Juan José Saer
(Open Letter Books, 2011)
In Scars, originally published in 1969 and translated into English last year, Argentine author Juan José Saer entangles four characters in a messy knot of murder and misery. Angel is a reporter; Sergio, an attorney-turned-gambler; Ernesto, a judge. Each is a slave to time and repetition. Although disciplined by knowledge and routine, Saer reduces them to mundane, mechanized men. In chilling contrast is the fourth narrator, Luis, whose section begins, “Whoever finds me first should kill me.”
Saer shows us four characters living in the shadow of Perón’s repressive regime, still reeling from its effects. All four bear the scars of jarring endings to life as they knew it, reminding them daily of the inertia in which they live. From the first page, the author presents the routine and consciousness as the enemies of each character. Angel reports on the weather, where “the most rational choices were either duplication or fabrication.” Sergio painstakingly describes the rational reasons why baccarat works on “resemblance, simulation.” But to be rational is to be a robot: both men are gamblers relentlessly honing their debased skills. Violence, infidelity, and thievery are automatically accepted side-effects.
When a suicide interrupts Angel’s section, he captures the book’s mood, reflecting:
I realized that when someone throws himself through a window and falls to the ground from the third floor, he doesn’t break anything at the moment of impact with the glass or with the pavement—nothing—because he’s already been broken to pieces and all he’s doing is tossing out an empty shell.
Justice Ernesto, the third narrator, has a similar response: “Typical for a falling body,” he says impassively, hearing how the body slapped onto the ground. The startled reader is forced to wonder if such a character can responsibly deliver justice. In a voice reminiscent of Benjy from The Sound and the Fury, Ernesto applies equal weight to every distorted perception, leading the book deeper into minutiae and madness. His complicated translation of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray strips the book of its beauty, reducing it to symbols. Is there no respite from life’s drudgery?
In the final section, the volatile Luis and his goading wife enact a scene poised to explode. They laugh often and cruelly, with Luis pointing a gun at his wife while their young daughter watches from the back of the truck, and the reader cannot help but worry. Resentment thickly coats their voices during this family outing on Argentina’s Labor Day. They have successfully broken from the routine that has swallowed Angel, Sergio, and Ernesto—and their reward is murder. Suicide.
Scars are tangible, visual reminders of an injury that has never fully healed. Removed from reality, operating on and motivated by duplicity, not one character is whole, healed, or even happy. But their silent struggles have a vocabulary and can be written about. Saer doggedly and successfully shows the reader just how raw a scar can be, no matter how rational its causes.