The Sixty-Five Years of Washington by Juan José Saer (trans. Steve Dolph). Open Letter Books. 203 pp. $14.95.
The Mosquito and the Suicide Pill
One day in October 1961, Angel Leto spontaneously decides to skip work. Walking the central avenue of Santa Fe, Argentina, he encounters the Mathematician, a slightly older, flamboyantly elegant and more established member of the circle of intellectuals to which Leto belongs, or would like to belong. The Mathematician has just returned from Europe and is delivering a press release about his tour to local papers. Dressed entirely in white, blonde and perfectly tanned, of bourgeois (or, as he likes to say, “not interesting”) background, the Mathematician commences telling Leto about Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday party.
Neither of the two attended the party: the Mathematician was still abroad, and Leto wasn’t invited. The Mathematician heard an account of the party from their friend Botón, which he now retells, in suspiciously exceptional detail. For part of their walk, the two are joined by another friend, Tomatis, who contradicts Botón’s (or the Mathematician’s?) generous, meandering version of events with his own, having actually been in attendance—but the Mathematician and Leto later agree that Tomatis’s account should be, for various reasons, largely discarded.
More or less at the center of the narrative of the party is a sort of parable Washington tells about three mosquitoes. This story’s long-awaited conclusion turns out to be nothing: of the three mosquitoes, one doesn’t bother Washington, another is dispelled by swatting, the third he kills. Tripping over a guardrail at the crucial moment, Leto is dismayed to miss the moral of the whole thing, what moral there may have been.
From this seemingly inconsequential encounter, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington expands to encompass the breadth of two lives amid the tumultuous politics of the Argentina of their time. Saer’s deft, playful, clause-by-clause maneuvers allow him to glimpse out at the expanse surrounding this small moment—the array of political and historical forces assembling—as well as into his characters, their distinct ideas of how to understand themselves within the tide of history. As Saer puts it—at least five times—this is a novel about “in a word, essentially, or in two better yet, to be more precise, every thing.” Or, at greater length, this is what we’re told Leto will “many years later” understand:
what others call life is a series of a posteriori recognitions of the places where a blind, incomprehensible, ceaseless drift deposits, in spite of themselves, the eminent individuals who, after having been dragged through it, begin to elaborate systems that pretend to explain it; but for now, having just turned twenty, he still believes that problems have solutions, situations outcomes, individuals personality, and actions logic.
Does the parable of the mosquitoes say something about order or randomness, logic or fate? These dynamics—not truly opposites; perhaps different modes of storytelling—contrast throughout the novel, just as the intricate, self-contradictory logic of its sentences contrasts with the underlying order of the gridded streets, the city layout through which the characters move. The narrator continually questions the stories that Leto, and so the reader, are being breathlessly presented. Thus Saer offers the pleasures and necessities both of a good old-fashioned story and a postmodern puzzle.
Saer’s sentences are so full of asides that “aside” seems hardly the right name—phrases that continually remind us of the author’s hand, the artifice of the form. Often after pronouns the author will intervene, with em-dashes, to remind us which “he” is meant—”Leto, no?”—or whose authority backs any statement, “. . . the Mathematician says that Beatriz said, and always, and more or less, according to Botón.” Later the author begins to refer to his own authority in claiming this or that, doing away momentarily with the authority of his characters. Phrases such as “more or less,” “as they say,” or “it is said,” are essential and everywhere. In the midst even of the novel’s most detailed, evocative scenes, the narrator cannot stop reminding us that all this is only the world as it’s called up by language, agreed upon in language.
Consider Washington himself—the name “Washington Noriega” is weighty indeed, and yet what are we to make of that weight, exactly? Washington’s background is more sound and fury than realism: he came from “the anarchist, socialist, and communist sets”; published an anarchist newspaper in his twenties; co-translated French prose poems; was locked in an asylum for some years; had a “passing, reactionary association with the Peronists”; survived numerous assassination attempts; and eventually “abandoned politics forever.” That it’s difficult to pin down a single person among all this seems just right, a canny illustration of how difficult it is to know how to live amid such political turmoil and tragedy.
The novel offers two flash-forwards showing Leto’s and the Mathematician’s fates, the first in a stunning passage two thirds of the way through, and then again briefly at the end. So we know how these two decided to live: Leto as a guerrilla fighter, with his principles and his suicide pill; the Mathematician now permanently in Europe, his more radical wife having been assassinated by the government. Or—is decided too strong a word? The death of one of the mosquitoes gently echoes the death of Leto—by suicide, like his father before him. Saer handles his characters extremely delicately, and as the novel proceeds his narrative gamesmanship and philosophical poses take on profound emotional power. If it’s impossible to know what even this incidental walk will come to mean, then what could ever be said of everything else?
Saer’s prose is at times similarly obscure: even as one is enjoying and fully engaged by it, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington can become surprisingly difficult to read, its thick sentences, long paragraphs, and long sections offering little pause for relief. The clauses pile up so that one ceases trying to tease out their precise meanings and grammatical relations and merely experiences them—which seems exactly the intended effect. This is a tribute to Steve Dolph’s translation, which seemed to me superb, offering phrases of striking beauty, keen wit, and an impressively deployed vocabulary, performing Saer’s acrobatics without ever drawing attention to itself.
Many years after his walk with Leto, the Mathematician will be strolling with a colleague through Paris; as an aside, his colleague will use the phrase “it’s like Washington’s mosquitoes,” which has come colloquially to mean “something . . . of dubious reality.” A fitting signification, since neither Leto nor the Mathematician ever really know what Washington said, or even what they have been told that he said, as Leto reflects on:
What makes the whole thing troublesome, as they say, is that [Leto] can’t remember just what the pivotal response from Washington had been… However much he tries, Washington’s response does not make what you might call an appearance in his memory—his memory, no?—or rather 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.
Let’s call The Sixty-Five Years of Washington an elegy for Washington’s mosquitoes: an elegy for the dubiousness of reality, for the fugitives flitting across the mirror. Saer’s masterful prose and sense of structure—his magnificent, mischievous, and tender control—reflect an acute awareness: that in the chaos of “every thing” the story is the only thing that can be controlled—or rather, that is, that even it can’t.
Hilary Plum is codirector of Clockroot Books and an editor with Interlink Publishing. She’s presently an MFA candidate in fiction at UMass Amherst.
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