Juan José Saer’s “La Grande”

Reviewed by Eric M. B. Becker

Image of Juan José Saer’s “La Grande”

When the Argentine writer Juan José Saer died of lung cancer in a Paris hospital in 2005, he left behind a final work he’d labored over for six years and strove to complete knowing his own end was nigh. The author’s urgency to finish La Grande is palpable in the anxious prose. Saer didn’t finish, ultimately, and his long-time editor, Alberto Díaz, prepared the manuscript for publication with a final chapter that includes only the first line.

Saer, sometimes cited as the most important Argentine writer of the post-Borges generation, exhibits an elastic yet controlled style that parallels the interwoven, unpredictable world of his characters. In La Grande, his prose is characterized by labyrinthine clausal pivots. Even a meeting between two characters, Nula and Lucía, is cause for an extended rumination on chance:

And finally, that one September afternoon Lucía walked past the corner of Mendoza and San Martín—where the Siete Colores bar now occupies the spot that for years belonged to the Gran Doria—at the exact moment when Nula (who, after finishing his coffee, had been detained for a few seconds by a guy who shouted something from his table about a Public Law textbook) walked out onto San Martín and looked up, seeing her, dressed in red, through the crowd on the bright avenue.

By building on each other, the cross-stitch of clauses achieves a beauty alternately composed of deep contemplation and the sensory details of everyday experience, thanks to Steven Dolph’s impressive English rendering. Given the complex sentence structure of Saer’s prose, Dolph is to be commended for the way he recreates the Saerian universe for the English-language reader.

The novel takes place over seven days in the 1990s, culminating in a Sunday barbecue that brings together all the novel’s characters and is hosted by Gutiérrez, a man who mysteriously disappeared from Argentina thirty years prior and has just as mysteriously returned. The action opens with Nula, a twenty-nine-year-old womanizer who sells wine and is writing a work of ontology. He accompanies Gutiérrez, thirty years his senior, as the older man ventures to invite Escalante, a friend from his youth, to his barbecue. Over the course of the week, Nula tries, through conversations with Gutiérrez and others who know him, to pick apart the secret of Gutiérrez’s sudden flight in the 1960s, an event tied, but not in any predictable way, to the history of “precisionism,” a conservative literary movement entangled with the anti-Communist military governments that consumed Argentina from the 1960s to 1980s.

Nula becomes captivated by Gutiérrez, who informs his philosophy of “accidental becoming,” where one is caught in “the perpetual collision of things” that seem at once preordained and coincidental. To Nula, Gutiérrez’s absence seems to result from the confluence of similarly unforeseen circumstances. Nula’s incipient philosophy is the metaphor that drives La Grande’s expansive narrative. At first, the reasons for Gutiérrez’s sudden disappearance are unclear, and we strongly suspect his departure is related to Argentina’s military dictatorships. Later, the motives for his reemergence are just as cloudy. Like Soldi, a researcher of precisionism through whose work we discover personal details surrounding Gutiérrez, we suspect that Gutiérrez, by returning, “seeks an imaginary perfection in everything, not realizing that the myths he yearned for over those thirty years had changed, eroded by contingency, while he was away.” The city, the lover, and the friends he left behind form a world we’re unsure still exists for anyone other than Gutiérrez. As Argentine literary critic Beatriz Sarlo noted shortly after the Spanish original’s 2005 release, Gutiérrez discovers he “is a puzzle piece that doesn’t really fit” as he tries to resume his former life.

While we seek to unravel Gutiérrez’s past, Saer weaves together the lives of those—including Lucía, rumored to be his daughter—who Gutiérrez left behind during his years abroad. All of their lives, in one way or another, have become caught in the crosshairs of recent Argentine history. The extended metaphor of Nula’s philosophy reaches far beyond the individual experiences of the characters: as they contemplate their own lives in the thirty years of Gutiérrez’s absence, the examination of how they came to be as they are, the investigation into their pasts, concurrently explores the historical and cultural influences upon the society in which they now live.

Often specters, but never center stage in this unearthing of the past, are the military governments that played a decisive role in many of the characters’ lives. We learn that when Nula was still a child, his father, a political activist, was assassinated in a pizzeria in Buenos Aires. As a result of their work on precisionism, Soldi and Gabriela learn that the literary movement’s aim of introducing the precision of the sciences into poetry places its founder, Mario Brando, in the good graces of military officials, who approve of precisionism’s strict, traditional forms. Gutiérrez, we discover, was once assistant to Brando’s law partner, Calcagno. This provides an explanation for Gutiérrez’s decision to leave Argentina, doing so at the request of Calcagno’s wife, who, we later find out, was having an affair with the young Gutiérrez.

Years after Brando’s death, Gutiérrez has gathered all the characters together for a Sunday barbecue in a demonstration of his will to resume his former life, a desire that seems unrealistic and unreal. At the novel’s end the fast-moving clouds and distant thunderclaps portending the impending storm resemble the characters and the past disappointments they could not avoid—political disappearances, forced hidings, and thwarted loves. It’s the inescapable that defines Saer’s novel, and his characters are not ignorant of the limits of their control over their lives:

No one among them believes that world belongs to them. They all know that they are apart from the human swarm deluded into thinking that it knows where it’s going, and that separation does not paralyze them, just the opposite, it actually seems to satisfy them. Every one of them, not to mention the owner of the house, who guards an impenetrable mystery behind his forehead, insists on being something other than what’s expected of them . . .

The disparate personal histories connected to Gutiérrez do not culminate in an all-encompassing explanation for the past, but merely create a whole kept together by political, literary, and amorous ties. As Dolph tells us in his translator’s afterword, the seventh and final chapter has only its first line, not intended to cap the novel, and yet this seems appropriate, for Saer doesn’t propose any final causes. If Saer’s characters fail to fulfill the roles the world has cast them in—husband, wine seller, or great beauty—it’s because they’ve learned that attempts to control their destinies bear no fruit. When the rain ushers in wine season at the end of the book, it’s as if Saer, in the lucidity of his final moments, is warning us against losing ourselves in insignificant efforts to make the world bend to our will.