The Witness, Juan José Saer (trans. Margaret Jull Costa). Serpent’s Tail. 168pp, $14.95.
When it comes to Latin American fiction, U.S. readers seem to have imposed their own ideas on what counts as ambition. There is the sprawling variety, of which our most familiar examples are Bolaño’s behemoths 2666 (912 pages) and The Savage Detectives (672) and the Boom-dropped mega-tonnage of Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra (785), Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch (576), and the García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (448). Or there is the fastidiously distilled variety—Borges’s short stories, or the lambent novellas of Bolaño and Aira (among others), which are acknowledged to have depth but which seem to express their ambition in a single heaving breath.
As with our own fiction, we are less sure what to do with brief or mid-sized novels that are self-evidently philosophical or intellectually ambitious, but which haven’t paid us the dubious compliment of signaling such intentions in pounds and ounces. Classification by girth is acknowledged to have its defects, yet there is an alluring simplicity to it that comes to seem like common sense: isn’t there a certain logic to bigger books simply having more stuff in them to sort out? Aren’t short stories or novellas more easily chiseled to perfection?
The Witness is too long to be a novella and not quite long enough to be an average novel—it wouldn’t fit in any category anyway, and length is among the least helpful ways of trying to get an analytic foothold on it. The book exists in a state of permanent estrangement; it zigs subtly away from the whole array of zags that novelists have added to their arsenal over the past century and a half or more. It is allegorical, but not enough to be an allegory; it’s metafictional, but it never lets you know that it knows how reflexive it’s become. It pricks you into smartly guessing that it is told by an unreliable narrator, but then you realize that he is not unreliable enough to disbelieve him. It is history looked at from the wrong end of a telescope, but the telescope is cloudy on both ends. It is hallucinatory, but everything is pretty much as it seems. It is constantly deconstructing all the things that need deconstruction—the self, history, morality, sexuality, civilization—but nothing falls apart enough.
It is the dream of someone who never dreams.
It is the narrative of a 16th-century cabin boy, an orphan (a more direct translation of the Spanish title, El entenado, also meaning bastard or stepson) of the Spanish ports, an urchin with no one to stop him from fulfilling the archetypal boy’s dream:
I hungered for the open sea. Children blame the intransigence of the world on their own callowness and lack of knowledge; they think that far off on the other side of the ocean, on the farther shore of experience, the fruit is more succulent, more real, the sun yellower and kinder, men’s actions and words more intelligible, clear-cut and just.
The narrative moves quickly, so I won’t stop; the novel’s magnificence is not in the plot anyway. Upon finally arriving on the other side of the world, a foray of a few steps into the bush is annihilated by a flying field of arrows; our narrator is the only survivor and is borne gently by the arms to the ambushing tribe’s camp. There he is treated with ingratiating deference, prodded with smiles but wholly untouched. The tribe eats the slaughtered Spaniards with terrifying and minutely depicted gusto, has a graphically and intimately illustrated orgy, and falls into a sullen sleep. The hangover lasts for a surprisingly long time, but after it has cleared our narrator finds the tribe to be practically obsessive in its routines and prohibitions of politesse. He reports, “I never saw them urinate or defecate in public, nor did I ever come across their excrement anywhere near the huts.” The patrons of bars after closing time are less scrupulous.
This cycle repeats itself once during each of the ten years he spends among the tribe, and in each iteration one “witness” is captured from whatever population has been slaughtered and is treated with the same deference; that is, the witness is “allowed” to watch the cannibals feast and frolic. However, each witness is also soon placed into a canoe and sent away shortly after the hangover period has ended (though the boy remains). In the tenth year the tribe spots a second European expedition and immediately tumbles the narrator into a canoe and sets him down the river to be picked up. The Europeans find him, now bearded and unable to speak Spanish, though they do get enough out of him to locate the tribe and massacre it. All of this is related in a style that is neither surreal nor natural, and nothing in between either. The prose, translated marvelously by the great Margaret Jull Costa, is preternaturally smooth; there are no jutting words to snag too much meaning, no swirls of rhetoric to turn aside the current.
Our narrator returns on their ship to Europe, is delivered to a friar-intellectual who teaches him a fleet of languages, generally re-civilizes the boy, and dies. Our narrator, never at home in the surprisingly cosmopolitan monastery, absconds and turns his (heavily edited) experiences into a play, traveling across Europe in one of the best sections of the book, performing for monarchs and the masses to enormous success. Never satisfied and in fact rather repelled by the audience’s hunger for his exotic tale, he retires to write his memoirs.
Though The Witness never truly gives the reader solid ground to work from, it is in this repulsion that it really finds a way to take the floor out from under you. The narrator describes an odd habit he picks up while performing the spectacle of his captivity:
Sometimes I would deliberately garble the meaning of my own speeches and deliver absurd and empty perorations in the hope of getting some reaction from the audience. I wanted to force the audience to realize it was all a fraud, but my stratagems made not a jot of difference to their response. Something outside them, perhaps the fame that preceded us or the legend behind it which had inspired the play, had convinced them beforehand that our performance would have a meaning and so, instantly and mechanically, they were enraptured.
This is the kind of passage that gives a reader of modernist or postmodernist fiction a pleasant case of the hermeneutic shivers. The narrator has just unpacked his heart with (and of) words, proclaimed his burning desire to “garble” his message, to confront his audience with the artificiality, the pretense of what they’re blithely lapping up. He’s just told us that he lies to his listeners, of which we are now one.
More than a Cretan Paradox or a metafictional wink, though, this moment forces a reader to make decisions about how to read the novel, decisions that have been almost completely unnecessary up to this point because of the smoothness of the prose and the fluidity of the plot. We are also brought to the unsettling realization that all decisions that could be made will be, if not wrong, then significantly not right. It is no matter if we read the narrator as (to use James Wood’s categories) unreliably unreliable (he knows not how he lies); reliably unreliable (aware of his lies, and lying to a pattern); or as reliable as reasonably matters—we will definitely miss something, and likely many things. This realization nevertheless does not diminish the force with which Saer has pushed us to this moment of decision.
Strategically, Saer’s move recalls Joseph Conrad, a comparison that has been made more often on purely tonal and thematic grounds. (The Witness has been read, predictably, as a sort of recapitulation of Heart of Darkness.) Conrad too is obsessed with the moment of truth, the instant of decision that separates the men from the boys—and just as often, the reader from the character. Conrad jolts us into judgment—is Jim a good man? Is Marlow? What kind of man is Kurtz? Is Verloc? Do they do the right thing?
Yet there is a persistent question at each of these Conradian moments whether, or to what extent, the “right thing” is right in more than a moral sense—that is, Conrad asks whether making the “right” decision invariably (or even frequently) has an effect on the outcome. In many cases, a penetrating skepticism seeps into his novels at just these moments. And so it is with Saer:
However huge the fire the only truth it leaves is ashes. But there is in every life one decisive moment, which is, no doubt, also pure illusion, but which nonetheless gives us our definitive shape. It is an illusion slightly more substantial than the others, which is given to us so that when we proffer it as an explanation, we have some sense of what the word “life” means.
This “slightly more substantial” yet illusory quality pervades the novel: we get a “pliable present, on which we struggle to impose our valiant but feeble lucidity,” the “deceptive solidity of daily life gnawed away at my rigid, defenseless memories,” and this stunning metaphor for the mixed and paradoxical effects of the education of a man reclaimed from (cannibalistic) “savagery” by “civilization” 1:
Teaching me Latin, Greek, Hebrew and science was the least of it: what he found hard was convincing me of their value and importance. For him they were tools which could be used to grasp and manipulate the incandescent world of the senses; for me, fascinated as I was by the contingent, it was like going out to hunt a beast that had already devoured me.
A similar feeling may attach to the reading of the novel; The Witness pulls you in more deeply the longer you spend thinking about its many provocations, reversals, intensities, and pleasures, and yet you will want to go out to meet it again and again. It is a pity it is not several hundred pages longer: not so that we could set it next to its fellows in complexity but so that we might have that much more to hunt.
Andrew Seal lives in New Haven and is a graduate student in American Studies. He blogs at Blographia Literaria and his work has appeared online at n + 1, The Critical Flame, and The Valve.
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