Juan José Saer

Novelist with poetry at the core of his work

The novelist, essayist and poet Juan José Saer was the most important Argentinean writer since Borges. The author of 12 novels and four books of short stories, he also published two volumes of essays and two books of poetry. Four of his novels are available in English, all of them published by Serpent's Tail: Nobody, Nothing, Never (1993, first published as Nadie nada nunca, 1980), The Witness (1990: El entenado, 1983), The Investigation (1999: La pesquisa, 1994) and The Event (1995: La ocasión, 1988).

Juan José Saer, writer and poet: born Serodino, Argentina 28 June 1937; married (one son, one daughter); died Paris 11 June 2005.

The novelist, essayist and poet Juan José Saer was the most important Argentinean writer since Borges. The author of 12 novels and four books of short stories, he also published two volumes of essays and two books of poetry. Four of his novels are available in English, all of them published by Serpent's Tail: Nobody, Nothing, Never (1993, first published as Nadie nada nunca, 1980), The Witness (1990: El entenado, 1983), The Investigation (1999: La pesquisa, 1994) and The Event (1995: La ocasión, 1988).

He was the son of Syrian immigrants to Argentina, born in a small village in the northern province of Santa Fe in 1937, but lived in Paris from 1968. Although he spent the major part of his adult life outside Argentina, the fictional world he invented, populated by characters who reappear from book to book, draws closely on the area of northern Argentina known as El Litoral.

As a young man growing up in the provinces, he was a voracious reader of everything he could lay his hands on: he was translating Keats at the age of 12. Local writers such as the poets Juan L. Ortiz and Hugo Gola played a part in his formation, as did his experience of working in the Sante Fe Film School.

Although he received the Spanish Nadal Prize for La ocasión, he never received the type of international recognition that was given to novelists like Gabriel García Márquez, whose names became synonymous with the Latin American novel. Saer was absolutely clear and uncompromising in his rejection of the cult of magical realism, exoticism and so on, which had become a type of brand identity for novels purporting to be Latin American.

He called it "the ghetto of Latin-American-ness", and saw in it the continuation of a colonial mentality, coming not just from European readers but from Latin American nationalism. He also warned of the danger of trying to turn literature into an immediate instrument of social change. That did not mean that his books avoided politics. On the contrary, Nobody, Nothing, Never is, among other things, an uncompromising literary response to the state terrorism that ravaged Argentina in the 1970s.

As early as the 1920s, Borges had pointed up the logic of nationalism in literature: why should Argentinean writers have to write about gauchos and not about the universe? Borges's answer was to become an inheritor of the whole of Western literature. Saer's approach was different. There was nothing, already written, that fiction could take as its starting point:

At the beginning, the writer of fiction can only have a negative theory. What has already been formulated is of no use at

all to him. Narrative is a practice that segregates its own theory as it moves forward.

The need to begin again repeatedly becomes a circular motion that characterises much of his prose. Nothing is taken for granted. The stuff of experience is in the end the strangest of all things in the universe - is, in fact, the universe, insofar as its materiality is what becomes consciousness. A swimmer floating in a river in northern Argentina - the scene is from Nobody, Nothing, Never - finds what he thought was the world decomposing into a dense, seething mass of minute movements. This, which is prior to politics or history, to myths or grand theories, is a challenge to rethink what, precisely, we inhabit: a call to think of ourselves as inside something other than history. In fact, an insistent call not to let history have the last word.

The Witness draws on historical documents in order to tell the story of a cabin boy who came on a Spanish ship to what was not yet Argentina and saw an Indian tribe that was to be destroyed by the Conquest. That genocide becomes a reading of others of our own epoch. Yet this novel goes further, to probe "those other memories which only the body remembers" and that take the form "not of images but of knots scattered through the body". These deposits of lived time in the body lead not to a Proustian recuperation of the past but to a type of "ecstatic materialism", to use Saer's own phrase, which makes literature the vehicle of an inner human time, as against time of states, bureaucracies and news media.

Saer once took part in a French television debate along with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu said that literature needed to adjust to the world of modern media. Saer completely rejected that view: the role of literature was to offer an alternative way of experiencing the world.

What was different about Saer as a novelist was that poetry was at the core of his work. He rejected the idea that the novel, simply because it is written in prose, is "condemned to the cross of realism". This had made the novel "the most backward of all the arts nowadays". He thought that Rimbaud and Mallarmé were as relevant to the novel as Cervantes. His own extraordinary prose was nourished by a commitment to breaking down the barriers between prose and poetry.

William Rowe



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