Dec 8 2011

Scars by Juan Jose Saer, translated by Steve Dolph

Scott Esposito

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Argentine writer Juan Jose Saer has never caught on in English translation, although he certainly should have by now. Since 1994, five of his twelve novels have been translated, with his lauded The Witness coming to us via Margaret Jull Costa, the world-class translator of Jose Saramago and Javier Marias. Saer's novels partake of European and American literary traditions—he lived in France from 1968 until his death in 2005, and allusions to Conrad, Faulkner, and the French New Novelists are common—even as they radiate a South American experimentalism that made Saer among the heirs to Borges.

Saer's rhythmic, philosophical novel Scars is the second title in a three-translation project courtesy of Open Letter Books. Covering five months in the early '60s, the book tracks four different narrators as they converge on the same murder/suicide. But Scars is not reducible to its plot: The real draw here is how Saer orchestrates these four stories, interlocking them through repetition, overlapping, and metaphysical subtext.

Scars's structure resembles a musical composition that subtly pares itself down to its essential motifs. The book is divided among four narrators, with the first, 聲gel, covering February through June, and each of the three subsequent narrators spanning fewer and fewer months within that same period. Luis Fiore, the final narrator, gets only the two days in May that sets the murder/suicide in motion.

聲gel's section, by far the longest, includes many details that initially seems extraneous: the eighteen-year-old's rocky relationship with his mother, his lackluster job as a newspaper weatherman, a raucous party his friend throws, and so on. But by capturing the hum of provincial Argentine life, Saer lends an uncanny texture to his setting. And the novel's repetitions slowly accumulate a strange thematic heft. 聲gel frequently interrupts his narration to recall strange moments when he thinks he saw his double, and again and again, his weather column portentously declares "no change in sight."

His section also includes an eyewitness description of the suicide, as he sees the murderer jump to his death. Though the scene is sudden and dramatic, it feels more like an errant trumpet blast than a conventional climax. 聲gel's narration continues unabated, concluding some time later with a coda in which, alone beneath a grimy midnight rain, he finally sees the face of his double.

From here things begin to accelerate toward the Scars's two most brutal scenes, even as the novel ostensibly swerves away. In the second section, Saer takes us through the see-sawing wins and losses of the degenerate gambler Sergio, who once served alongside Fiore as a radical in the Argentine General Confederation of Labor. Although, here again, the central violence appears incidental to the real action—Sergio's slide into debauchery and his developing attachment to his na鴳e, fourteen-year-old maid—there are enough allusions to keep the suicide in the reader's mind.

Scars's third section is narrated by Ernesto, the judge presiding over Fiore's case. But even as the novel careers toward its conclusion, it refuses to offer any easy insights into the crime: Ernesto never seems to do anything in his chambers other than work on a translation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. The hallucinatory quality of this section is augmented by sudden scene-jumps and Ernesto's accounts of his life-like dreams, which often make it difficult to tell whether the narrative is taking place in reality or the judge's sleep:

It comes suddenly. It's a shudder—but it isn't a shudder—sharply—but it isn't sharp—and it comes suddenly. Because of it I know I am alive, that this—and nothing else—is reality and that my body, piercing it like a meteor, is inside it completely. . . . The desolation has come many times, but not this desolation, which could only come now, because every millimeter of time has its place from the beginning, every groove has its place and all the grooves line up alongside each other, grooves of light that turn on and off suddenly in perfect sequence in something resembling a direction and never come on or turn off again.

As we wait for Fiore to finally get to the murder we know he will commit, the text starts to resemble Ernesto's translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray: The judge has obsessively underlined and annotated the book so many times that he's actually written new versions of Gray on top of the original. Since a "true" account of the suicide is not ultimately accessible, the four narratives start to resemble Ernesto's fractured scribbling and marginalia.

The best way to make sense of Scars is through two declarations that appear in the first and third sections. In the first declaration, 聲gel tells a friend that theater is the only true genre: "Everything was theater . . . Discourse on the Method was a long monologue by someone who was playing the role of a philosopher." Later on, he remarks with equal assurance that the novel is the only true genre of writing: "Everything that's written down, everything's a novel, the sciences, poetry, the theater, parliamentary discourse, advertisements." Though these two genres make very different epistemological claims, they share a belief that is key to understanding Scars: Reality happens, then we invent it.

What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters' attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.

Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book's larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn't hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde's advice that "one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details." In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.

Throughout, the murder/suicide is the only landmark Saer offers as we navigate Scars. And because he consistently pushes that event to the margins, readers might occasionally feel lost. But this, in addition to giving Scars an uncommon degree of originality and honesty, also helps it capture the one thing that all novels, in one way or another, aspire to: reality

Scott Esposito's literary criticism has been published by the Paris Review, Tin House, the Los Angeles Times, and numerous other publications. He edits The Quarterly Conversation, an online periodical of literary essays and reviews.

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