Books: The Cat, the Pigeon and the case of the disappearing book

The Investigation by Juan Jose Saer Serpent's Tail pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
Saer is a past master of literary games. Games of alternating the narrative with the authorial voice; of switching protagonists like a circus rider vaulting horses; of mixing multiple plots in different places and times; and of skimming layers of consciousness, plumbing the most driven instincts and exploring the most cerebral analyses. The Investigation is as much about the ludic possibilities of literature as a gory account of madness and murderers. The parallel theme, which emerges in duller counterpoint to the sensational violence of the thriller, relates the assassination - the burial while still newborn - of a book.

The book disappearance actually happened, as is well known, at least in Saer's native Argentina. It may have occurred on several occasions, but it has been recounted by at least one fellow author-in- exile, Tomas Eloy Martinez. Under the ruthless military dictatorship in power during the 1970s and 1980s, Eloy Martinez buried his first novel in the garden. Between the roots of a tree, to make it easier to recover, but when he returned to start digging, the book had either decomposed or been disinterred. It was the starting point for a grand exploration of a famously postmodern construct: history as fiction, in his case in the form of the multiple myths surrounding the two most influential Argentines this century, Juan and Evita Peron.

Saer plays with the notion that it's not the story we trust but its teller. Truth being necessarily stranger than art, incredulity and believability can go hand-in-hand. His main players are never the Perons of the world but the little people. They have designations out of Aesop's Fables, being known as the Cat or the Pigeon and, appropriately enough, the literary references are drawn from classical Greece alternating "real life" Ulysses, Menelaus and Helen with the legendary Scylla and Charybdis, the Furies and Harpies in "the two-part singing voice of the story". The geographical references also alternate, but are both closer to a real home: rural Argentina for the mysteriously and inappropriately recovered novel and the streets around Saer's former Parisian address (for political reasons he has, since 1968, made his home in Paris, while teaching Latin American literature at Rennes University) where "the monster of the Bastille" sadistically tortures and slaughters his elderly female victims.

Nothing, of course, is as it seems - and that includes the double denouement. Saer once disclosed his literary obsessions as "messing with the space/time continuum; counterpointing the southern and western hemispheres"; and exploring "people in general" along with "the certainty that no two of them share the same sensation, a single memory". Yet constant is the determination of those in power to control the thinking of the rest, whether as the repressive villains of a monstrous dictatorship or as the heroes of a police thriller. Between Argentina and France, the perception of goodies and baddies reverses. It is not those who use force to determine the course of events but those who resist that count. Only the variety and variability of individual refusals to go along with the following story can affect its outcome.

Saer's insistence that he always writes as himself cannot gainsay the rich range of his styles. He practises as an academic, a journalist, an essayist, a novelist. Within the novel he pushes the reader to make imaginative leaps between his historical, legendary and fictitious characters. There is plenty of scope for the reader to read as herself too. If every book is an odyssey, then every memory is also a chapter of the future. The Investigation may function as a Parisian policier but it is equally a homage to the life stories that were lost or disappeared, written out of history. With Paul Claudel: "Things do not cease to exist because we leave them behind".

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