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.