A review of Juan Jose Saer’s The Sixty-Five Years of Washington
By Richard Farrell
To be clear: the soul, as they call it, is not translucent, it seems, but murky.
—Juan José Saer
WHEN IS THE LAST TIME you went on a good walk with a friend? Cell phones off, eyes fixed on the path in front, minds alert and the conversation buzzing? A good walk opens the ears and the heart to storytelling, creating a sacred space in between two individuals as they make their way. Juan José Saer invites us on such a walk in The Sixty-Five Years of Washington. But, reader be warned: this is no ordinary stroll and this is no ordinary novel.
The Sixty-Five Years of Washington follows Angel Leto and “the Mathematician” as they walk through the city center of Santa Fe, Argentina. “Suppose it’s October,” the narrator begins, “October or November, let’s say, in 1960 or 1961, October, maybe the fourteenth or sixteenth, or the twenty-second or twenty-third—the twenty-third of October in 1961 let’s say—what’s the difference.” This uncertain narrator interrupts frequently and becomes a third protagonist in the novel as he narrates the journey, conversation and thoughts of the characters and supplies ongoing, humorous commentary. The conversation quickly turns to the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, a party which neither man attended. Washington is an elusive character; we don’t know much about him. He writes lectures on the Colastine Indians (“Location, Lineage, Langauge & Logic”); he was arrested once, and avoided prison by going to a mental hospital; he throws wild birthday parties for his younger friends. The Mathematician heard his version of the party a week earlier from one of the attendees, Botón, as the two men rode a ferry. Leto hears his version from the Mathematician. The reader, of course, hears all of these accounts from the narrator. The party attracted les enfants terribles of Argentina, young artists, poets and political activists ready to disrobe, fight and snort coke into the wee hours of the morning. You want to be at this party, but, like Leto and the Mathematician, you can’t attend, so you must be willing to accept a re-telling (hyphenated emphasis intended throughout) of the event as the men stroll through the city.
This device of re-telling is crucial. By not going directly at the events the way a traditional narrative might, Saer creates distance between the characters in the novel and the dramatic action. This recursive structure forces us to question the very idea of what happened at this party, and, on a deeper level, what is happening in the novel. Saer challenges the notions of verisimilitude and truth. And with this technique, the re-telling of the events at the party mimics our reading of the novel itself (of any novel, really), by recreating a version of reality through the description of events not directly experienced by the characters or the reader. Saer seems to be jack-hammering at the foundations of storytelling.
As the men walk, they encounter various sights and sounds of the city: shops opening, music playing from a record store, a child riding a bicycle. Divided into three, seven-block sections, the novel runs two-hundred pages; the walk spans only an hour of time. In spite of this limited time, mundane sensory details are drawn out and thoughts and questions meander through crosswalks and red lights, so that the novel-time feels quite expansive. Yet the focus always returns to the story of the party, the details of which are revealed in fragments and riddles, interrupted by flashbacks and two long flash-forward sections. Because the text is written in the present tense, it’s easy for the narrator to disappear and easy for the reader to forget that someone is narrating from a point in the semi-distant future.
The Mathematician and Leto seem to ‘remember’ events at the party—Noca’s tripping horse, the three mosquitoes, an attempted rape and a baggie of cocaine—as if they have really experienced them. But, of course, they haven’t. Leto, on hearing a detail about the party, thinks how he must re-draw the mental picture he was forming of a house he has not seen:
…the others dispersed around the patio and the house, on a mild evening, at the ranch in Colastiné, to which Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never smelled, touched, or tasted, but which has been stamped unequivocally inside him, golden with its head of white foam, probably in circular glasses, that, without realizing it, Leto makes coincide with, or deduces, rather, from his memories.
At times, this style can be frustrating. How do you suspend disbelief when the narrator keeps telling you not to believe in what’s happening? But Saer holds our interest with his elegant sentences and his precise command of the interior mental spaces of his characters.
The novel flirts with omniscience, but it’s an unreliable omniscience, nested in a series of narrative versions (a tactic of Cervantes). “Instinct. Set in motion by, the Mathematician says that Beatriz said, and always, and more or less, according to Boton.” The phrase ‘more or less’ appears again and again as the narrator grows exasperated with his own narration. The narrator never lets us forget that none of this is real:
But let’s be clear: assuming that we agree that—as we have been saying from the start—all of this is just more or less, that what seems clear and precise belongs to the order of conjecture, practically of invention, that most of the time the evidence is only briefly ignited and extinguished beyond, or behind (if you prefer), what they call words, assuming from the start we have agreed about everything, to be clear let’s say for the last time, though it’s always the same: all of this is just more or less and as they say—and after all, what’s the difference
Reading this novel, we travel through spaces of elegant uncertainty.
The twenty years following the 1958 ouster of Juan Peron were times of political strife, societal upheavals and violence in Argentina. Peron, exiled in Spain by 1961, had been replaced by Arturo Frondizi who instituted harsh austerity measures. The brutal violence of Argentina’s “Dirty War” (1976-1983) is dealt with proleptically (or apocalyptically, as in the biblical genre) also in the two critical flash-forward segments. Saer eschews direct commentary on the political and historical issues of the day, mentioning them only as backdrops of the front story. This is not an historical novel, even though reading it without an understanding of the history would diminish the experience. The novel takes place at the hinge between the delusional Peronist past and the terrible future of Argentina.
Born in Argentina in 1937, Saer grew up outside of Buenos Aires, the literary and cultural center of his country. He later lived and wrote in Paris, but his fiction tended away from a Europeanized literature, even away from the popular Latin American writing of his time. His writing reflects the stories, characters and events on the periphery of the cultural epicenters and the big cities. His break from the traditions of other famous Latin American writers—Carpentier, Cortázar, Borges, Márquez, and Allende—was an attempt to create what Saer called “literature without attributes,” work that challenges the conventional assumptions of both the reader and literature at large. Without the aid of magical realism or the baroque architecture of the Boom novel, Saer writes seemingly simple, even prosaic characters and plots. But his goal is to defamiliarize (and thereby reawaken) our perceptions of everyday reality, in this case through the use of two characters with an outsider’s perspective.
The Mathematician missed the party because was abroad in Europe. His sensibilities and style reflect a continental arrogance that belies his deep insecurity. He dresses entirely in white, right down to his sockless feet and Florentine white moccasins, espousing an intellectual idealism, but one that is underpinned with shame and self-doubt. “I was born among uninteresting people,” he thinks, and he fears that others will “perceive uninteresting things in me.” His idealism runs headlong into his anxiety, no more so than in a scene where he fears soiling his white pants against the sooty bumper of a car. He’s convinced that his circle of friends have lived better, more exciting lives, in his absence. Yet the redemptive feature of his character is precisely that he’s aware of his flaws. Painstakingly aware.
Leto, on the other hand is subdued, somber, more “of the land,” though he, too, is the consummate outsider. Leto was not invited to Washington’s party, and the snub scars him. He lives at home with his mother who complains mercilessly about the suicide of her husband, Leto’s father. Memories of the suicide play out in heartbreaking flashback scene in the novel’s first section. His mother tries to erase the memory, tries to alter the reality of what happened by creating excuses and explanations. “He suffered so much” she says to her son. But it’s Leto, we learn through the two long flash-forwards, who will shoulder the burden of his family and take up an armed resistance during Argentina’s Dirty War. It is Leto who will carry a suicide pill in his pocket, who will fight against the repressive governmental forces, and who will run to the hills as a hunted outlaw. Leto’s fate will be that of the hero, though he lacks any such awareness wandering through the streets of Santa Fe.
At the heart of Saer’s novel are meditations: on memory, on being, on the subjective and objective expressions of reality, and on approaching the ‘unsayable’ in prose. The two events occupying the bulk of the novel—the twenty-one block stroll through the busy streets of an Argentine city and the sixty-fifth birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega—create a narrative filled with doubt and questions. You finish the book (and the walk) pondering the nature of reality, of existence and of fiction itself. Saer approaches reality in fits and starts. Slowly, carefully, he fragments the narrative into specific, almost prosaic pieces of experience, but upon re-assembling those bits, he forces us to examine again, carefully and more comprehensively, the sum of the whole. We can’t picture with ‘absolute clarity’ all the images that roll across our eyes as we read. We apprehend reality only in gradations, always loaded with assumptions and vague memories, some false, some true. It’s only on reflection that the whole begins to have some meaning.
It takes time and concentration to fall into Saer’s languorous rhythms, his dense syntax, long sentences laden with subordinate clauses, clamping along at the speed of an over-loaded freight train pulling out of the station. Or, maybe it’s not a freight train. Maybe his sentences move at the precise pace of a stroll along Avenida San Marcos in 1961. And maybe the real joy of reading this novel is in the slowing down, in experiencing the unfamiliarity of the familiar, in turning the mundane into the sublime. Saer captures little moments and distills them, so that what remains is pure and beautiful, and also intoxicating. He creates precise, perfect images through his prose, but also questions the very fabric from which those images are made, the very fabric of language itself. “The viewer can easily intuit that the visible area is just a fragment, and the eye, reaching the edges where the surface folds, senses the indefinite extension of the intricate apparition continuing, with its unexpected combination of colors, of densities, of speeds, of jumps and accumulations, of abrupt turns and temperatures, beyond the tormented canvas.”
1. The Sixty Five Years of Washington, was originally published in 1986 as Glosa. The translation from Spanish, by Steve Dolph, is seamless and free of any awkward steps. The English feels contemporary and snaps with rhythm and obvious care. It’s interesting to speculate on the title change for the English translation. A short summary of the concept of glosa, an “auxiliary language,” can be found here.
2. For a useful reference on Saer’s work and the concept of “literature without attributes,” see Gabriel Riera’s Littoral of the Letter: Saer’s Art of Narration.