July is Spanish literature month and Stu over at Winstonsdad’s Blog and Robert at Carvana de recuerdos are co-hosting this fantastic event. Visit their sites to see which bloggers are participating and to read lots of great reviews of books by Spanish authors. I chose as my first book The One Before by Juan Jose Saer, an Argentine author; this copy was given to my by Open Letters Press via Edelweiss and is translated by Roanne Kantor.
This collection of stories do not necessarily have a plot or read like traditional stories. They are more like intense philosophical observations made about various aspects of life by the author. The book is divided into three sections, the first of which is called “Arguments.” The “Arguments” are short pieces that range from one to three pages and include the author’s thoughts on a variety of topics such as insomnia, geography, dreams, existence and memory.
A few of the “Arguments” were exceptionally well-written and astute, especially the one that deals with insomnia. The author’s struggle with sleeplessness appears in several of the pieces, but the story which describes it most vividly is “A Historian’s Insomnia.” He works as late as he can and when there are finally no more excuses he forces himself into his pajamas and into bed next to his already sleeping wife. He writes:
The procession begins immediately, the mute creaking of insomnia, interwoven with changing forms that assault me and never leave until daybreak. Almost always, it ends with increasingly wild disintegration, whose final phase I forget most of the time, or perhaps I’m already asleep, or perhaps I believe that I’m already asleep, or perhaps I’m absorbed in a thought of which I’m not conscious, but that nevertheless I believe I understand.
Even if we don’t have chronic insomnia like the author, everyone at one point in life experiences a sleepless night or two. The meandering, almost frantic, prose of this story relates perfectly the panic we feel when we cannot sleep and toss and turn and wonder if sweet drowsiness will ever come to us.
The last two sections of the book are longer stories entitled “The One Before” and “Half-Erased.” In the latter story, Pidgeon Garay is packing up and saying his final goodbyes as he is preparing to leave Argentina for Paris. I found this particular plot interesting because the author himself spent much of his life in a self-imposed exile in Paris in order to avoid the oppressive political regime in his native country. Pidgeon is clearly struggling with leaving his native home; he goes into great detail describing and taking in all of the sights, sounds, smells and scenery of his home in what, I perceived, as his attempt to store as many memories as possible before his departure. Memory and how we remember and what we remember is a common theme in this story as well as in the “Arguments.”
Also, as Pidgeon is trying to leave Argentia, there is a rising flood that keeps threatening to overtake his home town. The army is desperately trying to do what they can to save the city and the suspension bridge that connects the city to other parts of Argentina, but the flood shows no signs of stopping. I wondered if this flood is a metaphor for the political regime that swallowed up Saer’s native land, so much so that Saer never felt like he could return and died in exile in Paris.
Pidgeon also seems to have a crisis of identity due to the fact that he has an identical twin named Cat. People are always mistaking him for Cat and we can’t help but wonder if part of his reason for fleeing to Europe is to try and discover his own identity and become his own man. At one point his visits Cat at his home but Cat is not there. Cat’s roommate, a man name Washington talks to Pidgeon but the entire time Pidgeon keeps wondering if Washington realizes the difference between the identical twins.
These stories are stream of consciousness writing, sometimes rambling, and oftentimes profound. Saer’s prose is abundantly descriptive and he is fond of the long sentences which use little or no punctuation. This is a short book at only 130 pages, but it took me a few days to read it at a slow pace so that I could understand and absorb Saer’s thoughts and ideas. I highly recommend giving Saer a try if you are interested in Argentine literature.
Roanne Kantor is a doctoral student in comparative literature at the University of Texas at Austin. Her translation of The One Before won the 2009 Susan Sontag Prize for Translation. Her translations from Spanish have appeared in Little Star magazine, Two Lines, and Palabras Errantes.