Friday, January 6, 2012

They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing - Juan José Saer’s The Witness, a novel found on many lists

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?


  1. The only Saer book I've read is The 65 Years of Washington. I found it overlong for the style he used and can't say I'm too eager to read another one. I would describe his prose as convoluted and clause-choked.

  2. For a writer who could be so precise with his language, Saer has had the unfortunate track record of having at least a couple of his Spanish titles butchered in English translation. Don't know if that's the publisher or the translator who's to blame, but it annoys me to no end even if "the stepson" is also a "witness" here. Will be reading all of Saer at some point--probably in chronological order from here on out--so I'll be back to comment on the specifics of this post in 4-5 years, I'd guess. Of course, you do make me want to skip ahead! P.S. I laugh with meanspirited delight at the idea of some random 1,001 Books list reading clone coming across Saer one day and then having his/her brain fried by the often rigorous experimentalism of this Argentine Faulkner and nouveau roman fan. He tends to demand a little more engagement from his readers than the norm--although he's quite engaging from my POV.

  3. EL - see excerpts above, please! Not convoluted, not clause-choked, not in this book. If anything, all too plain, although I omitted anything from the extraordinary climax, which is mostly a description of a series of complex changes in light and shadow:

    "The light, which until a few moments before had been scattered and arbitrary, had become a uniform clarity bestowing an added strangeness on objects whose reality was already dubious." (164)

    And so on. The only strong Faulknerian touch is the long paragraphs, which has become a Margaret Jull Costa specialty. I will bet that the title was not her choice, and at least it is not as mangled as Glosa turning into 65 Years of Washington.

    Now, nouveau roman, that was pretty clear. Robbe-Grillet mixed with Borges mashed up with Lévi-Strauss. Oh yes. More, please! For a dreaded novel of ideas, I got along pretty well with it.

  4. How funny - I just picked this book up at the library less than 48 hours ago.