BOOKS JUNE 6, 2012
by Juan José Saer | translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter, 278 pp., $14.95
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 time—the 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 horizon—what 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 results—a 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 is a writer and translator based in Madrid.