It is a sunny spring day in the city you have recently moved to, and on your way to work in the morning, you decide on a whim to get off the bus and walk instead. You are on a major boulevard, but at the point where you begin walking, removed from the city center, it is fairly empty. Your thoughts begin to wander, as they tend to do on a walk alone in the city, and soon you run into an acquaintance, the Mathematician. He has just returned from a trip to Europe, and the two of you fall into step and into conversation about the recent birthday party for Jorge Washington Noriega, which neither of you was able to attend, but which the Mathematician heard all about from Botón—“Button,” a nickname whose origin you do not know, and a person you have never met, but whose word you are more or less forced to trust as the Mathematician begins to narrate the story of the celebration of the sixty-five years of Washington.
Such is the premise of Juan José Saer’s novel, only that “you” are in fact Ángel Leto, a young man who has just moved to the small city named Sante Fe and is working a number of bookkeeping jobs. The effect is the same, however, as Leto essentially becomes a reader of the Mathematician’s story (according to Botón): as he listens, he goes forming a picture in his mind of the scene and the people involved, much as you might do when reading a book—some objects incomplete or indefinite, facial features hazy or purely imagined, where those details are left out of the narrative:
Leto, who is listening now to the Mathematician, has had to add an unforeseen pavilion and a grill he can barely picture, since most of the story takes place under the thatched roof of a generic pavilion, more or less the idea of a pavilion, without an overly defined shape, staked in a patio he can’t picture with absolute clarity, where familiar and unfamiliar people possessing, as the Mathematician mentions them, distinct gradations of reality, drink a kind of beer that Leto has never seen, smelled, touched, or tasted [. . .]
This is a book about storytelling and reading, and we quickly begin to get a sense of the multiple layers making up Saer’s masterfully crafted narrative. Its structure is Cervantine in its multiple nested narrative frames, where a typical scene in the book may be a joke told by Washington, relayed by Botón to the Mathematician, who then tells it simultaneously to Leto and to us readers, all of which is ultimately framed by the narrator of the text we hold in our hands. To make things just a touch more complex, we can add one more frame to that structure by taking into account the fact that this is a translation.
As translator, Steve Dolph makes a wise move in choosing to preserve the long sentence structure (it is not infrequent to read more than a dozen or even a couple dozen lines of text before reaching a period) and complex syntax of Saer’s text. The style is an essential complement to the layered narrative structure of the book, and it is extremely well executed, in that it draws attention to itself as being extraordinary without being off-putting or feeling too “foreign.” Mechanically flawless, the sentences are not messy or nonsensical, and where they might demand extra attention from the reader to follow the narrative thread, the narrator himself restores balance with his habit of casually checking himself, as in “he—the Mathematician, no?—” or “—Botón I was saying, no?,” or repeating pieces of information, to clarifying and often comedic effect:
Leto follows the Mathematician’s story [. . .] with some difficulty [. . .] transparent passages that allow his imagination, turning on and off intermittently, to construct expressive and fleeting images: there was a feast at the house of someone named Basso, in Colastiné, at the end of August, to celebrate Washington’s birthday, and they had started discussing a horse that had stumbled; the Mathematician—it was Tomatis who gave him the nickname—heard about it from Botón the Saturday before on the Paraná ferry, Botón, a guy he has heard about several times but whom he has not had the pleasure of meeting, and then Washington had said that the horse was not an acceptable example for the problem they were discussing—Leto asks himself darkly, without daring to make the case to the Mathematician out of fear that the Mathematician will look down on him a little, what the hell the so-called problem could be—that the mosquito, if Leto understood correctly, would be a more appropriate creature [. . .]
Besides having multiple narrative frames and sentences with extraordinary numbers of commas, the text is impressive in its several concurrent narratives. There is of course the narrative of Washington’s birthday party, as well as perhaps the most obvious narrative of the characters walking down the street. Besides those two lines, there are shorter strands consisting of, for instance, the Mathematician’s commentary on his trip to Europe, or his telling of his running into Botón on the ferry to Paraná to watch a rugby game. In addition, as readers we are given access to the unvoiced thoughts and memories of Leto and the Mathematician. In Leto’s case, his thoughts are preoccupied by reflections on the recent loss of his father and childhood memories relevant to his relationship with his father and mother. The Mathematician, on the other hand, is haunted by the memory of what he calls “The Incident,” wherein he temporarily went mad in response to being stood up by a Buenos Aires poet who had promised to discuss with him the Mathematician’s laboriously crafted thoughts entitled The Fourteen Points Toward All Future Meter. The Mathematician does not reveal any portion of this story to Leto; it is only as readers of Saer’s text that we are privileged to play witness to this episode that is so telling of the Mathematician’s character. Later, we will see the Mathematician on a plane to Sweden, fleeing the military dictatorship in Argentina and recalling his meeting in Paris with Pichón Garay who, years after the event, attempts to recall once more the details of Washington’s sixty-fifth birthday party. This episode naturally does not figure into the Mathematician’s conversation with Leto on their walk down San Martín Boulevard, since it will be years before the dictatorship comes to power. Again, as readers of the multiply framed text, we are privileged to enjoy additional depth of context, in this case, the revelation of a darker sociopolitical setting for a mostly lighthearted comedy.
All this narrative richness is made possible through an omniscient narrator who is, atypically, also a first-person narrator. While the narrator is not himself a character who plays a role in the novel, he does take on some personality by virtue of narrating in the first person. This unusual combination creates a sense of listening to a narrated film or an audiobook: the narrator can report and comment on the observable story as well as on the characters’ unspoken thoughts, in the way no typical player could, and yet we are continually reminded that there is a human voice behind the narration. The reader, just as Leto—who joins the Mathematician on the street for a stroll and a story—walks alongside the narrator while he unravels his tale.
In his debut translated book, Dolph brings us a delightful read, with language that tickles the brain and a style that highlights Saer’s inventiveness and expertly conveys his sense of humor—muted, pseudo-academic, at times a little bit sad, much like Washington’s own “subtle irony, which should probably leave you thoughtful and could, at the most, make you smile, inwardly more than anything“—the kind that elicits more a half snicker than an LOL, less likely to attract strange looks from, say, fellow commuters as you read The Sixty-Five Years of Washington on your way downtown.
The Urdu word basti refers to any space, intimate to worldly, and is often translated as “common place” or “a gathering place.” This book by Intizar Husain, who is widely regarded as one of the most important living Pakistani writers,. . .
The Whispering Muse, one of three books by Icelandic writer Sjón just published in North America, is nothing if not inventive. Stories within stories, shifting narration, leaps in time, and characters who transform from men to birds and back again—you’ve. . .
Luis Negrón’s debut collection Mundo Cruel is a journey through Puerto Rico’s gay world. Published in 2010, the book is already in its fifth Spanish edition. Here in the U.S., the collection has been published by Seven Stories Press and. . .
To have watched from one of your patios
the ancient stars
from the bank of shadow to have watched
the scattered lights
my ignorance has learned no names for
nor their places in constellations
to have heard the ring of. . .
When Icelandic author Andri Snær Magnason first published LoveStar, his darkly comic parable of corporate power and media influence run amok, the world was in a very different place. (This was back before both Facebook and Twitter, if you can. . .
When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I. . .
Christa Wolf’s newly-translated City of Angels is a novel of atonement, and in this way the work of art that it resembles most to me is not another book, but the 2003 Sophia Coppola film Lost in Translation. Like that. . .