The Witness, by Juan José Saeron July 10th, 2012
The Witness is the story of a young man who sets out to see as a cabin boy, sometime I guess in the early c16th, on a voyage to the largely unexplored continent of America, where he goes ashore one day with his crew and they are all, except for him, killed by an Indian tribe and their bodies taken back to the tribe’s home and eaten in a disturbing ritual of cannibalistic decadence. The novel then follows the young man as he spends the next ten years living with the tribe, his observations of their largely monastic way of life, his subsequent return to civilisation, and his reflections on his experience.
This is the third books of Juan José Saer’s which I’ve read. I’ve also read The Investigation and The Event. In general, people seem to agree this is his best book. It is certainly an interesting book at times: the world he posits is interesting, and some of the ideas of his protagonist; it will stay with me, I feel – parts of it; but in terms of enjoyment, to be honest I preferred the other two. Even at only 160 pages, the novel seems to meander on a bit too long, as if it’s all just an addendum to the scene of the beginning. In some ways (its structure, for instance) it’s a much simpler book than the other two: it is just a story, told largely chronologically by its narrator; but it does by the end descend into some tiresome philosophical and obliquely “meaningful” passages.
On the back cover, the novel is compared to Borges, Cortázar, Melville, Conrad and a writer called Graham Greens whom I don’t know. Of these, perhaps there is some Borges in it all: the strange tribe with its rituals and philosophies, its other way of experiencing existence. Melville and Conrad are only mentioned for the obvious shipping in (pre-)colonial waters parts. If you want another name perhaps Golding is more akin – by which I don’t mean in the least that it’s like Lord of the Flies – more his interest in people undergoing extreme (at least from our point of view) experiences or states of mind. But really, it’s not so much like any of them.
I also read Winter Quarters by Osvaldo Soriano, which, in my opinion, is not one of the essential books of Spanish literature since 1950.