The career of the Argentinian novelist Juan José Saer (1937–2005) makes one wonder how literary fame comes about. He has a small cult following, but he is not well known beyond it. Many readers for whom Mario Vargas Llosa—his almost exact contemporary—is a household name have simply not heard of Saer, let alone read him, and it is hard to find any of his books in Spanish-speaking cities. Yet he wrote fourteen novels, five collections of stories, four of literary essays, and one of verse. Why did he not leave more of a mark, at least among followers of Latin American fiction, since some of his novels are extremely good?
Some of his admirers say that he shunned publicity, refusing to be part of the so-called boom in Latin American fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Another explanation could be his provincial upbringing. From a family of Syrian-Lebanese origin, he was brought up near the provincial Argentinian town of Santa Fe, far from the influential literary circles of Buenos Aires, and he moved from there to France, where he lived most of his life.
Also it took him some twenty years writing novels to arrive at his best work. His first really excellent novels are El entenado, from 1983, translated into English as The Witness in 1990, and Glosa from 1986, published in English as The Sixty-Five Years of Washington in 2010. It is not easy for a novelist in his late forties to redress quickly a long false start.
Saer is best known for novels set in an imaginary region, known by critics as La Zona, in and around Santa Fe. Many characters reappear there from one novel to another, and their provincial world, dominated by the Parana River, is reminiscent in some ways of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County. The Sixty-Five Years of Washington and the posthumous La Grande, now available in a fine translation by Steve Dolph, are both set in La Zona, and some of the characters appear in both books.
But The Witness is very different, showing how versatile Saer was. It is a first-person account of a fifteen-year-old orphan who in the sixteenth century enlists as a cabin boy on a ship bound from Spain for the Americas. The nameless narrator, who is writing sixty years later, disembarks with part of the crew on an island in what we assume to be the River Plate. A sudden flurry of arrows kills all of his companions, and he alone is spared. Fierce, naked tribesmen then carry him to their village, where his companions are roasted and eaten.
The short novel is an account of the narrator’s ten years as a captive of the tribe. Subsequently he escapes and Father Quesada, a Spanish priest, takes charge of him back in Spain, and for seven years educates him in philosophy and the classics. The narrator, writing in elegant if somewhat bombastic prose, deploys all this learning in his attempt half a century later to explain the tribe’s actions. They are, he recalls, troubled by the kind of epistemological dilemmas that Father Quesada taught him. They are so unsure that the world actually exists when they are not looking that their language has no equivalent of the verb “to be.” The nearest to it is “to seem.” And they even doubt their own existence. They hold the narrator captive in the hope that he will go out and bear witness to the fact that they are there.
Little by little one comes to understand the charming humor in all this. The epistemological worries of the tribe are close to the narrator’s own, the consequence of his hand-to-mouth life as an orphan who has had to create an identity out of nothing, and who is able to rationalize his condition thanks to the teachings of Father Quesada. But the novel is not just a literary joke. We are gripped by the exotic world of the so-called Colastiné Indians* as we are by the upriver adventures of Charles Marlow in Heart of Darkness, a novel to which Saer is clearly indebted. The Witness also owes a great deal to Borges, notably to “Brodie’s Report,” the Swiftean story in which a Scottish missionary encounters an exotic, philosophically challenging tribe of so-called Yahoos, and to “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” the story in which Borges describes a planet whose language is only able to denote appearance.
In reading Saer one often notices allusions to Conrad, Faulkner, Borges, Beckett, and the nouveau roman, which had an influence on The Sixty-Five Years of Washington. This novel consists basically of a step-by-step description of a fifty-five-minute walk by two young men, Leto and El Matemático, along twenty-one blocks in a city we presume to be Santa Fe. As they walk, they discuss the sixty-fifth birthday party—which neither of them went to—of their friend Washington Noriega. At one point they are joined by Tomatis, a journalist, who did go, and who contradicts most of what they have heard about it, much to their annoyance.
But the novel also gives us extremely detailed descriptions of their walking together, and of how they try to keep in step—the taller El Matemático has longer strides—and of their difficulties in crossing a street in heavy traffic. Robbe-Grillet, who admired Saer, would have liked the many pages devoted to their attempts to negotiate the narrow gaps between the bumpers.
La Grande, Saer’s last, unfinished novel, is by far his longest, and probably would have been his best. It was published in 2005, four months after his death. He completed six sections named after each day of the week, starting with “Tuesday” and ending with “Sunday,” but he did not get to write “Monday,” the seventh and last one. How much does this matter? Probably less than it would for some writers, because Saer’s novels do not generally have a clear beginning or end, and one assumes that La Grande would not have been an exception.
The novel is about a group of intellectuals in Santa Fe who on the Sunday get together for a cookout around a swimming pool. Probably Saer intended Monday to be a postmortem day, one in which the events of the cookout would have been discussed by the fifteen participants. But fortunately, as in all of Saer’s novels, the characters in La Grande are introspective and gossipy, as one would imagine a group of small-town intellectuals to be, so they have already analyzed each other to the hilt in the earlier sections. And despite Saer’s having left it in draft form, La Grande reads very well, both in the original and in translation.
The novel is set in the 1990s, and its central character is Gutiérrez, a fifty-eight-year-old writer of screenplays who returns to Santa Fe after a lifetime in Europe. He had left the town suddenly, when still in his twenties. Little by little we learn that his departure was prompted by his love for a married woman, Leonor, who eventually preferred to stay with her husband. We also learn that Gutiérrez may be the father of Lucía, Leonor’s daughter. In search of his lost youth, Gutiérrez takes up again with Leonor, now a wizened anorexic.
The other two main characters are Tomatis, from The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, roughly of Gutiérrez’s age, and Nula, a twenty-nine-year-old wine merchant who is writing a book called Notes toward the Ontology of Becoming. Then there are Gabriela and Soldi, contemporaries of Nula’s, who are writing a book on the Precisionists, a local literary movement founded in 1945 by a poet called Brando, which sought to combine poetry—especially the sonnet—with science. The principal sources for Gabriela and Soldi’s book are Tomatis, who loathes Brando and considers him to be a fraud, and Gutiérrez, who found him more interesting. Throughout the novel we are told of the cookout Gutiérrez is planning at his house for Sunday, and the last section we have is devoted entirely to it.
All of Saer’s characters are intellectuals and interested in philosophical issues, much in the tradition of Argentinian fiction since Borges. Their conversations and introspections are intellectually intense, often to the point of pedantry. At times Saer takes them very seriously, but he also makes us laugh at their portentous provincial intellectualism, which is evoked particularly in Nula and Tomatis. Although it is Nula who is working on the “ontology of becoming,” both see the world as being in a state of relentless flux, where even the most stable objects change constantly, either because our perception of them changes, or because they mutate or decompose, however slowly. If they seem stable, it may just be an illusion of distance, as Nula discovers on approaching a river whose ripples seem still from afar.
On a long, meditative bus ride from Rosario back to Santa Fe, Tomatis concludes that even the most familiar objects in his house change all the time. “When we return to the kitchen from the dining room, or to the dining room from the kitchen, in the time it takes to find a clean knife in the utensil drawer, everything has changed,” he muses, and in the manner of the Colastiné Indians, he wonders if his house or town will still be there when he gets back. Nula is fascinated with the notion that no two instances are alike, and he obsesses about it on the most unlikely occasions, as when he kisses for the first time a girl called Virginia, with whom he is about to have a one-night stand. In his car on their way to a motel he reflects that no two kisses are the same. With Virginia by his side he somehow has the time and the inclination to tell himself that
although everything is alike, nothing is ever repeated, and that since the beginning of time, when the great delirium began its expansion,…every event is unique, flaming, unknown, and ephemeral: the individual does not incarnate the species, and the part is not a part of the whole, but only a part, and the whole is in turn always a part; there is no whole; the goldfinch that sings at dawn sings for itself;…and its previous song, which even it doesn’t remember singing, and which seems so much like the one before, if one listened carefully, would clearly be different.
Readers who find this paragraph tiresome may not want to read on. But there is some humor in this very Argentinian literary mouthful. In his musings, Nula is rebelling against Borges, who in “Keats’s Nightingale” posited that all nightingales are essentially one and the same. Nula’s sudden bout of nominalism shows him to be more like Funes the Memorious, the character Borges invents and criticizes for not being able to “forget differences” and for seeing every instant as unforgettably unique. Some readers may find these literary allusions annoying; but when Nula and Virginia get to the motel they have a torrid encounter that somehow compensates for Nula’s ponderings.
Nula is actually sorry for people who do not have the capacity or inclination to speculate. When he visits a dentist his brother has recommended as a possible client for his wine, Nula, disparagingly, finds him “apparently a pre-metaphysical being, without fears or regrets, the lack of the first sheltering him from the second.” For his part, Nula asks, how do you put the subtle differences between wines into words? “When he explains to a client that such and such a wine is tender or robust, meaty or velvety, it’s impossible to imagine how the client senses those adjectives when he tries the wine.” So wine becomes a metaphor for the problem of writing, the gap between word and object. It also sets off involuntary memories, “of fruit, of flowers, of honey, of apricot, of grass, of spices, of wood, or of leather,” making possible a kind of Proustian emotion; and its inebriating effect transforms us. “Sobriety expels us from our true inner life, and inebriation restores it to us.” Wine shows us that we can be more than one person at a time.
Saer writes in a tradition of Argentinian literature, of writers such as Borges, Bioy Casares, and Cortázar, in which metaphysics always looms large. Are the philosophical musings overdone, even if they are intended to be comic? If they sometimes are, there is much flesh and blood in his writings too. Many of the deep thoughts of his characters come in emotional surges, moments of epiphany, and that makes them more interesting than if they had reasoned their way to them. These surges occur, for instance, when the young Gutiérrez, hitherto a virgin, has sex with the married Leonor in a back room that a restaurant owner has offered them after what was just going to be a chaste meal. In the room there is a bicycle resting against the wall, the image of which gives him a “taste of the infinite,” and he continues to see it during sex for the rest of his life. Every time it came to mind,
a sensory certainty of permanence, of rootedness on the edge of the ceaseless disintegration of things, of an indestructible, unique present, reconciled him, benevolently, with the world.
Such sudden senses of wholeness and infinity abound in the novel, whose characters are always grateful when they occur, because at the same time they are all battling against “ceaseless disintegration.” Saer’s characters are always trying to keep the ravages of entropy at bay, to shore themselves up against the abyss within them, like the pessimistic Tomatis on the bus, who knows that his occasional enjoyment of the good things in life is a precarious affair:
The man who now goes into ecstasies over the banalities of the world knows…that every banality is shored up by a brace that flowers on the surface and stretches down into an unfinished, black depth.
The sexual encounters of these pessimistic, utterly self-conscious characters are predictably narcissistic or voyeuristic. When Nula and Virginia finally get to the motel, they are given a room with mirrors on the walls and ceiling. “They embrace and kiss, but without the other seeming to notice it, both are less attracted to the carnal experience than to the infinite image of themselves experiencing it, returned to them, simultaneously, by the mirrors.” Nula has an insatiable sex drive, and he uses all his philosophical skills to rationalize his infidelities, both to himself and to his wife Diana. While a teenager, we learn, he deflowered a nine-year-old boy.
Later he becomes obsessed with Lucía, Gutiérrez’s alleged daughter, and her husband Reira. They are a rich, beautiful couple apparently in need of a voyeur. In what becomes a ménage à trois, he participates in their lovemaking, although he is only allowed to watch and touch. The couple acquire for Nula “a disproportionate prestige, representing, with their physical beauty, their tact, their enigmatic behavior, a side of the world that his dark and tragic family life hadn’t allowed him to know existed.”
La Grande is very much about people coexisting in isolated, parallel worlds. Gutiérrez, in particular, is perceived as wholly mysterious. Moro, the real estate agent who sells him the California-style house he settles into after his lifetime in Europe, claims that “at one point he got the feeling that if he spoke to Gutiérrez the other man wouldn’t even have noticed his presence because he seemed to be in a different dimension.” All of Gutiérrez’s guests at the cookout talk of the host’s being different.
But then it is a mark of Saer’s characters that they all have something about them that is subtly different, so that they each in some sort of way live in a world of their own. Diana, Nula’s wife, is a ravishing beauty, but she was born with a stump for a hand, “just five fingers away from perfection.” Tomatis during the cookout comes to the conclusion that what unites the friends is, in the end, their subtle eccentricity.
Saer’s characters are sometimes worlds apart for social or moral reasons. In La Grande, miserable hovels coexist with fine houses such as Gutiérrez’s. Elegant suburbs merge into squalid shantytowns. Then there is the terrible time of Argentina’s dirty wars. Nula’s father was a left-wing militant who was gunned down while eating a pizza in Buenos Aires. When the Precisionists are being discussed, Tomatis cannot forget the disgraceful behavior of Brando, their leader, who had married the daughter of a general and therefore could have contacted the military dictators. But when their mutual friends Gato and Elisa disappear, Brando refuses to help. Gato and Elisa are never seen again. This does not worry Brando, and just why is not satisfactorily explained by the narrator’s generalization about their differences: “Tomatis and Brando lived in different worlds: they had different readers, different relationships with institutions, with enemies, and with allies, both literary and political.”
Saer is constantly looking into what separates his characters. He does this especially well in some lengthy dialogues, such as the one with which La Grande begins, when Nula and Gutiérrez take their long stroll, described over some sixty pages. As with the characters in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, it is not easy for them to keep in step. Worse, it starts to rain, and the only umbrella available has a very short handle, so they have to struggle to keep dry. “They still didn’t know each other well enough to be spontaneous,” we are told. “Their reciprocal attraction stemmed from what they hadn’t figured out about each other.” Yet as they walk further and further, they become “unsettled by what they might come to learn when the respective opacities that mutually attract them are finally illuminated.” These walks are particularly well imagined by Saer, who has moved on from the exaggerated “objectivist” detail of earlier novels, evoking the awkwardness of conversation while walking on slippery mud.
Slow-motion detail is characteristic of Saer’s fiction—a quality he shares with his characters, along with his habit of deliberate repetition. When Nula and Gutiérrez are taking their walk, we are told twice that it is the third time they have met, but the first in which they have really talked. Could this be because Saer did not have enough time to revise his draft before he died? No, because this kind of repetition is a feature of all his work. Sometimes the repetitions introduce small variants, with subtle changes of perspective. Or they are driven by an obsession of one of the characters. Thus a description of Nula’s father’s death in the pizzeria is repeated time after time because Nula keeps on having flashbacks of it.
Will Saer eventually achieve the stature among followers of Latin American fiction that I believe he deserves? Even if we can often spot the influences on his writing, he has mapped out an engaging and original territory of his own. We become involved in the world of La Zona. We get to know the “city” (Santa Fe is not mentioned by name) street by street, and experience the very Argentinian awe the characters feel when they leave it to visit the huge surrounding pampas, or when they glimpse the monstrously large Parana River.
Even in the long section on the Precisionist movement, there is a certain humor, because Saer is parodying the infighting of provincial literary cliques. One is reminded of Roberto Bolaño’s Visceral Realists, and it is worth recalling that Saer started writing La Grande in 1999, a year after the publication of The Savage Detectives. May there be some influence (or parody?) of Bolaño in La Grande? But Saer wrote in a mode that he had been developing for a good many years. So maybe Saer influenced Bolaño too.
That could be a useful topic of a future inquiry, as could the posthumous, unfinished nature of La Grande. For though Saer’s characters—Tomatis, Nula, Gabriela, Gutiérrez, Leira, Lucía, Leonor, and others—live in what is probably an excruciatingly boring provincial city, they rarely bore us. Saer has found his own original way to bring the reader into their lives.