Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

sábado, febrero 11, 2012

The Witness

Juan Jose Saer (1937-2005)

Juan Jose Saer's novella, El entenado (The Witness)(note: "entenado" should literally be translated as "stepson") is disturbing. It's short, but it's not easy. And it raises important questions, which it doesn't really resolve. Strangely, that is not a shortcoming.

The story's origins may be in the ill fated 1516 voyage of Juan Dias de Solis up the Parana River, in which Solis and some of his crew were killed and perhaps eaten by Charrua Indians. The cabin boy, so the story goes, was spared. But Saer has taken the event to another level: the narrator, the cabin boy on the expedition, ends up spending a decade with the Indians before finally being sent away. He observes, but does not participate in their annual rite of cannibalism, intoxication and a sex orgy worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. This event seems to kill a lot of Indians and leave others in a stupor for months. The Indians, however, keep the narrator safe. The Indians' kindness for this decade of safekeeping is ultimately repaid by their being killed by the Spaniards to whom the narrator is released. Underlying the entire story is genocide. There will be no further spoiler here.

Yes, the story is "fictional anthropology." Yes, it's also a "fictitious memoir." And yes, the narrator is reliably unreliable. But there are other things going on here that shouldn't be so facilely categorized. I comment only on one disturbing aspect of the story.

The narrator is kept safe by the Indians because he has an important function the Indians want him to carry out. His ultimate purpose is telling about the Indians and remembering them as individuals after he is released. It's as if their entire existence as a people and as individuals is preserved only by their being remembered and specifically told about to people outside their tribe. When the Indians capture other people-- the capture is another part of the annual cannibalism, intoxication and sex orgy-- they don't hold them for very long: they are released after a few months, and these captives seem to understand from the outset that they are to pay attention while they are with the tribe, and that upon their release, they are to narrate what they've seen, and remember to tell about the particular individuals in some particular ways. For example, to take one of the narrator's descriptions, "He was the man who smiled at me and joked about eating me." But the Narrator here doesn't realize he is to fulfill this memorial function until far, far later, even after he has learned the Indians' language and forgotten his own. The book, written by the narrator some 60 years after these events, only partially and even then, ambiguously fulfills the task. Ten years of captivity and observation are somehow shrunk in scope and detail, as if an entire forest were turned into a single, frail bonsai. Don't these Indians deserve a more detailed telling? A more complete recollection? How frustrating and disturbing that the story is never really completed, and that it then wanders on to the narrator's life after his release with the same obscurations.

Others have written that the novel reminds of Conrad's Heart of Darkness or Melville's Typee. But that's not really so. The book is far too full of metaphysical ambiguity to resemble them. It is an elegant, sophisticated treatment of memory, identity, and ultimately, of just not fitting in.

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