Why This Book Should Win – La Grande by BTBA Judge Scott Esposito
La Grande – Juan Jose Saer, translated by from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, Argentina,
Open Letter Books
Juan Jose Saer was a towering figure in Argentine literature. Over the course of his decades-long career he carved out his very own Argentina, a lovely provincial city named Santa Fe and its environs. He also developed his very own literary style, something that deals with the trappings of genre and that leads to very engaging plots and stories—plus unforgettable characters—yet that is also highly, highly philosophical and experimental, in the way of other Argentine greats like Julio Cortázar and Ricardo Piglia.
As with the work of William Faulker and Roberto Bolaño, you can think of Saer’s fiction as all of a piece. There are things that link most of Saer’s great novels—places, people, themes—and La Grande is very much the summation of a career. It is the biggest, longest, most complex novel he produced, and it brings many of his principle characters all back together. It was the last thing Saer ever wrote, a book he didn’t quite finish before he died at a young 67 from lung cancer in 2005, but that feels very complete in the state it reaches us.
This introduction may make it sound like you need to be versed in Saer to approach La Grande, but this is not the case. The book is self-contained and utterly satisfying and complete on its own terms. What is it about? Well, it is about the good life, the very material pleasures and joys that we must remember to always make time for on this Earth. It is also a deeply philosophical work about who we are and what we are doing here, although Saer is never jargon-y or butchering or even so much as dull when he gets into philosophy. It’s also about the literary avant-garde, about seductions and affairs between men and women, about marriage and getting a second chance at life and love.
In other words, it’s a novel written by a master novelist who has lived a very rich life and is prepared to put it all down on paper one last time. Thanks to Open Letter we will continue to receive many more installments of Saer for years to come, so there will be many, many more chances for him to win the Best Translated Book Award, but La Grande should really be the one that gives him the honor. It’s just a simply great book, something that will live with you for a week or two as you read it, and then a thing that you will then recall fondly forever after you’ve finished it. It makes you feel more alive to read it, and it makes you want to enjoy life, whether you do that by consuming a fine wine, chorizo, and carnal pleasures (as do Saer’s characters) or whether you prefer other of the world’s delights. Once you’ve had your fill of earthly pleasures, La Grande then instructs you in how to contemplate it all, to give your life that spiritual, philosophical outlook it also needs to have. It also happens to have one of literature’s great last lines (it may be a good thing that Saer never got to complete this work), and it really does feel like a book that gives us our best shot at understanding just what life is and how we should live it.
So, really, there are many worthy books on the BTBA longlist, and this year it feels like there are many more titles in the running than usual, but La Grande really deserves it. It should win.