Juan José Saer was a man of strong opinions. He has leveled what some might call “polemical” criticism at the writers of the Boom (particularly Mario Vargas Llosa, whom he deemed “unworthy of admiring Flaubert”), Vladimir Nabokov (whose taste he likened to that “of any ignorant bourgeois”), and postmodernism (for the way it privileges commercial demand over aesthetic innovation). Despite the stridency of these claims, many who knew Saer have remarked on his deliberate manner and the air of vacillation that inflected his speech. These same qualities are hard to miss in his fiction, which is characterized by languid pacing and obsessive revision, both in terms of the precision of its prose and in its tendency to go back over phrases and ideas, clarifying, correcting, and expanding upon them. Ultimately, it’s this combination of virtuosity and vacillation that defines Saer’s oeuvre and has earned him a place among the most important Latin American writers of the twentieth century.
Saer, whose legacy includes twelve novels, nine collections of short stories and essays, and a single book of poems (puckishly titled The Art of Narration), was born in 1937 in Serodino, in the Santa Fe province of Argentina. Early in his career he taught film studies at the National University of El Litoral, as the region surrounding the Paraná River and its tributaries is known, while dividing his time between the city of Santa Fe and the nearby rural area of Colastiné, both of which figure prominently in his fiction. In 1968 he accepted a six-month grant to study in France, where he remained until his death in 2005. When not traveling to Rennes to give classes on literature, he would spend his days walking the streets of Paris, or looking out over the city from the window of his Montparnasse apartment.
Whether because of his physical absence from Argentina or due to his rejection of magical realism (which he viewed as both exoticizing and facile), Saer didn’t find a wide readership until the publication of El limonero real in 1974, nearly fifteen years after his first collection of stories appeared in print. Once consolidated, however, Saer’s reputation grew quickly. Cited by The Independent as “the most important writer after Borges,” he has also been described by his contemporary Ricardo Piglia as “one of the best writers today in any language.” In his native Argentina he is counted among the pantheon of “writer’s writers” who have left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape.
Not long after Saer was awarded the prestigious Nadal Prize for La ocasión in 1987, English-language readers were introduced to Saer’s fiction by Margaret Jull Costa, who translated The Witness (originally El entenado) in 1990. The years that followed would see three more of Saer’s novels brought into English by Helen Lane: Nobody Nothing Never (1993), The Event (1995, originally La ocasión), and The Investigation (1999), all published by Serpent’s Tail. More recently, Open Letter Books released two more of Saer’s novels in Steve Dolph’s translation: The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (2010) and Scars (2011); a third title in the series is on the way. This recent crop is a tremendous addition, not only because it represents some of Saer’s most acclaimed work, but also because it broadens our perspective on his oeuvre, which is less a series of individual novels than an extended engagement with the different possibilities of a single, continuous narrative.
The littoral of the Paraná and its surroundings are writ large across Saer’s literary imagination, despite the fact that he lived more than half his life outside the country of his birth. He evokes these places and their inhabitants without exoticist flourishes, drawing the reader into his world through details that bridge the local and the universal: the subtle verbal jousting between two old friends, the rhythm of which is determined by their movement along a specific avenue in Santa Fe, for example. Like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, “la Zona”—as readers have taken to calling the region—is a space of eternal return for the author, providing a steady cast of characters whose lives can be traced from one work to the next. Santa Fe and Colastiné appear time and again, both in their present-day forms and in incarnations dating as far back as the 16th century.
Yet even Saer’s most distant histories are often told by the familiar voices of the modern-day denizens of “la Zona,” infusing his work with a circular sensibility (as Argentine scholar and literary critic Beatriz Sarlo has observed, Saer’s oeuvre resembles “a ring turning slowly and deliberately”). Las nubes (1997), or The Clouds, is an exemplary case: though the central storyline looks back to the pre-revolutionary period at the dawn of the 19th century, this history is presented within the walls of the Paris apartment where the native santafesino and Saer regular Pichón Garay (like others in the author’s world, Pichón bears the surname of Juan de Garay, founder of the city of Santa Fe) has been living for some time. In a move typical of Saer, these opening pages both introduce the narrative of Las nubes and also tie the book to another of his novels:
It is the sixth of July. Last year, after twenty of absence, under the pretext of liquidating what remained of his family’s estate, Pichón had spent a few weeks in the city of his birth, from the middle of February to the beginning of April. In spite of the years, the disappointments, and the sense of strangeness, he had brought a few fond memories back to Paris with him, along with Tomatis’s promise that he would visit, but it had been a whole year and Tomatis still had not planned his trip.
This is classic Saer: the hypnotic cadence of his Proustian clausal nesting; the references to the passage of time and the movement of bodies that present each outward impulse as the first step toward an inevitable return; sentences that double back on themselves, qualifying what came before. The trip to which the narrator alludes is itself the frame narrative of The Investigation (originally published in 1994 as La pesquisa), in which Pichón recounts a gruesome series of murders that had occupied the French police for several months before he left for Argentina. As he restlessly awaits the arrival of Carlos Tomatis (perhaps the most recognizable and charismatic character in Saer’s narrative universe, Tomatis appears in the majority of his novels) Pichón distracts himself by reading a text that has been recovered and sent to him under the provisional title of “Las nubes” by another of the characters from The Investigation.
This circularity—the pervasive textual cross-references, the allusions to the cycles of the Gregorian calendar, the seemingly infinite gravitational pull of la Zona—is essential to Saer’s primary narrative gambit: the repeated exposition of a single moment from divergent perspectives. This mania for revision, in the sense of a repeated gaze, manifests itself in all the author’s works of fiction. Typically it’s seen in the narrative that circles around different accounts of the same event, though this is often combined with periodic appearances of characters, settings, and visual or conceptual motifs.
Two things keep this system from becoming hermetic. The first is Saer’s talent for weaving together the philosophical and the quotidian: in The Investigation, a group of old friends sit around a table at a rural bar in the oppressive heat of the Colastiné summer discussing universal questions of madness, memory, and authority as naturally as they chat about the temperature of the beer they are drinking. The second is structural: Saer’s constant revisions not only worry the fabric of the story being told, they press the elements of that story outward, calling into question the very possibility of narrative synthesis.
Scars, the most recent translation of Saer’s work into English, was the author’s earliest foray into the annular narrative structure for which he is known. In a late interview with Radio Montaje, an Argentine review of culture and the arts, Saer describes the writing of Scars in terms that seem drawn from the novel itself, from the rigid timeframe, to the characters involved in its exposition, to the cyclical return to the crime on which the book is based:
I wrote Scars over twenty nights. It’s inspired by a real event; I wrote it in 1967, when I was 29 and had wanted to write it for seven years already. I was working as a journalist [and] a lawyer friend of mine . . . showed me pictures of the guy, of the dead woman, and of the place where he killed her; all of it created in me a strong need to write this story, which was written in four parts in an attempt to make a book with a circular structure that encompassed its parts.
In Saer’s fictional version of the event, after a family hunting expedition on May Day, former union activist Luis Fiore has a very public fight with his wife and shoots her twice in the parking lot of their local bar, then kills himself during the legal inquest into his case. There is no question as to his guilt, no suspenseful cross-country pursuit. Scars is a novel that asks not what happened, but how it did, coiling back on itself as each revolution brings it closer to the crime that serves as its axis.
The first of the four parts is titled “February, March, April, May, June,” and is narrated by Ángel Leto, another regular from la Zona. The most expansive of the four chapters, his account is tinged with a brazenness and vulnerability befitting his youth. We follow Ángel as he negotiates a thorny situation at home, heads to the newspaper for which he covers the weather (usually by reprinting the forecast from the day before), and visits the chambers of his friend, the judge Ernesto López Garay. It is through this connection that Ángel is able to gain access to the closed deposition of Luis Fiore, whom he watches jump from a courthouse window, having offered no explanation of his crime.
Ángel’s account is followed by a chapter titled “March, April, May,” which is narrated by Sergio Escalante, an erstwhile attorney and union activist who spends his days writing essays of cultural criticism with titles like “Professor Nietzsche and Clark Kent” and “The Ideological Evolution of Mickey Mouse.” His nights, on the other hand, are dedicated to gambling away whatever he can get his hands on: the last of his worldly possessions, borrowed money, and the salary of his adolescent housekeeper, who doubles as one of his last remaining friends. Fiore incurs on his domestic sphere when a mutual acquaintance (the three had known each other in their union days) asks him to serve as counsel on the case, a request that elliptically reveals new details of the murder, and hints at the darker side of Fiore’s character.
The book’s third section, “April, May,” returns to the chambers of Ernesto López Garay, who describes his experience of the Fiore case during the months of April and May, often repeating or revising moments from Ángel’s account. The legal proceedings themselves are interspersed with oneiric sequences in which López Garay recounts his visions of a city populated by gorillas, as well as the minute details of his translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray, an endeavor which seems to fall somewhere between the quixotic and the Menardian—as the judge himself admits, the novel has already been rendered so many times that “whole passages come out exactly the same as the versions of the professional translators.” Because its narrator is also the judge presiding over Fiore’s case, the chapter reveals substantial new details of the crime; as though the section were a reproduction of the novel in miniature, these are given from various perspectives, including that of Fiore’s young daughter, who claims to have foreseen her mother’s violent end.
Nam oportet haereses esse
From five months to three to two, from a stranger to a former friend to the judge on the case—as the circles tighten with each pass, we feel ourselves approaching the definitive word on event itself. And yet, the final section of Scars does little to tie up its loose ends: quite the opposite, in fact.
The fourth part of the novel is Luis Fiore‘s own account; it spans less than twenty-four hours, beginning just after sunrise on the day of the murder. He’s made plans to go duck hunting with his family in Colastiné, has borrowed a truck. We immediately feel the tension between him and his wife, a temperamental creature known as La Gringa; we watch as their mutual aggression is fueled by alcohol and trivial disagreements, flares into sexual arousal, then curdles into circuitous bickering. We feel, with Luis, the walls of his already small world closing in on him, and are present as he commits the very act we have been circling around from the very start. As the two walk out to the parking lot of their local bar, La Gringa baits him one last time, shining a flashlight in his face; its beam was “a blinding flash charged with burning sparks, issuing from a core of rigid whiteness,” he recalls.
I raise the barrels of the shotgun up into an oblique line. Then I just pull the triggers, one after the other, and when I do the blasts sound so close together that the second one is like a stutter of the first, the echo of the first, and it fills the damp air with an explosive sound that’s pregnant with the smell of gun- powder.
And then, just like that, it’s over, the shot repeating both its own report and the daughter’s premonition. Luis steps around the body of his wife, gets into the truck, and drives home. Though his description of the murder suggests some underlying pathology, Luis offers none of the insight into the night’s events that one might expect from a first-person narrative; neither as he sits in the dark courtyard of his home drinking mate, the attitude in which the police will soon find him, nor during his courthouse deposition. We’ve made four full revolutions around the event to find that little has actually been resolved.
Nam oportet haereses esse. These words, which serve as a coda to the novel, are taken from Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. The phrase appears quite differently in modern translations of the Bible—since the days of Martin Luther, its “heretics” have been exchanged for a variety of terms that signal divisions, factions, sects. This splintering is somewhat appropriate, given its meaning: It is well, or fitting, that there be dissent. This call for divergence over and against consolidation demands we rethink not only what we have just read, but also our expectation of finding, at the heart of these multiple versions, an unambiguous account of the events described.
In fact, the various perspectives on Fiore’s crime aren’t meant to be resolved into a single, authoritative account. On the contrary, they are presented side by side as a testament to the impossibility of their consolidation. The circle identified by Saer as the novel’s totem is not an hermetic form without a discernable beginning or end; it is instead a centrifugal movement that pushes the elements of the story outward with each revolution, until what once appeared to be an integrated whole is reduced to its component parts—parts that relate, are related, and ultimately show themselves to be distinctly relative. A circularity that resists synthesis.
The Geometry of Dissent
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, which originally appeared more than a decade after Scars but was published in English one year earlier, also employs acircular structure to refute the idea of the Definitive Version of any story. A perambulatory narrative in both content and form, the novel follows Ángel Leto as he skips work in favor of a stroll along the streets of Santa Fe, and foregrounds, from its opening lines, the unreliability of memory through the repetition of details and events.
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.
Leto—Ángel Leto, no?—Leto, I was saying, has, a few seconds ago, stepped off the bus on the corner of the boulevard, far from the usual stop, compelled by the sudden desire to walk, to traverse San Martín, the central avenue, on foot, and to let himself get lost in the bright morning instead of shutting himself up in the dark mezzanine of one of the businesses where for the last few months he has patiently but impassively kept the books.
Again, a reference to the Gregorian calendar pits the apparent objectivity of the historical date against the relativity of memory; the cycles of the months and days serve as the backdrop for the frantic spinning of the narrator’s recollections (the radical uncertainty of which extends even to the protagonist himself). Leto runs into a friend from his circle known as the Mathematician. As they walk, the two gossip about the birthday party of a mutual acquaintance, going over the happenings of the night in obsessive detail—though neither was actually in attendance— then rehashing the events again via the account of Carlos Tomatis, who was at the party, but whose version of the events they ultimately discard as unreliable.
Saer, in a 2002 interview with Letras Libres, described this spiraling system of revisions, qualifications, and corrections as his preferred form of realism, in which:
There are many corridors, many points of access, entry, and exit; the branches of this system are always left unfinished, without a definite meaning; all of it builds, shall we say, to a final in-conclusion. The system will, by its very nature, remain unfinished. I believe that this gets closer to our relation with the world than those novels that begin with the hero’s birth and end with his death.
Like life itself, Saer’s fiction resists tidy, unqualified truths. His is a body of work that insists on being read in full awareness of the artifice involved in any act of writing, while suggesting deeper parallels between the written word and how personal histories are constructed, every day. Beyond this persistent repetition and revision, which echoes our encounter with the world, the centrifugal force that defines Saer’s novels presents memory not as a crystallized object that can be harnessed at will, but as a living, breathing thing. In so doing, these works engage the world into which they insert themselves in a very real, political sense.
A bit of context, to clarify that last point: the period from the late 1950s to the early 1980s was a time of intense political instability in Argentina, during which the control of information, as a corollary to outright violence, was systematically used as a strategy of domination. There was, in the early years of Saer’s formation, the rise of Peronism and the political polarization that attended it (Borges, who was famously “promoted” during Perón’s first term from municipal librarian to poultry inspector, once said that the administration “bred stupidity” by rewarding the uncritical adoption of official rhetoric). Not long after, following a rapid succession of upheavals in 1955, 1962, and 1966, a junta led by Jorge Videla took control of the country, establishing a military dictatorship officially called “The National Reorganization Process” (1976-1983) but which is more widely known as Argentina’s “dirty war,” during which tens of thousands of citizens were “disappeared” by the State. Through the widespread use of kidnappings and clandestine holding facilities for which the Proceso is known, the junta not only silenced would-be dissidents but also co-opted their individual histories: by withholding information about the fate of its victims, the State denied their families the raw material with which to tell their stories in a bid to ensure that the official history of the events was the only narrative in circulation.
Though Saer did most of his writing at a geographic remove from Argentina, his engagement with the politics of his homeland is unmistakable. References to the legacy of Peronism set the political climate of Scars, while works like The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and Nobody Nothing Never clearly hone in on the violence of the dirty war, enumerating the members of his close-knit fictional community that have been or will be lost in the struggle against the dictatorship. And yet, these explicit references bear only part of the political weight in Saer’s work: more significantly, the novels unravel one of the junta’s key strategies of domination—the control of collective and individual memory alike.
Toward the end of The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Ángel Leto finds himself unable to recall the conclusion to the enigmatic tale of three mosquitoes that Washington Noriega told at his birthday party, which has just been recounted to him by the Mathematician. Like the motive behind the crime at the heart of Scars, this narrative axis is also one designed to be approached, but never reached. Leto’s lapse, however, does allow the narrator to reflect, for a moment, on the nature of memory, that
maybe slightly concave mirror (or flat, what’s the difference) where certain familiar images, through which the whole universe takes on continuity, are reflected, sometimes clearly and sometimes darkly, in an uncontrollable, fugitive rhythm all their own.
Through its reflection in this flat-or-concave mirror we see Saer’s project in a new light. What, if not a gesture to the flickering and inconsistent vitality of memory, are the constant revisions and meta-narrative reflections that constitute the circular structure of Saer’s work? The endless strings of clauses that, in their excess, suggest the impossibility of the cohesive, definitive statement; the parallel accounts that never quite coincide? These gestures—which Dolph renders with acrobatic fidelity, or faithful acrobatics—might, when taken in isolation, generate some frustration in readers accustomed to a more direct form of storytelling. Yet as the catalog of Saer’s work available in English continues to grow, we begin to appreciate the twists and turns of his prose as the systematic construction of a model of writing, of memory itself, that resists consolidation, and—in so doing—refuses to be absorbed by the monolith of official history.
Heather Cleary translates, writes about, and generally obsesses over, books for publications including Words Without Borders, Two Lines, Big Other, New York Tyrant, and Habitus. She also maintains a blog. Her translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (Open Letter Books) will be published this summer.
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