Juan José Saer sometimes cited as the most important Argentine writer of the post-Borges generation, exhibits an elastic yet controlled style that parallels the interwoven, unpredictable world of his characters

Juan José Saer, The One Before, Trans. by Roanne Kantor, Open Letter, 2015.

The One Before is a triptych of sorts, consisting of a series of short pieces—called "Arguments"—and two longer stories—"Half-Erased" and "The One Before"—all of which revolve around the ideas of exile and memory.
Many of the characters who populate Jaun José Saer's other novels appear here, including Tomatis, Ángel Leto, and Washington Noriega (who appear in La Grande, Scars, and The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, all of which are available from Open Letter). Saer's typical themes are on display in this collection as well, as is his idiosyncratic blend of philosophical ruminations and precise storytelling.
From the story of the two characters who decide to bury a message in a bottle that simply says "MESSAGE," to Pigeon Garay's attempt to avoid the rising tides and escape Argentina for Europe, The One Before evocatively introduces readers to Saer's world and gives the already indoctrinated new material about their favorite characters.


Juan José Saer, La Grande. Trans. by Steve Dolph, Open Letter, 2014. (Read an Excerpt)

“A cerebral explorer of the problems of narrative in the wake of Joyce and Woolf, of Borges, of Rulfo and Arlt, Saer is also a stunning poet of place.”The Nation

Saer’s final novel, La Grande, is the grand culmination of his life’s work, bringing together themes and characters explored throughout his career, yet presenting them in a way that is beautifully unique, and a wonderful entry-point to his literary world.
Moving between past and present, La Grande centers around two related stories: that of Gutiérrez, his sudden departure from Argentina 30 years before, and his equally mysterious return; and that of “precisionism,” a literary movement founded by a rather dangerous fraud. Dozens of characters populate these storylines, including Nula, the wine salesman, ladies’ man, and part-time philosopher; Lucía, the woman he’s lusted after for years; and Tomatis, a journalist whom Saer fans have encountered many times before.
Written in Saer’s trademark style, this lyrically gorgeous book—which touches on politics, artistic beliefs, illicit love affairs, and everything else that makes up life—ends with one of the greatest lines in all of literature: “With the rain came the fall, and with the fall, the time of the wine.”

Final novel, this vast gallery of characters described in a vivid and meticulous style is also a compendium of the entire work of Saer and the culmination of his literary project. Another return to native soil that reveal to us the power of resurrection of this place, a kind of emotional homeland where the past is updated and made to vibrate unfailingly once again. Among anecdotes and references that evoke a local avant-garde movement, the precisionism, the mainstays of the Saerian universe reappear. All emerge from an inaccessible past that nevertheless continues sending out its light. In his rigorous work, a bold response to the challenge of putting experience into words, Saer reflected a comprehensive vision of the world. After his death, which occurred before he completed the last chapter of this book, the universal value of his vision and prose remain intact.

"Juan José Saer must be added to the list of the best South American writers." —Le Monde

"To say that Juan José Saer is the best Argentinian writer of today is to undervalue his work. It would be better to say that Saer is one of the best writers of today in any language."—Ricardo Piglia

This final novel by the renowned Argentine writer (1937-2005) is a daring, idiosyncratic work that examines the idea of an individual person navigating the whirl of random events that helps shape everyone's lives.
Nula, 29, is a wine salesman, philosopher and philanderer, a combination which makes him a perfect subject for Saer’s scrutiny. He's working on a book about becoming, which, viewed as a lifelong project, is one of the novel’s animating concepts. As for wine and sex, both are portals to a heightened awareness of the self. While the novel ostensibly keeps to a linear narrative, stretching over six days, Saer subverts the form by placing the most important moments in the past. Five years earlier, on the street, Nula bumped into a beautiful girl in red, contingency (another key concept) at work. He became romantically obsessed by this Lucía, who was married to a doctor, but he couldn’t handle participating in their lovemaking when she invited him to. Soon after, he met and married the equally beautiful Diana, only to cheat on her with regularity. Sex is at the heart of the novel, not just the sweaty coupling but its prospect and, later, its memory, how they flood the consciousness. Memory is a third key concept. The past is ever present for Nula's witty, erudite, sexually permissive and loose-knit group of friends. Even at the end of the 20th century, the memory of Argentina’s nightmarish Dirty War still throbs; Nula’s father, a left-wing activist, was murdered during that war. Saer has challenged himself to reproduce life’s flux while arresting it, since “any object in the world can be of interest to a true philosopher.” This explains why a woman threading a needle merits the same absorbed attention as a hot date.
Dolph’s fine translation eases us through the dense paragraphs of this major addition to Saer’s oeuvre. - Kirkus Reviews

When the Argentine writer Juan José Saer died of lung cancer in a Paris hospital in 2005, he left behind a final work he’d labored over for six years and strove to complete knowing his own end was nigh. The author’s urgency to finish La Grande is palpable in the anxious prose. Saer didn’t finish, ultimately, and his long-time editor, Alberto Díaz, prepared the manuscript for publication with a final chapter that includes only the first line.
Saer, sometimes cited as the most important Argentine writer of the post-Borges generation, exhibits an elastic yet controlled style that parallels the interwoven, unpredictable world of his characters. In La Grande, his prose is characterized by labyrinthine clausal pivots. Even a meeting between two characters, Nula and Lucía, is cause for an extended rumination on chance: 
And finally, that one September afternoon Lucía walked past the corner of Mendoza and San Martín—where the Siete Colores bar now occupies the spot that for years belonged to the Gran Doria—at the exact moment when Nula (who, after finishing his coffee, had been detained for a few seconds by a guy who shouted something from his table about a Public Law textbook) walked out onto San Martín and looked up, seeing her, dressed in red, through the crowd on the bright avenue.
By building on each other, the cross-stitch of clauses achieves a beauty alternately composed of deep contemplation and the sensory details of everyday experience, thanks to Steven Dolph’s impressive English rendering. Given the complex sentence structure of Saer’s prose, Dolph is to be commended for the way he recreates the Saerian universe for the English-language reader.
The novel takes place over seven days in the 1990s, culminating in a Sunday barbecue that brings together all the novel’s characters and is hosted by Gutiérrez, a man who mysteriously disappeared from Argentina thirty years prior and has just as mysteriously returned. The action opens with Nula, a twenty-nine-year-old womanizer who sells wine and is writing a work of ontology. He accompanies Gutiérrez, thirty years his senior, as the older man ventures to invite Escalante, a friend from his youth, to his barbecue. Over the course of the week, Nula tries, through conversations with Gutiérrez and others who know him, to pick apart the secret of Gutiérrez’s sudden flight in the 1960s, an event tied, but not in any predictable way, to the history of “precisionism,” a conservative literary movement entangled with the anti-Communist military governments that consumed Argentina from the 1960s to 1980s.
Nula becomes captivated by Gutiérrez, who informs his philosophy of “accidental becoming,” where one is caught in “the perpetual collision of things” that seem at once preordained and coincidental. To Nula, Gutiérrez’s absence seems to result from the confluence of similarly unforeseen circumstances. Nula’s incipient philosophy is the metaphor that drives La Grande’s expansive narrative. At first, the reasons for Gutiérrez’s sudden disappearance are unclear, and we strongly suspect his departure is related to Argentina’s military dictatorships. Later, the motives for his reemergence are just as cloudy. Like Soldi, a researcher of precisionism through whose work we discover personal details surrounding Gutiérrez, we suspect that Gutiérrez, by returning, “seeks an imaginary perfection in everything, not realizing that the myths he yearned for over those thirty years had changed, eroded by contingency, while he was away.” The city, the lover, and the friends he left behind form a world we’re unsure still exists for anyone other than Gutiérrez. As Argentine literary critic Beatriz Sarlo noted shortly after the Spanish original’s 2005 release, Gutiérrez discovers he “is a puzzle piece that doesn’t really fit” as he tries to resume his former life.
While we seek to unravel Gutiérrez’s past, Saer weaves together the lives of those—including Lucía, rumored to be his daughter—who Gutiérrez left behind during his years abroad. All of their lives, in one way or another, have become caught in the crosshairs of recent Argentine history. The extended metaphor of Nula’s philosophy reaches far beyond the individual experiences of the characters: as they contemplate their own lives in the thirty years of Gutiérrez’s absence, the examination of how they came to be as they are, the investigation into their pasts, concurrently explores the historical and cultural influences upon the society in which they now live.
Often specters, but never center stage in this unearthing of the past, are the military governments that played a decisive role in many of the characters’ lives. We learn that when Nula was still a child, his father, a political activist, was assassinated in a pizzeria in Buenos Aires. As a result of their work on precisionism, Soldi and Gabriela learn that the literary movement’s aim of introducing the precision of the sciences into poetry places its founder, Mario Brando, in the good graces of military officials, who approve of precisionism’s strict, traditional forms. Gutiérrez, we discover, was once assistant to Brando’s law partner, Calcagno. This provides an explanation for Gutiérrez’s decision to leave Argentina, doing so at the request of Calcagno’s wife, who, we later find out, was having an affair with the young Gutiérrez.
Years after Brando’s death, Gutiérrez has gathered all the characters together for a Sunday barbecue in a demonstration of his will to resume his former life, a desire that seems unrealistic and unreal. At the novel’s end the fast-moving clouds and distant thunderclaps portending the impending storm resemble the characters and the past disappointments they could not avoid—political disappearances, forced hidings, and thwarted loves. It’s the inescapable that defines Saer’s novel, and his characters are not ignorant of the limits of their control over their lives: 
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring. 
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Paraná River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel.
An important subplot follows, involving two characters, Soldi and Gabriella. They are writing a literary history of “precisionism,” a suspicious, possibly fascist-friendly art movement founded by Mario Brando in the 1960’s. Brando is long dead, but Saer always entangles, so that the Brando story parallels but contrasts with many aspects of Gutiérrez’s story. Then there is Nula himself, whose friendships and vibrant sex life constitute the connective tissue of the novel. Nula moves through the seven days of novel-time, bedding women, selling wine, jotting notes down on philosophy. There are also many subplots, twists, anecdotes and memories, so that when these various characters gather at Gutierrez’s house in the final chapter, we know them intimately, like old friends. 
La Grande is Saer’s final novel. An afterword from the book’s translator Steve Dolph tells us that Saer was still working on the novel when he died in 2005. Though nothing about La Grande feels unfinished, and the familiar subjects of Saer’s earlier novels—time, movement, philosophical speculation mixed with pragmatism and politics—return in full force here.
Argentina’s turbid political history in the aftermath of World War II is the backdrop for the narrative action of La Grande. Because the nation remained neutral during both world wars, Argentina’s economy, culture, and literacy rates positioned it to be a world power. But Argentina was slow to industrialize. Much of its labor economy faltered as post-war rebuilding set a new pace for world markets. When Juan Perón became president in 1946, he rode to power as a populist leader, touting a labor-friendly brand of ‘right-wing socialism’. In time, however, his over-reaching social agenda began to bankrupt the economy. Perón also drew the suspicions of many powerful anti-communist nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain.
Perón’s ouster by coup in 1955 ushered in a new wave of instability and violence. What followed were two decades of reactionary bloodshed and political upheaval, as Argentina worked out its schizophrenic feelings toward Perón. When he died in 1974 (after again serving as President), Argentina descended into its most violent period, the now infamous “Dirty War.” Military dictators clashed with leftist guerillas. Up to thirty-thousand citizens were either killed or became desaparecidos, the disappeared, men and women snatched off Argentina’s streets never to be seen again. It was during this violent era when Gutiérrez flew to his European exile (like Saer himself) and when Nula’s father was murdered outside the pizza restaurant. The repressive military governments met their demise in 1983, after the British military retook the Falkland Islands and a more moderate government replaced the dictatorship.
Against this backdrop we descend, to the Santa Fe region of Argentina, Saer’s favorite choice for his novel settings. Gutiérrez, the exile-come-home, survivor, enigma, left Argentina as a young man “in search of three chimeras: worldwide revolution, sexual liberation and auteur cinema.” Of course the reader knows that Gutiérrez also fled Argentina’s political turmoil. Gutiérrez rants about the way European commercial interests are misguided. “He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car.” At first blush, it might be easy to dismiss this character as a type, the craggy grouch railing against the system, but Saer rarely paints with simple brush strokes. A paragraph later, he broadens out the description:
The vitriol in the sentiment contrasts with the composure of his face each time he looks over his left shoulder, with the calm vigor of his movements, and with the monotone neutrality of a voice that seems to be reciting, not a violent diatribe, but rather, in a friendly, paternal way, a set of practical recommendation for a traveler preparing to confront an unfamiliar continent.
Many aspects of this character description equally mirror the experience of reading the novel. There is a distinct neutrality to the way events unfold. A paternal coolness—friendly but formal, polite and pragmatic—directs the action. The further we read, the more prepared we are to confront the unfamiliar continent. Saer leaves little to chance, so that even a simple character description can recapitulate and reflect on the larger themes of the novel itself. This marks the high mastery of a brilliant writer.
Though in one sense Gutiérrez functions as the novel’s hub, he actually doesn’t do much. He throws the party, and the others come. And though most of the novel’s momentum surges toward this party (which occurs in-scene in the final chapter) we never really grasp who Gutiérrez is. He remains, purposefully, enigmatic. Too much time has passed since he left his homeland. The real story grows in the countryside, its history and the people who endured the misery of Argentina’s tumultuous wars, coups, and dictatorships. The novel’s other characters seem drawn to Gutiérrez out of curiosity. Who is this man? What might they have become had they too left? What destinies did they abandon or inherit? Gutiérrez embodies aborted memories, memories that never grew, never played out. And because his participation in most of the actual events was lacking, Gutiérrez is oddly detached from what for the others are familiar experiences, shared so intimately.
In a gorgeously dense passage, Gutiérrez gazes at the Paraná River and meditates: 
Gutiérrez’s senses perceive the rain across the deserted expanse that surrounds them, while his imagination projects it over the contiguous and distant spaces they have crossed and that, despite their imaginary provenance, are complemented by and confused with the empirical plane that surrounds them. What he perceives from the point in the verdant space where they find themselves, his imagination likewise assigns to the entire region, where, for the past year or so, after more than thirty years away, he has been living. And he thinks he can see, in the leaves that shudder silently as the drops fall, in their impacts with the yellow earth, and, especially, in the agitation that the drops cause as they cover the rippled surface of the river over an infinite number of simultaneous points, the intimate cipher of the empirical world, each fragment, as distant and distinct from the present as it might seem—the most distant star, for example—having the exact value as this, the one he occupies, and that if he could disentangle himself from the grasp of this apparently insignificant present, the rest of the universe—time, space, inert or living matter—would reveal all its secrets.
The “intimate cipher of the empirical world” will forever elude Gutiérrez. The novel attempts to reveal life’s secrets, unlocking meaning and rendering their beauty, but not for him. Gutiérrez walks through the world as a time traveler, who has passed through three decades unscathed. His memories are detached, cut-off from the land, less intimate, perhaps more innocent, because history, age, the passage of seasons, have exacted no toll. In many ways, Gutiérrez remains a ghost, the intimate cipher, encrypted by absence, forever a stranger in a familiar land.
For Nula Anoch—raconteur, wine salesman, part-time philosopher, full-time philanderer—memory comes at a great cost. If Gutiérrez is the still center of La Grande, Nula is the story’s bent rim, frenetic, wobbly, navigating the world with a notebook in his pocket for jotting down philosophical points that strike him (as they often do). Nula rarely rests. Imbued with an intellectual spark mixed with a salesman’s charisma, he is the primary point-of-view character (though Saer is never above dropping into omniscient narration). Despite a penchant for seducing women, Nula wonderfully remains in love with his wife, the beautiful but disfigured Diana. “Nula cheated on her often, telling himself each time that he really loved her but was incapable of establishing a direct correlation between love and fidelity.” Rarely are Saer’s characters one dimensional.
Two primary events have shaped Nula’s life: the first was the murder of his father years earlier in the political firestorms that ravaged Argentina. Nula’s journey might well be seen as a quest for lost paternity. The other event, and the one that occupies a good deal of the second half of La Grande, is an affair that took place five years before the party with an exotic couple, Lucía and Riera. This libidinous husband and wife seduced Nula into a strange love triangle (one that never achieved sexual fruition). When Nula encounters Lucía again, at Gutiérrez’s house (in the pool, in fact), the themes of betrayal, mistaken identity, paternity, grief, and recovery all come together.
In many ways, Nula’s role in the novel is a simple one. Nula delivers the wine. He acts impulsively, without restraint. But he also forges the connections between the various characters, which will allow their significant histories to be told. If this works as the dramatic device, so be it, because a traditional plot is something Saer eschews. Instead, we get movement. Characters are always moving, across the littoral region of Argentina, through city streets, across rivers, across time, across space. This churning creates the story. Through choppy cadences, false starts, and carefully timed pauses, Saer creates narrative and meaning.
In a pivotal scene, Gabriella and Soldi, two of the peripheral point of view characters who appear in an important subplot representing the history of Argentina’s literary avant garde, are crossing a bridge over the Paraná River (note the motif of movement again). They pause and simultaneously observe two boys also standing on the bridge: 
Suddenly the tallest one, the one who’s most calm and most patient, without warning but nevertheless gently, asks, What is the novel? And the other one, who’s slightly younger, without even looking up from the whirlpool, says, The decomposition of continuous movement.
Movement is essential to understanding Saer. Like an orchestral piece of music, each instrument plays a part. Various sounds form, often in a disharmonic state, until each note begins to register, until a melody emerges. The sophistication of voice, the ease with which Saer switches point of view, time, even story lines, points not to erratic or jumbled narrative, not to jazz, but to a deeply sophisticated harmony, something that forces us to pay attention, to admire, and, eventually, to understand.
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
Suddenly, in a spark of clairvoyance, he realizes why they are together, gathered around the table, relaxed and happy, because, he thinks, no one among them believes that the world belongs to them. They all know that they are apart from the human swarm deluded into thinking that it knows where it’s going, and that separation does not paralyze them, just the opposite, it actually seems to satisfy them. Every one of them, not to mention the owner of the house, who guards an impenetrable mystery behind his forehead, insists on being something other than what’s expected of them. - Richard Farrell

Juan José Saer, Scars, Trans. by Steve Dolph, Open Letter, 2011.   excerpt

Juan José Saer’s Scars explores a crime committed by a laborer who shot his wife in the face; or, rather, it explores the circumstances of four characters who have some connection to the crime. Each of the stories in Scars explores a fragment in time when the lives of these characters are altered, more or less, by a singular event.

Juan José Saer’s Scarsexplores a crime committed by Luis Fiore, a thirty-nine year old laborer who shot his wife twice in the face with a shotgun; or, rather, it explores the circumstances of four characters who have some connection to the crime: a young reporter, Ángel, who lives with his mother and works the courthouse beat; a dissolute attorney who clings to life only for his nightly baccarat game; a misanthropic and dwindling judge who’s creating a superfluous translation of The Picture Dorian Gray; and, finally, Luis Fiore himself, who, on May Day, went duck hunting with his wife, daughter, and a bottle of gin.
Each of the stories in Scars explores a fragment in time—be it a day or several months—when the lives of these characters are altered, more or less, by a singular event. Originally published in 1969, Scars marked a watershed moment in Argentinian literature and has since become a modern classic of Latin American literature.

In Saer’s witty and affecting novel, published in Spanish in 1969, four characters become linked around a grisly killing and the trial of the accused, Luis Fiore, each telling their portion of the story, in four temporally overlapping sections that run from February to June. Ángel lives with a mother who drinks his gin and lounges around half-naked. As a young journalist for La Región, he covers the courts and the weather which, after getting it wrong too often with almanacs, he simply fabricates, fancifully: “the city was oppressed, melted, felt more youthful with spring warmth, and suffered waves of blood in their eye sockets and furious, deafening popping in their eardrums from the atmospheric effects I had created.” Meanwhile attorney Sergio lives only for his baccarat games. Ernesto, the bored judge, views himself as an outsider in a world of gorillas and spends his free time fruitlessly translating The Picture of Dorian Gray. “It’s already been translated so many times that it makes no difference if I make progress or not.... Whole passages come out exactly the same as the versions of the professional translators.” And finally there is Fiore himself, on trial for having shot his wife in the face—twice—after a day of duck hunting. The characters are striking and memorable, their voices deep, comical, and resonant. - Publishers Weekly

Imaginary picture of a stationary fear  – Edwin Muir
Scars is a varied and deeply internal novel, political through the amplification of the emotional. Its four parts are divided between distinct first-person narrators, each tangentially related to one another, each circling a central event, the murder of a wife by her husband in an unnamed Argentine city. Each narrator is a male, deeply frustrated with his existence, engaging in some act of self-destruction — young Ángel, the journalist, drinks; Sergio, the lapsed attorney, gambles; Ernesto, the judge, labors on a useless translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Luis, the laborer, well, he kills his wife.
It is a testament to the strength of the writing and the complexity of the characters that, although the novel doesn’t explicitly deal with the omnipresent political turmoil and upheaval of Argentina in 1969, the year the book was originally published, this unrest still comes across through Saer’s deep involvement with questions about the individual and their place in society. Each character has a well-defined occupation, yet has become almost completely disengaged with their responsibilities. The men see no reason to continue this pantomime of a failing country. And so the novel follows these men as they isolate themselves amidst a worsening outlook. Put succinctly by the gambler Sergio:
They talk about vices that are solitary and vices that aren’t. All vices are solitary. All vices need solitude to be exercised. They attack in solitude. And, at the same time, they’re a pretext for solitude. I’m not saying that vices are bad. They could never be as bad as virtues, work, chastity, obedience, and so on. I’m simply saying how it is.
Saer is sympathetic to the heretics among us. The ones who won’t go along as if nothing is wrong, as if it isn’t too cold for summer, or that modern life isn’t horribly boring, or society as whole isn’t some big joke. The judge drives around through endless rain, staring out at the “apes” dressed in clothes (a judge, indeed). Of course, we’re all entitled to our alienation and vice, be it drinking, gambling or writing. The veteran journalist Tomatis remarks, “Regrettably, everyone in the world has feelings. Because of this, everyone makes literature.”
But what happens when this disengagement leads not to self-destruction or art (similar concepts), but to violence? Luis, who shoots his jealous wife with a shotgun, is the first to admit that, “Whoever finds me first should kill me.” It’s an unrelenting perspective, and one that offers little escape or redemptions for our characters. Their narratives remain mostly unresolved, and become even worse for the wear.
The young journalist, Ángel, writes the weather column for the newspaper, titled “No Change in Sight.” Each day he reports the exact same forecast.
When the idea of transforming society towards a more enlightened state seems completely hopeless, the intellectual will begin to disengage. They will move to Paris, like Saer. They will become concerned with the interior weather instead of the outer maelstrom. They will stand in awe when something happens, when some violent outburst brings all this crushing ennui to a halt.
What does the man say who has just shot someone? Perhaps there’s something valuable in the words of a man who has committed a crime with absolutely no meaning, no premeditation, just a reaction to an argument over nothing. Awaiting his statement, the judge, the lawyer, the journalist, listen closely. All of our narrators in one room. The killer says one sentence, “The pieces can’t be put back together.” Then he jumps out the window.
Saer’s imaginary picture is as grim as it gets. The stationary fear is that none of what we conceive as law or decency is concrete. A scar itself is a symbol of healing, but the prerequisite is a wound. And the emotions expressed, the characters disengagement with basic humanity, set the stage for what was, tragically, a lot of blood. -      

Argentine writer Juan Jose Saer has never caught on in English translation, although he certainly should have by now. Since 1994, five of his twelve novels have been translated, with his lauded The Witness coming to us via Margaret Jull Costa, the world-class translator of Jose Saramago and Javier Marias. Saer's novels partake of European and American literary traditions—he lived in France from 1968 until his death in 2005, and allusions to Conrad, Faulkner, and the French New Novelists are common—even as they radiate a South American experimentalism that made Saer among the heirs to Borges.
Saer's rhythmic, philosophical novel Scars is the second title in a three-translation project courtesy of Open Letter Books. Covering five months in the early '60s, the book tracks four different narrators as they converge on the same murder/suicide. But Scars is not reducible to its plot: The real draw here is how Saer orchestrates these four stories, interlocking them through repetition, overlapping, and metaphysical subtext.
Scars's structure resembles a musical composition that subtly pares itself down to its essential motifs. The book is divided among four narrators, with the first, Ángel, covering February through June, and each of the three subsequent narrators spanning fewer and fewer months within that same period. Luis Fiore, the final narrator, gets only the two days in May that sets the murder/suicide in motion.
Ángel's section, by far the longest, includes many details that initially seems extraneous: the eighteen-year-old's rocky relationship with his mother, his lackluster job as a newspaper weatherman, a raucous party his friend throws, and so on. But by capturing the hum of provincial Argentine life, Saer lends an uncanny texture to his setting. And the novel's repetitions slowly accumulate a strange thematic heft. Ángel frequently interrupts his narration to recall strange moments when he thinks he saw his double, and again and again, his weather column portentously declares "no change in sight."
His section also includes an eyewitness description of the suicide, as he sees the murderer jump to his death. Though the scene is sudden and dramatic, it feels more like an errant trumpet blast than a conventional climax. Ángel's narration continues unabated, concluding some time later with a coda in which, alone beneath a grimy midnight rain, he finally sees the face of his double.
From here things begin to accelerate toward the Scars's two most brutal scenes, even as the novel ostensibly swerves away. In the second section, Saer takes us through the see-sawing wins and losses of the degenerate gambler Sergio, who once served alongside Fiore as a radical in the Argentine General Confederation of Labor. Although, here again, the central violence appears incidental to the real action—Sergio's slide into debauchery and his developing attachment to his naïve, fourteen-year-old maid—there are enough allusions to keep the suicide in the reader's mind.
Scars's third section is narrated by Ernesto, the judge presiding over Fiore's case. But even as the novel careers toward its conclusion, it refuses to offer any easy insights into the crime: Ernesto never seems to do anything in his chambers other than work on a translation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The hallucinatory quality of this section is augmented by sudden scene-jumps and Ernesto's accounts of his life-like dreams, which often make it difficult to tell whether the narrative is taking place in reality or the judge's sleep:
It comes suddenly. It's a shudder—but it isn't a shudder—sharply—but it isn't sharp—and it comes suddenly. Because of it I know I am alive, that this—and nothing else—is reality and that my body, piercing it like a meteor, is inside it completely. . . . The desolation has come many times, but not this desolation, which could only come now, because every millimeter of time has its place from the beginning, every groove has its place and all the grooves line up alongside each other, grooves of light that turn on and off suddenly in perfect sequence in something resembling a direction and never come on or turn off again.
As we wait for Fiore to finally get to the murder we know he will commit, the text starts to resemble Ernesto's translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray: The judge has obsessively underlined and annotated the book so many times that he's actually written new versions of Gray on top of the original. Since a "true" account of the suicide is not ultimately accessible, the four narratives start to resemble Ernesto's fractured scribbling and marginalia.
The best way to make sense of Scars is through two declarations that appear in the first and third sections. In the first declaration, Ángel tells a friend that theater is the only true genre: "Everything was theater . . . Discourse on the Method was a long monologue by someone who was playing the role of a philosopher." Later on, he remarks with equal assurance that the novel is the only true genre of writing: "Everything that's written down, everything's a novel, the sciences, poetry, the theater, parliamentary discourse, advertisements." Though these two genres make very different epistemological claims, they share a belief that is key to understanding Scars: Reality happens, then we invent it.
What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters' attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.
Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book's larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn't hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde's advice that "one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details." In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.
Throughout, the murder/suicide is the only landmark Saer offers as we navigate Scars. And because he consistently pushes that event to the margins, readers might occasionally feel lost. But this, in addition to giving Scars an uncommon degree of originality and honesty, also helps it capture the one thing that all novels, in one way or another, aspire to: reality. - Scott Esposito

NOW, SEVEN YEARS after his death, it is a commonplace to tout Juan José Saer as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Argentine writers; or, as Ricardo Piglia rightfully said while Saer was still alive, “one of the greatest living writers in any language.” But who, in English anyway, has taken the time to read him? Inevitably, we can gripe that more remains to be translated, since there is so much to his name: twelve novels, nine books of essays and stories, and a poetry collection. What exists in English, though, leaves little room for complaint. Some of his best novels are rendered by the likes of the dexterous Margaret Jull Costa, Helen Lane, and, most recently, Steve Dolph, who has done an excellent job with Saer’s slightly brisker, more angular novel Scars.
Saer is not a writer with an instantly eye-catching signature like Cortazar with his brasher, vanguard luster, or Borges in his wry erudition. But he was a virtuoso who went against the grain, and seemed all the more conventional for it. He dismissed the more fashionable trends of his timethe gaudier experiments of magical realism as well as the heady dictates of postmodernism. He once debated publicly with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu about the responsibility of the social novel. Bourdieu argued that it should adapt itself to the landscape of new media, while Saer maintained that the literary realm was better off as a hazy faraway locale forged in naturalistic hues and layered Proustian sentences.
The perfect metaphor for Saer may be an image that so obviously enthralled him: the horizon line. In much of his work, el horizonte is as a vanishing point between clarity and a subsuming darkness, typified by the monotony of the landscape glimpsed from afar. Judging from novels such as El limonero real (1974), El entenado (1983), and Las nubes (1997), the paradox of the horizon was what transfixed him: an eternal flat-line causing a cosmic jilt. In El entenado (translated into English as The Witness), a ship’s crew stares so intently at the horizonwhat Joseph Conrad called “the magic monotony of existence between sky and water”that it eventually goes insane.
Monotony is practically an agent of change for Saer, or at least evidence of brewing instability. Unbroken flatness suggests the dissolution of boundaries; things run together. Sometimes Saer arms himself with the horizon line like a lance to puncture the armor of interiority and turn out those viscous, inner contents. Here he is in Las nubes, promising just that:
…the pinkish-blue air seemed to pin us on the inside of a glacial half-light, a sensation which increased the soporific monotony of the landscape ... everything was precise, brilliant, and a little bit unreal as far as the horizon ... which ... seemed the same, fixed in the same place; that horizon which so many consider the paradigm of the exterior world but which is nothing more than a changing illusion of our senses. [my translation]
Saer wrote Scars while in France, where he moved in 1968 and remained until his death. And it makes the horizon line something of an organizing principle. It is a novel in four parts, obliquely narrating a murder from the slanting perspectives of a young reporter, an old acquaintance of the murderer, the judge who handles the case, and, finally, the murderer himself. The book is a kind of prose Rashomon, only one in which the different perspectives of its characters do not cloud over the event in question. Instead, they retell it until the event is worn down and almost flattened out into irrelevance.
The novel’s interlocking plot lines range over the same five-month period, but cut away from it at different moments. The opening chapter is “February, March, April, May, June”and in the first ninety pages Saer sketches the full arc of the plot. Then come chapters called “March, April, May,” “April, May,” and “May.” It is in May when Luis Fiore, a hardscrabble father and indifferent husband, shoots his wife with a shotgun outside a local market. The killing is the central episode of the book, the fixed point around which everything else is arranged. And yet this pointed moment is resoundingly anti-climactic. Saer winks at us when, late in the novel, a witness who’s been asked to testify says nonchalantly to the judge: “… when I heard the shots I didn’t even flinch, because I’d seen it coming already.”
Indeed, the crime seems to be playing on a loop behind all the characters as they stumble through their own lives. The narrator of the opening chapter, a misanthropic teenager named Ángel, is already mired in a bewitching world where things darkly blur together. He opts to spend his eighteenth birthday with a prostitute, and after scrutinizing two prospects at a nearby brothel he realizes that “they were so alike” that he is not sure whom he ultimately picked. Later he tacitly asks Ernesto, the judge who will eventually preside over the inquest for the murder, what prison life is like. The answer moots the question: “it’s the same . . . inside and outside. Everything is completely the same.” Ernesto is toiling away in his free time at a translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It is ingenious, he says, because “no one else would think to translate something that’s been translated a million times already.” Repetitions bottom out into sameness. A friend of Ángel’s “gets along with everyone because he doesn’t care at all about anyone.” Behind steady appearances is, reliably, this steep drop-off into vagueness.
A writer friend gets Ángel a job as the weather reporter at a local paper, and before long he decides on two ways to write the daily forecast: “duplication or falsification.” For three weeks, “I copied letter-for-letter from what had appeared the day before I started at the newspaper.” But soon he comes up with a “genius” daily write-up: “No change in sight.” Predictably, this does not go over well with his editors. But Ángel might be forgiven his cynicism. The narrator of the second chapter, a writer and eccentric in the throes of a gambling addiction, echoes the forecast and adds a note of fatalism. “Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined … but it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future.”
Meanwhile, while Ernesto loses his mind in the third chapter, insanity beckons in the form of a recurring “black blur [that] appears and disappears … reappears and is erased again … then reappears and hangs for a moment.” He moves “in no direction at all,” watching passersby as they “narrow their eyes to sharpen and clarify the space that separates them from the horizon line, where the trees and rocks bear silent evidence of the other side, witnesses that make evidence from their silence.” The novel casts and recasts these sight lines, which run unbendingly from beginning to end. When Luis turns on his wife, he “raises the hot barrels of the shotgun up into an oblique line.”
This could not have been an easy book to translate. The Saer of Scars shows a more jagged and at times unkempt writer than the author of his velvety-prosed later novels. Dolph wisely gives slack to some of the trademark Saerian flourishes, which unspool with such ingenuity. Yet Dolph pulls things taut again when Saer, on a dime, breaks back into a sparer, knottier register. At points it seems that Saer is warring with himself to be more laconic, but cannot help but succumb to a dull, metaphysical ache. Here, an elongating effect resultsa flattening, a blur, the onset of “a sort of luminous vagueness,” to quote Henry James. At moments such as these Saer feels at once closer to us and farther away. Maybe this was how he wanted it, frozen into transparency and flux.- Jonathan Blitzer

A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel.
Though built with the bricks and mortar of fiction—point of view, plot, character, theme, etc. — the very best novels are always interrogating themselves.  They challenge. They provoke. They unsettle and confound. They ask questions about meaning rather than answering them. The reader willing to accept such books will often finish in a state of uncertainty, perplexed about what has just happened, about what has been read, about what it all means. But a door has opened in the reader’s mind, a nagging doubt exists that can only relieved over time, if at all, because the best books are always inviting us back, demanding to be reread, to be experienced again and again.
Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.
Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.
The novel’s opening section, titled “February, March, April, May, June,” introduces Angel, a young reporter for La Region, the local newspaper. Angel’s main responsibility is writing the weather headlines, a job he performs without actually checking the meteorology reports. “No Change in Sight,” he writes day after day. (Saer’s dry and subtle sense of humor peeks out often in the novel.) Angel lives with his young mother, a woman who struts around their small apartment in various stages of undress, more roommate than matriarch. While she goes out dancing, Angel rummages through her underwear drawer then masturbates in his room. Oedipal conflicts aside, Angel and his mother primarily argue over gin. In a brutal yet comedic scene, Angel beats the woman ruthlessly for polishing off his last bottle and not replacing it. “It’s my bottle. You drank my bottle,” he says, and then he proceeds to knock her senseless. This is truly one of the great dysfunctional relationships in literature.
But Angel is no mere brute. He reads Faulkner, Kafka, Raymond Chandler, Thomas Mann and Ian Fleming. A street-kid, raised by that promiscuous, alcoholic excuse for a mother, he survives by possessing an indomitable spirit and wit. You can’t help but root for him, out there in that big bad world. And at times, Saer’s world is both big and bad. The misery, layered thick in this novel, can make for a grim ambience. But Saer also works hard to tease out the inconsistencies, baffling us with magnificent bursts of light amidst such darkness.
Though sexually attracted to women, Angel is also the occasional lover of a ruthless judge named Ernesto (more on him below.)  After the murder and Fiore’s suicide (spoiler alert: at the inquest, Fiore jumps from the window of the courthouse in front of Angel and the judge), Saer provides one last spellbinding twist in this opening section, a twist pulled straight out of nineteenth century St. Petersburg. Angel falls into a feverish fugue state, reminiscent of Raskolnikov’s post-homicidal fever in Crime and Punishment. Wandering around the streets of Santa Fe, Angel runs into his double, a man alike in appearance, dress and action. In a lovely passage, Saer describes the moment of recognition.
It was a young man, wearing a raincoat that looked familiar. It was exactly like mine. He was coming right at me, and we stopped a half meter apart, directly under the streetlight. I tried not to look him in the face, because I had already guessed who it was. Finally I looked up and met his eyes. I saw my own face. He looked so much like me that I started wondering whether I myself was there, facing him, my flesh and bones really holding together the weak gaze I had fixed on him. Our circles had never overlapped so much, and I realized there was no reason to worry that he was living a life forbidden to me, a richer, more exalted life. Whatever his circle—that space set aside for him, which his consciousness drifted through like a wandering, flickering light—it wasn’t so different from mine that he could help but look at me through the May rain with a terrified face, marked by the fresh scars from the first wounds of disbelief and recognition.
So much for the opening act.
“The singular aspect of the game is its complexity,” Sergio Escalante says, describing the game of baccarat in the book’s second section. Conjuring another character from Dostoevsky — this time Alexi Ivanovich from The Gambler — Sergio is an inveterate gambler. He gambles and wins, gambles and loses, gambles and gets arrested. He gambles away his money, his friends’ money, his fourteen-year-old housecleaner’s money. Sergio gambles with a monomaniacal passion. The forays into philosophy on baccarat make up the richest writing in the book. Sergio is the consciousness of the novel. Saer’s ruminations about the game are thoughtful, elegant and unsettling. Though the subject appears to be baccarat, he might as well be talking about the novel, or about life itself.  “It (baccarat) precludes all rational behavior, and I’m forced to move through its internal confines with the groping, blind lurch of my imagination and my emotion, where the only perception available to me passes before my eyes in a quick flash, when it’s no longer useful because I’ve already had to bet blind, and then disappears.
If Sergio is the consciousness of the novel, then the judge, Ernesto, is the book’s demonic soul. He suffers from metastatic misanthropy. Ernesto appears in the third section, and though he represents the system of justice, he hates people — all people, good and bad, guilty and innocent. He shows up late for work, shuffles his schedule around to suit his whims, and refers to other people as gorillas. There’s almost nothing human left in him. He would be utterly vile except for one thing: Ernesto is translating Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. From within the rubble of his miserable existence rises Ernesto’s work. The translation of Wilde beats like a thready pulse, barely circulating his humanity. It’s not much to go on, but the translation sections complicate the reader’s reaction.
This raises an interesting question: Is Saer evangelizing some form of literary salvation? Is he saying that even the worst among us might be saved by books? Consider that the only character who is not literary in taste or inclination is Fiore, who kills his wife, jumps out a window and orphans his only daughter. Maybe he should have read more?
Saer did much of his writing in Parisian exile. He renders his homeland with precise details and images as only an estranged citizen could, at times producing a landscape so precise, so accurate, that the technique becomes, well, awkward, in, yes,  that Robbe-Grillet sort of way. A reader (like me) unfamiliar with the city of Santa Fe and the Littoral region of Argentina is left to wonder why he writes multiple passages in the Ernesto section with the monotonous certainty of a GPS navigation system. “I cross the intersection of still on 25 de Mayo to the south, and everything is left behind. On the next corner I turn right, travel a block, then turn left onto San Martin to the south.” The exile yearns for home, so he recreates the world he left behind even in the most mundane details, in the left and right turns of his characters as they travel from one place to another. Saer is remaking the map of his home.
The novel closes with thirty-three pages from Fiore’s point of view. This section covers only the span of one day, the day of the hunting trip and the murder.  We don’t travel too deeply inside the murderer’s consciousness. He mostly narrates the events in a detached dramatic soliloquy. But we feel his agony. We see the pressure mounting.  All day his wife badgers him, relentless in her infliction of misery, to the point of  literally shining a flashlight in his eyes as she berates him over and over again.
— Turn off that flashlight right now, I say
— Turn off that flashlight, Gringa, or I’m going to shoot you, I say.
She laughs. I cock back the hammer, ready to pull the trigger—the metallic sound is heard clearly over her laughter, which for its part is the only other sound in the total silence—and the light turns off. But the laughter continues. It turns into a cough. And then into her clear voice, which echoes in the darkness.
— Help me pick up all this dogshit, she says.
Life has indeed become a pile of dog shit for Fiore. By the time he pulls the trigger, we are simply relieved to be done with this menacing woman. And yet Fiore loves his wife. She is not without her charms. Her pain and extreme anxiety emanate like the beams of the flashlight which she uses to torment her husband. “And I realize I’ve only erased part of it,” Fiore says at the end of the book, “not everything, and there’s still something left to erase so it’s all erased forever.”
The wounds in this novel run deep. Each character is scarred in his or her own way, and the novel ends without any indication that they may ever heal. The haunting image of Fiore’s orphaned daughter lingers long after the final page. In one brutal act, the little girl lost both her parents. What world awaits her? What horrible scars have been inflicted upon her?  “In this respect, all the bets in baccarat are bets of desperation,” Sergio says. “Hope is an edifying but useless accessory.” A sobering truth, perhaps, but it’s an earned one, a conclusion that resists simple formulas and summary. There are no easy answers in Scars. There aren’t even easy questions. - Richard Farrell

I say “startling” not only because of the central event in the book — a husband and wife walk out of a bar and he turns and shoots her twice in the face with a shotgun — but also because of the book’s strange structure . . . well, and the fact that Saer goes into detail about billiard strategies and punto banco baccarat rules and succeeds in keeping the book interesting while using these tangents to build upon the book’s strange structure.
Scars is laid out in four parts, each narrated by a man, each laid out around the aforementioned murder.  The first part covers a large span of months and its narrative continues into the time beyond the crime; the second, shorter, part covers a smaller period of time; the third, even shorter and smaller; until we get to the fourth, which is the shortest and is a narrative of just one day — the day of the murder — from the perspective of the murder.  The fact that the book has such an overt geometrical structure that gives the reader a bit of whiplash reminded me plenty of Roberto Bolaño, though I’d certainly say that Scars is a bit more straightforward (you don’t actually have to draw a diagram to see the geometry, though it would be interesting nonetheless).
Our first narrator is Ángel, an 18 year old just making his way in the field of journalism.  His first job is to cover the weather.  He has no idea how to read the instruments, so most days the weather simply reads, “No change in sight” — and the weather is always terrible.
Ángel still lives with his 36-year-old mother.  It’s a tenuous and charged relationship to say the least.  Ángel’s only connection to the murderer is thanks to a judge who lets him sit in on the murderer’s deposition.  Surprising everybody, one moment the murder is in his seat for the deposition and, after the sound of breaking glass, the murderer’s chair is empty — he’s jumped to his death.
Ángel spends most of his days talking to the same people, trying to seduce some girl, fighting with his mother.  We readers are pulled into the repetition until that glass breaks.  The chapter ends, beautifully, with Ángel walking down a street, running into his double, someone who may be living out the same life Ángel is, but what kind of life is that?  That last bit is not meant to be a moral question; we only sense Ángel through the doldrums of his fairly vapid life — the breaking glass feels like the only time we’re dealing with someone partially awake.  It worked well, for me.
The second section is narrated by a washed-up prosecutor named Sergio.  He once knew the murderer, but they’ve been out of touch for some time.  But instead of focusing on that time, Sergio’s section focuses on Sergio’s deep addiction to baccarat, which he plays nightly (and which we play with him nightly).  He asks for money from others.  Quite upfront, he lets them know that the only reason he’s asking for the money is so he can gamble, that he’s pretty sure he will lose it all, and that it will be very difficult for him to pay them back.  One person who gives to him freely (she’s been saving) is his fourteen-year-old maid.  Though in this section Sergio spends a great deal of time explaining the rules and strategy behind baccarat, further distancing the narrator from his reader, it never became dull to me.  After all, punto banco baccarat is a game of chance, so any explanation of strategy actually says much more about the speaker than about the game itself.
The third section is told from the point of view of Ernesto, the judge in the murder case.  It’s he who allows Ángel to come to the deposition, due to a little crush as it turns out.  Not quite as engaging to me as the minutia about baccarat, I still found the judge and his character compelling.  Here’s a man who essentially despises everyone.  As he drives around the city (and, again, we are treated to the minute details of the journey), he looks around and simply sees gorillas going about their lives (again, if you can call it life).
It’s only in the last section that we actually hone in on the crime itself.  We finally meet and hear from the man who killed his wife.  Luis Fiore is a man in his upper-thirties, and he, his wife, and their daughter have gone out hunting.  We already know how this day is going to turn out, and we cringe each time a bottle of gin is lifted up, more so when the sexual energy is heightened.
She goes on reading.  I sit down next to her, on the running board, and wrap my arm around her shoulder.  She doesn’t even seem to notice that there’s an arm around her shoulders.  I start to exert pressure, pulling her heavy body against mine.
– Come here, next to me, I say. 
– Come on, Gringuita, I say. 
– Stop, she says. 
– I said stop it, she says. 
– Are you going to stop or not? she says. 
But then she relaxes and falls into my shoulder.  There’s the meadow ahead of us, extending toward the lake.  It’s empty.  My arm slides from her shoulder to her smooth, white neck.  Her open mouth presses against my hard jaw.  I can feel the dampness of her soft lips against my jaw.  Difficult to erase. 
In a low voice she says, I’m going to keep you up late tonight.
Since we know where this is going, the point is not what happened.  The book also fails completely to tell us why — and that’s, at least partly, the point. None of the first three narrators knows why the murder happened — they barely breathe above their own repetitious lives.  Worse, though the tale of the murder (from multiple sources, including a batch of witnesses) is repeated several times throughout Scars, it doesn’t seem that Fiore, whose section is told in the present tense, knows how to make sense of all that’s going on around him.  Yes, this reminded me of Bolaño, too.
Such a strange book, it gives a lot to think about as nothing is resolved.  I appreciated that immensely, though that and the repetition will surely turn off some readers.  That said, thank goodness that, after over forty years, this book has finally made its way into English. -

September 16th, 1955. A violent military coup ousts the repressive Peronist government and ushers in a new chapter in Argentine history. Although it ended a decade of censorship and political imprisonment, the ejection of Perón’s populist regime also struck a blow against a newly awakened national consciousness. Those hit hardest by Perón’s downfall were the working class, who for years thrived under Peronist policies of trade unionization, nationalization, and urban development. For them, the coup in the Plaza de Mayo not only signified a new age of political and economic uncertainty, but also a crisis in their nascent national identity.
Juan José Saer’s Scars, originally published in 1969, explores, through four interlinked narratives, thirty-nine year old laborer Luis Fiore’s violent shooting of his wife on May 1st, Argentina’s Labor Day. Set in the backdrop of post-Peronist Argentina, the novel at first appears to be a murder mystery. However, as the novel unfolds it gradually becomes evident that the where, why, and how usually found driving the plots of mystery novels are instead empty fixtures here, remnants of a world devoid of meaning.
Telling the story is: Angél, a young courtroom reporter; Sergio, a failed attorney turned gambling addict; Ernesto, a misanthropic judge obsessed with translating Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray; and finally, Fiore, the murderous husband himself. In our introduction to this character, Fiore pleads, “Whoever finds me first should kill me.” Peering into his nightmarish existence, we glimpse how hard rock bottom can be. Fiore’s superficial motive – a fit of rage following an unhappy hunting excursion riddled with his wife’s accusations of cowardice on a day of union worker solidarity – belies a deeper sense of existential despair. To the extent that each of the four narratives shares in this hopelessness, they are found to be equally involved, if not equally complicit, in the forces that finally push Fiore to the brink.
As the title suggests, the four narrators struggle to cope with the scars left in the wake of the personal and national identity crises suffered in the wake of political upheaval. Angél, Sergio, Ernesto and Fiore are all estranged from human conscience in a world perpetually enveloped in suffocating, drab ennui. Ernesto, who by day misidentifies people as gorillas and by night is terrorized by the inevitable return of a crushing depression, describes the novel’s hellish existential terror in a hauntingly captivating line:
The sun is coming up, but the wet fog surrounds the car so closely that all I can see is the inert body of the car and the slowly drifting whitish masses that have erased the waterfront, if there really is a waterfront, and which completely obscure my vision, if – beyond the fog – there really is anything for my eyes to see.
Throughout Scars the four narrators struggle desperately to find meaning in a perceptibly meaningless world.
Saer masterfully interweaves personal disillusionment with the shattered ethos of a broken nation: Sergio unwittingly participates in a trade union rally the day of his wedding, which, incidentally, falls on the day of Perón’s coup. His haplessness lands him in jail. After waiting two years for his release, his newly wed wife inadvertently poisons herself in a failed plea for attention. This interlinking between personal tragedy and national tragedy is reminiscent of works like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. And yet here the technique shifts the work outside the literary inheritance of magical realism to a place instead somewhere between Dostoyevsky’s literary realism and Sartre’s existentialism. Although often described as the successor of fellow Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, Saer, in this regard, departs from the fantastical to confront the grim everyday reality of political instability, demonstrating how we all may find ourselves a little bit sociopathic should the very seams of society ever rip open.
Although each of the four narratives describe the same sequence of events from different perspectives, each could stand alone as a vignette describing a disjointed whole. Saer’s work could thus be read as an instance of Argentine high modernism with the narrative complexity of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury or Joyce’s Ulysses. Or, conversely, Scars sometimes reads like four interrelated short stories that lack the narrative cohesion to become the novel it aspires to be, but accordingly demonstrate the fragmentary nature of Argentine political consciousness.
What links these four stories is not just the permeating sense of hopelessness, but also the faintest moments of dry humor that punctuate their telling, particularly the jabs at literary high culture. Ernesto, when he is not gambling away his life savings, pens essays with titles such as Professor Nietzsche and Clark Kent, Tarzan of the Apes: A Theory of the Noble Savage, and The Ideological Evolution of Mickey Mouse. Saer’s irreverence towards the same authors that he is most influenced by (Ernesto dismisses Dostoevsky’s The Gambler as mostly a “waste of time” for not discussing any actual gambling games) demonstrates a metafictional playfulness about genre and literature that cuts away at some of the otherwise overwhelming gloom and doom.
Saer’s description of the aftermath of Perón’s exile – through the personal tragedies of Scars’s four characters – and his depiction of the subsequent death of a nation’s spirit are significant achievements. Whenever Scars seems on the verge of becoming too heavy-handed, Saer pulls us back with his dry wit and self-deprecating humor, without ever making light of one of the darker chapters in Argentine history. Ultimately, it is the coupling of levity and sorrow, hope and despair, that transports Scars from its generic conventions as a post-war murder mystery novel to an insightful, even profound commentary on the human condition. - Allen Zhang

‘There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window,’ starts Scars, a novel – or interconnected short stories, however you want to see it – by Argentinean, Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books. What a zinger, I thought. Bet I’m going to like this. Luis Fiore kills his wife. Later, during an inquest with a judge, secretary and journalist, he throws himself out of a window, dies. These incidents are told, or referred to, in four stories, connected, sometimes tenuously, sometimes not.
The first story belongs to Angelo, a weather reporter who knows nothing about the weather. He’s having problems with his mother, a good-time girl who likes her gin. He witnesses Fiore’s suicide. Secondly there’s Sergio, an attorney who is gambling away his money and property playing baccarat. He is an old friend of Fiore. Third is the judge, Ernesto, who sees gorillas in place of people: ‘By now the gorillas will be leaving their burrows, vacating their foul-smelling nests, examining their excrement, looking at the fog through the window, turning groggily in the beds where they’ve copulated with their reddish-sexed females.’ Between work he drives around in the rain or works on a translation of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, an exercise he acknowledges to be futile.
The final and shortest story is Fiore’s. He goes out duck hunting with his family, his wife is being difficult, he shoots her.
 Sounds simple, but there’s a lot going on in Scars. Angelo talks in one section of instances where he’s spotted a man he swears is his double. He has a dysfunctional, almost sexually charged relationship with his mother. She’s young and walks around in her underwear reading comics and drinking gin, and he sits around naked with an erection, also drinking gin. I’m not too hot on psychoanalysis, but even I noticed the ominous Freudian presence, loud and proud as Angelo’s erection. But not so much that it’s a crude, paint-by-numbers Oedipal joke. It doesn’t play that way. At the end, Angelo finds his mother in bed with his best friend, Tomatis. He runs out of the house and bumps into his double, who looks at him ‘with a terrified face, marked by the fresh scars from the first wounds of disbelief and recognition.’
Magical realism manifests itself more than once – as well as Angelo’s double, there’s the judge’s primal gorilla visions and Fiore’s young daughter foreseeing the murder in a dream. Or so she says. The fantastic elements could indeed be fantastic – a random and arbitrary surrealism – or they could be the products of Saer’s unhinged characters lying or going crazy. We don’t need to know which. And I like this.
The writing is primarily realist. The characters’ lives are often mundane: they masturbate, defecate, eat soup, scratch themselves. And it’s bleak. Alcoholism, apathy, suppressed carnality, futility, self-destruction, inane obsession and nihilism – it’s all there. ‘A rotten apple is better than a healthy one,’ says Sergio, ‘because the rotten apple is closer to the truth…’ But Scars didn’t make me miserable. There is a wilful detachment, a sly objectivity, which works against this.
 The male characters in Scars are alone and disconnected. They are Baudelaire’s flâneurs, wandering the streets, driving, seldom at home: men without women. And the women are either dumbly servile or problematic frivolites who slob around reading comics (certainly not Oscar Wilde). ‘They all have a little mother in them, and a little slut,’ says Tomatis. There is, in the final story, a sense that the murder of Gringa is being justified, just a smidge. She’s negative, nagging, annoying, provocative. You don’t want her shot in the face, but you do want her to shut up. However, the extremity of Fiore’s reaction helps negate this, and, despite my highly tuned feminist nose trying to sniff out misogyny, I don’t feel that Scars is a book devoted to the destruction or disparagement of women. It’s more like a complex commentary. The men in these stories are damaged, and you’re not encouraged to relate to them, perhaps not even understand them.
One problem I have with this book is the occasional long passage of boring detail. We have that zingy firework of a first line, and then Angelo goes into a lengthy explanation of his game of pool. The firework fizzles out. Later, Sergio spends ten pages describing how baccarat is played, and Ernesto repeats his driving routes to and from work with wrist-slitting exactness. I can see Saer’s reasoning – such detail highlights the character’s passions and obsessions, as well as reinforcing the realism and setting up a contrast with the violence. But it’s overdone and skimworthy. The style throughout is simple, methodical, clear, and lovely in places. Its textures, colours, details and layers are rich, and much is soaked in significance. It’s busy and it’s clever, but it didn’t suffocate or make me feel stupid. It’s a book that demands to be re-read. And because it is – for the most part – a brilliant piece of writing, I’ll probably acquiesce. - Crystal Jeans

Of all his novels and short stories, it is For Whom the Bell Tolls that showcases Ernest Hemingway’s signature brand of maudlin, alcohol-soaked sentimentality.  Yet it remains a great novel.  The closing paragraphs, as Robert Jordan says goodbye to his María, are among the most heartbreaking ever written. Yes, I believe it would have been better if Hemingway had just written their conversation in Spanish instead of inflicting all those English thees and thous on readers.  Yes, there is something weird about his choice of the nickname Rabbit.  But the bleakness conjured by the words “We will not be going to Madrid…” has remained with me, as I imagine it has with others.
The famous epigraph that gives the book it’s title, taken from John Donne’s XVII Meditation can be attributed to Hemingway’s cynicism or prescience depending on your feelings about the man.  It ends with his hero, who valiantly aligned himself against the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, lying beneath a tree and waiting to die.  We know the Fascists, Franco’s Nationalists, ultimately win – and in doing so unlatch the gate for the coming of the second World War.   “No man is an Island, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”
Juan José Saer has set his novel, Scars, in a completely different time and place.  “La Zona” is Saer’s personal Yoknapawtapha.  It includes the city of Santa Fé, Argentina, c. the late c. 1960’s.  The books is divided into four parts.  How Saer names his parts is unusual – he uses it to compress the timeline.  Part one is February, March, April, May, June; part two is March, April, May; part three is April, May and part four is simply May. The common factor of all four narratives is a violent murder which takes place in May (the description of which is the last narrative in the book).  Luis Fiore kills his wife, La Gringa, by shooting her in the face with a shotgun. Twice.
The final part of Scars tells the story of the murder from the murderer’s perspective.  The preceding three parts only touch on that event.  Or rather, the event touches on the lives of the three men who each act as first person narrators for a section of the book.  It opens with Ángel Leto, who is a young journalist given access to Fiore by the judge on the case.  But of the 90 pages that make up Leto’s story only 7 pages and a few scattered sentences talk about Fiore or the murder.  The rest is taken up by/with Leto’s libido as he goes about his day-to-day business.  All his interactions are underlaced with an uncomfortable sexual tension.
The parts/chapters which follow are told from the perspective of an attorney and former friend of Fiore who has given himself over entirely to the game of Baccarat – spending all his money, mortgaging his house and taking the wages of his young housekeeper in order to continue gambling; and by the judge who presides over Fiore’s case – a man in a deep depression who sees the world through the narrow tunnel of his daily routine and perceives his fellow human beings as gorillas.  Lust, addiction, despair and rage – these are the drives each man’s life seems to be reduced to.  One at a time we, the readers, are trapped in an individual narrator’s head… along with his particular demon. Each of these men are connected, tenuously perhaps, by the murder.  And each is isolated, living self-absorbed lives in which everyone around them is a supporting character.
Scars is an early novel – by a writer who is considered by many to be one of Argentina’s  most important and influential authors.  As such it has it’s strengths and weaknesses.  The writing feels intentionally claustrophobic.  Steve Dolph has done a wonderful translation – somehow balancing the author’s obsession with the repetition and minutiae of his characters’ lives (a detailed explanation of the game of craps, for example), with incredibly subtle moments of true poignancy.   The Hemingwayesque styled conversations, particularly, are powerful because the prose is so stripped down.  Saer doesn’t even bother with quotation marks.
They’ve told me you live off gambling, said el Negro.
Just the opposite, I said.
Then I asked him to tell me about Fiore.  He said that he had gone hunting in Colastine Norte with his wife and their girl.  In the truck from the mill.  That on the way back they stopped at a bar.  There was an argument, and when they were leaving he shot her, twice.  I asked if the argument had been violent.  He said he didn’t really know.  He said that he had used the shotgun.
That could actually help, I said.
They’re going to give him twenty years, at least, said el Negro.
He’ll be comfortable in prison, I said.  Much more than on the outside.  It’s always more comfortable in prison, in a way.
El Negro stared at me.  The skin on his face was thick and taut.  Two cords curved from the base of his nose, dropped to the corners of his mouth, and died at his jawline.
I never thought I would find you like this, said el Negro.
Come on, Negrito, I said.  We go back.  Tell me what you can, because I’m not asking out of curiosity.
Scars ends with a postscript; the Latin words “NAM OPORTET HAERESES ESSE”.  This translates to “There must be heresies” which is actually only a partial quotation of 1 Corinthians 11:19.   The full line reads:  “For there must be heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you”.  The word heresies is sometimes translated as heretics, or as divergent sects.  The translator Heather Cleary wrote a wonderful article on Saer for the website the Quarterly Conversation  entitled The Geometry of Dissent – in which she translates HAERESES to mean heresies or divergent sects.  Saer’s plays with points of view and perceptions, allowing the story of the murder to unfold slowly as the book progresses until, at the very end,  we are allowed inside Fiore’s head (though clear answers still aren’t given).  This makes sense, though to be honest I don’t see much divergence in the facts of the case among the narrators.  Another interpretation that seems equally legitimate is “heretics”.  That these four men, each sunk in a particular vice, likeable but by no means good, are in a way the heretics.  That their miseries, obsessions, addictions are all necessary to better see (and appreciate) a life better lived.  Because, going back to Hemingway, the only way to make someone understand that no man is an island is to show him that he, in fact, is.  That we are all trapped alone in our heads*, wrapped up in our own lives and egos.  Grace is the opportunity to step outside of ourselves and be “involved in mankind”.   Juan José Saer seems to have understood that… though his characters may not.
*have you ever read a Hemingway character who wasn’t trapped in his head?? - - booksexyreview.com/2013/04/22/scars-by-juan-jose-saer-translated-from-the-original-spanish-by-steve-dolph/

Juan José Saer, Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Trans. by Steve Dolph, Open Letter, 2010.     excerpt

This entire novel consists of a discussion between two friends—one who just returned from Europe, the other a young accountant—about a grand birthday party neither one was able to attend. This doesn't stop them from swapping stories and hypotheses, which balloon into a riveting depiction of the complexities of life, especially at the dawn of Argentina's Dirty War.

It’s October 1960, say, or 1961, in a seaside Argentinian city named Santa Fe, and The Mathematician—wealthy, elegant, educated, dressed from head to toe in white—is just back from a grand tour of Europe. He’s on his way to drop off a press release about the trip to the papers when he runs into Ángel Leto, a relative newcomer to Santa Fe who does some accounting, but who this morning has decided to wander the town rather than go to work.
One day soon, The Mathematician will disappear into exile after his wife’s assassination, and Leto will vanish into the guerrilla underground, clutching his suicide pill like a talisman. But for now, they settle into a long conversation about the events of Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday—a party neither of them attended.
Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is simultaneously a brilliant comedy about memory, narrative, time, and death and a moving narrative about the lost generations of an Argentina that was perpetually on the verge of collapse.

Argentinian Saer (1937–2005) sets his novel during a walk through the streets of a seaside Argentinian city in the early '60s with a conversation comprising memories, images, and digressions in the mode of Proust and Laurence Sterne. Two characters meet in the street and walk together while discussing Washington Noriega's 65th birthday party, which neither of them attended. The elegant aristocratic Mathematician missed the soiree because he was in Europe; the plebeian Angel Leto wasn't invited. The two men veer off topic to consider the behavior of mosquitoes and whether a horse can stumble, frivolous subjects that contrast with visions of Argentina's harsh political turmoil that would occur in the near future when the mathematician's wife will be killed and Leto will disappear, suicide pill in hand. Saer reaches deep into the psychology of his characters, yet for all his skill, the streams of consciousness become arduous as does identifying with the characters on an emotional level. Think Berman film, difficult but worth the effort. - Publishers  Weekly

"In this brilliant novel, the Argentine writer Saer packs several decades of his country’s history into a single hour. (...) With meticulous prose, rendered by Dolph’s translation into propulsive English, Saer’s novel captures the wilderness of human experience in all its variety" - Jascha Hoffman

  It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.
Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:
Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]
This is a book about storytelling and reading, and we quickly begin to get a sense of the multiple layers making up Saer’s masterfully crafted narrative. Its structure is Cervantine in its multiple nested narrative frames, where a typical scene in the book may be a joke told by Washington, relayed by Botón to the Mathematician, who then tells it simultaneously to Leto and to us readers, all of which is ultimately framed by the narrator of the text we hold in our hands. To make things just a touch more complex, we can add one more frame to that structure by taking into account the fact that this is a translation.
As translator, Steve Dolph makes a wise move in choosing to preserve the long sentence structure (it is not infrequent to read more than a dozen or even a couple dozen lines of text before reaching a period) and complex syntax of Saer’s text. The style is an essential complement to the layered narrative structure of the book, and it is extremely well executed, in that it draws attention to itself as being extraordinary without being off-putting or feeling too “foreign.” Mechanically flawless, the sentences are not messy or nonsensical, and where they might demand extra attention from the reader to follow the narrative thread, the narrator himself restores balance with his habit of casually checking himself, as in “he—the Mathematician, no?—” or “—Botón I was saying, no?,” or repeating pieces of information, to clarifying and often comedic effect:
Leto follows the Mathematician’s story [. . .] with some difficulty [. . .] transparent passages that allow his imagination, turning on and off intermittently, to construct expressive and fleeting images: there was a feast at the house of someone named Basso, in Colastiné, at the end of August, to celebrate Washington’s birthday, and they had started discussing a horse that had stumbled; the Mathematician—it was Tomatis who gave him the nickname—heard about it from Botón the Saturday before on the Paraná ferry, Botón, a guy he has heard about several times but whom he has not had the pleasure of meeting, and then Washington had said that the horse was not an acceptable example for the problem they were discussing—Leto asks himself darkly, without daring to make the case to the Mathematician out of fear that the Mathematician will look down on him a little, what the hell the so-called problem could be—that the mosquito, if Leto understood correctly, would be a more appropriate creature [...]
Besides having multiple narrative frames and sentences with extraordinary numbers of commas, the text is impressive in its several concurrent narratives. There is of course the narrative of Washington’s birthday party, as well as perhaps the most obvious narrative of the characters walking down the street. Besides those two lines, there are shorter strands consisting of, for instance, the Mathematician’s commentary on his trip to Europe, or his telling of his running into Botón on the ferry to Paraná to watch a rugby game. In addition, as readers we are given access to the unvoiced thoughts and memories of Leto and the Mathematician. In Leto’s case, his thoughts are preoccupied by reflections on the recent loss of his father and childhood memories relevant to his relationship with his father and mother. The Mathematician, on the other hand, is haunted by the memory of what he calls “The Incident,” wherein he temporarily went mad in response to being stood up by a Buenos Aires poet who had promised to discuss with him the Mathematician’s laboriously crafted thoughts entitled The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter. The Mathematician does not reveal any portion of this story to Leto; it is only as readers of Saer’s text that we are privileged to play witness to this episode that is so telling of the Mathematician’s character. Later, we will see the Mathematician on a plane to Sweden, fleeing the military dictatorship in Argentina and recalling his meeting in Paris with Pichón Garay who, years after the event, attempts to recall once more the details of Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday party. This episode naturally does not figure into the Mathematician’s conversation with Leto on their walk down San Martín Boulevard, since it will be years before the dictatorship comes to power. Again, as readers of the multiply framed text, we are privileged to enjoy additional depth of context, in this case, the revelation of a darker sociopolitical setting for a mostly lighthearted comedy.
All this narrative richness is made possible through an omniscient narrator who is, atypically, also a first-person narrator. While the narrator is not himself a character who plays a role in the novel, he does take on some personality by virtue of narrating in the first person. This unusual combination creates a sense of listening to a narrated film or an audiobook: the narrator can report and comment on the observable story as well as on the characters’ unspoken thoughts, in the way no typical player could, and yet we are continually reminded that there is a human voice behind the narration. The reader, just as Leto—who joins the Mathematician on the street for a stroll and a story—walks alongside the narrator while he unravels his tale.
In his debut translated book, Dolph brings us a delightful read, with language that tickles the brain and a style that highlights Saer’s inventiveness and expertly conveys his sense of humor—muted, pseudo-academic, at times a little bit sad, much like Washington’s own “subtle irony, which should probably leave you thoughtful and could, at the most, make you smile, inwardly more than anything“—the kind that elicits more a half snicker than an LOL, less likely to attract strange looks from, say, fellow commuters as you read The Sixty-Five Years of Washington on your way downtown
- Emily Davis

Angel Leto and an acquaintance named The Mathematician—who, deeply tanned and always dressed in all white, “seems less like a flesh and bone person than one of those archetypes you see on billboards, those for whom every contingency inherent to humanity has disappeared”—walk twenty-one blocks together through the city, discussing a party celebrating politician Jorge Washington Noriega’s sixty-fifth birthday despite the fact that neither of them were in attendance. In long, clause-on-clause sentences, this ambling conversation forms the basic plot of Argentinian Juan José Saer’s novel The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.
The peripatetic plot is merely a device for Saer to try out unconventional methods of narration and storytelling, all while relating the form to the content. The novel asks the reader to learn to read in a new way, as the details of the story itself are unfolded very slowly, with many pages going by between lines of dialogue. Everything is related in a very fragmentary way, seemingly to echo a thought the Mathematician had during a dream, in which there exists an “elemental mechanical paradox that demonstrates that motionlessness is what creates motion, that motion is simply a reference to motionlessness.” Some of the novel is narrated in a straightforward manner, as when the Mathematician tells a story in which he attempted to discuss his treatise called The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter with a celebrated poet (strangely, perhaps, one of the novel’s most gripping sections). At times, however, the narrator just slams everything to halt, and seems to focus on these moments of motionlessness and possibility, as in this early bit:
It is, as we know, morning: though it doesn’t make sense to say so, since it is always the same time—once again the sun, since the earth revolves, apparently, has given the illusion of rising, from the direction they call the east, in the blue expanse we call sky, and, little by little, after the dawn, after daybreak, it has reached a spot high enough, halfway in its ascent let’s say, so that, through the intensity of what we call light, we refer, to the state that results, as the morning—a spring morning when, again, though, as we were saying, it is always the same time, the temperature has been rising, the clouds have been dissipating, and the trees which, for some reason, had been losing their leaves bit by bit, have begun to bloom again, to blossom once more, although, as we were saying, it is always the same, the only Time and, so to speak, from equinox to solstice, it’s the same, no?
It’s a kind of writing that certainly won’t appeal to everyone, but Saer often pulls back, offering slightly more succinct descriptions, such as when Leto and the Mathematician evade obstacles on their walk: “simultaneously [they] bent their left leg, lifting it over the cable with the intention, more unconscious than calculated, of planting the bottom of their foot on the sidewalk, no? Alright then: they plant their feet.” (Those “no?”s that appear here are sprinkled all over the novel, as a reminder that there is a listener who is not a part of the story.)
The narrator jumps far into the future at times, explaining the ends of lives before we’ve even seen the end of the twenty-one blocks, and then back to the present, to slow the narrative back to barely moving. Saer plays a lot with this, all while peppering the novel with many quote-worthy sections, such as the Mathematician’s hatred of the “bloodlust bourgeoisie,” or this aside regarding another acquaintance, Tomatis, “for whom every example of the female sex whose measurements in the chest, waist, and thighs did not correspond to those of Miss Universe [was] an indistinct and transparent creature,” and the general nonstop flow of wisdom from the Mathematician, who insists that “whosoever looks to swim unaided in the colorless river of postulates, syllogistic modes, categories, and definitions should accompany his studies with a strict dietary regimen: fed on yogurts and blanched vegetables, the abstract order of everything, in its utmost simplicity, will be revealed, ecstatic and radiant, to the relentless, recently bathed ascetic.”
Saer makes use of that “utmost simplicity” with his easy plot, while ecstatically and radiantly writing of “the abstract order of everything” as well. It’s not a perfect novel—even at a slim 203 pages, it’s a bit overlong and the middle passage gets tiresome—but the opening and closing thirds are phenomenal, demonstrating a dazzling unification of form and function. - Scott Bryan Wilson

To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky.—Juan José Saer
WHEN IS THE LAST TIME you went on a good walk with a friend? Cell phones off, eyes fixed on the path in front, minds alert and the conversation buzzing?  A good walk opens the ears and the heart to storytelling, creating a sacred space in between two individuals as they make their way.  Juan José Saer invites us on such a walk in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.  But, reader be warned: this is no ordinary stroll and this is no ordinary novel.
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington follows Angel Leto and “the Mathematician” as they walk through the city center of Santa Fe, Argentina. “Suppose it’s October,” the narrator begins, “October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.”  This uncertain narrator interrupts frequently and becomes a third protagonist in the novel as he narrates the journey, conversation and thoughts of the characters and supplies ongoing, humorous commentary.  The conversation quickly turns to the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, a party which neither man attended.  Washington is an elusive character; we don’t know much about him.  He writes lectures on the Colastine Indians (“Location, Lineage, Langauge & Logic”); he was arrested once, and avoided prison by going to a mental hospital; he throws wild birthday parties for his younger friends. The Mathematician heard his version of the party a week earlier from one of the attendees, Botón, as the two men rode a ferry.  Leto hears his version from the Mathematician.  The reader, of course, hears all of these accounts from the narrator. The party attracted les enfants terribles of Argentina, young artists, poets and political activists ready to disrobe, fight and snort coke into the wee hours of the morning. You want to be at this party, but, like Leto and the Mathematician, you can’t attend, so you must be willing to accept a re-telling (hyphenated emphasis intended throughout) of the event as the men stroll through the city.
This device of re-telling is crucial. By not going directly at the events the way a traditional narrative might, Saer creates distance between the characters in the novel and the dramatic action.  This recursive structure forces us to question the very idea of what happened at this party, and, on a deeper level, what is happening in the novel. Saer challenges the notions of verisimilitude and truth.  And with this technique, the re-telling of the events at the party mimics our reading of the novel itself (of any novel, really), by recreating a version of reality through the description of events not directly experienced by the characters or the reader.  Saer seems to be jack-hammering at the foundations of storytelling.
As the men walk, they encounter various sights and sounds of the city: shops opening, music playing from a record store, a child riding a bicycle.  Divided into three, seven-block sections, the novel runs two-hundred pages; the walk spans only an hour of time.  In spite of this limited time, mundane sensory details are drawn out and thoughts and questions meander through crosswalks and red lights, so that the novel-time feels quite expansive.  Yet the focus always returns to the story of the party, the details of which are revealed in fragments and riddles, interrupted by flashbacks and two long flash-forward sections.  Because the text is written in the present tense, it’s easy for the narrator to disappear and easy for the reader to forget that someone is narrating from a point in the semi-distant future.
The Mathematician and Leto seem to ‘remember’ events at the party—Noca’s tripping horse, the three mosquitoes, an attempted rape and a baggie of cocaine—as if they have really experienced them.  But, of course, they haven’t.  Leto, on hearing a detail about the party, thinks how he must re-draw the mental picture he was forming of a house he has not seen:
…the others dispersed around the patio and the house, on a mild evening, at the ranch in Colastiné, to which Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never smelled, touched, or tasted, but which has been stamped unequivocally inside him, golden with its head of white foam, probably in circular glasses, that, without realizing it, Leto makes coincide with, or deduces, rather, from his memories.
At times, this style can be frustrating. How do you suspend disbelief when the narrator keeps telling you not to believe in what’s happening?  But Saer holds our interest with his elegant sentences and his precise command of the interior mental spaces of his characters.
The novel flirts with omniscience, but it’s an unreliable omniscience, nested in a series of narrative versions (a tactic of Cervantes).  “Instinct. Set in motion by, the Mathematician says that Beatriz said, and always, and more or less, according to Boton.” The phrase ‘more or less’ appears again and again as the narrator grows exasperated with his own narration.  The narrator never lets us forget that none of this is real:
But let’s be clear: assuming that we agree that—as we have been saying from the start—all of this is just more or less, that what seems clear and precise belongs to the order of conjecture, practically of invention, that most of the time the evidence is only briefly ignited and extinguished beyond, or behind (if you prefer), what they call words, assuming from the start we have agreed about everything, to be clear let’s say for the last time, though it’s always the same: all of this is just more or less and as they say—and after all, what’s the difference
Reading this novel, we travel through spaces of elegant uncertainty.

Castro and Frondizi, circa 1959
The twenty years following the 1958 ouster of Juan Peron were  times of political strife, societal upheavals and violence in Argentina. Peron, exiled in Spain by 1961, had been replaced by Arturo Frondizi who instituted harsh austerity measures.  The brutal violence of Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983) is dealt with proleptically (or apocalyptically, as in the biblical genre) also in the two critical flash-forward segments.  Saer eschews direct commentary on the political and historical issues of the day, mentioning them only as backdrops of the front story.  This is not an historical novel, even though reading it without an understanding of the history would diminish the experience. The novel takes place at the hinge between the delusional Peronist past and the terrible future of Argentina.
Born in Argentina in 1937, Saer grew up outside of Buenos Aires, the literary and cultural center of his country. He later lived and wrote in Paris, but his fiction tended away from a Europeanized literature, even away from the popular Latin American writing of his time.  His writing reflects the stories, characters and events on the periphery of the cultural epicenters and the big cities. His break from the traditions of other famous Latin American writers—Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Márquez, and Allende—was an attempt to create  what Saer called “literature without attributes,” work that challenges the conventional assumptions of both the reader and literature at large.  Without the aid of magical realism or the baroque architecture of the Boom novel, Saer writes seemingly simple, even prosaic characters and plots.  But his goal is to defamiliarize (and thereby reawaken) our perceptions of everyday reality, in this case through the use of two characters with an outsider’s perspective.
The Mathematician missed the party because was abroad in Europe. His sensibilities and style reflect a continental arrogance that belies his deep insecurity.  He dresses entirely in white, right down to his sockless feet and Florentine white moccasins, espousing an intellectual idealism, but one that is underpinned with shame and self-doubt.  “I was born among uninteresting people,” he thinks, and he fears that others will “perceive uninteresting things in me.”  His idealism runs headlong into his anxiety, no more so than in a scene where he fears soiling his white pants against the sooty bumper of a car.  He’s convinced that his circle of friends have lived better, more exciting lives, in his absence.  Yet the redemptive feature of his character is precisely that he’s aware of his flaws.  Painstakingly aware.

Lapacho tree. “The flowered tops of the lapachos, without leaves, composed entirely of blooms…emit a kind of rose colored luminosity…
Leto, on the other hand is subdued, somber, more “of the land,” though he, too, is the consummate outsider. Leto was not invited to Washington’s party, and the snub scars him. He lives at home with his mother who complains mercilessly about the suicide of her husband, Leto’s father.    Memories of the suicide play out in heartbreaking flashback scene in the novel’s first section.  His mother tries to erase the memory, tries to alter the reality of what happened by creating excuses and explanations.  “He suffered so much” she says to her son.  But it’s Leto, we learn through the two long flash-forwards, who will shoulder the burden of his family and take up an armed resistance during Argentina’s Dirty War.  It is Leto who will carry a suicide pill in his pocket, who will fight against the repressive governmental forces, and who will run to the hills as a hunted outlaw.  Leto’s fate will be that of the hero, though he lacks any such awareness wandering through the streets of Santa Fe.
At the heart of Saer’s novel are meditations: on memory, on being, on the subjective and objective expressions of reality, and on approaching the ‘unsayable’ in prose. The two events occupying the bulk of the novel—the twenty-one block stroll through the busy streets of an Argentine city and the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega—create a narrative filled with doubt and questions.  You finish the book (and the walk) pondering the nature of reality, of existence and of fiction itself.  Saer approaches reality in fits and starts.  Slowly, carefully, he fragments the narrative into specific, almost prosaic pieces of experience, but upon re-assembling those bits, he forces us to examine again, carefully and more comprehensively, the sum of the whole.  We can’t picture with ‘absolute clarity’ all the images that roll across our eyes as we read.  We apprehend reality only in gradations, always loaded with assumptions and vague memories, some false, some true.  It’s only on reflection that the whole begins to have some meaning.
It takes time and concentration to fall into Saer’s languorous rhythms, his dense syntax, long sentences laden with subordinate clauses, clamping along at the speed of an over-loaded freight train pulling out of the station. Or, maybe it’s not a freight train.  Maybe his sentences move at the precise pace of a stroll along Avenida San Marcos in 1961.  And maybe the real joy of reading this novel is in the slowing down, in experiencing the unfamiliarity of the familiar, in turning the mundane into the sublime.  Saer captures little moments and distills them, so that what remains is pure and beautiful, and also intoxicating.  He creates precise, perfect images through his prose, but also questions the very fabric from which those images are made, the very fabric of language itself.  “The viewer can easily intuit that the visible area is just a fragment, and the eye, reaching the edges where the surface folds, senses the indefinite extension of the intricate apparition continuing, with its unexpected combination of colors, of densities, of speeds, of jumps and accumulations, of abrupt turns and temperatures, beyond the tormented canvas.” Richard Farrell

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. -

In an article about Argentina’s bicentennial, n+1 founder and editor Benjamin Kunkel commented that in that country, “crisis has enforced creativity.” Holding up the nation’s artistic triumphs as a positive outcome of its tragic history is problematic, to say the least. And yet it’s hard to argue with the growing body of evidence for Kunkel’s claim, to which Juan José Saer’s most recently translated novel, “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington,” rendered in English by Steve Dolph, is a formidable addition. Despite frequent patches of unwieldiness, the book’s nuanced exploration of trauma, consciousness, and memory is nevertheless engaging; through Saer’s demanding style, a stark, elegiac beauty often shines.
“The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” follows two acquaintances, Angel Leto and the unnamed Mathematician, who stroll through the seaside town of Santa Fe on an October morning in 1961. Saer often digresses, detailing incidents in the two men’s lives before and after their walk together, but always returns to a birthday party that the two men missed over the weekend, held for the militant-turned-academic Washington Noriega.
It should be clear that Saer’s politics are not particularly subtle. Washington Noriega, whose name is a composite of two symbols of U.S. intervention in Latin America, is omnipotent and omnipresent but oddly passive throughout the novel. His influence casts a heavy layer of ennui that penetrates beyond the characters’ disappointment at having missed the party. If this sounds heavy-handed, it is. For some U.S. readers, the psychological complexity of Saer’s narrative might belie its simplistic politics—the characters live in fear of “the government,” carry suicide pills, and fawn over Noriega, whose ludicrous back story only makes sense as an allegory.
Saer is all too willing to include polemical non sequitur—as the men pass a church on their walk, he can’t resist adding “that some religions, as if the presence of a creator were not evident in the creation itself, need to make use, to demonstrate his existence, of some sign of his existence that’s separate from the objects he created.” This didacticism recalls Orwell and Huxley, and may seem outmoded to those accustomed to the political ambivalence of contemporary American fiction. It is only in the context of Argentina’s tragic twentieth century, which saw authoritarianism, torture, and assassinations continue well into the late 1970s, that Saer’s angry politics begin to make sense.
Saer is more successful in his rendering of Leto’s and the Mathematician’s interior states. Although the men are ostensibly in conversation with each other for the entire novel, each is preoccupied with his own thoughts, which Saer presents with painstaking attention to psychological consistency and detail. It is established early on that the Mathematician “swim[s] in the colorless river of premises, of propositions, of postulates,” but his emotional detachment and stubborn rationalism are only revealed gradually. When, at the end of the book, he earnestly tries to formulate an equation to describe his feeling of separation from his surroundings, the effect is dramatic but not overwhelming, because Saer has applied the Mathematician’s layers of alienation so carefully. Leto’s actions at the end of the novel are drastic in a different way, but Saer prepares the character just as carefully.
Yet the great strength of “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” does not lie in its politics or its people. Rather, it can be found in Saer’s portrayal of the inadequacy of memory, and the flaws in human perception of reality. He is deeply interested in how memories are created and recalled, and is careful to record everything that lingers in the character’s minds as well as everything that they forget. Leto, the Mathematician, and their friends all construct false memories, and forget incidents that are true and important. Saer’s shimmering mirage of reality disorients and frustrates, always at the service of the larger tragedy of human fallibility.
Unfortunately, this style is inconsistently effective. Saer’s sentences wind on and on, doubling back, interjecting, correcting themselves. The effect is the same rewarding headache that Faulkner’s novels have been known to induce, but it should be noted that the rewards offered by “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” are fewer and further between. Saer’s ramblings have none of the economy of Faulker’s prose. “They are going nowhere, in fact,” Saer observes of Leto and the Mathematician, “and unburdened, you could say, of duties or destination, they walk inside an integral, palpable actuality that spreads through them and that they likewise disperse, a delicate and transient organization of the physical—delimiting and containing, during an unforeseen lapse, the dismaying and destructive blind drift of things.” The narrator’s voice has the immediacy of any good stream of consciousness, but unpacking the layers of subordinate clauses does not yield much beyond a vague sense of erudition. These stylistic convolutions exist only for their own sake, and given Saer’s impressive intellect and moral conviction, he might have invested his florid prose with more political urgency.
Given its lofty historical and ontological concerns, it is easy to forget that “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” is ultimately a travel narrative: a morning’s journey of 21 blocks. Saer punctuates his characters’ musings with descriptions of Santa Fe, and he fixates on a conception of “the city not as though it were divided into neighborhoods or sections, but rather into territories in the animal sense, an archaic and violent demarcation of ritual, bloody defense.” Yet Saer seems more interested in the social fragmentation of national trauma than in its geographical repercussions. In his Argentina, people are isolated from each other, and they are lucky if their experiences overlap enough to chat about Washington Noriega’s birthday last weekend. That may be the case, but it’s fortunate that this latest translation affords one last chance to glimpse Saer’s distorted and provocative inner world.
Abigail B. Lind

What I love most about literature is the rare experience of encountering a worthy mind. It’s not just about the story or the plot or the arc or the characters or the formula or the climax or the talent or the craft, it’s about how this other sees the world and expresses what they see. I want to know how their mind works, the connections it makes, the impressions it conveys. I don’t want to merely read to find out what’s going to happen, or how it’s all going to end, or what it’s going to make me feel. I don’t want to be nothing more than a passive subject operated upon as if mechanically by some technician who knows precisely how to manipulate my emotions. I can always watch a movie for that! When I read I want to come in contact with a mind through which I can discover new perspectives. This book – The Sixty Five Years of Washington, by Juan Jose Saer,  gave me such an experience.
I felt like I could live in this book, and it’s not something easily done. The structure of the story is simply two men walking together down a city street for less than an hour one morning, and the plot, if you can call it that, centers around their conversation about a birthday party that neither one attended. But I felt I was on that street with them, walking along beside them, listening not only to their words but to their internal digressions, their meandering thoughts, and feeling my way along with them through the pedestrian and vehicle traffic. The two men are not friends, just mutual acquaintances, who meet by accident and happen to be going the same way, but their worlds intersect and criss-cross on many levels. What matters in the book is, to put it in a word (or as the author says, “in two words, to be more precise”), “every things”.
There’s a lot I liked in the author’s style, the translation, the language, his “bag of tricks” so to speak, but ultimately I kept reading with excitement to see what he was going to say next, what he was going to make me see next, what new world I was going to be able to glimpse. - Tom Lichtenberg

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is that special kind of European novel of dissolution and burnout that can best be achieved by Latin American sensibilities. Think Albert Camus' The Fall with the political pretexts of Augusto Roa Bastos' I The Supreme.
"Suppose it's October, October or November, let's say in '60 or '61," begins Juan José Saer, the heralded Argentine expat who died in Paris in 2005. A young accountant named Leto decides not to go into work and strides off down the Argentine seaside city of Santa Fe. There, he encounters a man known as the Mathematician: young but already world-weary, a snappily dressed snob in white who lives in a realm of postulates and programs, despises the "bloodlust bourgeoisie" who join tennis clubs, and thinks that a great portion of Kafka would make sense if one were only to visit Prague.
The Mathematician has just come back from an academic European tour and is walking the streets to drop off his writing about his excursion to the paper. "It's not enough to travel through Europe. You've got to publish it too," he jokes with a sense of self-deprecating entitlement.
In every way the pair are each other's opposite, and the conversation goes to the predetermination of horses, the metaphysics of mosquitoes, the folly of free will, the meaning of stains on trousers and the life of the enigmatic political figure Jorge Washington Noriega. Both men have missed his 65th birthday party and re-create the event via gossip as they walk the 21 blocks of Saer's fiction.
The two men are separated by their classes, their intentions and their vocations. This is the only time to have these discussions, an axis point in each individual's fortune. "To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky."
In time, the murkiness in these men will map them. Our accountant will prize a suicide pill as a totem that can save him from the demands of broken politics and bad faith. He will be found sleeping on the floor fully dressed, weapons nearby, chewing on candy as he has given up alcohol to better focus on his militancy. The Mathematician, sinfully aloof, will disappear into a dense exile, becoming an infinitely diminishing specter: a problem for math.
And the reader will enjoy the repetitions and asides in Saer's just-translated 1986 novel, sauntering down an Argentine street, musing on fate and responsibility, veering with these characters toward climates of comfort and alarm. - Roberto Ontiveros

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington nominally covers barely an hour on an October (or maybe November) morning in 1961 (or so). It is divided into three sections, each covering the seven blocks the protagonists walk through the Argentine city of Rosario.
       It begins with Leto deciding to: "let himself get lost in the bright morning" instead of heading straight off to work, and as he begins his aimless stroll he runs into the man known as the Mathematician, who has just returned from Europe and is off on an errand (to drop of a press release from the Chemical Engineering Students Association to the newspapers); they continue down the streets together. One thing they have in common is that they missed the big party at a ranch, celebrating the sixty-five years of Washington -- Jorge Washington Noriega's sixty-fifth birthday. Leto wasn't invited, while the Mathematician couldn't get back in time from Europe.
       Their perambulations are almost arbitrary -- the Mathematician does have a task at hand, but it's a simple, straightforward one -- but the account itself ranges much further, describing both background and also looking ahead to the future, to an Argentina in violent turmoil where Washington is dead, the Mathematician in European exile after his wife was killed in 1974, and Leto has been living in hiding for years and finally finds himself compelled to bite down on the suicide pill he had long carried with him.
       At one point the Mathematician mentions some famous lectures given by Washington:
     Leto has heard about them -- in a fragmentary way, of course, like, in a similar way, everything relating to Washington.
       (Indeed, readers maybe reminded of the central text in Saer's The Investigation, "the famous anonymous dactylogram discovered among Washington's papers" after his death.)
       The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is not so much about the event that the two main characters missed, but rather a larger span of Argentine history -- including the almost two decades after the celebration -- and the imprint it left (and will leave) and consequences it has on a variety of people. The presentation is, to some extent, fragmentary, but Saer seeks to convey that natural sort of layering of events and friends in one's orbit and across time: the here and now, as they walk those twenty-one blocks at the beginning of the1960s is the focal point through which all is refracted, while past and future come into the picture more diffusely.
       In its layerings and digressions The Sixty-Five Years of Washington can feel like an aimless walk; certainly one has to be in the proper mood to go with this sort of winding, sometimes labored flow; if one is, then Saer's novel does offer rewards. - M.A.Orthofer


Juan José Saer, The Witness, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa. Serpent's Tail, 2009.            read it at Google Books

In sixteenth-century Spain, a cabin boy sets sail on a ship bound for the New World. An inland expedition ends in disaster when the group is attacked by Indians.
The Witness explores the relationship between existence and description, foreignness and cultural identity.

A 15-year-old cabin boy, en route from Spain to the New World in the 16th century, is the sole survivor of a raid in a remote part of the world. He lives with his Indian captors for a decade and witnesses their annual cannibalistic festivals. The Indians hunt their prey from surrounding tribes or explorers' expeditions, then roast and eat it with a combination of obsessive desire and apprehension. Then the tribe drinks to excess and falls into an uncharacteristic orgy from which it spends lethargic months recuperating. But perhaps most odd, the raiding parties always leave one survivor, def-ghi. The word means many things, including scout or a thing reflected in water. For the Indians, an existentially insecure lot whose word for ``to be'' is most nearly translated ``to seem,'' def-ghi affirms their existence--cannibalism roots the tribe in its history as the visitor bears witness. This is a lyric meditation on the reification of our shadowy world through ``assiduous memories that cannot always be grasped.'' Argentinian-born Saer's first book to appear here contains none of the usual heroes or conventions. It's a swashbuckling philosophical treatise that combines anthropology, semiotics and a dose of cannibal gore. - Publishers Weekly

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. -

Those who are new to Juan José Saer's prose are in for a treat. This beautifully carved novella by the Argentinian-born writer, who died four years ago, is a mini masterpiece. It traces the journey of a nameless 16th-century cabin boy from Spain to the New World, and at its heart is the darkness of cannibalism: when their ship arrives on an island, the boy's fellow sailors and captain are all killed. Their bodies are taken back to the islanders' camp, skinned and eaten – the start of a ceremony that leads to drunkenness, sexual orgies and eventually, for some of the participants, illness and death. The boy is allowed to leave the island 10 years later, but by then has forgotten his own language and can only communicate in the grunts and gestures of the primitive islanders with whom he has spent so much time.
José Saer draws parallels between the so-called "civilised" world and an ancient, more primitive one, to cast doubt upon the values of Renaissance Europe that we have inherited. It is a spell-binding, provocative and disturbing read. - Lesley McDowell

Front Cover

Juan José Saer, The Event, Trans. by Helen R. Lane, Serpent's Tail, 1995

Blanco the magician is famous throughout Europe for his telepathic powers. Undermined by a conspiracy and exposed to the world as a charlatan, Blanco is forced to flee to Argentina, where he takes up with the voluptuous Gina. This book received Spain's Nadal Prize for fiction in 1988.

Front Cover

Juan José Saer, Nobody Nothing Never. Trans. by Helen R. Lane. Serpent's Tail, 1993.

During a stifling Argentinian summer, a horse-killer is on the loose. Cat Garay, heir to a once-prosperous, now dilapidated family, and his lover Elisa protect a horse from certain mutilation and death. An intense sexual affair and a desultory hunt for the killer are played out on the banks of the Parana river in an atmosphere of political anxiety and disintegration. The haunting prose of Nobody Nothing Never confirms Juan Jose Saer's reputation as the most innovative Latin American writer of his generation.

Front Cover

Juan José Saer, The investigation, Trans. by Helen Lane, Serpent's Tail, 1999.
A serial killer has brutally murdered 27 elderly women in the Bastille area of Paris. Every victim seems to have invited the killer into her home, to have enjoyed a meal, even a celebration before her death. In Argentina, meanwhile, an untitled manuscript by an unnamed author is discovered amongst the papers of a missing poet, known for his hatred of the novel. The Investigation is both a crime novel and a journey into the psyche of horror. It shows Saer at his very best.

The Investigation involves what at first certainly appear to be two separate story-lines. In one, Parisian police Captain Morvan is leading an investigation into the murder of twenty-seven (and, by the end, several more) old women; in the other, longtime Parisian resident Pigeon has returned to Buenos Aires for a visit and, along with several friends, pursues their mutual interest in: "the famous anonymous dactylogram discovered among Washington's papers, the 815 typed pages of the historical novel In the Greek Tents." (Washington -- and other characters -- also figure in Saer's earlier The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.)
       The murder investigation is a frustrating one, as the old women all appear to trust their executioner, letting him into their homes and often even sharing a meal with him before they are brutally mistreated, raped, and murdered:
Thus far in this century, no individual has killed as much, or with as much personal style, or perseverance, or as much cruelty.
       And, as if to taunt the investigators by his proximity, ever since they established a 'Special Bureau' to work on the case:
his radius of activity, as they say, has grown shorter and shorter, so that the imaginary circumference of the circle around the bureau within which he committed his crimes was narrowing somewhat
       (Hmmm, wonder where that could be going ?)
       The mystery of the manuscript also centers around identification, about who is behind it:
     Among Washington's friends, the discovery of the dactylogram produced, needless to say, tremendous agitation, and of the many enigmas contained in the 815 pages, the identity of the author is one of the most impenetrable.
       And then there is of course the first-person narrator, who for the most part stands very discreetly in the background (most of the novel is not in the first person) but does note -- very familiarly -- early on:
     Knowing you as I do, you must be wondering what place I occupy in this story, I who seem to know more about the facts than what they reveal at first glance and speak of them and transmit them with the mobility and ubiquity of someone who possesses a multiple, omnipresent consciousness
       The mystery-novel, the 'dactylogram' In the Greek Tents, begins with ellipsis dots, and: "the first sentence is not really a complete one but, rather, the conclusion of a sentence all of whose supporting arguments are missing" -- and The Investigation, too, begins, with a statement thrusting readers into the middle of much that remains unknown. Saer's puzzle is elaborate, and much of the fun he has with it is in the elaboration of what surrounds it. It should come as no surprise that the two storylines connect, but what Saer does nevertheless surprises: this is not an obvious investigative procedural, but rather cerebral fiction with a criminal edge, the puzzle as much intellectual as criminal (though the book also offers many of the satisfactions of solid crime fiction).
       The scenes of the brutal murders are, like a work of fiction, carefully staged; indeed: "It made almost too much sense," Morvan at one point thinks. All of The Investigation is staged and presented in this careful way, the artifice of the art behind it even emphasized, and meant not to be forgotten even where it seems a realist work.
       Clever stuff, and well done. - M.A.Orthofer

The metaphysical detective story, in which the business of solving a crime is inextricable from philosophical concerns, seems a peculiarly modern literary game, exemplified by Paul Auster’s scintillatingly refractive New York Trilogy. But the first writer of detective stories was one of the genre’s most metaphysical-minded practitioners, Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, the very idea of a detective story hugs to itself questions about the nature of truth and how the world is to be read, so that the modern “straight” detective novel is a debasement of a richly suggestive form. The true heirs of detective fiction are the most ludic and literary of modern fabulists rather than the lurid genre hacks filed under “crime”. One of the greatest writers in this tradition is Jose Luis Borges, whose story “Death and the Compass” sees a murderer and detective arguing over cabbalism and Greek geometry. The detective, Lönnrot, likes to think of himself as “an Auguste Dupin” — and Auguste Dupin, by the way, is the name of Poe’s original detective hero. Elementary.
With a title that is on the one hand as forbiddingly hermetic and on the other as provocatively Platonic as The Investigation, it is no surprise that Argentinian novelist Juan Jose Saer’s latest book (written in 1994, but only now translated from the Spanish) owes far more to Borges than to Colin Dexter. It tells two stories. In one, a Parisian police inspector, Morvan, hunts a serial killer who butchers old women of the 11ème in their homes. In an amusingly Borgesian triangulation, the perimeter of the murder locations is closing in around Morvan’s own police headquarters, while Morvan himself is troubled by dreams of a ghostly city. The other story takes place in Buenos Aires, where three friends examine an anonymous 800-page prose manuscript that has been found among the papers of a dead Argentine poet who hated novelists.
In fact, Soldi, the youngest among the three friends, christens the book not a manuscript but a “dactylogram”, a coinage for which Saer gives no explanation. It is almost a straight Graecified transliteration of “manuscript”, but it also carries the sense of sign-language, constructing meaning with the fingers. This is pertinent because the other two men, Pigeon and Tomatis, the latter of whom has just returned to Argentina after 20 years in Paris, are old friends whose affections are redrawn, over the course of one hot summer day and evening, on meanings that are never spoken, but constructed by sleight of hand, through pregnant trades of stories and beers.
It would be invidious to reveal the connection between these two fictions: one of the great pleasures afforded by The Investigation is its dazzling loops and conjurings, so that no voice is what it first appears. The novel’s very first line contains a “however”, as if continuing an argument that was previously an inaudible murmur between the closed pages on the shelf; the first six pages consitute an epic period, a virtuoso via negativa of enumeration, classification and reclarification that only reveals its rationale later on; and the narrator, most surprisingly, suddenly claims to know the reader well, and bases his rhetorical scheme on our imagined questions.
Literary detection has an essentially hermeneutical aspect. Just as Morvan tries to make sense of the killer, so Saer’s other characters try to make sense of the world. None of them gets very far. Indeed, to Morvan, the gorily Dionysian chaos of a murder scene makes “almost too much sense, infinitely more than the derisory amount of it that an ordinary mind resigns itself to making of the opaque and nearly mute world”. The world itself is precisely a dactylogram, communicating in a sign-language the visual glossary to which has been stupidly mislaid or never existed. We have only the surface, which unfortunately is unreal: the shade of a tree is “illusory”, the drone of a motor is “an illusion”; Pigeon and Tomatis, phlegmatically, “have resolved, almost by instinct, to take things as they come, one by one, in the perhaps illusory order in which they present themselves”.
The Investigation is also, again in the true detective tradition, a story about truth and fiction, and how they are not opposites. The dactylogram is called In The Greek Tents, and set over one night in the Greek camp outside Troy, the evening before the wooden horse is accepted by the unwitting enemy. Two soldiers converse: the Old Soldier, who has been with the army for nearly 10 years, knows very little about the campaign except its sheer mind-numbing length. The Young Soldier, meanwhile, has just arrived, but knows everything about the war thanks to the heroic stories and songs back home. Empiricism doesn’t get you everywhere.
Saer’s writing mixes fabulously sensuous descriptions (on a riverboat journey, the reader moves among acres of lovingly individuated plants that bleach under “the arid, gleaming sun, surrounded by fusing splinters and spots, as though incandescent matter has been raining down all through their passage”), with abstract asides of an almost Conradian opacity (the mind is “the internal transparency that wavers and grows thinner”). Saer does not avoid portentousness; rather, he confronts it and amplifies it into an ironically apocalyptic nihilism. When Pigeon buys a box of cigars and imagines Tomatis’s pleasure on receiving them, it is described as “a sort of pleasant anticipated memory, an experience lived intensely before the deadly talons of what is actually occurring seize it, trivialize it and then dump it, without rage or remorse, into the dustbin of oblivion.”
This comic crescendo is essentially humane: Saer is sympathising with his character’s frustrations, and recommending derision, and perhaps another cigar. The emotional core of the book is in this story of friendship, and this provisional warmth, alternating with the icy brilliance of Morvan’s murder mystery, invokes delightful climatic shivers. In this superbly playful novel, the cosmos might be elaborately futile, but for all true detectives, beer and conversation are defence enough for now against the absurd. -  Steven Poole

The Geometry of Dissent: On the Novels of Juan José Saer
by He

Juan Jose Saer
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.
Eternal Returns
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.

Steve Dolph is the translator of three books by the late Argentine novelist Juan José Saer, who died in Paris in 2005. All three were published by Open Letter Books, the most recent (June ’14) being Saer’s final, unfinished novel, La Grande. Mr. Dolph is currently a Ph.D. candidate in Hispanic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, where his research treats Renaissance ecopoetics and the pastoral tradition. His most recent translation, of Sergio Chejfec’s “El entenado” / “The Witness,” is available in the July 2014 issue of Asymptote.
This interview was conducted via e-mail over the early summer months, rambling like “a long afternoon’s conversation,” as Dolph commented, which is perhaps the most apposite way to approach an author so devoted to the vagaries of unfocused thought, and the ways its wandering through time and space makes itself manifest in language.
Jeremy M. Davies
Would you mind sharing how you first became involved with Juan José Saer’s work, as reader or translator? I mean, was he an extant enthusiasm even before your association with Open Letter?
I can’t really say when as a common reader I first came to know Saer, but I was aware of his work well before the translation project came along. I know I had seen the translations from Serpent’s Tail even before I became seriously interested in translation at all. In the constellation of contemporary Latin American novelists, he figures prominently as a kind of anti-Márquez, insofar as the mythical place he most often visits in his fiction—the city of Santa Fe—is strongly affected by globalization, and fractured. In Márquez the force of history is basically recognizable, and solid, which produces a more or less reliable narrative memory and sense of place. The opposite is the case in Saer. Everything is in doubt, especially the narrative’s ability to recreate a reliable sense of place. But for me that sense of contrast only came much later, when I’d been working on the translations for a while. Before that, he was just another monster in the vast bestiary of Latin American fiction. It took a happy accident for me to get to work on his writing in translation.
In 2008 I had just come off editing Calque and was looking for a book project and shopping around some poems and stories I’d translated. Out of the blue Suzanne Jill Levine contacted me, asking if I’d be interested in translating one of Saer’s novels for Open Letter, because she was busy and couldn’t do the project. I read the book—Glosa, which was published in English as The Sixty-Five Years of Washington—sent Open Letter a sample, and because I loved the writing I asked if they were planning to do more than the one. It turned out they were planning three, and I signed up to do them all, sight unseen.
I’d like to follow up on this notion, in Saer, of all things being in doubt, and his being a sort of anti-mainstream-Boom author to boot, but first I must ask: how did Glosa become The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, in translation?
The doubt begins with the prose style. On the formal level, the narration in many of his novels, especially after Glosa, is hesitant, unsure. There’s quite a bit of direct questioning and a sort of vulnerability in the way it reaches out to the reader for support. All of which creates these long, intricate thoughts that build up, clause after clause, to form a dense cloud of uncertainty. In that syntactic fog, without a clear focus to the sentence, or the paragraph, the reader doesn’t quite know which way to turn. Within all of this, one of the central themes of Saer’s novels is the fragility of memory, how fraught our effort to reconstruct the past becomes when narration, whether through text or images, is the means we use. This sense of what memory is and how it does or doesn’t function effectively to portion out our identity is starkly different from what you find in a writer like Márquez. So as to avoid getting too wonky in the analysis, just look at the central characters in their novels and note the difference in the way they remember things: Márquez’s characters tend to have incredible memories. Not so much in Saer, or at least there’s often a strong force that undermines their efforts to remember.
Even Márquez’s own positioning as an author, from the monumental autobiography that effectively concluded his career, to the often-repeated quote that he’d gathered all of the material for his novels by the time he was eight, from his grandparents, overhead gossip, urban legends, and so on, all of which suggests that his entire oeuvre is one immense act of remembering. (Borges’s story “Funes the Memorious” is the perfect parody of this authorial position.) It’s possible that his popularity in the U.S. owes something to an analogous sense of fiction in the ’60 and ’70s, which wholeheartedly valued this strong, romantic concept of the value and reliability of individual memory. But I couldn’t say with any certainty. Lots of factors are at work when an author catches on, not least of which are their fortunes regarding their translators. (Márquez was particularly lucky with Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman.) Nor could I pretend to explain why some authors don’t catch on—although, to be fair, Saer has been rather lucky himself, with half a dozen books in translation and more on the way.
The decision to change the title of Glosa was made in collaboration with the publishing team at Open Letter. They felt that Gloss, the literal translation, just wasn’t cutting it—“tweeny boppy” was the term, if I recall—and we were searching around for something that captured what the book was doing. We thought that the big fat mouthful that ended up being the title captured the way things are over-explained in the book, the way that what start out as brief summaries, or glosses, of a party celebrating the sixty-fifth birthday of a guy named Washington Noriega end up taking over the story completely. But, while I think it’s perfectly true, really that’s an ex post facto explanation, to please the court, which I only put into words when people at readings started asking about the title. At the time when the book was in production, it was an intuitive decision.
Saer has indeed been lucky, considering how many Latin American authors still languish untranslated, but I suppose my ambitions for him are to wind up on as many reading lists and bookstore shelves as Rayuela / Hopscotch . . . My first Saer title was La pesquisa / The Investigation, translated by the great Helen Lane, and I was flabbergasted at the time that no one had ever so much as mentioned the book to me.
Though this does raise the question of Saer’s reputation “back home,” or in the Hispanophone world generally. How well-known would you say his work is, how “important”? Are there Saer devotees, authors identified as Saerians, Saer Studies? Or, to put it another way: how out of it are we Anglophones who are only catching up now?
Saer is widely read, and well-respected as an innovator, in Argentina at least (I can’t speak to his reputation elsewhere in Latin America, but this is really another question altogether, one that has more to do with the marketplace than with “taste” per se), although when I tell people who know about this kind of thing that I translate Juan José Saer they look at me sort of quizzically, like Why him? Or immediately they wonder how I came to know of Saer’s work. It’s difficult to compare reputations between literary traditions, but these reactions make me think that in Latin American letters Saer is considered a sort of weird cousin to, say, Ricardo Piglia, another Argentine with a taste for police drama, and with a much broader fan base. But then again, those same people are surprised when it comes out that I’m familiar with the work of Walsh, Lamborghini, Felisberto, Chejfec, and other weirdos from the area.
There are indeed Saer devotees, and a great body of critical literature on Saer, which includes shocking internecine polemics regarding his legacy (nowhere, by the way, except in the British press, is he considered “the most important Argentinian writer since Borges”). One book, Zona de prólogos, edited by Paulo Ricci, would be a really great resource for fans of Saer in English. As the title suggests, it’s a collection of prologues to Saer’s novels, all written after the fact, by authors and critics. Unfortunately this book will never be translated. The last part of that question, regarding our backwardness in the U.S., is really much too complex for me to treat here with anything resembling delicacy. From what I’ve read of reviews, I would say that critics in the U.S. generally get what Saer is up to, and do right treating the work as literature and not as an exotic stuffed bird. At the same time, Saer’s writing tends to be relatively “local” in the sense that he’s writing about places, and ways of interacting with those places, that are generally unfamiliar to people outside of the Paraná River delta.
The police investigation in La pesquisa is really only half the story, and maybe the least compelling half. If we’re out of it in the U.S., it’s relative to the state-sponsored violence that permeates the history of the twentieth-century in Latin America, and which generally arrives here in caricatures—El Che, Fidel, the FARC, Shining Path, the Falklands, the Knights Templar, etc.—and even less the literature that comes out of that violence. The great exception to that rule is of course the Roberto Bolaño phenomenon. Although, again, the critical reaction to his novels has been partial—much too partial—to his connection with the Beats. Saer is of course another writer concerned with the effects of violence on people. Saer’s novels often work toward a representation of the swarm of experience, and within that swarm there’s no possible transcendent meaning, only events, presence, intensities, entropy, decay, and yet, language is a thing, it exists. And people use language to assign value, so that when things happen, they “mean something.” Human experience might be characterized, in Saer’s work, as the stubborn insistence on meaning in the face of chaos. But this isn’t new; it’s what the novel has done since Cervantes. Alongside that general function of the novel, there is definitely a permanent interest in Argentine writing to respond to state violence in a way that isn’t a caricature. So much interest in the detective genre comes from somewhere, and in Argentina it’s from a very particular relationship to the figure of the police. - Jeremy M. Davies

Juan José Saer, who has died aged 67, was an Argentinian author apart. Born outside the literary nexus of the capital, to parents of siriolibanes (Middle Eastern) origin, his writing had nothing to do with the world of tango and extravagant baroque, nor with the streets of Buenos Aires and Latin American magical realism.
Instead he wrote, in a strikingly spare style, of what he knew personally. He wrote of his home town, the provincial city of Santa Fe and its cast of often strange characters, and of his adopted home, Paris, a place of tower blocks and back alleys, inhabited by incomers and sadistic criminals, and by his fictitious maverick, Chief Inspector Morvan. Saer was one of the first of his generation to turn his attention to the continental genre of Eurocrime. The Investigation, the last of his novels to appear in English (published, in a translation by Helen Lane, in 1999) is about a serial killer who murders 27 elderly women in their homes near the Bastille. In a parallel plot in Argentina, the manuscript of a nameless novel is found among the papers of a disappeared poet, renowned for his detestation of fiction. As the quests continue to uncover killer and author, the idea of what constitutes a true story is subverted. Saer's subjects had deeper roots in his literary preoccupation with psychological and philosophical matters. His dozen novels, four volumes of short stories and a collection of poetry are coherently linked by his own definition of zona . This links different narratives through one spatial and temporal plane and allows for identical characters or situations to appear in different versions. It exists geographically as both the place of Saer's youth (Santa Fe) and France, after he moved there in 1968. He had taught film studies and criticism at Santa Fe university and continued researching them in Paris. Saer's reading of 20th century Argentinian writers such as Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar, and of the North American and European canon from Herman Melville to William Faulkner, Joseph Conrad to Graham Greene, had left traces in his earlier work. His first major success was with Cicatrices (Scars) in 1969, a quartet of stories deceptively connected by a crime. Every sequence of events is questioned, as if reality and representation can only incidentally connect. In this, the work was a response to Saer's encounters with the nouveau roman of Alain Robbe-Grillet and others. His natural next stage was an attempt to deal with the deconstruction of the novel through "the impossibility of writing". History as well as fiction - any narrative that followed a chronology - was dismantled in such novels as Nadie Nunca Nada (1980, published here in 1993, translated by Helen Lane, as Nobody Nothing Never) and his parodic history of the His panic conquest in the Americas, El Entenado (1983, translated by Margaret Jull Costa as The Witness, in 1990). Saer lived in a flat over Montparnasse station in Paris, with his French wife, Laurence. The flat was chosen for its splendid panorama and its ease of access to Saer's day job, teaching literature at Rennes University. He commuted there regularly on "the train downstairs". Argentina is sometimes ambiguous towards its exiled literary offspring, but Saer established a reputation in France and Spain (which awarded him the Nadal Prize), where all his books remain in print. Like his evocation of the pampas in La Ocasion (1988, translated by Helen Lane as The Event in 1995), a place that only exists in memory and poetry, Saer's great testament to "the impossibility of writing" is in his books. His contribution to the regeneration of the novel and to literary discourse, through his teaching and openness to public debate, revealed his constant desire both to question and to affirm. He is survived by Laurence, their daughter, Clara, and a son, Geronimo, from his first marriage.

Juan José Saer died in 2005, at the age of 67, in Paris—where better, for an Argentine intellectual? The author of twelve novels and four volumes of stories, as well as several books of critical essays and a poetry collection mischievously called The Art of Narrative, Saer was hailed by his friend and compatriot Ricardo Piglia as “one of the best writers of today in any language.” An obituary in the Independent defined him as “the most important Argentinian writer since Borges,” making Saer’s virtual absence from the literary radar, even within Latin America, remarkable. It’s hard to uncover anything about his life. Personally modest and contemptuous of consumer culture (and hence of the Latin American “boom,” which he considered stereotyped and market-driven, as banal as Philip Roth or Martin Amis), Saer was content to remain an “ayatollah of literature,” as one friend called him, with a reputation for high seriousness and long sentences.
But while some of those sentences are long enough to rival Proust’s, they are infused with a palpitating sensuality, their breathing equally crafted. A cerebral explorer of the problems of narrative in the wake of Joyce and Woolf, of Borges, Rulfo and Arlt, Saer is also a stunning poet of place. From Faulkner he took, along with nested streams of consciousness, the device of placing his fictions in one intimately known region, and turning it into a mythic space. Saer’s Yoknapatawpha is the Paraná River and its multiple lagoons, tributaries and meanders skeined around the city of Santa Fé in the midst of the pampas.
He was born near there in 1937, the son of Syrian immigrants (a committed Europeanist, he doesn’t seem to have taken much interest in the Middle Eastern side of his heritage). He studied and taught in Santa Fé, and also lived for some years east of what he calls “the city,” in rural Colastiné, amid the islands of the waterways of the same name, the location of his most unforgettable landscapes. Or, rather, unforgotten, because Saer began to write in earnest only after moving to Paris in 1968, following the accession of the military dictator Juan Carlos Onganía and his attack on Argentina’s universities. Here’s how the exiled author describes a storm approaching the little house on the beach, modeled on his own, where Nobody Nothing Never (1980) is set:
His movements are slow, regular, exterior in the darkened air, his entire silhouette outlined by a glittering gray nimbus against the lowering, smoke-colored sky. A flash of lightning blanches, for a fraction of a second, the dark air. From somewhere, two birds, chasing each other with irregular darts and thrusts, always at the same distance as though they were the fixed parts of an unmodifiable set and being made to shift places by a single mechanism, cross the sky before Tilty’s eyes, which follow their trajectory as they vanish in the trees that bend down over the lateral wall of the white house, disappearing amid the leaves.
This passage contains several hallmarks of Saer’s style: a measured pace, an obsession with light, the observation of observers, a stifled romanticism behind the detailing of a cosmic mechanics, and the search for estrangement rather than recognition or identification.
El limonero real, published in 1974, was the first work of Saer’s to attract attention in Argentina. Nobody Nothing Never is his fifth novel. (An English translation was published in 1993 by Serpent’s Tail, which has also brought out translations of The Witness, from 1983; The Event, from 1988; and The Investigation, from 1994.) Nobody Nothing Never plunges us into the spellbound, sun-drenched lethargy of a weekend in the mid-1970s at a beach house, where Cat Garay is joined by his married lover, Elisa. Horses are being mysteriously killed in the area, prompting a friend, Tilty, to hide his precious beast in their yard. While the violence of Argentina’s “dirty war” is shown at the end to have been concealed in the symbol of the horse, the stuff of the text is a mesmerizing experience of broken-down, repeated, rewound perception. It reflects the influence on Saer of the French nouveau roman and cinematic techniques of zoom and slow motion. Having taught film studies in Santa Fé, Saer admitted in 2002 that he’d lost interest in that form since the “postmodern regression” and the decline of the auteur (in France he taught literature). As a kind of valediction in Nobody Nothing Never, cinema’s analysis of visual phenomena is saluted and then surpassed by language’s ability to select and refine what is seen. Two movements dominate. One is the minute decomposition of time and space: “Their voices, whose tone has been almost confidential, except for that of the man in the straw hat, which is slightly higher in pitch than that of the others, linger as if echoing in the air, less as voices than as sounds to which the heavy, sultry air offers an excessive resistance”; the other movement is repetition, at different speeds or from different angles, not to suggest subjective relativism, in the manner of Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, but rather an ecstatic response to the inexhaustible possibilities of reality and the infinite ways to communicate it.
Yet that richness might just be a trick of description. Each new approach to a single scene or gesture regales us with a new perception of it, and yet difference is always threatened with collapse into sameness. Sex embodies this tension throughout Saer’s oeuvre. “Folds and folds, and then other folds, and still more folds. And so on, ad infinitum. ‘You’ll see now what’s going to happen,’ I said to her again…. But nothing, again: the same moans, the same mutual convulsion, without getting anywhere.” The slightly fated Borgesian circularity, running on the spot and dreams within dreams, begins to feel positively plastic, or elastic: the expansion-compression of consciousness and time as the novel’s antinarrative stamps the same ground over and over like the hoofs of the anxious horse. At the end something changes, thankfully, with the murder of a police chief. Yet the achievement of this work, next to the sensuousness, is its creation of an all-engulfing present.
* * *
Nobody Nothing Never contains an elaborate example of another insistent vision: the fragility of systems such as form, language or meaning, which are nightmarishly apt to dissolve into chaos at any second. A beach attendant who goes for a swim at dawn notices the undulation of a ray of light on the water “from oneness to multiplicity and from the many to the one,” until “the line did not become one again”; soon he is traumatically immersed in “an infinity of minuscule bodies, like a sky dotted with stars, with the difference that the black empty space between the points of light was an extremely thin little stripe, barely visible.” In other books, specks of mica, dappled light, falling snow or bodily cells offer the same beautiful, sinister amorphousness, like glimpses of the “material magma” seething beneath the apparent solidity of selfhood that makes socio-psychological realism redundant. Saer and Julio Cortázar ignored each other in Paris, and yet both Argentinians were exploring ways of replacing the subject with impersonal networks, flows, systems, biologies. Cortázar was more accessible as a “fantasy” author, and he was open to an interactivity with the reader that would be anathema to the younger writer. (Still, Cortázar’s title Around the Day in Eighty Worlds would be a neat summary of Saer’s method.)
But Saer was not an idealist, as Borges and Cortázar were. The Event mocks belief in the primacy of mind as a paranoid, arrogant delusion. It is the most incongruous of Saer’s novels, a mix of cartoon and melodrama. Yet it is the only one to win an international prize (Spain’s prestigious Nadal), perhaps because of its social handles: here Saerland is a colorful province of chancers, two-bit intellectuals, immigrants, oligarchs and drunks. Bianco, an Italian Uri Geller with a horror of “matter,” comes to Argentina in the 1860s determined to rebuild his confidence and reputation after being made a fool of in public by French “positivists.” But like a replay of Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy, all Bianco manages to create with his mind-power is a sexual betrayal that (probably) does not exist. His conviction that “it is Bianco who plans, by the force of the mind alone, by a calculated act of will, the events of the world” excludes him from baser telepathies: “Perhaps right now, Bianco thinks, they’re communicating in some secret way.” His rival is (like Cat in Nobody) a Garay, descended from the founder of Santa Fé, and a gushing Francophile; Garay’s brother Juan is an intimation of the brutes who will hijack the future. Everyone seems disoriented by an inability to interpret the land, with its native seers who prophesy in prelinguistic noises, its featureless spaces and teeming herds like “the archaic clay of being, shifting from place to place like a cosmic wind.”
The best-known of Saer’s works in Argentina is The Witness, another faux-historical novel that enacts the “speculative anthropology” he thought fiction should undertake. Formally innovative as ever, this tremendous novel sets lived time against book time, so that the longer the period covered, the shorter the account. It’s loosely based on real events—the ill-fated trip upriver of Juan Díaz de Solís in 1516, and his cabin boy’s years among the Indians who, some documents suggest, ate Spaniards. Playing off the conventions of first-person “discovery literature,” it begins in a picaresque Seville where our boy is already an orphan, rootless and adrift, and proceeds to recall the voyage, the attack, the conveyance of the narrator to the village on the banks of the Paraná, the cannibal feast (all the forced jollity of a traditional Argentine asado), the drugged orgy that follows and the dazed return to the tribe’s normal primness and materialism. It’s an annual cycle. The boy has been kept on as a “witness,” for this society feels it does not exist unless its doings are attended by an outsider; people compete comically to make a memorable impression on him.
After ten years he is sent downriver to meet a new Spanish expedition, for the Indians prefer to segregate like with like. The Spaniards exterminate them in revenge. The mythic foundation of Saerean space is inevitably a genocide; the anthropologist-narrator will later intuit that the Indians’ compulsive, because unmemorious, cycle is based on their own repressed original sin. He returns to Spain, where he will exist between two inaccessible worlds. Faced with the debate over the humanity of the indigenes, he makes an observation that stands as the crucial aperçu of this multiply inverted take on colonialism: “I clearly remember thinking to myself that night that for me the Indians were the only men on this earth, and that since the day they had sent me back…I had met only strange, problematic beings whom only custom or convention dignified with the name of ‘man.’” He joins a traveling theater to perform a vulgar version of his adventures, and it proves to be wildly popular. In disgust, he retires, devoting the rest of his life to forming speculations about the tribe’s weird psyche, as seductive as science fiction. But this remembered-imagined people is neither past nor future: they’re just possible humans, in fiction’s expansive now.
The “historical” novels stand doubly apart because, though set in the familiar ambience of the Litoral region, they lack the other consistent feature of Saer’s novels and stories, which is the recurrence of characters—a device also used by Piglia—to create depth and resonance while highlighting artificiality. There’s Cat Garay and his twin brother, Pigeon, who like the author moved to Paris; there’s Tomatis, the witty, jaundiced journo; Elisa and her painter husband, Héctor; Botón, the bigmouth, and Washington Noriega, the sagacious mentor (an older ex-leftie turned academic, writing a treatise on the very Colastiné Indians invented in The Witness), among assorted pals and hangers-on. In contrast to the prose-poetry of minutely charted sensation, Saer’s dialogue records scraps of banter in colloquial santafesino rhythms. This is the world of The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (1985), henceforth Sixty-Five. (The title does no favors to Steve Dolph’s translation, which is full of elegant, resourceful solutions to a most difficult text yet splotched by basic errors. Why not simply “Washington’s Sixty-Fifth,” as the phrase refers to a birthday?)
Each Saer novel fascinates with its unique machinery: Sixty-Five is wholly discursive. Someone must be speaking the text, because he keeps saying things like “as yours truly was saying, no?” But because this nameless someone knows what everyone thinks and remembers as well as says, he must be a personified omniscient narrator—that is, conventional third-person narrative dressed up as a literal “voice.” Within this oral frame people are said to speak, or to report the words of others, or to claim to report what others claimed that yet others said or did, in a maddening feedback of echoes and distortions proposed as realism. The Spanish title is Glosa, meaning commentary, or variation on a theme: every utterance is provisional, a gloss on a gloss. As in Plato’s Symposium, events reach us fourth- or fifth-hand—but here it’s through layers of misapprehension, wishful thinking, false memory or bad faith. There is no lofty absolute Being, only Becoming.
It’s 1960, or ‘61, “what’s the difference”? Ángel Leto, a scruffy young intellectual in a stew about his parents, decides to skip work and runs into an acquaintance, a resplendent rationalist just back from Europe known as the Mathematician. Uneasy with each other, they somehow stick together for a walk of more than a dozen blocks. As they inch along this grid—a hymn to Argentina’s ruled streets and beveled intersections—the text billows out in clouds and fractals of consciousness. The intermittent conversation concerns Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday party, which neither man attended, but the Mathematician had heard all about it from Botón on a ferry and shares the juicy details with Leto. Since both agree on Botón’s stupidity, one suspects that the Mathematician is largely making it up, but again, what’s the difference? For Leto,
Washington’s birthday, the mosquitoes, Noca’s horse, the table set under the imaginary pavilion, at once persistent and inconstant, clicking along in a unique, complex order, now make up a carousel of memories more intense, significant, but nevertheless more enigmatic, you could say, than many others which, originating in his own experience, ought to be stronger and more immediately present in his memory.
The spiraling sentences and overabundance of ideas—punctured by the flippant tone—make this novel a tough read. Twice it leaps forward seventeen years, and both times the prose becomes transparent and the reader can breathe, as though surfacing from deep water. But only in retrospect did I realize how funny and touching Sixty-Five really is. Saer, of all people, would understand if I stick to the poignant bits that stand out in my memory.
Condemned to operate in a fog of conjecture, Leto and the Mathematician are constantly misreading each other’s body language, or angsting over how some remark might have been taken. They are typical of the insecure males in Saer’s fiction, who live in terror of losing face. Early in Sixty-Five, the Mathematician—outwardly a confident upper-class achiever—recalls what he has tried to pack away under the label “The Incident” (though even now, years later, the “emotions and feelings of humiliation and rage form several black-bordered, jagged holes” inside his head). A big-shot poet from Buenos Aires was in town; the Mathematician had been corresponding with him over a matter of versification, and he proudly looked forward to having a chat at an official dinner. But the Mathematician gets left behind, and a string of panting pursuits, slights and cock-ups ends at 2 am, as the chairs are piled up in the bar where the poet, fleetingly caught up with, had promised to join him. Foreshadowing the frustrated humiliation of the mentalist in The Event, the Mathematician’s shame and anger are deepened by “the desperation we feel when we realize that the external world’s plans do not bear our desires in mind, no matter their intensity.”
* * *
Toward the end, Leto, hitherto torn between suspicion and awe of the gracious, white-clad Mathematician, realizes something about his companion that shifts the balance of power between them. After an unsettling encounter with Tomatis and his version of Washington’s birthday, they are standing on the curb before a road (which will take seven pages to cross) where the traffic is stalled. “The Mathematician’s gaze pauses anxiously on the thin spaces between the bumpers”—again the terrifying multiplicities surrounded by thin spaces—“and then turns toward his own pants. His pants, Leto thinks, following each phase of the Mathematician’s desolation, The risk of staining his pants.” Pretending kindly not to have noticed (of course, the other is mortified by knowing that he did), Leto steers him through the threat and out the other side. Then he indulges in some well-earned class resentment: “They would give humanity everything, just not their pants…. They’re gentle as lambs except when their pants are in danger. They are not to be trusted, even when they’ve given up everything and claim that they’ve kept only their pants.”
The final pages, told in a clipped future tense, impart what will happen to each character after General Videla takes over in 1976. It’s a jolt to anyone who’s read Nobody Nothing Never to learn that Cat and Elisa will be “disappeared” without a trace, what must be days after that novel ended on an optimistic note. The handsome, déclassé Mathematician falls in love with an ugly radical, who gets killed; he becomes an international academic. Leto will join the guerrillas, going underground and becoming ever more dulled and drained until he is cornered by soldiers and can bite the suicide pill that has become his reason for living. A dispiriting snapshot of the resistance, perhaps, but Saer never let his leftism distort his commitment to philosophical doubt.
The future section includes a sighting of Tomatis in the swamps of depression, presumably induced by the political situation. It’s a relief to find him jaunty again in The Investigation, published in 1994 but set in the mid-1980s, after the democratic restoration. The structure interleaves Paris and Santa Fé, winter and summer, a whodunit and a whowroteit: neither mystery will, of course, be solved. Saer too is back in top form here, building intellectual labyrinths with splendidly carnal language. The novel opens in Paris, where the honest-loner cop, Morvan, is searching for a sadistic killer of old ladies. Evidence mounts that he might himself be the author of the crimes. All the conventions of detective fiction are rolled out, and we accept them unthinkingly—until it turns out, much later, that it’s Pigeon, down from France on a visit, who is preposterously relating all this as a true story to Tomatis over a beer. Beyond the game with oral and literary conventions, The Investigation dramatizes the epistemological questions posed in Sixty-Five. Says who? How do they know? Does it matter?
In parallel, an unattributed “dactylogram,” or typescript, has been found among the late Washington’s papers, and his disciples would like to remove the material—literally, an unstructured chunk of fiction—for forensic and literary analysis. Pigeon is already sure it’s not by Washington, though after the trap of the detective story, we could believe anything. This text, In the Greek Tents, is alleged to tackle the question of veracity from the perspective of one soldier who’s been bogged down outside Troy for years, set against that of another, fresh from Sparta, who knows much more about every detail of the siege. Presence, Saer reminds us again, is no guarantee of truth.
It isn’t even a guarantee of experience, as Pigeon discovers when this passionately anticipated trip home leaves him unmoved. In a bleak and beautiful passage, the exile “is at last an adult,” who understands
that it is not in one’s native land that one has been born, but in a larger, more neutral place, neither friend nor enemy, unknown, which no one could call his own and which does not give rise to affection but, rather, to strangeness, a home that is not spatial or geographical, or even verbal, but rather, and insofar as those words can continue to mean something, physical, chemical, biological, cosmic, and of which the invisible and the visible, from one’s fingertips to the starry universe, or what can ultimately be known about the invisible and the visible, form a part, and that that whole which includes even the very limits of the inconceivable, is not in reality his homeland but his prison, itself abandoned and locked from the outside—the boundless darkness that wanders, at once glacial and igneous, beyond the reach not only of the senses, but also of emotion, of nostalgia and of thought.
Though The Investigation may be about elusive authorship, this passage could only have been written by Juan José Saer. - Lorna Scott Fox 

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