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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


A Zero-Sum Game

Eduardo Rabasa

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To purchase A Zero-Sum Game

Title: A Zero-Sum Game
Author: Eduardo Rabasa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 423 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: A Zero-Sum Game - US
La suma de los ceros - US
A Zero-Sum Game - UK
A Zero-Sum Game - Canada
Un jeu à somme nulle - France
La suma de los ceros - España
  • Spanish title: La suma de los ceros
  • Translated by Christina MacSweeney

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Our Assessment:

A- : creative, political take

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 14/1/2016 Ariane Singer
El País . 3/6/2015 Víctor Parkas
Publishers Weekly . 31/10/2016 .
TLS . 29/3/2017 Julius Purcell

  From the Reviews:
  • "Brossant, dans une langue âpre, le portrait d’un microcosme étouffant où les hiérarchies se figent dans l’illusion d’un progrès social qui ne viendra pas, Rabasa, auteur d’une thèse de sciences politiques sur le pouvoir chez Orwell, démonte avec minutie les rouages d’une démocratie factice, sans alternance politique possible (.....) Miroir tendu à certains pays latino-américains, ce roman dense, à la lecture parfois ardue, propose une réflexion pertinente sur la façon dont un régime exerce aujourd’hui la violence: moins dans la répression aveugle que par sa capacité à imposer une léthargie mortifère." - Ariane Singer, Le Monde

  • "La Suma de los Ceros es como el pesado yunque que cae sobre los dibujos animados: escuchas un silbido lento, su sombra te cubre y te convierte en papel de pared una vez llegas a la última página, que ni mucho menos funciona como salida de emergencia." - Víctor Parkas, El País

  • "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

  • "At his best Rabasa engineers his satire with admirable care. (...) Eduardo Rabasa may well be right that the next revolution will need more theory. One hopes his next novel will have rather less of it." - Julius Purcell, Times Literary Supplement

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:

       A Zero-Sum Game is, in part, an election-novel -- the election for the presidency of the residents' association of the forty-nine-building housing estate, Villa Miserias. It begins with young Max Michels preparing to register as a candidate -- without the consent of Selon Perdumes, the man who apparently has long pulled the strings and shaped the community according to his doctrine of 'Quietism in Motion'. It takes almost a hundred pages for Max to register his candidacy -- despite the absence of any real hurdles here -- as readers are introduced to Villa Miserias and its elections, and once he does the story doesn't move ahead to the actual election, but rather turns back and truly introduces Max, describing his background, along with that of some of his friends and others in the community. In fact, only in the second part of the novel, some three hundred pages in, do we get to the (eleven day) campaign proper, leading to the building by building vote.
       Villa Miserias is, of course, a microcosm, but Rabasa's novel is anything but your simple society-in-miniature story. It's an emphatically political novel, and willing to embrace theory, rather than just practice: there's a discourse-framework here -- some telling, rather than just showing -- but Rabasa has a few tricks up his sleeve in this respect as well, and A Zero-Sum Game is decidedly (and for the most part successful as) an elaborately constructed fiction.
       At one point Max notes that: "despite its hyper-realistic pretensions, political narrative was acquiring an increasingly fictitious character". Rabasa develops this concept throughout, in various forms, from the insidious spread of Selon Perdumes' influence when he established himself in the community to Max's surreal presidential campaign. Unseen powers-that-be, including the chief at his employer's, who Max is always told just left, or is just about to arrive, are significant figures -- and the very nature of the seemingly all-powerful Selon Perdumes are fundamental to Rabasa's clever vision. The nature of power, and especially what leaders (or would-be leaders) promise and say compared to actual outcomes (and the forces behind these) are major themes that Rabasa explores in a variety of ingenious ways,
       There's quite a bit about Villa Miserias before the book gets down to Max's childhood, where the book takes a completely different turn. Max is raised in Villa Miserias, but it is his father that is the (completely) dominant influence, not the community. The lawyer-father's pedagogic methods are very dubious, but they certainly mark Max (literally, in one bizarre method the father frequently applies). Among Rabasa's inspired inventions is the big leather-bound book Max's father reads stories to him from every night -- the truth of which Max's (distant entomologist) mother reveals to him one day, fed up with: "all those filthy stories with veiled messages" Max's father has been telling him in his attempts to shape the boy's mind (indoctrinating Max "with all his idiocy" as mom complains).
       At school, Max has two close friends, one of whom, Pascual Bramsos, knows he wants to be an artist -- and already in his youth becomes a successful one in Villa Miserias with an inspired approach to creation; he also becomes the 'image director' for Max's (very creative) campaign. If Max's focus is text-based, Pascual allows Rabasa to suggest other ways art can be political, too. (They are not the only examples: a previous failed candidate for the presidency -- the only one who also did not get Selon Perdumes' permission to play along -- continues adding to a photo album, a concept-work far more revealing than the subject might initially suggest.)
       A Zero-Sum Game is a story of story-telling, from children's fairy-tales to political narratives: the stories candidates tell. When Max discovers the secret of the big book his father read to him from he uses it to try to seduce girls, their different reactions a lesson as to how others react to stories. Meanwhile, his scientist-mother has no patience for fairy-tales and the like: when his nanny plays tooth-fairy for the first time she immediately makes sure he understands that he shouldn't believe such nonsense:

The sooner you rid yourself of these silly expressions of the collective consciousness, the better it is for your evolution as an outstanding member of the species.
       When ready to go to university, Max toys with the idea of studying literature -- the most useless subject he can imagine, and the perfect way to get back as his father -- but comes to his senses and majors in political science instead. When he graduates, he takes a job with the local expert in the field, at the brilliantly (if perhaps a bit too obviously) named firm, $uperstructure. Tasked there with finding a candidate for the upcoming election, he finally determines that he is the one best-suited for that role; given his search, there's not too much hubris involved in what in any case doesn't come as a surprise to readers (who have known he was going to stand from the very first page on).
       The campaign-section of the novel takes another turn and approach entirely, alternating accounts of the days' highlights -- including a three-act staged comedy in ts entirety -- with the newspaper reports written by Max's new girlfriend, the seductively dark-eyed Nelly, and Max's own reflections on events. Max's is no traditional campaign; it seems more performance art than effort at convincing the electorate -- and yet is illuminating, in what it says about the political process, and Villa Miserias (including a beautiful scene in which Max's opponent ignores repeatedly having cream cakes thrown at him)
       Nevertheless, as Nelly suggests:
The main problem is that no one, including himself, it seems to me, knows whether his shadow-theatre spectacle is actually showing us anything or is in fact hiding something.
       The most realistic, almost conventional of Rabasa's side-stories -- the functioning of the drug-trade in Villa Miserias; Nelly's life -- seem the most out-of-place in this occasionally clunky novel, and it's the clever and inspired inventions, of politics turned into art and of story-telling (and the occasional declaiming of poetry) that work best -- dazzling, at times, even. If slow-moving at first, perseverance pays off -- even at the cost of the story suddenly veering off in another direction. Rabasa seems to struggle at times with how to structure his complex edifice -- he has all the pieces, he's just not sure how and where to slot them all in -- even as it ultimately does fit together very well.
       For the most part, Rabasa is up to the challenge of utilizing and incorporating theory-as-theory in the novel -- careful not to spout too much of it at a time, and also helpfully dressing it up in a variety of wonderful art-form guises. Baggy, over-full, occasionally too distracted (even as, admittedly, the distractions have their place in the bigger picture Rabasa is putting together), A Zero-Sum Game sometimes lumbers under its own weight. In sum, however -- and in many of its clever bits -- it is 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, 7 October 2016

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A Zero-Sum Game: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Mexican author Eduardo Rabasa was born in 1975.

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© 2016-2017 the complete review

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