Pratilipi Kicks off the Storm of Saer Hype

Although Argentina disappointed the world me greatly by choking—choking!—against the well-oiled and efficient German soccer army, I still heart the hell out of this country. When I retire (yeah, real funny, like, I’m sure I’ll receive a Genius grant right around that same time), I want to move to Buenos Aires and live the final years of my life scuba diving and drinking in cafes. And reading all the amazing literature that Argentina has produced. Borges, Cortazar, Bioy Casares, Ocampo, Sabato, Arlt, so on and forth.

And Juan Jose Saer. I first came across Saer when he passed away in 2005. A few of his books (Nobody Nothing Never, The Witness, The Investigation, and my favorite, The Event) had been published by Serpent’s Tail, but unfortunately, Saer never seemed to get the credit he was due. At least not in this country. (Written as if that’s some sort of surprise. If I had a penny for every under-appreciated world author I’d be able to retire somewhere crazy, like Argentina.)

When he died, Saer’s agent (Guillermo Schavelzon Agencia Literaria and the wonderful Jacoba Caiser) pushed to get some of his untranslated works out there. To have him rediscovered after his death. (If I had a nickle for every post-death rediscovery . . . you know, you know.)

So based on the collective love for his earlier works (especially The Investigation and The Event . . . wow), Open Letter decided to sign on three books: The Sixty-Five Years of Washington (a.k.a. Glosa, but Gloss just sounded too toothy and slick for us), Cicatrices (which will probably become Scars) and La Grande (which, uh, The Grand?? Not so sure about that), and will be bringing these out over the next few years, all translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, the editor of the mind-blowingly good Calque magazine (soon to be press?).

We’re kicking off this Saer revival with The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, which comes out this November, and is absolutely brilliant. And our friend Rahul Soni—who happens to be part of the first class coming to the University of Rochester to be part of our M.A. in Literary Translation program—ran an excerpt from this novel over at the brilliant webmagazine Pratilipi.

Here’s Steve’s brief set-up for the excerpt and description of the book:

Saer’s Glosa—to be published this fall by Open Letter as The Sixty-Five Years of Washington—was first published in 1985, in the middle of what would become a thirty-year exile in France. It recalls an Argentina of twenty-five years previous, before guerrilla terrorism and millitary repression overwhelmed the country. But “The Sixty-Five Years of Washington” isn’t mid-century cosmopolitan nostalgia—just the opposite. The novel is concerned with hearsay and memory, how they work to distort both the past and the future, how they shape and deform our sense of the so-called “real” world, how they simultaneously alienate and connect people. Over the course of the book we see the characters being slowly erased by the contradictions inherent in their recollections.

In the selection below, Leto and an engineer nicknamed The Mathematician have been walking downtown through the small city of Rosario, discussing the birthday party of a mutual friend, Washington Noriega, a party neither attended, before The Mathematician suddenly ducks into a building.

Go. Go now. Read it in full. Saer’s a masterful stylist, and this literally is not to be missed.

Well, if you’re still here, least I can do is give you a taste:

Absorbed, as we’re in the habit of saying, in his thoughts or, if you prefer, as always, in his memories, Leto steps away from the tree, walking slowly toward the intersection. He has just forgotten about the Mathematician. Like the stage actor who does a pirouette and then disappears into the darkness off stage or, better yet, like those sea creatures who, ignorant of the sun that makes them flash, reveal, periodically, a glistening spine that sinks and reappears at regular intervals, a few images, sharp and well formed, approach and abandon him. Distracted, he crosses the street and arrives at the opposite sidewalk—and his distraction is also what makes him go through with the paradoxical act of stopping on the bright sidewalk and turning back toward the corner he has just left, knowing unconsciously that he is waiting for someone or something, but not knowing exactly who or what, or better yet, and strictly speaking, his body is what turns and stops to wait—Leto’s body, no?—that unique and completely external thing that, independent from what, inside, yields control and continuity, now casts, over the gray pavement, a shadow slightly shorter than him—his body, I mean—plump and young, standing in the morning, on the central street, giving the world the illusion, or the abusive proof, maybe, of his existence.

In a hurry, the Mathematician walks out of the newspaper office. Seeing him, Leto for a fraction of a second thinks, What a coincidence, the Mathematician, until he remembers that they have been walking together for several blocks and that he’s been waiting for him on the sidewalk for a couple of minutes. The Mathematician walks straight to the middle of the sidewalk and noticing Leto’s absence stops suddenly, disconcerted, but, turning his head, spots him on the next sidewalk and resuming a normal stride and smiling apologetically, starts walking toward Leto, who also smiles. And the Mathematician thinks: Did he decide to leave? Maybe he crossed the street to put some distance between us and now he’s smiling back guiltily. The editor had sat reading the press release on his desk without making a move to touch it, as though it were a venomous snake. They probably have me blacklisted, the Mathematician thinks. But, like a magician who makes several plates at once dance at the edge of a table, his thoughts are occupied at the same time with Leto, and the Mathematician, to show his good will and that the delay wasn’t his fault, hurries a little without managing to get very far, as the traffic on the two-lane cross street is stopped on the corner because of the movement on the central street, forcing him to wait a moment at the cable guardrail, smiling at Leto over the cars advancing at a walking pace.

Being able to share Saer with the English-speaking world is an example of what makes publishing worthwhile. (That and the money, naturally.)

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