Ramón Martinez is a militant atheist, successful lawyer, and conventional family man. But all of that changes when his privileged life disintegrates after cancer of the tongue deprives him of the source of his power and livelihood: speech.
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 ... 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 ... [Carmela's] 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 ... 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.
... a tale about cancer and impending death that slyly provokes more than a few guffaws ... Effortlessly elevating his tale to the rarefied heights of Flaubert, Tolstoy, and Ravel only to plunge the bawdy depths of the rawest profanity while peppering his narration with erudite discussions of the mysteries of genetics, Comensal has written a fearlessly irreverent and unexpectedly deep novel about a family’s blundering with the most atavistic of challenges.
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 Mr. Comensal captures the patient’s rapid and humiliating decline, allowing him nothing in the way of redemption. This is a mean and narrow, if creditably undeluded, little novel. The last word goes to the parrot.