirely separate; it also includes her own therapy, and one patient in particular, her favorite, Eduardo, who had survived childhood leukemia but: "never recovered any sense of himself as a healthy young man". Now a twenty-year-old university student, Eduardo remains incredibly germaphobic, making it difficult to function in public or engage with others -- complicating, among other things, his crush on a fellow student, which Teresa takes particular interest in.
       The loss of his tongue emasculates Ramón, not only rendering him unable to work (though wife Carmela is conveniently able to fill in, and keep things running on a basic level) but also putting him in debt to his successful but hated brother Ernesto: without health insurance, the family doesn't have the money to pay their medical bills, and the only one they can turn to for help is Ernesto. Ernesto does provide the necessary funds -- but demands an IOU, and their house as collateral; much of what then drives Ramón, especially as his condition worsens, is figuring out a way to ensure that his family won't lose the house when he dies, and that Ernesto won't get his money back.
       Finally, there's a well-meaning if absurd gift that housekeeper Elodia gets for Ramón -- a parrot. It can't really function as his mouthpiece, but Ramón likes the foul-mouthed animal, naming it Benito Juárez. Carmela is worried about the dangers of infection from the dirty animal, but Ramón is insistent about keeping it; eventually, he even allows himself one great indulgence, a fancy cage for the bird.
       The Mutations is, among other things, an odd novel about different ways of dealing with cancer, from Eduardo, no longer sick with it but unable to move past it, to Teresa, still working through her own experiences and constantly faced with those of her patients, to Ramón, whom Teresa envies for the detachment he feels from his cancer:
He has no interest in the disease, it doesn't speak to him. He sees it as an accident, like having the flu, and in that sense he has a healthy attitude.
       Beyond that:
He doesn't understand what it means to be sick and in pain. Suddenly he doesn't know who he is. He's always having out-of-body experiences.
       Unable to provide for his family -- indeed, purely a burden for his family -- Ramón fixates on how to make sure they won't lose the house (and his brother won't see his money). A rare moment of satisfaction comes when he gets his hands on a small pile of cash, the paper notes briefly seeming to offer what he lost with his tongue:
With them, Ramón would be able to speak again; with them, he would grandiloquently dictate his final wish.
       Of course, he's deluding himself; what little speech he has, in his written communications with those around him, the little cash that he can't do much with (beyond buy the parrot a nice cage), and the squawking bird's curses can't effect much: he remains largely powerless; smashing his brother over the head with a bottle is about as effective an action as he manages.
       The Mutations moves along jauntily, not indulging in Ramón's decline or drawing out his steadily worsening condition but matter-of-factly skipping along from stage to stage. There's quite a bit of fascinating character-development -- or rather adjustment, to the changing circumstances, including in the children, who don't know how to deal with their father's decline and whose own awkward behavior seems particularly plausible. Still, the skipping along also gives a sense of much being missed, including the transition in the household and business; Carmela, in particular, gets short shrift.
       There are lots of clever, neat details and small episodes in The Mutations, including among the storylines that are, essentially, separate from Ramón's, but it's all a bit puzzling; it doesn't really add up. It's a novel full of good ideas and scenes, and interesting thoughts, but with too little interest in any larger sort of picture or story developing -- slices of quite a few lives that, together, still feels much too much simply like separate slices (and reflections on and information about cancer that are intriguing but also never really fully developed). It's not quite all unrealized potential but it does feel oddly limited.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 November 2019

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The Mutations: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Jorge Comensal was born in 1987.

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© 2019-2020 the complete review

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