REVIEW by Crystal Jeans

NWR Issue 98


by Juan José Saer, Translation, Steve Dolph

Scars by Juan Jose Saer

‘There’s this filthy, evil June light coming through the window,’ starts Scars, a novel – or interconnected short stories, however you want to see it – by Argentinean, Juan José Saer, translated from the Spanish by Steve Dolph and published by Open Letter Books. What a zinger, I thought. Bet I’m going to like this.

Luis Fiore kills his wife. Later, during an inquest with a judge, secretary and journalist, he throws himself out of a window, dies. These incidents are told, or referred to, in four stories, connected, sometimes tenuously, sometimes not.

The first story belongs to Angelo, a weather reporter who knows nothing about the weather. He’s having problems with his mother, a good-time girl who likes her gin. He witnesses Fiore’s suicide. Secondly there’s Sergio, an attorney who is gambling away his money and property playing baccarat. He is an old friend of Fiore. Third is the judge, Ernesto, who sees gorillas in place of people: ‘By now the gorillas will be leaving their burrows, vacating their foul-smelling nests, examining their excrement, looking at the fog through the window, turning groggily in the beds where they’ve copulated with their reddish-sexed females.’ Between work he drives around in the rain or works on a translation of ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, an exercise he acknowledges to be futile.

The final and shortest story is Fiore’s. He goes out duck hunting with his family, his wife is being difficult, he shoots her.

Sounds simple, but there’s a lot going on in Scars. Angelo talks in one section of instances where he’s spotted a man he swears is his double. He has a dysfunctional, almost sexually charged relationship with his mother. She’s young and walks around in her underwear reading comics and drinking gin, and he sits around naked with an erection, also drinking gin. I’m not too hot on psychoanalysis, but even I noticed the ominous Freudian presence, loud and proud as Angelo’s erection. But not so much that it’s a crude, paint-by-numbers Oedipal joke. It doesn’t play that way. At the end, Angelo finds his mother in bed with his best friend, Tomatis. He runs out of the house and bumps into his double, who looks at him ‘with a terrified face, marked by the fresh scars from the first wounds of disbelief and recognition.’

Magical realism manifests itself more than once – as well as Angelo’s double, there’s the judge’s primal gorilla visions and Fiore’s young daughter foreseeing the murder in a dream. Or so she says. The fantastic elements could indeed be fantastic – a random and arbitrary surrealism – or they could be the products of Saer’s unhinged characters lying or going crazy. We don’t need to know which. And I like this.

The writing is primarily realist. The characters’ lives are often mundane: they masturbate, defecate, eat soup, scratch themselves. And it’s bleak. Alcoholism, apathy, suppressed carnality, futility, self-destruction, inane obsession and nihilism – it’s all there. ‘A rotten apple is better than a healthy one,’ says Sergio, ‘because the rotten apple is closer to the truth…’ But Scars didn’t make me miserable. There is a wilful detachment, a sly objectivity, which works against this.

The male characters in Scars are alone and disconnected. They are Baudelaire’s flâneurs, wandering the streets, driving, seldom at home: men without women. And the women are either dumbly servile or problematic frivolites who slob around reading comics (certainly not Oscar Wilde). ‘They all have a little mother in them, and a little slut,’ says Tomatis. There is, in the final story, a sense that the murder of Gringa is being justified, just a smidge. She’s negative, nagging, annoying, provocative. You don’t want her shot in the face, but you do want her to shut up. However, the extremity of Fiore’s reaction helps negate this, and, despite my highly tuned feminist nose trying to sniff out misogyny, I don’t feel that Scars is a book devoted to the destruction or disparagement of women. It’s more like a complex commentary. The men in these stories are damaged, and you’re not encouraged to relate to them, perhaps not even understand them.

One problem I have with this book is the occasional long passage of boring detail. We have that zingy firework of a first line, and then Angelo goes into a lengthy explanation of his game of pool. The firework fizzles out. Later, Sergio spends ten pages describing how baccarat is played, and Ernesto repeats his driving routes to and from work with wrist-slitting exactness. I can see Saer’s reasoning – such detail highlights the character’s passions and obsessions, as well as reinforcing the realism and setting up a contrast with the violence. But it’s overdone and skimworthy.

The style throughout is simple, methodical, clear, and lovely in places. Its textures, colours, details and layers are rich, and much is soaked in significance. It’s busy and it’s clever, but it didn’t suffocate or make me feel stupid. It’s a book that demands to be re-read. And because it is – for the most part – a brilliant piece of writing, I’ll probably acquiesce.


previous review: Loudness
next review: Cardiff After Dark


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