La Grande was Juan José Saer’s final novel, published not long after the Argentinian author’s death in 2005. Recently translated by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books, La Grande follows Nula Anoch, Willi Gutiérrez and a host of other characters over the course of a single week. Set against the backdrop of Argentina’s long and tortured history, the characters contend with memory, loss, love, betrayal and hope in the days leading up to a party at the Gutiérrez compound. Part mystery, part philosophy, part answer to the question, What is the novel? Saer’s masterwork is a wonderful example of why the novel remains relevant and very much alive. Saer reminds you of John Fowles, Virginia Woolf and William Faulkner, all rolled together into a South American exile with a Paris address.
In this excerpt. Nula (five years before the major events of the novel) has been swept up in a strange, sordid relationship with a married couple, Lucía and Riera. For months, LucÍa fondles Nula on the couch with her husband’s permission, but she refuses to bring him to orgasm or have intercourse with him. Still, Nula is mesmerized, and progressively becomes a puppet to this couple, until, in a heart-cringing scene, Lucía and Riera have sex on the bed while Nula watches television on the floor.
Saer’s ability to precisely render a scene, coupled with his unflinching gaze into the heart of human desire, offers a tense, gripping and unforgettable view into the mystery of existence. We may not understand it all, but we will never forget it.
After that October night, for several months, until the following fall, they were almost always together. Lucía didn’t work, which meant she had lots of free time, but Riera went to the office early, and later, during his lunch hour, and in the evenings, he made house calls; Nula worked at the law school kiosk several times a week, and when he stayed home he pretended to prepare for his philosophy exams in November and December, but the thought of returning to Rosario, of leaving the city and Lucía, and Riera too, even for a single day, seemed intolerable: it would have been like stepping out of a magical world, a novel and seductive place, not exempt from sordidness and cruelty, to return to the uncertain, grayish days, with their perpetual seesaw between doubt and serenity, where he’d been treading water, resigned, since his childhood. He wanted to be Lucía’s lover, but he was barely her friend, her confidant, and sometimes he even reached the status of lap dog. Even though it would’ve been enough for him to know her, to sit calmly and silently at her side, she allowed him certain gratifications: every so often she let him touch her, kiss her, put his hand down her brassiere, and even suck on her breasts, and two or three times she’d accepted, submissively, when he guided her hand to his open fly, squeezing his penis in that strange way, squeezing and releasing, but once when he’d put his own hand over hers, forcing her to rub until he finished, she’d jumped up, rearranging her clothes, indignant and flustered, protesting, Oh no, not that, definitely not that! And she’d practically run to the bathroom and the bedroom to clean up and change. But despite that, when she returned she seemed content, with an abstracted, placid smile. After being with them a few times, Nula realized that Lucía and Riera were joined by a feeling, or whatever it was, that wasn’t exactly love, in the altruistic sense of the word at least, but actually something more turbulent that combined with a sort of voluptuous interdependence in which their differences generated a sarcasm more mocking than violent and their affinities a blind, impulsive, almost animal fusion. It was strange to see how the most insulting nonsense from one, verbal or otherwise, first produced indignation and then complicit laughter in the other. Nula felt momentarily excluded in those situations, but they, together or alone, always rushed to recover him. There was always the perpetual enigma: were they manipulating him, were they laughing at him, were they using him for some incomprehensible ends? Or did they really appreciate him and acted like that with everyone? Even now, lying face down on the mat, his chin resting on the back of his superimposed hands, feeling the sweat run down his face and back, even at this very moment, when they’ve reappeared, unexpectedly, into his life, he still doesn’t know. The fact that he’d been with Lucía two days before, finally possessing what five years before he’d sought in vain, and then the coincidence that Riera had called to announce his arrival from Bahía Blanca, restarts the mechanism of the past, and though he knows that he’ll never be trapped by them again, a distant, even vaguely ironic curiosity suggests that he should be alert in the days ahead. With his eyes closed, his face sweaty, pressed against the back of his hand, Nula laughs, shivering expectantly, and he realizes that his affection for them persists, but that its charge has been reversed, that it doesn’t have the same painful dependency of the first period, which had lasted a while after he voluntarily decided to stop seeing them, and has now taken on a paternalistic forbearance, a sympathy without a trace of possessiveness, governed by a completely atheoretical and in fact sporting inclination, to anticipate their curious reactions, for pure entertainment, without inverting any sentiment in the issue. This attitude provokes in him an excessive impatience to see them again.
Lucía was rich, but Riera, on the other hand, had come from a family of petty merchants in Bahía Blanca, and he always said that because petty merchants and the rich had more or less the same things weighing on their conscience, that it was only a difference of proportion, he and Lucía had been made for each other from the start. Lucía always complained that, because she was expected to marry rich, she hadn’t been allowed to pursue secondary studies. She’d had a rancher boyfriend, but she’d left him for Riera. Her mother disapproved of the relationship (Lucía’s father had died long before), but her own sentimental complications didn’t allow her the occasion to worry about Lucía’s future; Leonor, for her part, had been born rich, and because she’d married a rich man from whom she’d inherited a second fortune, she knew instinctively, and from personal experience, that money made intelligence superfluous. But Lucía’s ignorance tormented her: when Nula and Riera discussed science and philosophy (each loathed the other’s specialty), Lucía’s mood would sour, and Riera, mercifully, would change the subject. The sexual disarray of Riera’s life contrasted with his professional diligence. When he finished at the office he went on house calls, and he also worked with a group of doctors who treated people from the shantytowns and the countryside free of charge; they distributed medicine, and, in the worse cases, sent them to the hospital. He also saw the novitiates of a semi-clandestine brothel and though the owner paid him he gave the girls condoms and free samples that pharmaceutical salesmen had left with him. One Saturday afternoon, Nula was in Riera’s car with him when suddenly he stopped, opened the door, and ran out onto the sidewalk, leaving the car running; they were downtown, and because it was Saturday, it was crowded on the street. The row of cars and buses behind Riera started to honk, but Riera didn’t seem to hear a thing. Nula got out and saw that a boy who was about ten, a shoe shine who always worked on that corner, was lying on the ground, convulsing and drooling. Riera bent over him, and with two or three quick operations, did something to his jaw and laid him on his side, trying to contain his seizures. It was an epileptic fit. The boy calmed down gradually—the scene lasted two or three minutes—and Riera told Nula to open the rear door of the car and then to pick up the shine box, while he himself picked up the boy, laid him down on his side on the back seat, set the shine box on the floor of the car, closed the door, and sat down behind the steering wheel. He told Nula to kneel on the front seat and watch the boy in case the seizures started again. The boy was pale but calm, and seemed lost and drowsy. Riera took him to the hospital, to the neurological office, and didn’t move until he was sure he had a bed and a specialist to examine him. Nula had gone to his office to meet him for an afternoon swim at the beach in Rincón (Lucía had gone to Paraná to see her mother), but at two thirty they were still at the hospital, so when they left, shortly after three, they ate a slice of pizza standing up at a pizzeria across from the hospital, and Riera, although he didn’t usually work on Saturday, decided not to go to the beach after all, and leaving him at the entrance to La India’s, went back home.
In late November, Nula had a fight with La India because he’d decided not to take his philosophy exams in December and push them back to March, under the pretext that he still wasn’t prepared. You’re one of those people who thinks that the mayonnaise gets made whether you beat the eggs or not! La India had exploded; she’d noticed that something strange had been going on with him since September, though she didn’t mind that he was staying in the city, working at the kiosk and living at home. Ever since their father had left, and especially after he was killed, her sons’ emotional life worried her, and she preferred to always have them on hand, but it was difficult (with Chade, who was more reserved, almost impossible) to talk about things in a clear and direct way. The offhand and somewhat aggressive talks she had with Nula contributed more to hiding the real problems than to revealing them clearly. Nula listened with a serious expression to La India’s remonstrations, but every free moment he had he spent with his new friends. Sometimes he was alone with Lucía at their house, or they went out walking, and other times he met up with Riera for a beer and they’d talk a while, but what he preferred was for the three of them to be together, because he got the feeling that Lucía and Riera really appreciated him and did everything they could to make him feel welcome. But with them there was always something false that came through despite the fact that everything they did seemed so natural, so much so that Nula ended up thinking that they must have been unaware of it. Riera would sometimes take him to Cristina’s—he remembers a week in December when her son was in Córdoba, at his grandparents’ house—and the thing that seemed unconscious with Lucía became obvious, even brutal, when they were with her. Riera’s political theories were as expedient as they come: the problem with society wasn’t the poor but rather the rich families that controlled the banks, the military, the seats of political power, the media, the factories, the press, and so on. Because they were very few, the simplest solution was to kill them all, but because this was impossible, they had to start by corrupting their women, and he’d taken on the task of corrupting the wives of the bourgeoisie in order to precipitate social change. And he always followed that brief discourse with that terse, somewhat degenerate laugh that no one, male or female—and he knew it—was capable of resisting. Cristina wasn’t particularly rich: if her family did have money, it was certainly less than Calcagno’s fortune, of which Riera never touched a dime, referring to it often with contempt and even disgust. Riera subjugated her, and she, Cristina, accepted everything he gave her. Sometimes, in Nula’s presence, he even ordered her around, and one night even suggested she should sleep with him, something she accepted immediately, but Nula, although he was very excited, didn’t dare do it and went home. He heard them laughing as he went out to the street, and then, after taking a few steps along the sidewalk, he stopped and stood for a couple of minutes, thinking about going back, but he changed his mind and went home, past Lucía’s house, which was dark and silent, and since it was almost midnight he didn’t want to ring the bell, so he just went to sleep.
The summer passed in this way; March, and the exams, were approaching. Nula studied, and because the law school shut down from early December to early March, the kiosk closed too. The bookstore, meanwhile, closed in January, for the judicial holiday, and reopened in February, half days only. Nula worked there twice a week, Thursdays and Fridays, which allowed La India to spend long weekends in the country or at the shore. Riera and Lucía didn’t leave the city all summer, and all that time Nula was trapped in the aura that they secreted, trying to prove to himself that he was capable of controlling his desire, his suffering, and even his lust. Their company became a kind of addiction: wherever they were was the center of the world, solid and brilliant; everything else was soft, shapeless, and gray. He knew he wasn’t getting any farther with Lucía, but while they continued to make him feel like he existed as something other than the theater of their wretched war—a feeling he often had—he’d be able to tolerate their machinations. One night in early March, having already decided to go to Rosario for his exams, he decided never to see them again. The heat was dreadful, so they ate in the courtyard, but suddenly, in the middle of their conversation, a storm drove them inside. After the lightning and thunder of a dense and turbulent storm had passed, a rain settled in that would surely last till the morning. Lucía proposed that they watch a movie she’d rented, a detective story that had made a big splash the previous winter, but which she hadn’t been able to see in the theater. They moved to the bedroom, with fruit and cold water, and sat down together at the foot of the bed to watch the movie. After a while, Lucía said she preferred to lie in bed to be more comfortable, and five minutes later, without saying a word, Riera followed her. Nula felt his heart beating harder and harder in his chest. His throat dried, and he opened his mouth to breathe, trying to be silent, because it felt like he was drowning. At first he thought these were the symptoms of desire, but immediately he realized they were of pain, and that, in fact, he wouldn’t have been able to tell them apart. The unnamable, the inconceivable, was happening. Because they’d turned on a bedside lamp so as to not watch the movie in the dark, the room had a warm glow, which from time to time brightened even more when the film passed from a dark image to a clear one, and which meant that everything happening was perfectly visible. But Nula didn’t want to turn around. Suddenly he heard Lucía’s voice behind him saying, Poor thing, we left him alone, and then, directly to him, Are you alright there, on the floor? with a distant, absent voice, as if she were falling asleep. But Nula was sure that she wasn’t falling asleep—just the opposite; their barely audible voices, their movements, their sounds, signaled not only that they weren’t sleeping, but that in fact they were wide awake, though in a somewhat different state of consciousness, which may have even pushed them radically farther from consciousness than a dream, believing they liberated in a whirlwind of sensation that defined them most intimately, when in fact they had been possessed and were now controlled by what was most external to them. Up till that moment, Nula had thought that the strange laughter that connected them precluded intercourse, that they left that extenuating labor for others—an illusion that, later, when he thought it over, seemed at once hilarious and pathetic. For several minutes, he was frozen, rigid, leaning against the edge of the bed, trying to ignore their whispers, their laughter, their moaning, the squeaking and creaking of the bed, the rustle of the sheets, but when Lucía finally started to emit a guttural noise, increasing in intensity, he crawled out on all fours, like a cat, trying not to make a sound, all the way to the hallway, where he stood up and walked out, practically running, through the darkened house that, over the last few months, he’d come to know by heart. Except for the morning when he’d seen them from a taxi, in Rosario, he never saw either of them again, until about a month back, in March, five years after that night, when he saw Lucía come out of the swimming pool in a green swimsuit, and when Gutiérrez, looking at him, had said, It’s not what you think. She’s my daughter. After the March exams, Nula stayed in Rosario under the pretext that classes were starting soon and he didn’t want to get behind that year, and when he came to visit La India on the weekends he almost never left the apartment, and if he did he never took the walk around the block; he always walked straight to the city center. Later, from Cristina, who he bumped into that winter, with her husband, he learned that Lucía and Riera had moved to Bahía Blanca. That October he met Diana, and he forgot about them completely; with Diana everything seemed easy and transparent, which was why, when she got pregnant and she told him she was willing to get an abortion he responded that it would be better if they got married. With his Greek philosophy professor he’d studied Problem XXX.1, attributed to Aristotle, or to Theophrastus, where the affinity between wine, sex, poetry, and philosophy—common ground of the melancholics—was discussed, and because he had to find work and just then an introductory seminar in enology was being offered at the Hotel Iguazú, and which created the possibility of finding a job if he did well, he enrolled with a loan from La India, and, soon after, with another brief course in Mendoza, he was offered a job with Amigos del Vino, which meant that the next year, when Yussef was born, he had enough to provide for him, and by the time Inés was born he was already one of the top salesmen for Amigos del Vino, at least the only one who Américo allowed to bend the rules. And now he’s lying on the mat, face down, tanning in the sun, feeling the sweat drip down the corners of his face pressed against the back of his hands superimposed on the edge of the mat.
—Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph
Juan José Saer (1937–2005), born in Santa Fé, Argentina, was the leading Argentinian writer of the post-Borges generation. In 1968, he moved to Paris and taught literature at the University of Rennes. The author of numerous novels and short-story collections (including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Scars, The One Before, and The Clouds, all published by or forthcoming from Open Letter Books), Saer was awarded Spain’s prestigious Nadal Prize in 1987 for The Event.
So glad Open Letter has been publishing Saer’s work in English, and so many other great translations. The Sixty-Five Years of Washington is a masterpiece on memory and melancholy–looking forward to reading La Grande in its entirety.