Monday, April 06, 2009

The Witness by Juan José Saer (translated by Margaret Jull Costa).

In sixteenth century Spain an orphan boards a ship as a cabin boy. He sails to South America with a captain who has the menace of Kurz in 'Heart of Darkness'. They are attacked and the boy is taken prisoner. His encounter with 'the savages' is strange, gruesome and, I feel, an analogy for human life in general. The 'savages' are driven to do something that they don't like, and yet they must do it. It is a madness that comes over them, and this, it seems to me, is what the book is about. What drives them? Where does this drive come from? What does their reaction mean?

The boy becomes an adult while in captivity. By the time he is rescued he has a beard, and it is this that distinguishes him from the people that have captured him. Although he then leaves the savages, they are always with him. He is forever the outsider, forever the witness. He watches and tries to make sense of his subsequent life in terms of the life he knew then. Gradually memories of this earlier life surface: single people and singular actions are revisited and reappraised. It takes the memory of an eclipse for him to realise the true psyche of this people, and why they are driven to do what they do: a mixing of spiritualism and place. It is a great evocation of the cosmos of the hunter-gatherer, and therefore the primitive world of us all.
'In a place which was being transformed before their very eyes into the blackest night, the vanishing moon, which custom had convinced us was imperishable, was confirming by its natural extinction the ancient belief that, whether the Indians were conscious of it or not, manifested itself in every thought and action.'

The world is what we see, but all that we seem to see is just temporary, and can disappear without warning. In order to keep on existing we need to be remembered, we need to have a witness.

It is a short novel, but very rich. Although the protagonist's whole life is described, Saer chooses the depth of telling with skill: some events, like canibalism and the brief tribal descent into sexual depravity are picked out and described in great detail; whereas there are great stretches that are summed up more lightly.

It is a highly satisfying book, beautifully translated - the sort that enriches your life long after you've finished the last pages.

The book will be published on April 23rd by Serpent's Tail.

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Blogger Ian said...

It sounds wonderful, and with a 'descent into sexual depravity' it's going to get more than its fair share of readers. Thank you for introducing it to me.

Tue Apr 07, 12:24:00 pm  
Blogger Clare Dudman said...

Heh, that's what I thought, Ian. Shame descents into depravity can't start on page 1, really - that would draw people in!

Wed Apr 08, 01:53:00 pm  

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