Like all timeless texts, Juan José Saer’s The Witness contains a message about survival that has contemporary resonance
Juan José Saer, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
1990/2009 Serpent’s Tail
Reviewed by Gavin O’Toole
THE NARRATIVE style achieved by Juan José Saer earned him a reputation that extended far beyond his native Argentina and had echoes of Borges and Cortázar, also great Europhiles much of whose finest work was written or conceived outside their homeland.
This may be because of Saer’s descriptive stratagems, which in his own words aimed constantly at “combining poetry and narration”, but was also due to his carefully selected literary preoccupations with psychological and philosophical matters reinforced, undoubtedly, by his own work as an academic in both Argentina and his adopted homeland of France.
The colonial encounter upon which The Witness (El entenado) is constructed is a good example of how Saer’s move away from Argentina provided him both with a detachment that strengthened his metaphysical powers, but also with a perspective of great value to him when it came to parodying the Hispanic conquest of the Americas.
First published in 1983, and first published in this translation by Margaret Jull Costa in 1990, the novel tells the story of an old man recounting his experience as a cabin boy during the exploration of the New World, whose initial voyage ends in disaster at the hands of cannibalistic natives, and over ten years of captivity is profoundly marked by their way of life. The tribe remains constantly in his mind as he later rebuilds his life.
There are shades of Hans Staden’s remarkable account of his experiences in 1550 as a captive of the Tupi Indians of what is now Brazil – set against the backdrop of colonial rivalry between Portugal and France – which became one of the most important texts in the discovery of the Americas. Staden’s observations about cannibalism played into complex ethical and theological debates about the European conquest and the treatment of indigenous people.
Ambiguity and sensuality
Through a species of reportage, Saer’s tale meditates upon the shared ambiguity and sensuality of existence that hovers above cultural differences. Its principal narrative devices, exile and memory, enable him to reflect, often in great detail, on difference and what would today be called “otherness”.
The protagonist forgets his Iberian tongue and is forced to relearn it; as an old man he strains to recall and contextualise the events of the past, but above all to find meaning in them. Although Saer seems to have made surprisingly little of his family’s own Middle Eastern origins – he was born in Argentina to Syrian immigrants – one suspects that there is a element of personal interest in this encounter between aliens, and it seems significant that the cabin boy is an orphan who, at least later in the book, makes recurrent references to his unrooted status lacking familial ties.
Saer uses the Indians’ outlook on life and their simple fears as a means to explore questions of ontology. It is the nature of being, and reality itself, that is at issue in the strange and troubled encounter between the two worlds and their inhabitants.
Moreover, in the current disposition of interconnected and global ecological concerns, his work also contains a very contemporary message about survival. His protagonist explains:
“If I understood correctly, for the Indians this world is like a precarious building which cannot remain standing if even one stone is missing. Everything must be present at all times and in all its possible states. When the soldiers advanced up the great river with their firearms at the ready, it was not death they brought but the unnameable… However, as they fell they dragged their destroyers down with them. Since the Indians were its only support, the outer world would have disappeared with them and been plunged into non-existence by the destruction of what had first conceived it. What the soldiers who killed them would never manage to understand was that they too were leaving this world together with their victims.” [pp. 133-34]