Back in March I quoted a passage from Juan José Saer’s nightmarish novel The Witness, and since much of the poetry I chose to read in Mexico had an Argentine flavor, I decided to read another Saer novel, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington.
I have to say that the book knocked my socks off, combining as it does a Rabelaisian gusto with a Beckettish humor and something of the obsessiveness we find in Robbe-Grillet. The entire novel takes place as Leto and The Mathematician stroll and chat, think and ponder, remember and speculate, returning always to the story of the sixty-fifth birthday party, which both had missed, thrown for their mutual friend Jorge Washington Noriega. The Mathematician has what he considers an authoritative account to relate, provided by another mutual friend—one who did attend the party—by the name of Botón. About half way through the book our two perambulators are joined by a third friend named Tomatis, who disputes Botón’s characterization of the event, but without clarifying it; in fact, Tomatis makes the “reality” of the party even murkier. Ultimately, Tomatis leave Leto and The Mathematician to finish their walk before they part at the end of the novel.
It is simply impossible to describe the effect of all this. It is comic, but in a subtle way. For example, when Tomatis runs into the other two, he asks Leto, “How’s things?” Leto replies, “Things are good. I’m only so-so.” It is also ominous, because—as the reader slowly discovers—everything that happens is conditioned by the oppressive nature of life in Perón’s Argentina. Finally, it is also luminous because of the way Saer constantly weaves multiple lines of thought, feeling and action together in long, peripatetic sentences, sometimes transparently interpreting the characters, sometimes frankly and/or haplessly addressing the reader directly.
I was so taken with Saer’s style, in fact, that I couldn’t keep myself from typing up two long passages. To me, they are magical—though I realize they lose something out of context. As you’ll see, Saer does not write simply. But then life—I mean life as we experience it, moment by moment—is not simple. Saer seems determined to remind us of our own complexity, not so much to offer answers or some final view of things, but honor the mysteries—some trivial, some profound—that all of us wrestle with every day. I won’t try to prepare you for the various names that come up here; it’s enough to know that all of the characters they refer to attended the birthday party for Washington.
They continue. While they try to appear indifferent and outwardly calm, in the depths of their so-called souls—apparently not translucent but murky, as we were saying, or rather yours truly, the author, was saying just now—they struggle with emotions that anger them and that they would rather not see expressed inside themselves, humiliated by the thought that the other, because of his apparent indifference, is too noble to feel them. In Leto’s case it’s a belief—tenuous, it’s true, but very present—that what just took place was ruined and pretense of superiority toward the Mathematician, accompanied by the shameful suspicion of being excluded from any other sphere in which he might feel equal or superior to him, while the Mathematician, beginning to sense that the happiness he feels at having saved Leto from falling is growing into a kind of euphoria in which he senses certain non-altruistic elements, is filled with guilt. But let’s be clear: assuming that we agree that—as we have been saying from the start—all of this is just more or less, that what seems clear an precise belongs to the order of conjecture, practically of invention, that most of the time the evidence is only briefly ignited then extinguished beyond, or behind (if you prefer), what they call words, assuming that from the start we have agreed about everything, to be clear let’s say it for the last time, though it’s always the same: all of this is just more or less and as they say—and after all, what’s the difference!
He, the Mathematician, has several times had the fortune of seeing her [Rita, a painter] at work in her studio: she paints without an easel, puts a rectangle of canvas straight on the floor and all around the canvas arranges cans of paint in which she dips sticks of different widths—pieces of broom handles, row, tree or shrub branches she peels with a knife, brush handles—and then drips over the canvas; other times she pours paint into a colander and lets it drip over the canvas, or she pierces holes directly into the paint cans and runs them over the canvas. Nearby, on a little table, she has a bottle of gin, glasses, a dented aluminum bowl filled with ice, and a bunch of packs of Colmenas and Gaviláns. Sometimes, if the canvas is too wide, she moves around the corners with her sticks and paint cans and colanders, but if the width permits she stands over it, her legs spread wide apart so as not to step on the canvas, bent over toward the floor all day—one of her favorite jokes, she has always the same two or three, which only she laughs at, is that to be a painter you have to have a trucker’s kidneys and that actually the gin isn’t for inspiration but to ease the pain in her hips. Once in a while, says the Mathematician, she stands up, takes a good drink, and then goes back to work with her cigarette hanging miraculously between half-open lips, holding her head rigid to keep the ash from falling onto the canvas; every so often she stands up to tap out the ash and consider her progress. It seems strange to him, the Mathematician, no?, that she’s such good friends with Héctor, the other painter, because it’s hard to imagine two more dissimilar modes of practicing or understanding the work—this on top of having such different personalities. Héctor takes weeks, months, to finish a painting; she, on occasion, paints three or four a day. When he has an idea, Héctor puts it into practice exactingly, patiently, making calculations, theories, and all his paintings, even all his sketches, have a theoretical foundation, not counting the fact that his paintings are sometimes monochrome, or they have one or two colors, or different tones of the same color, and are almost always geometrical. Héctor finds what he’s looking for before starting to paint; she paints constantly and stops when she finds something. He, the Mathematician, once heard her say that being a good painter consists in knowing when the painting’s done, when to stop; and in fact, the paintings that don’t come out, because she’s actually gone too far—which happens most of the time—she crumples and throws in the garbage. Several times a day she has to throw out the results of hours of work—several times a day—because her hand, which had been passing ceaselessly over the canvas, dripping highly diluted paint, has not performed the exact movement needed to impress the final colors in a way that makes their combination—incidental and chaotic up till that moment—begin to radiate an exalting inevitability and grace, says the Mathematician, more or less. But, bent over the canvas, swaying a little because of the gin, absently tapping out her cigarette, she must be the first to notice, in the apparent disorder, the magical proof. Not just in that way is she different from Héctor—and what’s curious is that they feel a sincere and reciprocal admiration, and two or three times a week they’ll spend all night getting drunk together at a hotel bar. Héctor talks constantly, and she doesn’t speak a word except when she’s had a whole bottle of gin, then she talks nonstop, unless it’s to unbutton her blouse, and she shouts and laughs at whatever until—no one knows why and least of all her—she ends up insulting whomever she’s talking to. They’re both around thirty, and they studied a while together at the Fine Arts school, but while Héctor spent time in Europe visiting museums and carrying on theoretical discussions with the cream of the European avant-garde, she has never once left the city. Héctor buys his sweaters in Buenos Aires, and sometimes even orders them from Rome or Paris; she’s always walking around in the same skirt and the same blazer, paint-stained just like her hands and sometimes even her hair, with big, worn-out men’s shoes on her feet and no makeup on her face, a Gavilán or a Colmena always hanging from her lips, a mismatched manicure most often trimmed with black grime, constantly looking for someone—a man or woman, it doesn’t matter—to bring home with her for the night because she can’t stand to be alone; it’s rare for her to go to sleep before dawn, she’s endlessly coming and going to fill her glass with gin and get ice from the dented bowl.And in fact Botón, says the Mathematician (more or less), thick as he is, happens to be—along with Héctor, for course—one of the few people who knows how to handle her. It’s the hidden side of Botón, which he himself is careful to hide, preferring instead, who knows for what obscure reason, to present himself to the world as an alcoholic womanizer. What’s clear is that Botón would abandon anything, at any time of day or night, if she called him. He, the Mathematician, thinks that if some sort of sexual relationship existed between them, it must have been only early on, and if they apparently get drunk together most of the time, it’s only with her that Botón is careful because he knows that in the morning he’ll have to take care of her, and if at the party he got as drunk as Tomatis claims it’s because he couldn’t prevent her coming with Héctor and Elisa in order to stay until the morning—morning, no?—when after a whole day of disappointment waiting for the nighty’s deliverance you finally understand, as the fain blackness fades at the first dismal light, that the day, that dreadful and endless film, is starting again.
However all this strikes you, I’m sure you’ll agree that the translator, Steve Dolph, deserves kudos for creating such masterfully fluid sentences that must be even more challenging in Spanish. He has translated another Saer’s novels, Scars, which I look forward to reading when it’s released in December.