Sunday, January 04, 2015

Evidentiary realism

•Juan José Saer: Nothing Nobody Never.
Translated from the Spanish by Helen Lane.
London and New York: Serpent's Tale, 1993
ISBN 218 pages
Eastside Road, January 4, 2015—
THERE IS SO MUCH I have neglected: among it all, the literature of Latin America. This can be attributed to the late Gabriel García Márquez, whose Hundred Years of Solitude were, at least when I tried them decades ago, decades too much for me. Let me disclose my prejudices: I am not fond of escapist literature, of science fiction, of fantasy, of Magic Realism. And so I have treated Latin American Literature as I have treated Chinese Cuisine: rather than investigate it, finding the channels that conform to my taste and exploring those that may lead to unsuspected pleasures and perhaps even insights, I have excluded these huge continents wholesale.

But I know this is wrong, and try to correct myself from time to time, though there's increasingly little time left for voyages of discovery. So when I read an interesting review of a new translation of the last (and unfinished) novel by the Argentine writer Juan José Saer, and particularly when I read that his work stands apart from Márquez, I looked for him in a fascinating little bookshop (Alley Cat Books) that we ran into last week in San Francisco; and there came across a second-hand copy of an early novel of his, one not mentioned, as far as I recall, in the NYRB article.

Nothing Nobody Never (the original title is nadie nada nunca, cited without capital letters in the frontmatter of this translation) is a beautiful little novel, set in a hot, dry, riverside community, a village really with unpaved dusty roads, in Argentina, where the two principal characters, Cat and Elisa, presumably like the other villagers, go through domestic routines while uncanny crimes are committed around them. The crimes, like everything else — weather, cuisine, conversation — are presented simply as present facts, not plot devices. There is plenty of story here; the novel is certainly narrative; but nothing is meant to go anywhere; everything is simply present.

When, on opening a novel, I see phrases like "he said," or "she countered," or "X thought," I usually close the book immediately and set it back on the shelf. Dialogue-driven fiction in which the characters' thoughts and motivations are known and describe by an omniscient author no longer interest me. I'd rather not know what happened, or be promised that I will know what will have happened. As I admire Chekhov, Stein, and Henry James, so I prefer to be presented with an event, or a situation, or even a character or two, with no obligation to pretend to understand them. Such understanding I feel is impossible. Further, I think a good deal of mischief has resulted from the belief that life and individuals can be known and "understood."

Don't get me wrong: the observation and analysis and speculation of such things, which is the province of writers par excellence, is interesting and ultimately beneficial. In the hands of really good writers, and Saer is certainly among those, the result can even be gripping during the reading and memorable at the close. More is learned about humanity, I think, from reading really first-rate "fiction" than through any other means, though conversation can come close.

Saer's style, at least in this early novel — the only one of his I've read — is calm, steady, looping, realistic yet fractured. He writes in his own version of Gertrude Stein's "continuous present," a
strange, nameless state, in which the present, which is as wide as the whole of time is long, seems to have risen, from who knows where, to the surface of who knows what, and in which what I was, that in and of itself, in no way amounts to much, now knows that it is here, in the present, knows it, without being able however to pursue its knowledge any farther and without having sought, in the fraction of a second prior to that state, by any means whatsoever, to catch a glimpse of it.
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 86. Italics in the original.
The novel makes me think of Stein, though it is more accessible than, say, Lucy Church Amiably, because of its extraordinary clarity, its lucidity. It makes me think of early Perec — Things and A Man Asleep — because of its neutral observation. It brings Robbe-Grillet to mind, and I'm glad to be reminded of the French New Novel now, fifty years later. More than any other novelist it makes me think of the Catalan Mercè Rodoreda's Death in Spring, similarly haunting, stifling, cuddling, and watery.

"The thing is that everyone" — I hear myself say — "seeks in his or her own way, and finds, a particular thing that thereupon becomes impregnated with its own magic. Don't you think so?"
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 83.
The narrative I rarely appears in the book; does so only, I think, in an attempt — largely successful —- to allow the reader's mind, momentarily, to fuse with that of a character, usually Cat but occasionally (and most movingly and successfully, I think) Elisa. There are other characters, and given the author's unwillingness to play God with their minds and motivations it is remarkable how immediate their presence is, how well we feel we know them. The Beach Attendant, for example, who once remained afloat in the river for seventy-two hours, and who hears, over the course of several pages at almost the center of the book, from a previously not present informant never really fleshed out, the narrative of the crimes, a simple description of them as inexplicable events, but who then returns — the Beach Attendant — to the endlessly but focussed present moment in which continuous action, even that by which light reveals objects, or sound reveals events, is broken, fractured, into
a sort off whirlpool of twinkles when the line of light broke up, and which made him drowsy. And at a certain moment — in his memory the beach attendant could not say wen —, the line did not become one again: in the light of memory, one could rationally argue that the sun, which the beach attendant had ceased to see, had doubtless risen slightly higher in the sky… What is beyond question is that all around him the surface of the water had turned into a series of points of light, indefinite in number and perhaps infinite, very close to each other but not touching each other as was proved by the fact that despite their continual twinkling an extremely thin black line could be seen between one and the next.
Nothing Nobody Never, p. 118.
The book is, as you'll have gathered, extraordinarily visual, full of light and modulated light and shadow, colors and blacks and whites. Even the clouds of dust raised by occasional cars are granular and physical, existing without doubt because seen and thus able to be described — not with adjectives, though Saer doesn't methodically avoid the use of adjectives, but with the patiently repeated statement that they are there. One never sees motion; one sees evidence of motion. The novel is evidentiary. I can't wait to read the ones that follow.

More — much more — on Juan José Saer: a fine essay by Marcelo Ballvé online at The Quarterly Conversation.


Curtis Faville said...

The quotations suggest to me Beckett, rather than Stein, though she may well be an influence.

The Chekhov citation is interesting. A very traditional fiction, with great wit and insight. Unpretentious, but in no way innovative either in style or approach.

Dialogue is often used as a driver, or platform, upon which to move action, or establish character.

I've found that great dialogue is a quality of performance. Robert Parker, the mystery novelist, is a master of tight, ironic, witty dialogue, which captures perfectly the tension that exists between people, including the subtle twitches and flinches of feeling that mere words seem ordinarily incapable of representing. It's like magic.

louann said...

Well, I tried to say nothing. But two things are just burning for me to say - first about dialogue - like Curtis I have read Robert Parker, and this is I believe total escapist fiction. Which has served me well over the years. What I like is the dialogue driven story - probably because I am a mediator and I spend so much time listening to dialogue - so I don't think about it as a "vehicle" as much as an attempt by a writer to capture what is and isn't revealed through conversation. Second, my youngest son Daniel has a way of thinking that seems a lot like this writer - for example, even at four in arguments with his brothers, Daniel's clincher was his statement "everything is possible" - and his biggest nightmares were about what he described as infinity - that line you quote Charles about the length of time and (I think) the depth of space but then complicated by a description of/or lack of consciousness about this? That sounds like my son.
How minds work is as multifaceted as the uniqueness of each plant, each seed, each touch of the wind, to be even more romantic.
Lou Ann