Juan José Saer. The Clouds, translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2016.
Literary works in translation
Saer is fortunate in his two recent translators, Dobel for the present novel and Kantor for The One Before. The two works are very different. The One Before, a collection of short works ranging in length from a few paragraphs to novella, is experimental in that each story explores memory and how to represent it in words, leading up to the final piece in the collection, which is a "narrative . . . structured simply by juxtaposing memories" (51) (see the previous blog post for a fuller review of The One Before). The Clouds has a more straightforward narrative. But, as in the former work, Saer's language is rich with evocative descriptions. It is hard to imagine either of these works as translations--their translators make such full use of the literary power of the English language. The works are both intensely introspective, with, for the most part, one narrative voice and very little dialogue. I haven't read Saer in his original Spanish, but I imagine they are incomparable works of art. Saer, it seems to me, is all about words--none of which are wasted or misplaced. If something is lost from the original to the translation of either The Clouds or The One Before, it is not something that I can perceive as missing. Many thanks to Dobel and Kantor for their gift in bringing Saer to English language readers.
And now, on to The Clouds.
The Clouds was originally published in Spanish in 1996. The One Before was published in 1976. My knowledge of Saer and his writing is limited, as of now, to these two works, so I can only contemplate the significance of the placement of these two works within Saer's body of works -- why the more experimental work appeared two decades before this more straightforward narrative. In the prologue, we find familiar references to memory and the minute description of the many movements and decisions that go into the carrying out of each action. Be that as it may, if you are not ready to dive into The One Before, you may find The Clouds a more inviting instruction to his writing, but no less rewarding than The One Before. The Clouds begins with a prologue. Pichón is living as an expatriot in Paris. He has recently returned from a visit to his native city in Argentina, bringing back with him "a handful of good memories" and the promise from his friend, Tomatis (one of Saer's recurring characters), to visit him in Paris. Tomatis finally comes to visit and he brings with him a "floppy disk in a medium-sized, self-sticking bubble envelope . . . further sealed up with clear adhesive tape as a precautionary measure" (5). Tomatis received this envelop from a shared, although tangential acquaintance, Soldi. In the packet is a letter from Soldi describing the contents of the envelope. Soldi had found the document in an archive. He thinks that it is a true account, but Tomatis believes it to be a fiction. They are both interested in Pichón's view on the matter. Pichón prepares a bowl of cherries to eat while he reads through the document. He sits down, loads the diskette into his computer, and opens the document. "He begins to read the text marching down the screen, and though he lifts the cherries to his mouth, one by one, without looking, the taste, at once sweet and tart, conjures vivid little red globes in his mind as if the flavor and feeling they're about to produce on his tongue make a detour through his eyes, or through memory, before arriving in his brain" (8). Pichón's thoughts stray from the text on the screen to the thought of cherries, the end and return of summer, and the cherries of future seasons. This sensation by sensation account of each experience and each passing impression he receives from the experience is reminiscent of his One Before writing.
From the prologue, the narrative moves right to the document and never returns to Pichón. There are small interruptions as Soldi's notes appear in the otherwise uninterrupted narrative.
The document then, which is the novel, is narrated by a young man who left his native Argentina to study with a Dr. Weis, who has developed a humane treatment for the mentally ill. They return to Argentina together to build a psychiatric hospital to be run on Dr. Weis's humane principles. The hospital is known as the Casa de Salud. The narrator, Dr. Real, student and aid to Dr. Weiss, describes the establishment and demise of the Casa de Salud, and their eventual forceful deportation from Argentina to Liverpool. Dr. Real then moves on to what, he writes, is what he is most interested in sharing, the trip that was "a unique experience" for him, and "the most singular adventure of" his life (40).
In 1804, Dr. Real was sent by Dr. Weiss to accompany a handful of patients from Santa Fe to Las Tres Acacias, the location of their new mental hospital. He would, in effect, create a mobile hospital, to escort his patients through a "relative 'desert.'" The path through this desert consisted of isolated outposts with rough accomodations. Dr. Real's patients included two brothers, one who said nothing but "morning, noon, and night," changing tone and emphasis to suit the requirements of the conversation, and the other who imitated all the sounds that he heard around him; a young sex obsessed nun, a young catatonic man, and delusional man, who viewed himself as a kind of Napolean. Dr. Real's mobile hospital is accompanied by nurses, soldiers, attendants, a traveling grocerty cart, and a fearsome guide.
The group is delayed and often in danger. They survive a kind of prairie fire that they wait out standing up to their necks in a broad lake. Throughout their tine on the prairie their guide has all of his senses attuned to any sign of the fearsome Chief Josesito and his murderous rebels. The great danger of the journey, however, is the extreme and changing climate and the intense isolation of the desert. In fact the narrative is more about the unsettled land that this small company passes through than any of the events and challenges of the journey. The land has not yet been altered or bent to the will of the colonizing forces of government and commerce. The company travels in five horse-drawn wagons drawn. The construction of the wagons and the terrain together mean, and we are often reminded, that the travel is excruciatingly slow giving Dr. Real much time to observe. He watches objects appear and change in appearance and disappear as they become closer. He watches the sky, the clouds, the path of the sun. He has distinct and intimate experiences of the change of temperature, the heat of the sun, the dryness of the air or intense rainfall. The travelers faced intense cold, intense heat, flooding, and fire.
Dr. Real keeps himself company with a volume of Virgil's Bucolics. In particular, he favors the 4th Bucolic. "Every challenge on our road is tied to a verse of Virgil," he writes, "and to this very day the harsh sensation of travel and the subtle music of the verses bleed together in my memory, in a unique mingling that is mine alone, which will vanish from the world when I do" (87). Dr. Real is aware of the oddness of the group's presence on this unpeopled, unaltered plain. Of the desert, Dr. Real writes,
For leagues and leagues, in every one of its parts, the desert remains identical. Only the light changes: The sun recurs, rising in the east, climbs slow and regular to its zenith and then, with the same ritual precision with which it has reached the apex of the sky, descends to the west and, finally, having grown enormous and red, gradually fading and cooling, flaring with a brightness perhaps familiar in infinite space but foreign here below, then sinks to the horizon and disappears, covering everything with night's viscous blackness until, a few hours later, it reappears in the east. Were it not for the changing light and color of that perpetual turning, a rider crossing the plain would think himself to be always riding in the same point in space, in futile, slightly oneiric sham of motion. ...The rhythmic sounds of displacement--in cart, in carriage, on postal coach or horse, repeating and identical for long stretches, despite the regularity, if not the absence of the terrain's features--seem also to infinitely repeat the same moment, as if time's colorless ribbon, stuck in the groove of the wheel (or the who-knows-what that displaces it) shimmers motionless in place, suspended and unable to rest because of its essence of pure change. Such monotony numbs. (117-118).
In another passage, Dr. Real decribes coming upon a body of water, that unlike the plains they have been passing through is a riot of vegetation and animal life. Here too, though, he feels out of place, an alien, excluded. His horse has knowledge of this world that he has no connection to.
I peered intently at [my horse's] profile, and, as if warned, it did not turn its head toward me once, with such apparent stubbornness that it seemed to purposely treat me with indifference. For a second, I had the unmistakable impression that it was putting on, and then, almost immediately, the total conviction that it knew more of the universe than I did, and therefore understood better than I the reason for the water, for the gray grasses, for the circular horizon and the flaming sun that glistened on its sweaty hide. With that conviction, I found myself all at once in a different world, stranger than the ordinary one, in which the outer world was unfamiliar to me, and so was I to myself. Everything had changed in a flash, and my horse, with its impenetrable calm, had wrested me from the center of the world and expelled me, without violence, to its edge. The world and I were separated and, for me, would never be quite the same again from that day forth. (123).The fates decree that the company should arrive at their destination, in the "bright, rain-washed breeze" they encounter their familiar and peopled town, "dirty and blackened by sun and by fire, smoke, and ash, dead-tired and wretched . . . neither bitter nor resigned" (160).
I hope this review gives you at least a taste for the exquisite and compelling writing. The reader, along with Dr. Real, is forced to think of the world differently, as a powerful entity, intricate, vast, and varied, colonized, altered and controlled, but perhaps patiently waiting the departure of its invaders.
Open Letter Press from the University of Rochester, has published five of Saer's works in translation. Besides the two I have reviewed in this blog, Open Letter also has, La Grande (2014), Scar (2011), and The Sixty-five Years of Washington (2010).
Find all of these at your favorite library or bookstore.