This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring. —Richard Farrell
Juan José Saer
Translated by Steve Dolph
Open Letter Books
497 Pages, $16.95
Consider hospitality. Imagine, say, a cookout, on a Sunday afternoon, with old friends gathered around a pool deck. Meat sizzles on the grill. It is autumn, but a last gasp of summer heats the day and warms the water. The party’s host, Willi Gutiérrez—a screenwriter, a sophisticated man of letters—has been living abroad in Europe for the last thirty years and has recently returned to his native Argentina. Decades have passed since many of the guests assembled here have broken bread together. The convivial atmosphere of the party crackles with laughter, with clanging wine glasses, and with stories. But just beneath that welcoming surface hides a mystery, swirling down like a river, faster and deeper as the party courses above. This mystery is one of ontology, of the deep, mystical, convoluted experience that is life, with all its secrets, its intrigue, its tragedies and its triumphs. At the very bottom, on the murky river floor where memory resides, where so much has been lost to time—betrayals, desires, the forgotten war, love, passions—here we find the source material for Juan José Saer’s La Grande. Saer reassembles the fragments. He reconstructs experience through memory, where nothing is ever quite what it appears, and yet where everything that appears is luminescent, like gold flakes panned from the silt, polished, crafted and forged into a ring.
In La Grande, Saer masterfully creates a fictional world at once brimming with life, detail, and imagery. Recursive themes appear, connect, and eventually assemble into a story. For nearly 500 pages, La Grande patterns many different but deeply connected narratives across those thirty years, two continents and dozens of characters. The novel opens as Gutierréz leads Nula on a walk along the Paraná River, toward a café in the countryside. Saer always evokes place through movement and memory, and as they walk, the young wine merchant becomes mesmerized by his older friend, who has reentered this world—abandoned for thirty years—as if no time has passed at all. Nula wants to understand Gutiérrez. Who is he? Why did he leave? Why has he returned? Saer may not directly answer these questions, but they constitute the main impulse of the novel.
An important subplot follows, involving two characters, Soldi and Gabriella. They are writing a literary history of “precisionism,” a suspicious, possibly fascist-friendly art movement founded by Mario Brando in the 1960’s. Brando is long dead, but Saer always entangles, so that the Brando story parallels but contrasts with many aspects of Gutiérrez’s story. Then there is Nula himself, whose friendships and vibrant sex life constitute the connective tissue of the novel. Nula moves through the seven days of novel-time, bedding women, selling wine, jotting notes down on philosophy. There are also many subplots, twists, anecdotes and memories, so that when these various characters gather at Gutierrez’s house in the final chapter, we know them intimately, like old friends.
La Grande is Saer’s final novel. An afterword from the book’s translator Steve Dolph tells us that Saer was still working on the novel when he died in 2005. Though nothing about La Grande feels unfinished, and the familiar subjects of Saer’s earlier novels—time, movement, philosophical speculation mixed with pragmatism and politics—return in full force here.
Argentina’s turbid political history in the aftermath of World War II is the backdrop for the narrative action of La Grande. Because the nation remained neutral during both world wars, Argentina’s economy, culture, and literacy rates positioned it to be a world power. But Argentina was slow to industrialize. Much of its labor economy faltered as post-war rebuilding set a new pace for world markets. When Juan Perón became president in 1946, he rode to power as a populist leader, touting a labor-friendly brand of ‘right-wing socialism’. In time, however, his over-reaching social agenda began to bankrupt the economy. Perón also drew the suspicions of many powerful anti-communist nations, including the U.S. and Great Britain.
Perón’s ouster by coup in 1955 ushered in a new wave of instability and violence. What followed were two decades of reactionary bloodshed and political upheaval, as Argentina worked out its schizophrenic feelings toward Perón. When he died in 1974 (after again serving as President), Argentina descended into its most violent period, the now infamous “Dirty War.” Military dictators clashed with leftist guerillas. Up to thirty-thousand citizens were either killed or became desaparecidos, the disappeared, men and women snatched off Argentina’s streets never to be seen again. It was during this violent era when Gutiérrez flew to his European exile (like Saer himself) and when Nula’s father was murdered outside the pizza restaurant. The repressive military governments met their demise in 1983, after the British military retook the Falkland Islands and a more moderate government replaced the dictatorship.
Against this backdrop we descend, to the Santa Fe region of Argentina, Saer’s favorite choice for his novel settings. Gutiérrez, the exile-come-home, survivor, enigma, left Argentina as a young man “in search of three chimeras: worldwide revolution, sexual liberation and auteur cinema.” Of course the reader knows that Gutiérrez also fled Argentina’s political turmoil. Gutiérrez rants about the way European commercial interests are misguided. “He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car.” At first blush, it might be easy to dismiss this character as a type, the craggy grouch railing against the system, but Saer rarely paints with simple brush strokes. A paragraph later, he broadens out the description:
The vitriol in the sentiment contrasts with the composure of his face each time he looks over his left shoulder, with the calm vigor of his movements, and with the monotone neutrality of a voice that seems to be reciting, not a violent diatribe, but rather, in a friendly, paternal way, a set of practical recommendation for a traveler preparing to confront an unfamiliar continent.
Many aspects of this character description equally mirror the experience of reading the novel. There is a distinct neutrality to the way events unfold. A paternal coolness—friendly but formal, polite and pragmatic—directs the action. The further we read, the more prepared we are to confront the unfamiliar continent. Saer leaves little to chance, so that even a simple character description can recapitulate and reflect on the larger themes of the novel itself. This marks the high mastery of a brilliant writer.
Though in one sense Gutiérrez functions as the novel’s hub, he actually doesn’t do much. He throws the party, and the others come. And though most of the novel’s momentum surges toward this party (which occurs in-scene in the final chapter) we never really grasp who Gutiérrez is. He remains, purposefully, enigmatic. Too much time has passed since he left his homeland. The real story grows in the countryside, its history and the people who endured the misery of Argentina’s tumultuous wars, coups, and dictatorships. The novel’s other characters seem drawn to Gutiérrez out of curiosity. Who is this man? What might they have become had they too left? What destinies did they abandon or inherit? Gutiérrez embodies aborted memories, memories that never grew, never played out. And because his participation in most of the actual events was lacking, Gutiérrez is oddly detached from what for the others are familiar experiences, shared so intimately.
In a gorgeously dense passage, Gutiérrez gazes at the Paraná River and meditates:
Gutiérrez’s senses perceive the rain across the deserted expanse that surrounds them, while his imagination projects it over the contiguous and distant spaces they have crossed and that, despite their imaginary provenance, are complemented by and confused with the empirical plane that surrounds them. What he perceives from the point in the verdant space where they find themselves, his imagination likewise assigns to the entire region, where, for the past year or so, after more than thirty years away, he has been living. And he thinks he can see, in the leaves that shudder silently as the drops fall, in their impacts with the yellow earth, and, especially, in the agitation that the drops cause as they cover the rippled surface of the river over an infinite number of simultaneous points, the intimate cipher of the empirical world, each fragment, as distant and distinct from the present as it might seem—the most distant star, for example—having the exact value as this, the one he occupies, and that if he could disentangle himself from the grasp of this apparently insignificant present, the rest of the universe—time, space, inert or living matter—would reveal all its secrets.
The “intimate cipher of the empirical world” will forever elude Gutiérrez. The novel attempts to reveal life’s secrets, unlocking meaning and rendering their beauty, but not for him. Gutiérrez walks through the world as a time traveler, who has passed through three decades unscathed. His memories are detached, cut-off from the land, less intimate, perhaps more innocent, because history, age, the passage of seasons, have exacted no toll. In many ways, Gutiérrez remains a ghost, the intimate cipher, encrypted by absence, forever a stranger in a familiar land.
For Nula Anoch—raconteur, wine salesman, part-time philosopher, full-time philanderer—memory comes at a great cost. If Gutiérrez is the still center of La Grande, Nula is the story’s bent rim, frenetic, wobbly, navigating the world with a notebook in his pocket for jotting down philosophical points that strike him (as they often do). Nula rarely rests. Imbued with an intellectual spark mixed with a salesman’s charisma, he is the primary point-of-view character (though Saer is never above dropping into omniscient narration). Despite a penchant for seducing women, Nula wonderfully remains in love with his wife, the beautiful but disfigured Diana. “Nula cheated on her often, telling himself each time that he really loved her but was incapable of establishing a direct correlation between love and fidelity.” Rarely are Saer’s characters one dimensional.
Two primary events have shaped Nula’s life: the first was the murder of his father years earlier in the political firestorms that ravaged Argentina. Nula’s journey might well be seen as a quest for lost paternity. The other event, and the one that occupies a good deal of the second half of La Grande, is an affair that took place five years before the party with an exotic couple, Lucía and Riera. This libidinous husband and wife seduced Nula into a strange love triangle (one that never achieved sexual fruition). When Nula encounters Lucía again, at Gutiérrez’s house (in the pool, in fact), the themes of betrayal, mistaken identity, paternity, grief, and recovery all come together.
In many ways, Nula’s role in the novel is a simple one. Nula delivers the wine. He acts impulsively, without restraint. But he also forges the connections between the various characters, which will allow their significant histories to be told. If this works as the dramatic device, so be it, because a traditional plot is something Saer eschews. Instead, we get movement. Characters are always moving, across the littoral region of Argentina, through city streets, across rivers, across time, across space. This churning creates the story. Through choppy cadences, false starts, and carefully timed pauses, Saer creates narrative and meaning.
In a pivotal scene, Gabriella and Soldi, two of the peripheral point of view characters who appear in an important subplot representing the history of Argentina’s literary avant garde, are crossing a bridge over the Paraná River (note the motif of movement again). They pause and simultaneously observe two boys also standing on the bridge:
Suddenly the tallest one, the one who’s most calm and most patient, without warning but nevertheless gently, asks, What is the novel? And the other one, who’s slightly younger, without even looking up from the whirlpool, says, The decomposition of continuous movement.
Movement is essential to understanding Saer. Like an orchestral piece of music, each instrument plays a part. Various sounds form, often in a disharmonic state, until each note begins to register, until a melody emerges. The sophistication of voice, the ease with which Saer switches point of view, time, even story lines, points not to erratic or jumbled narrative, not to jazz, but to a deeply sophisticated harmony, something that forces us to pay attention, to admire, and, eventually, to understand.
Flannery O’Connor once remarked that a good story resists paraphrase. La Grande isn’t about parties, wine sales, sex or even ultimately about Argentine history. And yet it contains all of these and so much more. The experience, the joy, of reading this book comes from an appreciation of Saer’s ability to keep these various pieces in motion. Saer-as-maestro teases apart story lines, only to carefully reconnect them hundreds of pages later, so that, by novel’s end, when the various actors have gathered at the party in Gutiérrez’s home, “even the things that are familiar to us are unfamiliar, if only because we’ve allowed ourselves to forget the mysterious things about them.” The mundane becomes strange, significant, filled with meaning, so that each story, each character, each plot step even, appears consequential. Nothing is ever wasted.
Suddenly, in a spark of clairvoyance, he realizes why they are together, gathered around the table, relaxed and happy, because, he thinks, no one among them believes that the world belongs to them. They all know that they are apart from the human swarm deluded into thinking that it knows where it’s going, and that separation does not paralyze them, just the opposite, it actually seems to satisfy them. Every one of them, not to mention the owner of the house, who guards an impenetrable mystery behind his forehead, insists on being something other than what’s expected of them.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.