Wednesday, October 27, 2010

"false memories of a place neither of them has seen, of events neither witnessed, and people neither have met"

The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Juan José Saer
Translated from Spanish by Steve Dolph
203 pages
Open Letter Press
November 16, 2010

You could say the memories parasitize other experiences, but they don't, for this reason, lose force, sense, or cohesion. In fact most of the details are familiar and, because of this, it's not difficult for him to piece them together, in contrast to Leto who, new to the city, or relatively new at least, has to patch them up - with assorted memories that are unconnected to the objects being evoked or with images that aren't traceable to any experience related to the events - alongside the fragmentary, scattered, and sometimes confused images the story produces in him and which, paraxdically, because of its fragmentation and hypothetical nature, just like a fairy tale, leaves profound and vivid traces in his memory. . .

Juan José Saer (1937-2005) was born in Sante Fe, Argentina to parents of Middle Eastern origin. His writing was noted for its clean, straightforward style and often focused on either his provincial home town or adopted city of Paris, where he moved in 1968. Of particular concern to his twelve novels, dozens of short stories, and poetry was the idea of zona, the connection of several narratives through a single spatial-temporal plane to enable identical characters and events to appear in different forms. Saer later moved on to explore "the impossibility of writing" and sought to dismantle the chronological narrative in such novels as Nadie Nunca Nada (1980) and El Entenado (1983). Glosa, originally published in 1986 and translated by Steve Dolph as The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, continues in this vein, developing similar themes regarding imagination and personal and collective memory.

It is the 14th or 16th - or maybe it's the 22nd or 23rd - let's say the 23rd, actually - of October or November, 1960 or '61 - okay, it's October 23, 1961 - and Ángel Leto, age twenty, is a gawky newcomer to Sante Fe, where he and his mother had relocated a year earlier following his father's suicide. It is a bright spring morning and he is skipping work on a whim, walking down the street and puzzling over his mother's cryptic comment at breakfast - He suffered so much. He meets up with an acquaintance several years his senior, a wealthy intellectual known as the Mathematician, a former rugby player who cuts a striking figure with his European tan, crisp white suit, and white moccasins purchased in Florence (and worn sockless). For the next hour they will stroll along for fifteen blocks as the Mathematician relates what one Botón had recounted to him, last week when they met by chance on a ferry, about what transpired at the sixty-fifth birthday party of Washington Noriega, writer, professor, lecturer, persecuted statesman. Neither of them had attended this event - the Mathematician had been in Europe and Leto had not been invited . . . Perhaps they simply forgot or thought he was close enough to the group that he did not need a formal invitation? A second version of the party will come from Tomatis when he joins Leto and the Mathematician briefly before departing under a dark cloud.

The story also shifts seamlessly from one time period to another as both memory (the past) and as a matter-of-fact relation of events that have not yet occurred with the complete certainty that they will occur (just not yet). One day, in about ten years' time, the presently-single Mathematician's wife will be shot and he will flee to Paris in exile. One day Leto will join the radical underground and, surrounded by armed men, will swallow his trusty cyanide pill.

Saer certainly knew his Borges. His simple premise turns out to be labyrinth of questions and possibilities surrounding the relationship between objective reality (if such a thing even exists) and subjective experience. Memory, imagination, opinion, expectation, and the passage of time crisscross and intersect like the Sante Fe streets the two young men follow to the city center. From the start, the narrator is established as unreliable, confused as he is regarding the date of this particular walk. Not only does our understanding of Leto and the Mathematician come entirely from this present-tense, quasi-first-person voice - who occasionally interjects ("as I was saying, no?") to remind us of his presence as an invisible character floating somewhere outside normal time-space - but our images of Washington's party are based solely Leto and the Mathematician's reactions to the first-hand accounts of biased individuals, such as Tomatis, who is generally seen as rather disreputable and whose claims are colored by his current bad mood.

Saer's novel is definitely very thought-provoking but I think there is also a reason Borges's best works tend to be short. At 203 pages, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington may not seem like a long book, yet its seeming endlessness is an unfortunate testament to Saer's use of convoluted, clause-choked syntax to express some highly abstract and complex ideas. It's the type of prose you have to constantly be rereading because you got lost somewhere after the sixth comma.
People - man, no? human beings, who altogether compose what they call humanity, or rather the sum of individuals since the appearance of the species, as they call it, in, it would seem, east Africa, through a qualitative jump across adjoining evolutionary branches, and the specific attributes they attribute to themselves - man, we were saying, or rather yours truly, the author, was saying, has given it that diminutive or pejorative name for mosca, or fly in Spanish, no doubt following an anatomic classification by size, imprecise enough in any case, but ultimately, in any case, imprecise or not, there's nothing for it, the naming has to happen.
The whole book is like that. It's obviously a stream-of-conscious style, and very reminiscent of some of Faulkner's works (i.e. Absalom, Absalom!), but I suspect a good number of readers are going to just give up. Which is too bad, because The Sixty-Five Years of Washington introduces some wonderful concepts and paints a vivid portrait of Argentina's intellectual crowd between two Perón regimes. Still, I hesitate to recommend it.

Review Copy


Emily said...

Despite your qualified praise, I am tempted to pick this up; experimental prose and meditations on subjectivity are two of my favorite things! That said, I do see what you're saying re: the passages quoted. Maybe I'll check it out when I'm in a particularly dense and patient mood. :-)

E. L. Fay said...

Well good luck. I too enjoy "experimental prose and meditations on subjectivity" and was disappointed that this book did not live up to my expectations. I think there's a good chance you might like it, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Richard recently indicated that he really enjoys Saer, so we may be hearing from him shortly.

parrish lantern said...

This sounds like my kind of book,despite your resereservations, I think I'll check this author out
Thanks, enjoyed your post.

E. L. Fay said...

Hope you have better luck with Saer than I did!

Richard said...

E.L. Fay, so six months later I'm finally to prepared to comment on this post! I think you did a nice job about pointing out many of the things I really liked about the work--however, I'm not sure where you got the idea that Saer was known for a "straightforward" style as he is anything but straightforward in my experience with him (and as your own review demonstrates). Also, I think Saer's intent was not so much for the narrator to seem "confused" or "unreliable" as for the novel to play with the notion that all representations of reality and memory are inherently confused and unreliable. In any event, although I enjoy reading Saer tremendously, I agree that his syntax occasionally takes a certain amount of patience to get used to and may be an acquired taste. I dig it myself. Cheers!

Related Posts with Thumbnails