I am tempted to write more about book lists, but will restrain myself, by which I mean, save it for later, and try to write something about an actual book I recently read, Juan José Saer’s The Witness (1983), one more example of the Argentinean Literature of Doom. The novel is, it turns out, one of the 1,001 Books I Must Read before I Die, and I am thus almost 0.1% more reconciled to my death. I will bet you that I picked the book off of a different list, a critics’ poll of The 100 Best Novels in Spanish Language, 1981-2006, in which The Witness is #12.
A 16th century Spanish cabin boy is captured by Amazonian cannibals. He lives with them for ten years. The novel is his account, written many decades later, of his time with these people. So on the surface it appears to be a historical novel that nods at Robinson Crusoe, or is perhaps a revisionist history of the conquest of the Americas. It is not, not really.
Saer’s book is a full-fledged novel of ideas, sub-category: linguistic and anthropological. The author makes no attempt to mimic the language or mindset of an early modern writer. The historical details are minimal, and not the result of hours in the library. Or not in the history section – I would guess that Saer ground through a shelf or two of ethnography and linguistics, plus an additional stack of Claude Lévi-Strauss. If I knew what was in The Raw and the Cooked (1964), I could say that I found it in The Witness, but in fact I am just guessing.
What Saer needed from the 16th century Amazon was cannibals, so he set the story where he could find them. He needed a society that was recognizably alien, so he could give it a special problem:
Their principal problem was the outer world. They could not, as they might have wished, see themselves from outside. (128)
One way the narrator serves as the witness of the title* is that he helps the Indians see themselves from outside. He helps them confirm their own existence:
There is no equivalent in their language for ‘to be’. The closest equivalent they have means ‘to seem’… [‘Seems’] implies an objection rather than a comparison. (130)
Saer uses this novel to explore a people and society with a epistemological problem: a radical uncertainty about their own existence, and the constant threat, with one mistake, of non-existence:
Even if it was unrewarding, they constantly worked at making that one known world real. They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing. (132)
My quotations have all been from the end of the short book. Near the beginning is a single long scene, about a fifth of the novel, of a wild orgy that moves from roasted human flesh to alcohol to sex, all in large, life-threatening quantities, a society-wide Rimbaud-like derangement of the senses. This strange and horrifying event is the narrator’s introduction to these people; the rest of the book is his attempt to make sense of it, to understand the problem the Indians are trying to solve.
If all of this sounds interesting, it is; if it sounds tedious, yes, a bit; if Saer’s fictional anthropological case study sounds like something other than what fiction does best, I have my doubts, as well. But I did find the ideas and the path Saer took through them to be quite interesting.
Richard (Caravans de reuerdos) wrote some interesting things about another Saer novel, La Glosa (1986, #75 in the poll, so not as good as The Witness), and here's a Spanish literature student working on The Witness in some productive ways.
Margaret Jull Costa was, inevitably, the translator.
* The English title, I mean. Doesn’t El Entenado actually mean The Stepson?