Skip to content

Run, River

On Juan José Saer's backwater modernism

In 1527, the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot established the Sancti Spíritus fort at the mouth of the Carcarañá River, founding Spain’s first settlement in the territory that would become known as Argentina. In charge of an expedition bound for the Maluku islands in the Pacific, Cabot diverted course on hearing that the Paraná river led to mountains rich with silver and gold. Some historical accounts suggest that these rumors came from a sailor named Francisco del Puerto, who was part of Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís’s previous expedition, brought to an end when the landing party were killed by Indigenous people within sight of the ships. The story goes that del Puerto was the only man spared, and that he lived for ten years among the natives. Cabot lived to return to Spain, but his ships carried back no precious metals, and his fort wasn’t fated to become the site of a major city—unlike Buenos Aires, first settled by the Spanish in 1536.

In his book-length reflection on the Río de la Plata and its tributaries, El río sin orillas (The Boundless River), Juan José Saer claims that, “almost without exaggeration,” Sancti Spiritus was founded across the street from his childhood home. In truth, his family lived in the house attached to their general store in Serodino, some twenty-two kilometers from the ruins of the fort. But hundreds of years after those early expeditions, Saer still traced the shallow-rootedness of the society he grew up in back to Solís and Cabot:

In the first decades, if not the first century, of the conquest, everyone who reached the Río de la Plata was just passing through, without the least intention of settling there for good. This particular outlook has persisted into our own time in many sectors of the population, for diverse reasons and assuming different forms, and has influenced the constitution of our society, our culture, our customs, our emotions, and our economy.[1] 

In life, Saer was no exception. He left Argentina for France in 1968 on a six-month scholarship; by the time he died in 2005, he had spent the majority of his life there, living in Paris and teaching in Rennes. Yet in his writing, he never abandoned northeastern Argentina, the region known as the Litoral, building his imaginative home over the course of a dozen novels and five collections of short fiction all set along the banks of the Paraná. Taken as a whole, this body of work constitutes a record of place unique in Latin American literature. The postindustrial port cities of Santa Fé, Rosario, and Paraná; the maze of tributaries and islands that sprawl through the delta; the pampas stretching monotonously to the west—the landscape of Saer’s imagination lies only a few hours north of Borges’s Buenos Aires, but it could belong to a different continent.

Saer experimented with duration and diction, myth and naturalism, lyric and thick description.

Saer stuck to this territory—he called it his “Zone”—simply because it was the place he knew best. At the beginning of his early novel La vuelta completa, a character extols the “eminently democratic character” of reality, claiming that “every one of its manifestations has the same importance.” In this spirit, Saer often brings his closest attention to bear on events too commonplace or habitual to usually merit notice. At times his narration approximates a movie camera’s gaze, impersonally recording whatever passes into its field of vision (he also wrote screenplays and taught at Santa Fé’s film school). These descriptive passages overshoot the confident, well-proportioned place-sketching of the realist novel, betraying a more doubtful, critical empiricism. The narrator of another early novel, Responso, laments the “obscure human tendency to accept as clear and incontrovertible the blurry image of the world before us.” “It generally takes years to find,” he clarifies, “not even a solid sense of reality, but a point of departure from which to search for it.”

Saer wrote six precocious books of fiction before moving to France. These early novels and stories are peopled with characters that would reappear throughout his work: Carlos Tomatís, Horacio Barco, Marcos Rosemberg, Washington Noriega, Pichón, and Gato Garay (named for Santa Fé’s founder, Juan de Garay). Like the squalid Visceral Realists of The Savage Detectives, they are mostly would-be litterateurs: students, poets, artists, journalists. Both authors shared a priestly zeal for literature, but where Bolaño was exuberantly prophetic, Saer maintained a severe asceticism, mercilessly skewering the prides and egos of provincial literary life.

A few years before leaving Argentina, Saer began writing a novel that traded this urban milieu for the underdeveloped backcountry that lay just outside it. It would be his longest-gestating work; perhaps he only found his “point of departure” once the landscape that inspired him lay across the ocean. Published in 1974, The Regal Lemon Tree—now being brought out in English for the first time by Open Letter Books, in a sensitive translation by Sergio Waisman—was Saer’s first masterpiece, the work in which his experiments with duration and diction, myth and naturalism, lyric and thick description all coalesced. The title refers to the centerpiece of the main character’s orchard. But in translation it misses the nuance of the Spanish title: the real in El limonero real connotes reality itself, the genuine article. 

Juan José Saer | Argentine Ministry of Culture

The book is centered around an extended family who eke out their living on the Paraná. Wenceslao is a fiftyish fisherman who lives on a small island with his wife (never named) and two dogs; their only child died six years ago, after leaving to work in the city. Transpiring over the course of a single day, the novel begins with the first light, in a phrase that will repeat eight more times like an incantation: “DAWN BREAKS / AND HIS EYES ARE ALREADY OPEN.” 

The narration immediately pours forth in a stream of sensation, as Wenceslao lies listening to the “dark turmoil of the dream retreating from his mind like a black cloud gliding across the sky, revealing the bright orb of the moon.” Outside, dogs bark, roosters crow, and birds break into song, “ringing out endless and rich.” From the start, the narrator is carefully positioned—close enough to Wenceslao to take in the world through his eyes and ears (even his inner vision), but free to draw attention to all he does not notice “because after thirty years of hearing the sounds of the roosters and the dogs and the birds and the horses at the break of dawn, [Wenceslao] is unable to hear now, in the present, anything but silence.”

This isn’t just any day, but New Year’s Eve. Wenceslao’s in-laws are planning a celebration across the river, to be capped off by an asado, or barbecue feast. His wife, however, refuses to attend, as she has every year since their son died, insisting she’s still in mourning. In one of several flashbacks, Saer conjures their return home after the young man’s burial, as Wenceslao rows across the river under a pall of rain and watches his wife’s face, realizing that “he does not know who she is anymore.” Flirting with the magical realism he often denounced in other Latin American novelists, he tells how Wenceslao will allow his island to become overgrown with grief, letting “venomous plants and snakes take over his land, and the crossbeams of the roof rot away, she all the meanwhile pacing in silence through the house, barely speaking to him, a depository and stimulus of death.” Utterly estranged, Wenceslao falls into a despondence that haunts many of Saer’s characters:

For weeks, months, years, he will sit at the door of the house, or at the table under the Chinaberry tree, constantly wondering: what is this island, what are those trees, who is that woman who lives in silence under the same roof as me, the woman, who speaks when she is alone, wrapped in those eternal, black nightgowns whose color fades more and more by the day.

Wenceslao and his family lack a sense of their past, and yet their lives are steeped in tradition.

By the time of the feast, Wenceslao has set aside these questions and returned to the business of living, even as his wife remains obstinately shut off from the world. Leaving her behind, he crosses the river and joins her relatives. The day passes: lunch is eaten, a siesta taken, a lamb killed and roasted. Discord mounts amid the leisure, only to peak below the threshold of plot: Wenceslao’s sisters-in-law try and fail to persuade their sister to come to dinner; one of their husbands, the alcoholic Agustín, abuses his disabled son and twice wanders off to the local country store to scrounge drinks; Agustín’s daughters, who fled years ago and became sex workers in the city, return for the celebration. Rarely do Wenceslao’s thoughts rise to the surface of the text. Instead, Saer dilates routine actions—the lighting of a cigarette, the sweeping of a canoe’s oars, food passing up and down along the table—into hypnotic eddies of prose. Atmosphere builds up over the course of spiraling paragraphs that devote endless attention to light passing through trees, the sundial effect of shadows moving over the course of the day, and the clotting of the air with smoke and fog.

Weisman’s translation skillfully preserves these rhythms, staying faithful to the odd, looping syntax of Saer’s long sentences without losing the luminous precision of their imagery. He renders lucidly the moments when Saer breaks up the smooth surface of his prose, leaping forward in time, splicing in a verbal match cut to a flashback, or turning the clock back to daybreak and recapitulating the day’s action so far.

The strangest of all these ruptures comes a little past the novel’s halfway point, just after Wenceslao has killed and butchered the lamb. He strips off his clothes and dives into the river; as he reaches the surface, a paragraph break hurls us into another scene, along with a sudden shift to the first person: “The burning sunlight must have made me fall.” Now Wenceslao, delirious, lies dying, fourteen years after the day on which the novel takes place. He confuses past and present, dream and memory, and sees everything doubled: his wife, the butterfly flitting around the lamp in the room where he lies. A buzzing sound grows and overwhelms the stream of consciousness, choking off language completely. 

What follows is a bizarre creation story, in which a blank, endless river generates islands, flora, fauna, and a rudimentary human society. Worms grow into “dogs, small birds, otters, weasels, cows,” watched by innocent humans still oblivious of their own mortality. When it comes, death brings social stratification with it. The first-generation humans appoint a priestly intellectual, “Mr. Brains,” to deal with death and end up in debt to him after he demands a share of their harvests. From there, our narrator sets out in his canoe, leaving Genesis behind and rowing out into The Odyssey: “Once I got in a fight with this huge, one-eyed guy who’d gotten it into his head not to let me out of his house, because of the bender he’d been on . . . Later, I found myself with a healer, a woman who kept me sort of bewitched for a while.” It’s only when he reaches his Ithaca, greeted by dogs, wife, and “the young lad,” that it becomes clear this voyager is also Wenceslao. The first-person narration continues up through the events of New Years Eve, until another “DAWN BREAKS” sets the novel back on more familiar tracks.

This audacious, parodic feint into the epic seems to come out of nowhere, but it’s in keeping with the way that Saer refuses to situate the novel in historical time. In a 1979 essay, “The Thick Forest of the Real,” he denounced realism for its “vision of man that exhausts itself in historicity,” aligning himself with the great modernists who aimed to “break the obstacles imposed by the archaic conception of a uniform historicity.” By placing realism in counterpoint with symbolism (Joyce), allegory (Kafka), and myth (Mann and Pavese), Saer’s European models refused to take history at face value. Even more radical were the homegrown experiments of Borges and Macedonio Fernández, whose dizzying metanovel The Museum of Eterna’s Novel amounts to “a critique of the real.” Its mythical interlude aside, The Regal Lemon Tree links up with this tradition most clearly in what the author chooses to omit. Though an early flashback shows Wenceslao as a child accompanying his father to the island where they’ll live, nowhere does the novel tell us anything about previous generations of his family. We know these people are poor, that they live off the river and the land, but where did they come from?

In his nonfiction, Saer wrote perceptively about the “social and cultural syncretism” that shaped Argentine society—a history that’s conspicuously absent from The Regal Lemon Tree. A family like Wenceslao’s might presumably be able to trace its roots in any number of directions: to the Indigenous past and the Spanish conquest, to be sure, but also to the massive immigrant groups that arrived in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (Saer’s own parents were Syrian Christians). At the end of El río sin orillas, Saer writes that “beef grilled over coals, the asado, is not only the basic Argentine food but also the nucleus of the Argentine people’s mythology, even of their mysticism.” The meal itself is just the pretext for a ceremony, a rite that evokes that past and offers “a promise of reencounter and communion.” The slow cooking of the meat conjures the legends of the plains, and the respect accorded the male asador in charge of the grill reinforces the patriarchal order of the family. “The asado reconciles Argentines with their origins and gives them an illusion of cultural and historical continuity,” Saer writes. It is a secular rite rooted in the threadbare culture of settlers “just passing through,” who nevertheless seek a sense of permanence.

The Regal Lemon Tree turns on a similar paradox. Wenceslao and his family lack a sense of their past, and yet their lives are steeped in tradition. Their days flow with a continuity as smooth as the river’s, bringing the same events and sensations again and again (“Soon the tree will cast a large stretch of shade, shading the table resting against its trunk”). Leaving the river for the city can only bring death (as with Wenceslao’s son) and moral perdition (as with Agustín’s daughters). And though nation, religion, and ethnicity are never invoked, the New Year’s feast is a rite meant to shore up the structure of a community that might otherwise collapse. 

Even when writing about the historical past, Saer continued to subvert the “uniform historicity” of realism.

The Regal Lemon Tree inaugurated the mature phase of Saer’s career, but in many ways it’s an outlier in his body of work. Several of his subsequent novels—including Nobody Nothing Never, The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, Lo imborrable, The Investigation, and La Grande—revisit and expand the group of Litoraleños who populate his early fictions. As time passes, these characters age; some of them are lost in the carnage of the Dirty War. There’s also a trio of historical fictions: The Witness, The Event, and The Clouds. The first of these returns to Solís’s fatal journey up the Río de la Plata, as narrated by a lone survivor of the landing party who, like del Puerto, is captured by the Indigenous tribe (imagined, in keeping with many accounts of Solís’s death, as cannibals) and kept as a totemic captive for ten years. The latter two return to the Zone three centuries later, once Argentina had wrested independence from Spain, obliquely examining an epoch of massive demographic and social transformation—the new criollo patriarchs launching a genocidal campaign against the Indigenous residents of the South as waves of European immigrants begin to swell the laboring classes—through off-kilter tales of jealousy and madness. It’s in this mode that Saer probably found the most readers; The Witness was his first novel translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa) and The Event won him his only literary prize.

Even when writing about the historical past, Saer continued to subvert the “uniform historicity” of realism. In The Witness, he imagines the inner life of the Colastiné tribe of cannibals, who inhabit a precarious universe defined by the geography of the Paraná. They cleave tightly to the landscape, feeling that its persistence mirrors their own. Yet their identification with the world is not harmonious but anxious, since their universe is always threatening to slip into nonexistence and drag them down with it. Granting them some of his own skepticism toward appearances, Saer imagines their language as lacking a word for “to be,” relying instead on “to seem,” a verb that “has more a feeling of untrustworthiness than sameness.” From this insecurity arises the yearly feast in which the Colastiné hunt down a party of outsiders and eat their flesh, an asado that the narrator comes to understand as the tribe’s means of confirming its own reality.

The Regal Lemon Tree, with its quiet meditation on a single day’s events, contains no such violence. Yet the past and future of this rural family vibrate with uncertainty. Their lives are every bit as rooted to the riverbanks as the Colastiné’s, to the point that the modern displacements that brought them there have faded into irrelevance. More displacements are yet to come: from the vantage of history, they are obsolete, backwards, doomed to depletion as their offspring slip away into urban poverty. Raised in middle-class comfort and armed with a literary militant’s erudition, Saer clearly is not one of them. But, equally clearly, he knew a great deal about the experience of marginality—enough to know that marginal people rarely see themselves that way. For all the novel’s meticulous recording of evanescent sensations, its vision is not small. Woven together, the images of a single day make up a community’s vision of the world, sustaining their conviction that they have a past and future on these riverbanks.

[1] Unless specified otherwise, all translations from the Spanish are by the author.