The Witness, by Juan José Saer

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.

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8 thoughts on “The Witness, by Juan José Saer

  1. Having studied cultural anthropology I have huge resevrations when I read that in a book someone was eaten by a tribe of Indians. This type of culinary cannibalism didn’t exist, not even as an act of aggression. W. Arens showed this nicely in his book The Man Eating Myth.

  2. Yes, well, I wasn’t supposing any of it was true. Did the Indians not eat anyone then? – One of my projected novels is on an incident of African cannibalism, one that appears, on the face of it, fairly well documented. Though African cannibalism may be a separate issue. I might look out that Arens book (I was looking for a good book on cannibalism).

  3. Not that it disturbed me all that much, but the book itself wasn’t very well proof-read or printed (quite a lot of full-stops didn’t seem to have come out).

  4. I’m planning to read a lot more Spanish-language lit – not sure I’ll be starting here.

  5. Obooki, no, there isn’t really a difference between South American or African “cannibalism”. Fact is, it was never really witnessed and wouldn’t make much sense in most of the religious systems. It seems that nobody every really witnessed it. Head hunting and such things, well, that happened. The Man -eating Myth is an interesting book. European superstition and fear played heavily into it when things that were “seen” were interpreted. Not only cannibalism, of course.

  6. I think that among Spanish readers opinions on what Saer’s best book is are prob. divided between this one, Glosa and Cicatrices (Scars) (using the unscientific criteria of things I remember reading over the last few years), but thankfully all are available in English translation now (though with a stupid, fabricated title in place of Glosa</em). I'm trying to read his novels in order, so I prob. won't get to this one for another 2-3 years. However, I had a similar experience with his El limonero real earlier in the year: it was mostly good but labored in spots, to the point I set it aside for a while. There was no cannibalism in that one–allegorical or otherwise–by the way!

  7. T: I’d still recommend Saer generally: his books are always for the most part interesting.

    C: I have ordered the cannibal book. – The incident I’m thinking of writing about follows a similar idea: Englishman in African jungle remarks to slave trader that all this stuff about cannibals is made up isn’t it; slave trader responds, you think so, well…

    R: I think I was going by that Colombian newspaper list. I’ve only got one Saer left unread on my shelf now – Nothing, Nowhere, Never. I’ve not read any of those you mention. Similarly, I’m a bit low on Onettis.

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