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.
Pascal Quignard’s __The Hatred of Music_ is the densest, most arcane, most complex book I’ve read in ages. It’s also a book that covers a topic so basic, so universal—almost primordial—that just about any reader will be perversely thrilled by. . .
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Flaubert attempted to highlight the ordinary, tired, and often crass nature of common expressions by italicising them within the text. When Charles, Emma Bovary’s mediocre husband, expresses himself in a manner akin to that of. . .
Eliot Weinberger takes big strides across literary history in his genuinely breathtaking short work, 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, tracking translations of a short ancient Chinese poem from the publication of Ezra Pound’s Cathay in 1915 to Gary. . .
Prose translators will likely disagree, but I believe translating poetry requires a significant level of talent, a commitment to the text, and near mania, all of which suggests that the undertaking is the greatest possible challenge. The task is to. . .
The biggest issues with books like The Subsidiary often have to do with their underpinnings—when we learn that Georges Perec wrote La Disparition without once using the letter E, we are impressed. Imagine such a task! It takes a high. . .
Following The Infatuations, Javier Marías’s latest novel seems, like those that have preceded it, an experiment to test fiction’s capacity to mesmerize with sombre-sexy atmospheres and ruminative elongated sentences stretched across windowless walls of paragraphs. Thus Bad Begins offers his. . .
Death by Water, Kenzaburo Oe’s latest novel to be translated into English, practically begs you to read it as autobiography. Like The Changeling, as well as many other works not yet released in English, Death by Water is narrated in. . .