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Stepping Twice in the Same River

A translated excerpt from Juan José Saer's “El río sin orillas”

First published in 1991, Juan José Saer’s El río sin orillas (“The Boundless River”) is a book-length meditation on the Río de la Plata, the region in Argentina where he grew up, and which served as a prime setting and subject for much of his fiction. Saer was not entirely comfortable with writing nonfiction; in the book’s introduction, he complains that works in the genre “tend to present themselves as the vehicle of the most unequivocal reality and the most scrupulous truth.” Yet El río sin orillas remains one of his best and most revealing works. His sardonic intelligence strays freely from the ostensible subject, paddling up a number of surprising intellectual tributaries.

The main body of the text is divided into four chapters. “Summer” deals with the history of conquest and settler colonialism that brought Europeans to the Río de la Plata. “Fall” examines the landscape through the eyes of foreign writers, including Charles Darwin, Alfred Ebelot, and Witold Gombrowicz. “Winter” surveys the violence that has shaped Argentine society, culminating in the Dirty War of the 1970s. The following excerpt, never before published in English, comes at the beginning of “Spring,” the final chapter, in which Saer elaborates some of his most cherished aesthetic principles and attempts to celebrate Argentine culture while refuting its nationalist myths. It is to be hoped that the entire book finds an English publisher.

—Will Noah

After the endless horrors that I’ve related[1], more than one reader will knit their brow before this invitation to pleasure and irresponsibility, and probably refuse the right to surrender to them, reproducing, without knowing it, the major question of this century: Is it possible to write poetry, in other words, to accept life, after Auschwitz? Without a doubt, the answer is a thousand times yes. In the first place, because the same person who formulated the question, Theodor W. Adorno, had already answered it in the affirmative in Minima Moralia: “What beauty still flourishes under terror is a mockery and ugliness to itself. Yet its fleeting shape attests to the avoidability of terror. Something of this paradox is fundamental to all art; today it appears in the fact that art still exists at all. The captive idea of beauty strives at once to reject happiness and to assert it.” The contrary answer, and this is perhaps the decisive point, would be to leave it up to the executioners—still at large—confirming beforehand their point of view, that theirs is the only legitimate order, which aims to convince us of our own inhumanity. The very notion of horror only makes sense in relation to happiness.

In any case, to deny the experience of happiness leads invariably to slaughter. But on the other hand, is it even possible to deny it? On a spring morning, thanks to an optimal and, without a doubt, purely material coincidence between the external and the internal, to a fugitive, casual consent between things, we find ourselves, for a few moments, outside of the back-and-forth of supply and demand, of the heaviness of the past and the anxiety of the future, forming a single body with the world. Neither an earned reward nor an advance on any transcendence, it settles in us when, below the huge flowering acacias, we walk in the vicinity of the river. That perfect state doesn’t involve any promise, because it’s already a gift; it doesn’t prepare us for any order more elevated; it’s an end in itself, and it’s not a matter of inducing it by this or that asceticism, nor of claiming to have won it through dubious distinctions obtained by study, intelligence, or temperament; it comes about just because, and to anyone, without being chosen by anyone else for that matter, so there’s no point in wasting time by thanking any supposed dispenser. And if we consider it a gift it’s because, too conscious of our terror, we never expected that it would come to pass, not by a long shot. It’s the gift of the present moment: not anxiety, not even the astonishment of existence, but happiness, which encompasses and erases the very consciousness of being. In the luminous morning, as we walk on the yellow flowers that cover the path, the infinite present is not captured by the senses but in perfect oneness with them.

There’s a well-known popular expression that affirms that the sex act is “the only luxury of the poor,” signaling not the inalienability of one’s own body, but the intransferability of its sensations; without wanting to take away from the poor their only luxury, I’d nevertheless like to register two objections: first, that our sensations are not a luxury, and second, that their intransferible character is fortunately nothing more than a myth. This intransferability of sensation is furthermore not a luxury of the poor but an illusion of the rich; I’d almost call it their primary pseudojustification, the one that leads them to believe that, if they have the right to eat caviar, it’s because they’re the only ones capable of appreciating it, of distinguishing with subtlety all of the sensations produced by chewing it. That the taste of celery, for example, is incommunicable, is a fact that doesn’t present the least doubt; and, nevertheless, all of us who have eaten it know what it’s like. Of some vegetable that’s not celery, we might say: “It tastes like celery”; the other dinner guests might agree or disagree, and a friendly deliberation might even ensue; and although over the course of the debate the taste of celery might never be defined or described, it will remain a reference throughout. The excessive affirmation of the uniqueness of the senses doesn’t lead to the individual but to the monad. All this “intransferability” smacks of the language of bankers or notaries. However much I might like to shut myself off from it, I can comprehend perfectly, not out of saintly humanitarianism but through projection and identification, how another experiences suffering or pleasure.

Due to my inclination for steep preliminary considerations, the reader will perhaps be unaware that I’m talking about literature. It’s common knowledge that, in this languishing art, generalizations and concepts are secondary: the particularity and immediacy of sensation and emotion are its homestead. And nevertheless, what happened on the sixteenth of June in 1904 in Dublin—and which, to tell the truth, never happened—is now a series of memories and sensations belonging to many people who never perceived those events with their senses. Conversely, the act of writing produces a diffusion of one’s own self in the things described; as the realist Flaubert wrote in a letter to Louise Cole: “It is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.”

I was reminded of all this not too long ago upon witnessing a scene on one of the numerous beaches that these rivers form. To defend myself from the sun, I was standing beneath a willow, leaning on the trunk, smoking a cigarette. The detail of the willow, a common tree in river regions, is by no means a concession to local color, but an obligatory precision, given that this tree is the first to exhibit, at the beginning of spring, any dense foliage. This impatience earned it the insult of [Ueda] Akinari in his famous Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu Monogatari), which recommends not planting a willow in one’s garden because, just as it’s the first thing to bloom, its inconstancy will make it lose its foliage with the first cold. In Paris, the real measuring instrument that heralds the spring is not the thermometers and barometers of the National Meteorological Service, but the great willow that rises—so that its branches can bow from further up—behind Notre Dame, in the Square de l’Ile de France, not far from the Memorial of the Deportation. The first warm days tend to induce error in certain trees that flower or turn green before their time, only to be disappointed by the next frost, but this setback certainly doesn’t threaten the willow, which, although it comes out first, comes out to stay, and in the supposed inconsistency that Akinari attributes it we should rather see a sign of its prudence, and of the exactitude of its foresight. The willow—the weeping willow above all—has a firm prestige in many literatures (the only slanderous mention of it that I know of is Akinari’s), a prestige that derives more from its dishevelled appearance, which evokes a slightly theatrical suffering, than from its true temperament, extremely practical and rational. The poet par excellence of these rivers—immesurable, untamed, and, at the same time, not without sweetness—Jual L. Ortiz,[2] named the three volumes of his complete work In the Aura of the Willow.

All right: I was, as I was saying, beneath a willow, leaning against the trunk, smoking a cigarette; it was an October siesta too hot to be out beneath the sun in, but the season had not advanced far enough for the bathers to surge en masse, in search of a relative coolness, to the edge of the water. The beach was deserted. When I say beach, the reader shouldn’t imagine a long extension of yellow sand, but a reduced, sandy semicircle of about fifty meters in diameter—the shore—formed not by the twisting banks of the Río de la Plata, nor by the great rivers that empty into it, the Paraná and the Uruguay, but by the lost bend of the tributary of some tributary, the curve of a course of water that, in spite of its fifty or sixty meters of width and its five or six or ten or fifteen of depth at the center, nobody would think to call a river; one of those courses of water that, oblique, transversal, vertical, parallel, circular, semicircular, tortuous, or straight as a ruler, form the capillary system that, from Paraguay and even higher up, accompanies the the great aquatic arteries that flow down from the tropical region to form first the Delta and afterward the estuary, those waterways that, running without stopping from the beginning of time, archaic and gleaming new at once, like a crowd converging on an agreed-upon meeting point, are finally immobilized in the thirty-four-thousand-square-kilometer sheet of gelatin that is the Río de la Plata.

A peaceful corner, lost in the jigsaw puzzle of flooded islands, flat, with dwarf-scale vegetation that grays a bit in the winter and lightly yellows in the summer, such that the cold and the heat don’t have time to completely erase, with their seasonal excesses, the greenery that never reaches the point of exuberance. Those flat islands that extend toward the water across a transitional strip formed by deposits of detritus and by the intricate accumulation of aquatic plants, reeds, water hyacinths, and bulrushes. Every once in a while, these brooks, rivulets, and streams, as they’re variously called, that run between them, form, above all at the eastern edge of the plain, a sandy deposit that the locals are accustomed to calling a beach and that, if it’s within the jurisdiction of some coastal town, the municipality will take the trouble, to attract some modest Sunday tourism, of gracing with some trees, with some cement or wooden benches, and with three or four rudimentary brick grills.

In that October siesta, due perhaps to the premature heat, and to the fact that it was a weekday, nobody was on the beach. What’s more, there didn’t seem to be anybody in the world, so much did silence predominate in that remote place, which, despite the perfection of its climate, the total purity of the sky, and the vegetation and running water, didn’t have anything Virgilian about it, due to the general poverty of the surroundings, and to the neglected and wild character of its details. The pleasure came not from a fortuitous organization of the elements that comprised the landscape, nor from the supposed moral satisfaction that a re-encounter with nature provides for civilized man, but from a consenting of the outer world to the senses, which, suddenly gifted with an unexpected sharpness, perhaps a consequence of the silence and solitude of the place, perceived that outer world more richly and clearly than usual. The willow that protected me from the sun was about fifteen meters from the water, on the slope of a small embankment raised years ago by order of the commune with the aim of protecting from floods, unsuccessfully of course, the town scattered behind the beach; as the reader already knows,[3] that elevation of slightly more than a meter and a half gave me, as an observer, an ampler vision of the place, extending the horizon, and permitting me to see much further than if, for example, I had been standing at the edge of the water. The flat landscape of islands and water, islands and water, extended for various kilometers without any elevation, aside from the occasional tree standing out a bit taller than the others; because of the extension of my visual field, as they got further and further from the point of observation, islands and water mixed together, and the only change worth mentioning was that the pale, lusterless green of the first islands after the stream darkened to a bluish tint in the vicinity of the horizon.

Some noises pulled me out of my daydream; they were close and varied, and familiar, of course, and the only thing that intrigued me about them was the closeness, which made me imagine that either I had been too absorbed in my own thoughts or in the contemplation of the outer world and I hadn’t noticed them approaching, or that the sounds had suddenly emerged from one of the farms in the poorer part of the town, beyond the weekend homes that were being built near the coast. They were the voices and laughter of children and, as I could make out almost immediately, also the muffled clopping of a horse’s hooves advancing over the sandy earth. The voice of a mature woman who, with distracted suggestions, seemed to be trying to calm the excitement of the children, could be heard from time to time, until, at the end of a minute in which the sounds and the voices had been growing ever more close and precise, the group that produced them, emerging behind me from the path of sorts that ran parallel to the embankment, made its appearance on the beach. From the sounds they were making, I had already imagined them in an approximate way, so familiar are these presences and these voices in the landscape of the Litoral; two boys about five or six years old, mounted bareback on a skinny and indifferent horse, and a woman of undefinable age walking behind, to keep an eye not on the horse but on the children and prevent them from committing too much buffoonery.

Without having seen them, I could tell from the intonation of their voices, fast and a bit shrill, that they must have come from one of the wretched farms built from straw, tin, and even cardboard, and sometimes from even more unlikely materials, that make up their dwellings and that, in this village, had been built at the foot of the embankment—which was perhaps half a kilometer long—opposite the beach. They belonged to that social class that’s so numerous in Argentina, the poor. On the outskirts of towns and cities, on the banks of rivers, on islands, in the countryside, rooted in true ghettos or isolated in the most remote sites, the poor are more than a class, almost a race apart, and the proof is that even though very few, or almost none, are of African origin, they’re called, scornfully of course, los negros, because of the dark tint of their skin, which in reality is not black but brown, darker or lighter according to the degree of miscegenation.

Expelled to the outskirts, installed in a sort of no man’s land, between streams, railroads, garbage dumps, they swarm in dark, anonymous multitudes, surviving thanks to temporary and miserable work, like collecting reusable materials in the trash dumps, fishing, or even begging. The most fortunate subsist thanks to street trades that have always been assigned to them, and for which no special age or physical state is required, given that six- or seven-year-old children can do them just as well as seventy-year-olds: shoeshiners, fruitsellers, paperboys, venders of sweets or lottery tickets, of shoelaces or prayer cards. Some teenagers can work as errand boys, just as the women, especially the youngest, when they have certain connections and therefore the possibility of prospering, manage to enter domestic service. Begging, crime, and prostitution can also be a frequent outcome; and for those who don’t even have the luck of finding some relief at the margin of the law, a perfectly legitimate relief to boot, awaits disintegration in the most devastating of miseries. In the wobbly ranches, like rickety caves of straw or tin, mixed in with the dogs, equally numerous and hungry, they are extinguished by hunger or resigned fragility, the women already aged and toothless at twenty-five or thirty, the children ragged and bleary, the men hopeless, apathetic, and stupefied by alcohol.

Juan José Saer | Argentine Ministry of Culture

The group that was coming onto the beach belonged to that social class, although without a doubt not to its most disadvantaged rungs. The proof of this relative well-being wasn’t just the fact that they had a horse and took the trouble of bringing it to drink from the river but also the reserved vigilance of the woman with respect to the children, which provided the evident structure of a peaceful and affectionate family rationality. Despite their less-than-humble condition, one could sense that, thanks to the gift of a particular temperament, they hadn’t completely been abandoned by hope. The woman, for example, didn’t give the impression of having been prematurely weakened by poverty, and her fiftyish appearance must have represented her real age. A few gray hairs lightened her straight and very dark hair and her arms, emerging from the short sleeves of her discolored cotton dress, were round, smooth, and healthy. The children were dressed only in ragged shorts, also discolored, probably made from the same blue thread that’s used for work clothes.

When she reached my elevation, the woman, who had pretended not to see me when she appeared at the edge of the slope, turned her head toward me and directed me a discreet greeting, briefly, without stopping, a Good afternoon neither timid nor withdrawn nor distrustful, a mere convention of etiquette, a bit old-fashioned, to which I responded with an unintelligible murmur and a slightly excessive nod, perhaps out of proportion with the murmur. Contaminated by that transparency that adults tend to have for children when they’re concentrated on the magnetic pull of some powerful desire, I noted that, fascinated by the water of the stream, they didn’t deign to direct me even a single glance, just like the horse, absorbed in that eternal animal distraction of horses, about which we don’t know and never will know if it’s made up of images, of sensations, of instinctual hammerings, or of that void, so eagerly sought by Zen adepts, capable of erasing not only the mind’s reality but also that of matter.

When it reached the beach, this little group dispersed: the children got off the horse and the woman, forgetting them behind her, approached the bank, put her hands on her hips, and stood still contemplating the water; it was the clearest hour of the day and also the hottest, and my deduction that they must not have come from very far was confirmed by the fact that none of the three—the woman and the children—was wearing a hat; for its part, the horse moved away from them and, lowering its neck to the stream, began to drink water, more quietly, by the way, than “the Citizen’s” dog in Barney Keernan’s tavern, of whom the narrator says: “gob, you could hear him lapping it up a mile off.”[4] From where I was watching the tame, discreet horse, I could just make out the way it moved its lips, grazing the surface of the water. The children, on the other hand, after running around for a while in every direction, without an exact plan, headed straight for the bank as if they were racing and noisily entered the stream, and, after taking three or four steps weighed down by the liquid resistance, they plunged and disappeared for a couple of seconds below the water. The woman gave a shout, of surprise or encouragement perhaps, and turned to look at me with a fleeting smile, of apology or complicity, at the children’s lively animation. From her apparent age I inferred that she must have been their grandmother rather than their mother, and as the boys romped, excited and unconscious of danger, she, to monitor them from a closer distance, took off her shoes without even crouching and put her feet in the water.

Instinctively, I looked at my own feet. Sheathed in black alpargatas, the country’s popular footwear, inherited from Basque immigrants, my feet, on the extreme outskirts of my body, far from the centers of decision, as they’re now called, though the layman knows them as the psyche, lay forgotten against the shadow of the tree projected on the sandy ground, momentarily discharged from their function of keeping me, all on their own, in a vertical position, thanks to the partial relief afforded by my back leaning on the willow’s trunk. When the woman’s feet entered the water, a sudden sensation of coolness, intense and lovely, reminded me of the existence of my own and brought them to the foreground of my sensations. And as the woman went deeper into the river and the water level covered her ankles, her calves, reaching her knees, the sensation of coolness also went rising up my own legs, gratifying me with that liquid caress that, though no less indefinable than the taste of celery, and though its stimulus acted on a skin that wasn’t mine, wasn’t at all difficult to recognize right away.

The woman hesitated a moment before continuing ahead and then, her mind settled, made that automatic gesture that a woman makes when she enters the water while clothed, to avoid getting her dress wet, consisting of taking it by the hem and lifting it slightly, holding it to the top half of a thigh, making it cling to her body in such a way that the feminine forms, thighs, buttocks, stomach, hips, and even back and breasts, given that all the fabric of the dress converges toward the point where the hand grasps it, stand out, are made clear and emphasized. Conscious of the situation, the woman stopped, still with her back to me, with the water a bit higher than her knees, now too high perhaps, because she couldn’t keep the hem of the dress from soaking a little. I experienced each one of her sensations simultaneously, and it cost me an effort, on top of them, to feel those that were to all appearances the real ones, that is to say the contact of the dry alpargatas that covered my feet and the roughness of the pants that grazed my masculine legs; the water clung to me up to above my knees, and the damp hem of the dress adhered to my own thighs.

According to Sextus Empiricus, in his treatise against the logicians, Heraclitus’s second fragment affirms that “Although Logos is common to all, most men live as if each of them had a private intelligence of his own.” And later: “Aenesidemus, jn accordance with Heraclitus, and Epicurus agree in general about perception, but disagree on specifics. For Aenesidemus says that there is a difference among apparent things, and that some of these are perceived by all, while others appear privately to a single individual.” It’s obvious that Aenesidemus’s specifics are of a secondary order and that for Heraclitus and Epicurus “Logos is common to all”; the circumstantial variations of the sensations are as well, and if we believe that they differ between one individual and another it’s because we don’t stop too often to analyze them. The woman who entered the river revealed to me, as she went deeper into the water, that individuality is a faint illusion. Thanks to her, the best-known fragment of Heraclitus, “You cannot step twice into the same river, for other waters are continually flowing on,” which came to my memory while I watched her and smoked in the shade of the willow, gave way to an unexpected gloss: it’s possible that the river changes constantly, but that which penetrates it is always one and the same. It’s therefore a vulgar error to imagine that the executioner is insensible to another’s suffering, and that some palates are more suitable than others to receive a sip of Chambertin.

[1] As noted above, the previous chapter, “Winter,” deals with settler-colonial genocide and the dictatorship of the 1970s and ’80s.

[2] The poet Juan L. Ortiz (1896–1978) was one of Saer’s most important literary mentors and influences. The character Washington Noriega, who appears in several of Saer’s novels including The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, is based on him.

[3] Earlier in El río sin orillas, Saer writes about the relationship between a viewer’s elevation and their perception of a landscape, and how the flatness of Argentine pampas creates uncanny optical effects.

[4] From James Joyce’s Ulysses.