"Scars" by Juan José Saer [25 Days of the BTBA]
As with years past, we’re going to spend the next four weeks highlighting the rest of the 25 titles on the BTBA fiction longlist. We’ll have a variety of guests writing these posts, all of which are centered around the question of “Why This Book Should Win.” Hopefully these are funny, accidental, entertaining, and informative posts that prompt you to read at least a few of these excellent works.
Click here for all past and future posts in this series.
Scars by Juan José Saer, translated by Steve Dolph
Country: Argentina (though Saer had recently moved to Paris when it was published)
Publisher: Open Letter Books
Why This Book Should Win: The title sounds like an action movie and it would be cool to announce in a scary voice from the stage if it wins. And because it is fucking unforgettable.
This piece is written by the infamous Dustin Kurtz who works at the equally infamous McNally Jackson.
As I wrote to Chad earlier and may have proclaimed, unasked, a few times on the floor of my bookstore, Juan Jose Saer’s Scars is some kind of masterpiece. What I mean here is that this novel plays a single nuanced tune. It plays it with impressive range and variety. It plays it with enough subtlety to overcome the bluntness and stridency of the chosen instrument (male narrative voice in provincial Argentina in the midcentury). But more than that, it does it in such a way that variety itself, that range, that repetition above all, become not just structural methods for Saer but themselves the topics of the book. It is a book about small men, and whatever Saer’s intentions for the work it never grows grandiose enough to indicate a Great Book in ways we are used to recognizing. It is not, as I say, a masterpiece. I don’t generally care for masterpieces. Give me instead books that are lesser, are grounded, books filthy with humanity.
This book languished on my to-be-read pile for too long. I spilled something—what is this, coffee?—on it at some point. And then, this past December, I found myself trying to pull together a list of a few great books translated that season. Open Letter has pretty good credit in my house, and Chad, when first selling it to me, had been pretty exuberant, so I began to read.
There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window. I’m leaning over the table. sliding the cue, ready to shoot. The red and white balls are across the table, near the corner. I have the spot ball. I have to hit it softly so it hits the red ball first, then the white, then the back rail between the red ball and the white ball. The red ball should hit the side rail before mine hits the back rail, which it should make for at an angle, after it’s hit the white ball.
That is the opening passage of the book. Incredibly, bravely, it keeps going that way. How do you refuse a book like this? How do you even put it down?
Scars revolves more or less around the story of a single murder, told from the point of view of four men. As we pass through the book each narrator is closer to the murder and each narration is given a shorter span of time. The result is a sort of slow pacing along the path of a meditative labyrinth toward its not-so-nice center. The thing is, I don’t give a shit about that structure. It doesn’t hurt the book but it doesn’t add appreciably to it either. What matters are Saer’s characters and his way of nesting a few indelible details in a wealth of repetition.
While I’m mentioning things to make you avoid the book (“Great recommendation Dustin!” “Thanks, Chad!”) let me say that Scars could be read as misogynistic. It is more complex than that, though many of the characters themselves are unambiguously misogynistic for reasons of youth or spite or because this book is, again, set in Argentina in the mid twentieth century. Saer’s women are seen exclusively through male eyes. And Saer’s men are invariably angry or repressed or confused. The women are not always cast in a flattering light, and are always a source of self-loathing for the men. In fact the true heart of the book is hidden in these men’s frustrated relationships to women and the thick-barked form that frustration takes.
Oh, and the book is boring. (“Why yes, I will buy a copy. That sounds right up my alley, good bookseller. I was just thinking I needed a good soporific.”) Or, it isn’t boring but as I said it plays with boredom. Do you remember the whaling chapters in Moby-Dick? Right in the middle of your sexy harpoon allegory? Well some of Scars is like that. That billiards bit above is nothing. There is a passage about twenty pages long explaining and then over-explaining the rules of baccarat. I now know more than any person I have ever met in the entire course of my life about baccarat, excepting maybe Chad W. Post and Steve Dolph and the lucky folks (I am not being facetious here; they are lucky, this book is incredible) I convinced to buy a copy of this thing because they trust my taste or maybe just liked the pixel-flame cover art.
Another portion of the book, among my favorites, follows an aging judge as he drives up and down the streets of a small town in the rain. “I cross the Avenida del Sur, and at the next corner I turn right, then drive one block and turn left onto San Martin to the north” is a typical sentence. That is oddly specific, yes? After the first page of nothing but driving it becomes oddly hypnotic. After five more pages, you begin to relearn what a novel is.
This is Steve Dolph’s second translation of Saer, also having done the remarkable The Sixty-Five Years of Washington put out by Open Letter in 2010 and presumably their forthcoming edition of La Grande. With it he’s stepping into the shoes of the formidable Margaret Jull Costa, but it’s hard to imagine Saer in anyone else’s hands (or wait, shoes, I guess? Is that the lazy metaphor I was using?) at this point. Dolph is thankfully true to the understatement in this book. There are moments of flame-bright language—during dream sequences, bilious drunken dialogue, an excerpt from a novel in progress—but they are rare, and must leak up through extra-textual cracks in a shell of simple declarative vocabulary. Dolph does an impressive job here, using just the right measure of repetition in the language itself, opting for no more specific phrasing than is necessary. There are staircases, squares, doorways and trees, arcades, gin and long marsh grass. He has a good ear for the break of the sentences, for when a character’s narration should push or drag you, cozy you in or hold you distant. Even more, Dolph manages to coax a different timbre from the voice of each of these five sometimes very similar male narrators. He builds them of slang and its lack, of reflection and its lack, until he’s managed what I hope Saer himself did in the original: a mumbling too-easily-joined chorus of banalities and lust.
Ah that’s right, beer. I spilled a beer on it.