Sunday, May 20, 2018

Juan José Saer: Part 1: The One Before

Juan José Saer, 1937-2005. Part 1: The One Before. Translated by Roanne L. Kantor. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2015. Originally published in Spanish in 1976.

I have been wanting to write about Juan José Saer since first reading The One Before,  a collection of stories and two novellas. Now that I've read the the collection three times, I'm still not sure that I can put into words the beauty and complexity of his writing. Having just finished reading The Clouds, I am overwhelmed with Saer's writing, and so I will at least attempt to convey something about these two works.

The writings in the collection, The One Before, are loosely connected. There is some overlap with characters here and there -- as there is throughout Saer's oeuvre. In this collection, though, Saer is experimenting with the recreation of memory and and the expression of time. His experimentation grows in intensity throughout the collection and culminates in the final two novellas. The final work, from which the collection takes it title, becomes almost unreadable, as each action immediately becomes something remembered. It begins,
 Earlier, others could. They would wet, slowly, in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter, the cookie, soaking it, and raise, afterward, their hands, in a single movement, to their mouths, they would bite it and leave, for a moment, the sugared dough on the tip of their tongues, so that from it, from its dissolution, like dew, memory would rise, they would chew it slowly, and now suddenly they would be outside themselves, in another place, clinging to, for as long as there remained, in the first place, the tongue, the cookie, the steaming tea, the years: the would wet, in the kitchen, in the winter, the cookie in the cup of tea, and they knew, immediately, when they tasted it, that they were full, inside of something and carrying, inside, something, that they had, in other years, because there were years, abandoned, outside, in the world, something that could be, in one way or another, so to speak, recovered, and that there was, therefore, somewhere, what they called or what they believed ought to be--isn't it?--a world. And now, I bring to my mouth, for the second time, the cookie soaked in tea and from it I take, tasting it, nothing, what is called nothing. I soak the cookie in the cup of tea, in the kitchen, in the winter, and raise my hand, quickly, to my mouth, I leave the sugared dough, warm, on the tip of my tongue, for a moment, and I being to chew, slowly, and now that I am swallowing, now that there is not even a trace of flavor, I know, definitely, that I take nothing, absolutely nothing, what is called nothing. Now there is nothing, not even a trace, not even a memory of flavor: nothing. (119-120)
And it goes from there, movement by movement, sensation, thought, each noted and taken in, recorded, and reviewed.  Are memories tangible, what do we hold in our minds, what of the moments that have past are retained or lost? How is one retained in memory the memory of another? And is that memory actually of one person or could it be mistakenly the memory of another? The whole collection builds to this final exploration and it is almost unreadable in its repetition of the minute detail of each action, thought, and observation. I think it is best read out loud. If you are a lover of the language and the written word you will be motivated by the beauty and thought provoking nature of the stories that lead up to "The One Before."

"Half-Erased" is the penultimate work. The narrative is set in Argentina at the time of a great flood. The military is setting off explosions to alleviate the build-up of water and, as a result a bridge is closed and there is limited movement out of the city except, in some cases, by boat. The main character, who is also the narrator, is preparing to leave the country. The story begins as the narrator wakes up. He observes the light in the room, the arrangement of furniture, the empty bed of his brother Cat, who is his identical twin. The narrator's friend Héctor has called to ask if he has heard the explosions. The narrator tells Héctor exactly where he was, what he was doing, and the nature of the light at the time he heard the explosions. Héctor suggests that the two of them should go to the bridge to see the breaches the military has created through the explosions. The reader is given the details of their travel to the bridge by car in minute detail: what they see, what they hear, the opening and closing of doors, the position of  their car, which is left in the middle of the road as they lean over the bridge to see the rising, rushing water, the actions of the authorities who stop them in their car and ask for identification, and, finally, their reversal and return to the city. This detailed scene returns throughout the story, as it has been captured on film from an aerial camera and then broadcast repeatedly on television. The narrator sees it at the bar and again at his home. Everywhere the narrator goes during the day, the explosions are the topic of conversation. Either the narrator or Héctor repeats the story of his memories of  first hearing the explosion. These intimate events in the life of the narrator become part of a collective memory of the flood and the explosions.

In these last few days of the narrator's time in his home town with his friends and family, it seems as though he is absorbing every sight, sound, color, shape, light, heat, cold, dust mote, taste, texture, and word. As in "The One Before," the narrator, takes in each action and sensation, in a way so as to collect it and give it consideration. Certain actions bring out his memories from more distant points of time, others prove his memories or those of others to be wrong. But, unlike in "The One Before," in "Half-Erased," the thread of the story progresses to a conclusion. The narrator leaves his home for the bus, abruptly separates from his mother, made multiple failed efforts to connect with his twin brother, and ultimately departs earlier than planned so as to avoid extended farewells.

Saer does not simply employing a stream of consciousness approach. His narrator deliberately considers each sensation and action and his presence or absence (or potential absence) from the moments and sensations of his day. His contemplation of his every action and those of the people he is with and observes are seen in parallel with the repeated recording of his trip to the bridge with Héctor. The narrator imagines his impending departure as a disappearing, a disappearance that is complicated by the remaining presence of his identical brother, who will remain.
No one who doesn't know us well, who isn't habituated to our most intimate particularities, and sometimes even under those conditions, is able to tell us apart, Cat and I, and even we ourselves look at photographs in our desk drawers and doubt the mirror in which we contemplate ourselves reciprocally, identical . . . It's as if I were the inverse of Cat. And he will stay: he will keep waking up every morning beside the river, in the house in El Rincón, will pass through the bars of the city getting drunk until morning, and he will pass through the door of the games room at the Progress Club with Tomatis, he will look at the white municipal building sitting at his desk, not reading or writing anything, and then will go out onto the street ... greeting on the corner of San Martín and Mendoza, someone who has wished him a good afternoon thinking he is me ... (89).
There are 28 short stories, some of which are only a few paragraphs long, in this collection, plus the two longer works. I'll mention just a couple of the stories. With the story, "The Traveler," Saer explores time, memory, perspective, and disappearance. An English commercial traveler has been sent to find "the salting room."  The traveler's horse has become injured, and so he is walking across a plain or prairie. The prairie has no points of reference. It is only an endless expanse of tall straw. The traveler cannot refer to the position of the sun by day or to the stars by night. For the five days he has been lost on the prairie, it has been raining. He has little sense of time because he has broken his watch.
He stopped and gazed toward the horizon   el pajonal    he didn't know the straw was called that     it extended all the way to the uniform horizon    monotonously (55) (the spaces are in the original text.)
He realizes that he is walking in circles as he returns after two days of walking to a small clearing where he the bits of his smashed watch are scattered about and where he can see the remains of a small fire he has made in hopes of alerting someone to his whereabouts. "...there were little clearings between the tufts of grass    a man could like down there and disappear   one had to be there to know such clearings existed"(56).

The  grasses close up behind him as he walks through, leaving no trail. As he looks around, "[h]e can't detect the smallest difference" (56). As he disappears into the sameness of the prairie, the traveler remembers his home in London. He remembers it as a scene of differentiation--there is a cacophony of sound, colors, individuals with unique and startling detail. There is a marketplace, with brightly colored and richly scented vegetables, fish, and meat, there is movement, and there is music. He himself is a unique individual with a mission to get to the "salting house." He has been "chosen"; he has a destiny. He is "Jeremy Blackwood redheaded and well bred with the reasoning and the memory of his station    to defeat   the temptation of the identical of the immobile" (58). Just as the narrator of "Half-Erased," imagines himself disappearing from the scenes of his city and perhaps the memories of his friends, Jeremy Blackwood, as he wanders in a circle in space with no detail to guide him, is slowly erased, and is disappearing without a "trace" (59).

In "Memoria," Saer considers memory directly. "Here you have me practically losing my voice and full of memories. They must be governed by some law, that is certain. But to discover that law it is necessary to empty oneself of them, to turn oneself inside-out like a glove" (51). He describes the types of memories: generalized, immediate, intermittent, distant, and memories of memories. He imagines writing a narrative of memories,
A narrative could be structured simply by juxtaposing memories. It would just need a reader without illusions. A reader who, having read so many realist narratives that tell a story from beginning to end as if their authors possessed the laws of memory and of existence, aspired to something a bit more real. This new narrative, based purely on a foundation of memories, would have no beginning or end. It would be more of a circular narrative . . . (51). 
If you want to immerse your self in beautiful writing, every page deserving of having is corner turned down so that you can be sure to revisit it and re-experience it,  you will want to spend time with Saer's books.

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