Possible Humans: On Juan José Saer
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.”
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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.