OBITUARY: JUAN JOSE SAER ; Novelist with Poetry at the Core of His Work
Rowe, William, The Independent (London, England)
The novelist, essayist and poet Juan Jos Saer was the most important Argentinean writer since Borges. The author of 12 novels and four books of short stories, he also published two volumes of essays and two books of poetry. Four of his novels are available in English, all of them published by Serpent's Tail: Nobody, Nothing, Never (1993, first published as Nadie nada nunca, 1980), The Witness (1990: El entenado, 1983), The Investigation (1999: La pesquisa, 1994) and The Event (1995: La ocasin, 1988).
He was the son of Syrian immigrants to Argentina, born in a small village in the northern province of Santa Fe in 1937, but lived in Paris from 1968. Although he spent the major part of his adult life outside Argentina, the fictional world he invented, populated by characters who reappear from book to book, draws closely on the area of northern Argentina known as El Litoral.
As a young man growing up in the provinces, he was a voracious reader of everything he could lay his hands on: he was translating Keats at the age of 12. Local writers such as the poets Juan L. Ortiz and Hugo Gola played a part in his formation, as did his experience of working in the Sante Fe Film School.
Although he received the Spanish Nadal Prize for La ocasin, he never received the type of international recognition that was given to novelists like Gabriel Garca Mrquez, whose names became synonymous with the Latin American novel. Saer was absolutely clear and uncompromising in his rejection of the cult of magical realism, exoticism and so on, which had become a type of brand identity for novels purporting to be Latin American.
He called it 'the ghetto of Latin-American-ness', and saw in it the continuation of a colonial mentality, coming not just from European readers but from Latin American nationalism. He also warned of the danger of trying to turn literature into an immediate instrument of social change. That did not mean that his books avoided politics. On the contrary, Nobody, Nothing, Never is, among other things, an uncompromising literary response to the state terrorism that ravaged Argentina in the 1970s.
As early as the 1920s, Borges had pointed up the logic of nationalism in literature: why should Argentinean writers have to write about gauchos and not about the universe? Borges's answer was to become an inheritor of the whole of Western literature. Saer's approach was different. There was nothing, already written, that fiction could take as its starting point:
At the beginning, the writer of fiction can only have a negative theory. …