La Grande by Juan José Saer (trans. Steve Dolph). Open Letter Books. $16.95, 443 pp.
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan José Saer (trans. Steve Dolph). Open Letter Books. $14.95, 203 pp.
Scars by Juan José Saer (trans. Steve Dolph). Open Letter Books. $14.95, 278 pp.
Consider Juan José Saer: Born in a nowhere town in South America to immigrant parents from Syria. The son of shopkeepers.
Serodino is a tiny speck of a town in Argentina, eight square blocks of buildings, bisected by a railroad line, and surrounded by the flat Pampas prairie.
When he’s ten years old, Saer’s family moves to the provincial capital, Santa Fe.
Saer finishes elementary and secondary school in Santa Fe, and studies literature downriver in Rosario, the province’s largest city.
Saer turns out to be a born writer. He has his fictional universe and angle of attack figured out very early on. He doesn’t waver. Not in terms of place (all his books are set in the riverside towns and cities of Santa Fe province), or style (cerebral and meditative, with sentences matching the intricacies of his characters’ thoughts and memories).
Saer also remains conspicuously loyal to his characters. For example, Tomatis, a cynical journalist and erstwhile bon vivant who appears in Scars, Saer’s 1969 breakout novel, reappears again and again in his fictions, including the posthumous novel published in 2005, the year of Saer’s death, La Grande.
The only real rupture in Saer’s writing and biography comes with exile. He leaves his birth country in his thirties, just in time to avoid the disappearances, political bloodletting, and torture centers of Argentina’s 1970s Dirty War. He never returns, living the rest of his life in Paris as a devout exile, and never a Frenchman. He remains loyal to Argentina, passing up on various opportunities to obtain French citizenship. He makes friends with existentialist Alan Robbe-Grillet, and he becomes a respected French university professor; he marries a Frenchwoman, Laurence Guéguen. His work becomes a bit more experimental, less plot-driven, but the changes in Saer’s style are gradual (El Limonero Real, published in 1974, his first novel completed abroad, is a transitional one). And his settings, characters, and central preoccupations don’t change.
Over a long career he publishes a handful of landmark works. One of them, The Event, wins one of the Spanish-speaking world’s most prestigious literary prizes, Spain’s Nadal prize. The Witness, a book about a 16th-century Spaniard living captive among an Indian tribe in pre-conquest Argentina, is considered a minor classic. A consensus slowly forms among the most influential Argentine literary critics and academics of Saer’s generation: he has no peers. Or maybe he has one. In 20th-century Argentine literature, there is Jorge Luis Borges, and then there’s Juan José Saer.
Open Letter, the University of Rochester–based publishing house, has performed a heroic task by translating and publishing La Grande and Scars, as well as three other Saer novels, in English. They have been releasing them since 2010 and will finish up two years from now.
Some readers of Argentine literature might prefer the more postmodern Argentines Manuel Puig or César Aira to Saer. But few would dispute that Saer is one of the very few truly universal writers to have emerged from the country in the last century.
In his books, even after decades in Paris, Saer never left his native land. In fact, he never leaves his native province. Because he sticks so doggedly to Santa Fe, Saer is often referred to in book reviews and newspaper articles as a novelist of place.
It’s the most common way to approach Saer, but also, probably, the most mistaken. Or at least the most limiting.
Like most writers, Saer has a literary progenitor.
Juan L. Ortiz was a poet born in 1896, who, save for a short stint in Buenos Aires, never lived anywhere else other than Entre Ríos, the province just across the Paraná River from Santa Fe.
Ortiz was a self-taught poet, a civil servant for most of his life. He never had anything to do with the troop of Buenos Aires–based academics and avant-gardists, among them Borges and Oliveiro Girondo, who defined Argentine poetry before and after World War II.
Late in life, Ortiz embraced his growing reputation as a kind of provincial wise man, affecting a disproportionate mop of white hair that made it look like he was wearing a pile of dirty cotton candy on his head. He posed for photographs with a mate gourd in his hand or a well-fed but barely groomed cat curled in his lap.
Beyond the eccentricities, Juan L. Ortiz was a great poet. “Juanele,” as he is affectionately called, wrote verses that were cerebral, difficult, and marked by a fine-brushed attention to nature and local color. They are also, in their own way, epic. Ortiz’s greatest poem, El Gualeguay, named after a tributary to the Paraná River, spans more than 2,600 lines and 150 pages in a recent published edition, and alludes, among other things, to the founding of Entre Ríos province, the extermination of the local Indians, and the long cycle of civil wars that Argentina, in some ways, has never emerged from.
Throughout his life, Saer remained as fiercely loyal to this mentor as he did to his settings and characters. It’s difficult to read through the recollections of people who knew Saer well and not come across some mention of his affection and admiration for Juanele. Saer spoke of and wrote about Ortiz often, even decades after the older man’s death in 1978. One passage, from Saer’s biographical essay on Ortiz, titled “Juan,” is worth quoting at length.
It paints a very precise picture of what it was like to be a young man of letters, traveling between Santa Fe and Entre Ríos, in the 1960s:
All of us, his friends from Santa Fe, were lucky enough to see him often. Sometimes, he was the one who would cross the river, with his duffel bag filled with books, manuscripts, tobacco and amphetamines—to boost his lucidity and his energy and extend his writing hours—and soon we’d all gather some place, at Hugo Gola’s place, at Mario Medina’s motel, or at my own house in Colastiné, around a barbecue and a little wine, talking all day, all night, till dawn. Other times, it was us who crossed . . . We’d take the ferry early, a little after midday, and at 3 p.m. or so we would be climbing the river bluffs during the sunny siesta hour, and after crossing the wide and curved street in front of his house, we’d see Juan through the window of his study. From his perch on a stool where he’d sit to read, he would raise his head every once in a while to look at the great river at the foot of the bluff. If the weather was good we’d sit and drink yerba mate in the garden, or better yet, we’d cross the street and gather in some shady corner of the park there, and we’d linger, smoking and talking, until dusk crept up from the river, its islands, and the bluff.
It’s difficult not to pick up on the affection toward Ortiz, to not imagine that some of Saer’s fierce devotion to his formula for literature doesn’t have something to do with example set by this poet.
Juanele: a stubborn and even crotchety provincial Communist, a country poet happy to stick to the palette provided to him by the reed-choked rivers and creeks of Entre Ríos, but with the capacity to turn it into great art.
So was Saer, like his mentor, a poet of place?
A prose poet as opposed to a lyricist, a chronicler of Santa Fe rather than Entre Ríos, but in the end a younger mirror-image of the older man?
Saer himself self-consciously describes the setting for his fictions as la zona, “the zone.” This zone, the stomping ground of Saer’s characters, is Santa Fe province, but more specifically the band of cities, suburbs, and farm towns along the western margin of the Paraná, a river so large that it contains entire archipelagos of islands between its banks.
In fact, Saer devotes so many words to exacting descriptions of the Paraná and its margins in his novels that a reader casually dipping into his work might be forgiven for thinking that he’s a kind of latter-day literary landscape painter.
What Saer does on many pages of his best work is in fact a kind of lyrical pointillism. And it can be very beautiful. La Grande begins with two characters’ rain-spattered walk to the river, with long descriptions of the play of dusk’s light on the wind-whipped Paraná, its “leaden water and the waves that crest its surface in the direction opposite the current.”
But Saer’s writing on nature is not really about what’s seen on the surface at all. His characters go out into nature not to commune with it, or to seek refuge. Nor are they seeking to conquer it, or even to classify it rationally. For all of Saer’s dense descriptive riffs on riverbanks and trees, horses and hummingbirds, and his well-known interest in nature, there is no Linnean ordering of species going on, no taxonomical imperative. A tree is a tree, a species of river catfish is called by its most familiar name, moncholo, or just referred to as a “whiskered fish,” not Pimelodus albicans, the more formal bagre blanco.
Saer’s characters go into nature for a very particular reason.
Nature is a border zone. It’s a limit: whether it’s a wall of trees surrounding a colonial village, or a river-gnawed cliff-edge overlooking the waterlogged Paraná basin. It’s a contested area between civilization and its absence. It’s where the human ends and something else begins, something like Rousseau’s blank slate. A person goes into this kind of ontological DMZ to think, to confront oneself, to try to unspool the tangles that existence has knotted into their minds.
Here’s Mexican novelist and critic Juan Villoro on the very particular role of nature in Saer’s work:
For [Saer], nature is a testing ground, a kind of emptiness that forces a blank slate, a renunciation of preconceived notions. The pampa and the muddy-watered river trigger in their observers a kind of astonishment similar to that provoked by a journey into space. Not because they are completely unexplored, but because they generate vertigo: the disconcerting feeling of being at the end or the beginning of something, in the presence of something overwhelming, where a human scream is a hollow echo of the wind.
Saer’s local color, descriptions of place, nature, and landscape—they’re all really a kind of sleight-of-hand. Saer’s real interests lie elsewhere. Unlike his mentor, who truly does make nature one of his main subjects, Saer is actually a consummately urban novelist.
The city of Santa Fe, where Saer spent most of his time in Argentina, may be a small city, but it is a city nonetheless. Nearly all of La Grande and all of La Mayor and Scars take place in Santa Fe and its suburbs. Saer’s characters are city creatures, employees of law firms and newspapers, drivers of automobiles, union men, barkeeps, salespeople, supermarket customers, café-goers, gamblers, and billiard players.
Saer’s 1985 masterpiece Glosa has the most urban of premises. It describes the conversation between two casual acquaintances as they take a walk covering twenty-one city blocks.
Scars, written in three feverish weeks when Saer was in his late twenties, describes the misadventures of several characters: a judge, a reporter, an attorney, and a drink-sodden mill worker. On one level, it’s a crime novel, the story of a man who murders his wife. What could be more urban, and more universal than that?
The truth is that Saer’s real subjects aren’t place, region, or nature.
Saer’s real subjects can be boiled down to two, though they are interrelated: time, and exile. Time as a metaphor for the paradoxes of existence: The universe’s eternal ledger of deaths amid infinite expansion, the self’s petty clinging to a lifetime. The joy of experience, the stark fact of its limits. Exile as a metaphor for estrangement—from reality, from oneself, from others.
Exile, in this expanded definition, is about many things: The limits of knowledge, the chimera of self-fulfillment, our desperate need for love, the futilities and disappointments of connection. The desire for peace, for relief. The unattainability of either.
In La Grande, Tomatis’s musings on a red hibiscus bush that he spots in someone’s yard, as his bus passes by a slum on the outskirts of Rosario, are typical of Saer’s writing on landscape. The hibiscus becomes an excuse for a series of thoughts that quickly leap beyond the constraints of the local and the picturesque, and become something else: a meditation on impermanence.
Nothing lasts, not a hibiscus bloom, not even a galaxy. Everything ebbs:
Among some tribes the hibiscus symbolizes the universe itself, possibly . . . because of its continuous and ephemeral blooming. Its red flowers . . . take shape and bloom over a few hours, but not much longer, and as they whither and fall others take their place, which means the plant grows in a process of continuous change, just like the universe, where worlds, stars, and galaxies are ignited and then extinguished, are born and die, in a constant flicker . . .
For all his excavating of the local, Saer is more concerned with time than he is with place.
He is a master at handling the temporal.
He understands time’s tricks. Its stretchiness: the way one experience might seem to be slick and quick, over in a flash and soon forgotten. And another, occupying the same span of hours, minutes, and seconds, can seem as dense and fraught as a lifetime.
Time has its cul-de-sacs, its switchbacks, its halls of mirrors, and false bottoms.
Saer’s novels are like molds into which all the possible modes of time are layered: memories, flashbacks, reminisces, conversations based on memories of older conversations, etc. Memories have their own pacing, as do daydreams.
It’s easy enough to detect Saer’s concern with time in the way his novels are organized. Saer doesn’t just do it around dates, as a conventional novelist might, in order to impose a historical context and chronology.
Saer often organizes his books around units of time. The various abstractions that mankind has created to organize the implacable succession of days and nights into some kind of order.
Scars is divided into four parts, organized around months, with each part focused on a different character.
The first section of the book is called “February, March, April, May, June.”
The next part, from another character’s perspective, is called, “March, April, May.”
And, so on. Until the last section, which is called, “May.”
This way of organizing a novel is effectively a negative counter, which helps propel the action toward the decisive events that take place in the last part.
Scars is an extremely effective novel. It is less adorned and cerebral than Saer’s later work, more punchy and dialogue-based, and more accessible than many of his books. Funnier, too. It’s a good point of entry for a reader wanting an introduction to Saer’s universe.
Here’s the first-person narrator of the first section, Ángel Leto (also the main character in Glosa), describing a particularly cold June in Santa Fe.
The polar icecap is probably a sauna compared to this. It’s nuts. In Antarctica you could be walking around butt naked, and here you hawk up a ball of phlegm and an ice cube hits the sidewalk. Everyone goes around coughing up ice. Just the other day some guy walking down San Martín opened his mouth to say Hi to a friend on the opposite sidewalk and couldn’t close it again because it filled with frost.
Funny, no? Scars often reads like a cross between Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and . . . something else. It’s carried along by a dark, wry mood that is very Argentine. It also has a plebeian flavor that recalls Roberto Arlt’s novels of Buenos Aires low-lifes, two bit mystics, cardsharps, astronomers, and grifters.
Glosa, a novel published in the 1980s, is more directly about the substance of time, and about exile. On the surface the novel is about a single conversation between the two protagonists, Leto and The Mathematician.
The novel is divided into three parts: “The First Seven Blocks,” “The Next Seven Blocks,” and “The Last Seven Blocks.”
On one level, Glosa is a kind of literary parlor trick: Can a novel be written about an idle chat between two men, as they take a short walk together?
Saer pulls it off, and then some.
Here’s how the novel begins:
Suppose it’s October, October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third maybe—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.
In fact, it doesn’t much matter. Saer could care less about historical accuracy, about calendars or timelines (except in one specific sense, which I’ll get to below). He’s concerned with time as the stuff that creates reality, as a kind of Play-Doh with very weird properties, one of them being the fact that a conversation between casual acquaintances—how long does it take two adult men to walk twenty-one city blocks? A half-hour? An hour?—could give rise to a novel of two hundred pages.
Their conversation revolves around a party neither of them attended, to mark the 65th birthday of Washington Noriega, an anarchist and ex-militant. They have two unreliable sources for what happened at the party. One of them, Botón, who shared his memories of the party with the Mathematician aboard a river ferry some days before, is a known drunk and a liar. The other, the inimitable Tomatis, actually has a cameo in the novel and accompanies Leto and the Mathematician for a few blocks. But Tomatis is in such a foul mood that neither of the two main characters can credit any of the vituperative things he says about the party and those present.
For nearly all of its pages, the novel sticks with the two men and what they see as they walk through downtown Santa Fe during that October day, but suddenly, in one passage, Saer grabs the reader and pitches him forward through the years.
We are in the 1980s and the Mathematician is living in exile. He’s on a flight back to his university residence in Sweden, after a short visit to France.
We learn that the Mathematician, for whatever reason, one of those quirks of memory, has never forgotten that conversation with Leto in late October, in early 1960s Argentina, a time that seems, in retrospect, innocent if not idyllic. Decades later, the Mathematician still carries around an almost word-for-word memory of the conversation with Leto, most of it about a party neither of them had attended.
We learn that the Dirty War and political violence of the 1970s drew a black line between the Mathematician, and Leto, and Tomatis. The Dirty War consumed all of them in some way.
Then, just as quickly, we leave the Mathematician behind in his airline jet above the North Sea in the 1980s, and we’re back walking on the tree-covered sidewalks of Santa Fe. Argentina still hasn’t lived through the nightmare of the late 1970s, the country is still hopeful, its universities filled with anarchists and communists and Trotskyites, and the two friends are debating metaphysics, sizing each other up intellectually and ethically, and joking about which of their friends was the most disgracefully drunk at Noriega’s party.
Glosa circles around the problem of politics and exile. But it does so through the lens of time. The novel’s restrained poignancy depends on that instance of telescoping time. After the flash-forward to the limbo of exile, the bantering conversation at the novel’s heart suddenly has a new valence: it becomes elegiac. A kind of artifact of what was possible, before, prior to the storm of the Dirty War.
La Grande, Saer’s posthumous novel, which he knew would be his last literary testament, is divided into seven parts, named after days of the week. The first part covers a Tuesday (that is when the two main characters take their soggy walk to the river.)
The novel climaxes six days later, on a Sunday, at a late summer poolside barbecue, with many of Saer’s recurring characters present. The mysterious protagonist, Gutiérrez, who after thirty years abroad in hermetic exile in Switzerland and Italy, has returned to Santa Fe, organizes the reunion. Much of the characters’ poolside and tableside conversation is laced with references to politics, exile, and the Dirty War.
For the most part, the tone is lighthearted, even giddy. There is none of the bleakness of Glosa—we are in the 21st century. Some of those present haven’t lived through the Dirty War, or were too young at the time to understand what was happening. Those who did live through those years are able to recall the decade’s tragedies and near escapes with the circumspection made possible by perspective. They have had time to grieve.
Gutiérrez, we learn, didn’t leave the country because of politics. He left because of a broken heart.
In any case they are all survivors. The intervening decades have helped them heal.
A hummingbird is suddenly spotted in the backyard, a bird “which appears with the punctuality of the constellations . . . and disappears with equal speed, like a mirage or a hallucination.”
The hummingbird might be taken as a hopeful symbol.
The party’s host, Gutiérrez, the returned exile, remarks that the bird is a frequent visitor but has appeared earlier that day than usual.
Tomatis, the cynic, who is of course present at the barbecue, says that the hummingbird is making its rounds early because of an impending storm. The temperature drops, and the thunderclaps begin.
A bit later, a downpour effectively ends the party.
The final part of the book is centered on a Monday, the day after the barbecue.
Saer, who knew he was in a race against time as he fought cancer and tried to finish La Grande, had told his wife and friends that this final, seventh section of his last novel would span twenty or so pages.
He only had time to write a first sentence, which because of his death ended up being the novel’s last line.
The jacket copy for Open Letter’s English translation of La Grande rightly calls it one of the most beautiful lines in all of literature, although I think it is the circumstances around its writing that make it so:
With the rain came the fall, and with the fall, the time of the wine.
When Saer died, there were two-dozen books and magazines still stacked on his writing desk, along with 55 postcards and photographs. These included:
§ Three books about wine, including one devoted to Argentine Malbec.
§ A book called 100 Trees, published in Buenos Aires.
§ A field guide to Uruguayan birds. A few pages torn from an unidentified encyclopedia, also about birds.
§ A monograph on the Mocoví Indian uprising, in northeast Santa Fe, in 1904.
§ A book on the history of Santa Fe province, published to mark the province’s centennial in 1996, another with antique photographs of the province taken between 1888 and 1892.
§ The guide to a museum exhibit about José Hernández, the author of Argentina’s classic work of gauchesque literature, Martín Fierro.
§ A book about Serodino, the town where Saer was born.
§ A book about the history of literature in the province, another on painters from Santa Fe.
§ Twenty postcards showing the city of Santa Fe and its surroundings.
§ A book about street names in the city of Santa Fe.
§ One postcard of the Gualeguay River.
§ Another postcard showing an Argentine barbecue, another showing an unidentified river.
This is the desk of an exile bent on transforming his displacement into literature.
It’s the desk of someone reaching back through the years, through nostalgia, memories, intellectual sediment. The postcards, magazines, and books are the tools of someone using every scrap at his disposal to create literature out of what he remembers of his origins, his roots, separated by the barriers of time and distance.
A return to the beginning.
Like Gutiérrez, who returns to Santa Fe after thirty years abroad, or the Mathematician, who can’t stop dwelling on the memory of a long-ago conversation, Saer was always returning, and realizing it was impossible.
The exile who returns is a changed man. The exile who returns realizes that his home has changed, but that he has changed, too.
After crossing some rivers, there is no coming back.
La Grande opens with a quote, from a poem by Juan L. Ortiz.
Was it I who was returning?
Marcelo Ballvé writes about Latin American literature for The Quarterly Conversation, including an essay on Macedonio Fernández selected for Dzanc Book’s Best Of The Web anthology. He has also reviewed books for The San Francisco Bay Guardian. He is currently a research director at the online publication Business Insider. He lives in New York.
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