Possible Humans: On Juan José Saer
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.