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Thursday, 23 July 2015

La Grande - Juan José Saer (translated by Steve Dolph) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

Juan José Saer passed away in 2005, in Paris. During his final days in the hospital he worked on the book “La Grande” which was published posthumously in October of the same year.  In Amanda Hopkinson’s obituary published in The Guardian, she says:

Born outside the literary nexus of the capital, to parents of siriolibanes (Middle Eastern) origin, his writing had nothing to do with the world of tango and extravagant baroque, nor with the streets of Buenos Aires and Latin American magical realism.
Instead he wrote, in a strikingly spare style, of what he knew personally. He wrote of his home town, the provincial city of Santa Fe and its cast of often strange characters, and of his adopted home, Paris, a place of tower blocks and back alleys, inhabited by incomers and sadistic criminals, and by his fictitious maverick, Chief Inspector Morvan.

With a dozen novels, four volumes of short stories and a collection of poetry he was a celebrated part of the Argentine literary scene, even though he lived “in exile” in France. This last work, published by Open Letter Books, apparently contains numerous characters from earlier works, and was shortlisted for the US based Best Translated Book Award for 2015.

Our story opens with two men crossing a field, Gutiérrez, who mysteriously disappeared from Argentina thirty years before and who has just as mysteriously reappeared, buying a mansion. He is accompanied by a “friend” (they’ve met only twice before this day), Nula, a young wine salesman.

Our novel takes place over the space of a single week, split into seven sections, commencing with “Tuesday Water Sounds”, however it also takes place over thirty years, as our multi layered number of characters interact, question Gutiérrez’s disappearance and reflect on the literary movement “precisionism”.

Running at close to 500 pages there is plenty of room for our novelist to muse on a raft of themes, including the inner machinations of his main protagonists:

They – people from the rich countries he lived in for more than thirty years – have completely lost touch with reality and now slither around in a miserable sensualism and, as a moral consequence, content themselves with the sporadic exercise of beneficence and the contrite formulation of instructive aphorisms. He refers to the rich as the fifth column and the foreign party, and the rest, the masses, he argues, would be willing to trade tin their twelve-year-old daughter to a Turkish brothel for a new car. Any government lie suits them fine as long as they don’t have to give up their credit cards or do without superfluous possessions. The rich purchase their solutions to everything, as do the poor, but with debt. They are obsessed with convincing themselves that their way of life is the only rational one and, consequently, they are continuously indignant at the individual or collective crimes they commit or tolerate, looking to justify with pedantic shyster sophisms the acts of cowardice that obligate them to shamelessly defend the prison of excessive comfort they’ve built for themselves, and so on, and so on.

This is a very detailed work, although only over the course of a single week it contains musings on a raft of subjects, sometimes taking numerous pages to describe the natural environment and the surroundings in minute detail. For example, the effect of multiple raindrops on a river simply being single raindrops.

Our character development is of course detailed (Wednesday The Four Corners – section two) includes Nula’s family history, beginning with his grandfather who arrived in this Argentine village from Damascus. We also learn of Nula’s relationship with Lucía (as it transpires Gutiérrez’s illegitimate daughter) and their meeting. A coincidence, with long ruminations of space and time, chemical reactions that made “life” possible, to Nula’s delay at a cafe, to Lucía simply walking past at the time Nula leaves the cafe.

The fragments of each chanracter’s make-up, builds to a crescendo on the make up of relationships, you read wondering if all these pieces of the puzzle explain why Gutiérrez disappeared thirty years ago. As each day unfolds you know it is building to the invitations being handed out by Gutiérrez to a gathering at his mansion on the Sunday.

With a recurring motif of “ANOTHER MORO PROPERTY FOR SALE” and a mobile sign with the slogan “Visit HELVECIA, FOR THE GOLDEN DORADO” the puzzle has many layers. However the main theme is the passing of time (obviously within the seven day setting on the thirty year absence).

The sun has now begun to redden; its circumference is sharper and the flaming disc seems to have cooled and smoothed, losing its look of boiling metal and gaining a sort of gentleness. But the afternoon that is repeated on the plain has something solemn and disquieting about it, and an unmistakable impression comes suddenly and destroys every illusion, that the place we thought we were living is another, larger, and this destructive realization removes every known sense of the verb to live.

What happened whilst Gutiérrez was away? Returning “with the same economy of explanations as when he left”. What actually is the literary movement “precisionism” all about? For example, we have three pages explaining Gabriela threading a needle with cotton, is this precisionism?

A number of times I couldn’t help but recall Roberto Bolaño’s “The Savage Detectives” with multiple characters, a missing “artist” a literary movement and of course the South American feel. But in my mind this is no Bolaño.

To be honest this work made me feel like I was wading chest deep through a swamp of thick immutable treacle, the length and depth of passages that have no relevance (page after page to thread a needle?) and the banality of existence came to the fore. I can fully understand why Juan José Saer has a following, and I can fully appreciate the depth and breadth of his prose, it is just not my style. A work I wouldn’t have placed on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, with a number higher raked in my opinion than this one.

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