Over at Numéro Cinq (“A Warm Place on a Cruel Web”) there’s a great feature on Scars by Juan José Saer, a book that I recently claimed in an interview was my “favorite Open Letter book ever.” (And which I qualified by saying that my mind will change by the time the interview is over . . . My book love is 100% fickle.)
In terms of the features Richard Farrell put together, first off, there’s an excerpt from the novel itself:
Mostly I played baccarat, because there my past was predetermined. Once in a while it could change, but it felt more solid than the crazy mayhem of the dice in the shaker, better than the blind senselessness of their flight before they came to rest on the green felt. My heart would tumble more than the dice when I shook the cup and turned it over the table. You can’t bet on chaos. And not because you can’t win, but because it’s not you who wins, but the chaos that allows it.
In baccarat I saw a different order, analogous to the phenomena of this world, because that other world, the one in which the opposite face of every present moment is utter chaos, and in which the chaos, reinitiated, could erase all the present moments behind it, just like that, seemed horrible to me. That’s what I felt whenever I shook the dice. In baccarat, my eyes could follow every movement the dealers made as they shuffled the cards and reinserted them into the shoe. First they would spread them out over the table, and then stack them in piles organized in three or four rows. They’d combine all the piles into a single column, two hundred and sixty cards, five decks in all, and drop them into the shoe. Then the game would start. First you had to think about the cards in the shoe. In baccarat, when the player is dealt a five—made up of a face card and a five, a three and a two, a nine and a six, or any other combination—he can choose whether or not to hit in order to improve his score. If the player hits, the entire makeup of the shoe changes. Before, I said that in baccarat I had a predetermined past. But it’s probably better to say I had a predetermined future. Objectively speaking, the cards in the shoe are actually a past. For me, ignorant of their arrangement, they become the present and then the past as they are dealt, two at a time. At that point they become the future. And the player’s decision when he lands a five—hitting or standing—changes the cards. But the present is necessary for that change to take place.
Then there’s a review:
A good novel does much more than communicate the events of a story. A good novel also reflects on itself. It dabbles a bit in theory, considers genre and rediscovers form. The well-written book, what John Gardner once called the ‘serious novel,’ borrows from the traditions of the past and gestures toward the future, often in destabilizing ways. A good novel refuses simplistic labeling because it relentlessly stalks the nature of things and, in so doing, it helps resuscitate the very reason we read (and write) in the first place: to render some insight into the ineffable, to close the gap between perception and thought, to diminish the emptiness between the world we experience and the world we feel. [. . .]
Juan José Saer’s novel Scars might well qualify as such as work. Set in the city of Santa Fe, Argentina, the novel is divided into four long sections, each narrated by a different character. Holding these disparate parts together are the events of May 1, Workers Day, a day when Luis Fiore, his wife and young daughter go duck hunting. It’s almost wintertime in the southern hemisphere, and a steady cool rain makes the hunting trip more dread than delight. Fiore and his wife argue all day, but Fiore bags two ducks anyway. He drives back into town, drops his daughter off at home and then stops in at a local pub with his wife. Inside the dingy bar, the ongoing argument between Fiore and his wife — an unnamed character with the mildly derogatory moniker Gringa—escalates. Fiore steps outside, points his shotgun in his wife’s face and pulls the trigger.
Part bildungsroman, part murder mystery, part Robbe-Grillet existentialist romp through a South American landscape, Scars refuses to be any one thing. The easiest comparison of its structure is with the game of Chinese Whispers (also known as Telephone). In the game, as in the novel, a single event is recounted by various witnesses, each with his own version. As the game and the novel unfold, the various perceptions skew the seemingly objective facts. What has been witnessed changes. As Joyce does with his theory of parallax, Saer shakes the reader’s sense of certainty. What is true? What really happened? It all depends on the position and inclination of the observer.
Finally, Richard also has an interview with translator Steve Dolph:
RF: How does translation affect your appreciation of language and literature?
SD: The effect has really been profound. I tend to see all writing in terms of translation, either linguistic or cultural, and have less trust in concepts like national literatures or genealogies among writers. Even the idea of a unified language in itself seems deeply suspect and ideologically motivated to me. I’ve also become much more conscious of translation’s connection to linguistic colonialism, and the political role that translation plays between national groups and between individuals. I see novels, and narration in general, as less closed or finished, and rather more open than I used to, more a confluence of many, many voices than the product of a single voice. Along with that, the idea of authorship, and the distinction between fist-order and second-order artistic products seems more and more like a fiction to me. At the most basic level, though, I’m compelled to see translation—and, by extension, all reading, of text or of the world—as essentially hermeneutic rather than empirical. Which is to say: meaning is not inherent to writing or to language as such; meaning is a product of interpretation, which is never disinterested or absolute, but always, always informed and circumscribed by the cultural position that the reader occupies.
RF: Could you expand a bit on this idea of ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ production with respect to translating literary works?
SD: The idea of a clear transfer from a first order to a second order production is really recent, and has more to do with the 19th-century development of copyright than with what actually happens between texts, and involved the codification of the limits of artistic work and influence. It’s certainly useful from a legal standpoint, but from a reader’s perspective, I don’t see it as very useful. A book is a confluence of many different voices and ideas. For the translator, it’s a whole other set of voices and ideas. The process just feels more open to me. Our ideas about originality and authority, these codes, are informed by an ideology of the role of arts and the artist that translation has always worked to destabilize.
Definitely worth checking out all of these posts, Scars itself, Numéro Cinq, Douglas Glover’s fiction and The Attack of the Copula Spiders.
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.
OK, so I don’t really heart Scott Esposito—as well all know, he’s shit at riding a mechanical bull and that is a NECESSARY in my book—but he has been doing a lot of great work lately, and has prompted me to write an appreciation of his recent reviews and round-up of some year end lists that I’ve been digging.
First up though is Scott. The new Quarterly Conversation is out and contains a review of Can Xue’s Vertical Motion, (translated from the Chinese by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping) which helps elevate this already brilliant web publication. (More on the new issue next week.)
Just before Thanksgiving, Scott’s review of Pelevin’s The Hall of the Singing Caryatids (translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield) was published by The National. As I mentioned yesterday (and in the forthcoming podcast), I just read this and really loved it for its weird and unsettling nature. Here’s Scott’s summary:
A very worthy new addition to this collection is Pelevin’s recently translated novella The Hall of Singing Caryatids, which comes to us by way of New Directions’ Pearls series of short works. It is a brilliant fable of a Russia oversaturated with “semiotic signs”, a skewing of a country where rhetoric – and not actual substance – is most often the locus of communication. The unlucky recipients of this verbiage are call girls employed by a palace of gratification built to capture some of the trickle-down wealth from Russia’s affluent classes. The book gets off to a fitting start as the women are sanctimoniously informed by their employers that their task is one of national importance, the pleasuring of the rich and powerful being vital to beating the West at its own game and keeping the precious oligarchs safe from imperialist influence.
The plot follows Lena, whose job is to join 11 other women in two-day shifts standing perfectly still as living statues that wait to take their next customer into a side room. Such a performance would be taxing to say the least, but Pelevin gives the women a secret weapon: before each shift they’re injected with a chemical modelled on that which allows praying mantises to stand perfectly still while waiting for unwary prey. The chemical offers a bonus: as a side effect, it sends Lena and her counterparts into a Zen-like nirvana where they commune with a vaguely Deepak Chopra-like spiritual mantis. As Lena explores this mantis-world more deeply, Pelevin puts her on a collision course with Mikhail Botvinik, a jet-setting oligarch who wields a force known as “Crypto-Speak” – powerful word-weapons that are cleverly disguised as “everyday speech”.
This is a book that must be read to understood.
But this isn’t the only great book of 2011 that Scott’s recently reviewed—not at all. Next up was his incredibly measured and comprehensive piece at The Critical Flame on Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson):
My Two Worlds is a dance, a seduction that draws us right up to the palpable center and then fades away to the margin, drawing one back toward that center before fading into another marginal space – back and forth, round and round. It is that same haze of thought one feels when hovering around an idea that remains unelucidatable. Yet the book is merely Chejfec’s thoughts over the course of a walk. It is two hours of serpentine meditation, that same maddening dart and weave between significance and insignificance, transcendence and babble.
The best description for the book – one that might also be suitable for Sebald – is to call My Two Worlds a fragmentation of gazes. As with Sebald, mundane objects play a central role in provoking the narrator’s curiosity: the action of the book gets underway when, looking at his map and preparing to make his trip to the park, the narrator becomes fixated by “the great green blotch, as I called it.” On the map he sees “a small black 9 printed at the heart of the park . . . it strengthened my resolve to visit the park.” These are just the type of everyday, slightly obscure details that might become the object of anyone’s irrational fixation, giving the book an odd realism.
We will be posting our video from the recent Chejfec & Carson RTWCS in the near future . . . But going back to Scott’s run of reviewing great books, his piece on Juan Jose Saer’s Scars (translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph) just ran in Bookforum:
What Saer presents marvelously is the experience of reality, and the characters’ attempts to write their own narratives within its excess. Scars is stuffed with unnecessarily minute details, and Saer smothers his readers—and narrators—beneath more information than can reasonably be interpreted. In doing this, he presents reality as an abundance so great that we must necessarily ignore much of it in order to find meaning.
Fortunately, Saer never loses sight of the book’s larger rhythms amid these details, making Scars a brisk, engrossing novel. Scars is best read quickly, so that what remains after reading is not any single moment but the flow of the narrative. Saer, who doesn’t hesitate to drop in a passage that instructs readers how to read his books, indicates as much when he has Ernesto consider Wilde’s advice that “one should absorb the colour of life, but one should never remember its details.” In Scars we see the colors of blurred motion, not the individual scenes that make up the action.
I’ve said it before (and am known to repeat myself), but Scars reestablished my faith in fiction. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. READ IT.
Not to shift gears to dramatically, but a lot of year-end lists are coming out (it being December and all), and a few of our titles have been getting some love.
Although it’s not an official “year end” list, I’m probably most psyched that Scars was included on the December list of Movers & Shakers at GoodReads. It is one of only six books featured. TRUST ME, IT IS THAT GOOD.
Over at Emmett Stinson’s blog, he has a list of the “Best Lit in Translation from 2011.” It’s a solid list featuring In Red, Perec’s Raise book, the new translation of Lispector’s The Hour of the Star (no, I won’t shut up about how great this is), Hrabal’s Dancing Lessons, and Chejfec’s My Two Worlds. All of these books are worth reading, and I like the way Emmett describes all of these.
There are more lists worth discussing (the cool one at Love German Books) and ones better ignored (the so-predictable-that-it’s-almost-not-predictable NY Times list of 100 Notable Books), but for now, this is a decent start . . .
We’re bringing out Scars, the the follow-up to Juan Jose Saer’s critically acclaimed The Sixty-Five Years of Washington this December, but if you can’t wait till then, you can enter into the GoodReads Giveaway by clicking on the link below. Contest closes on the 15th, at which time 10 lucky winners will be selected . . .
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