The Subtle Minds of Santa Fe

La Grande

by Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish and with an afterword by Steve Dolph
Open Letter, 501 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Juan José Saer, Paris, 1987

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…

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