Juan José Saer: Scars

I’m officially underway in my effort to read most (probably not all) of this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist (it’s a very long list, at 25 titles) (the complete list here).  I now have 18 of the titles and have finished reading five with Juan José Saer’s startling Scars (Cicatrices, 1969; tr. from the Spanish by Steve Dolph, 2011).

Review copy courtesy of Open Letter.

I say “startling” not only because of the central event in the book — a husband and wife walk out of a bar and he turns and shoots her twice in the face with a shotgun — but also because of the book’s strange structure . . . well, and the fact that Saer goes into detail about billiard strategies and punto banco baccarat rules and succeeds in keeping the book interesting while using these tangents to build upon the book’s strange structure.

Scars is laid out in four parts, each narrated by a man, each laid out around the aforementioned murder.  The first part covers a large span of months and its narrative continues into the time beyond the crime; the second, shorter, part covers a smaller period of time; the third, even shorter and smaller; until we get to the fourth, which is the shortest and is a narrative of just one day — the day of the murder – from the perspective of the murder.  The fact that the book has such an overt geometrical structure that gives the reader a bit of whiplash reminded me plenty of Roberto Bolaño, though I’d certainly say that Scars is a bit more straightforward (you don’t actually have to draw a diagram to see the geometry, though it would be interesting nonetheless).

Our first narrator is Ángel, an 18 year old just making his way in the field of journalism.  His first job is to cover the weather.  He has no idea how to read the instruments, so most days the weather simply reads, “No change in sight” – and the weather is always terrible. 

Ángel still lives with his 36-year-old mother.  It’s a tenuous and charged relationship to say the least.  Ángel’s only connection to the murderer is thanks to a judge who lets him sit in on the murderer’s deposition.  Surprising everybody, one moment the murder is in his seat for the deposition and, after the sound of breaking glass, the murderer’s chair is empty — he’s jumped to his death. 

Ángel spends most of his days talking to the same people, trying to seduce some girl, fighting with his mother.  We readers are pulled into the repetition until that glass breaks.  The chapter ends, beautifully, with Ángel walking down a street, running into his double, someone who may be living out the same life Ángel is, but what kind of life is that?  That last bit is not meant to be a moral question; we only sense Ángel through the doldrums of his fairly vapid life — the breaking glass feels like the only time we’re dealing with someone partially awake.  It worked well, for me.

The second section is narrated by a washed-up prosecutor named Sergio.  He once knew the murderer, but they’ve been out of touch for some time.  But instead of focusing on that time, Sergio’s section focuses on Sergio’s deep addiction to baccarat, which he plays nightly (and which we play with him nightly).  He asks for money from others.  Quite upfront, he lets them know that the only reason he’s asking for the money is so he can gamble, that he’s pretty sure he will lose it all, and that it will be very difficult for him to pay them back.  One person who gives to him freely (she’s been saving) is his fourteen-year-old maid.  Though in this section Sergio spends a great deal of time explaining the rules and strategy behind baccarat, further distancing the narrator from his reader, it never became dull to me.  After all, punto banco baccarat is a game of chance, so any explanation of strategy actually says much more about the speaker than about the game itself.

The third section is told from the point of view of Ernesto, the judge in the murder case.  It’s he who allows Ángel to come to the deposition, due to a little crush as it turns out.  Not quite as engaging to me as the minutia about baccarat, I still found the judge and his character compelling.  Here’s a man who essentially despises everyone.  As he drives around the city (and, again, we are treated to the minute details of the journey), he looks around and simply sees gorillas going about their lives (again, if you can call it life).

It’s only in the last section that we actually hone in on the crime itself.  We finally meet and hear from the man who killed his wife.  Luis Fiore is a man in his upper-thirties, and he, his wife, and their daughter have gone out hunting.  We already know how this day is going to turn out, and we cringe each time a bottle of gin is lifted up, more so when the sexual energy is heightened.

She goes on reading.  I sit down next to her, on the running board, and wrap my arm around her shoulder.  She doesn’t even seem to notice that there’s an arm around her shoulders.  I start to exert pressure, pulling her heavy body against mine.

– Come here, next to me, I say. 

– Come on, Gringuita, I say. 

– Stop, she says. 

– I said stop it, she says. 

– Are you going to stop or not? she says. 

But then she relaxes and falls into my shoulder.  There’s the meadow ahead of us, extending toward the lake.  It’s empty.  My arm slides from her shoulder to her smooth, white neck.  Her open mouth presses against my hard jaw.  I can feel the dampness of her soft lips against my jaw.  Difficult to erase. 

In a low voice she says, I’m going to keep you up late tonight.

Since we know where this is going, the point is not what happened.  The book also fails completely to tell us why — and that’s, at least partly, the point.  None of the first three narrators knows why the murder happened — they barely breathe above their own repetitious lives.  Worse, though the tale of the murder (from multiple sources, including a batch of witnesses) is repeated several times throughout Scars, it doesn’t seem that Fiore, whose section is told in the present tense, knows how to make sense of all that’s going on around him.  Yes, this reminded me of Bolaño, too.

Such a strange book, it gives a lot to think about as nothing is resolved.  I appreciated that immensely, though that and the repetition will surely turn off some readers.  That said, thank goodness that, after over forty years, this book has finally made its way into English.

5 thoughts on “Juan José Saer: Scars

  1. Lee Monks says:

    Thanks for this Trevor: I will be following your attempts at whittling down the books on this list with great interest (I have ordered a few more: I’ll have around half of the longlist shortly) and I will try and get a few in presently. Not, alas, this one as I struggled to get an affordable copy.

  2. Trevor says:

    That’s too bad you couldn’t find an affordable copy of this, Lee. I’d certainly peg this one as just your style. Hopefully soon!

  3. Lee Monks says:

    The library has solved my quandary!

  4. Trevor says:

    Ah good! Now I expect a report soon.

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