The Light in the Wood: Saer’s «The Regal Lemon Tree»

The Light in the Wood. Review of Juan José Saer’s The Regal Lemon Tree

by Juan Agustín Mucci

Saer, Juan José. The Regal Lemon Tree, translated from the Spanish by Sergio Waisman. Open Letter, 2020, $15.95, 130 pages. ISBN 978-1-948830-27-0

A river without shores. An endless stream of currents and reflections that cannot be grasped. A shape defined—as Rilke would have had it—by the very limits that don’t exist: the space outside ourselves translates things, but to give it existence, we must invest it with our own inner space. The paradox of language, the paradox of reality. A river without shores. Juan José Saer’s writing dwells inside this contradiction…

Me has sorprendido, diciéndome, amigo,
que “mi poesía”
debe parecerse al río que no terminaré nunca, nunca de decir…

Oh, si ella                                                                 
se pareciese a aquel casi pensamiento que accede
hasta latir         
en un amanecer, se dijera, de abanico,
con el salmón del Ibicuy….:
sobre su muerte, así,                                               
abriendo al remontarlo, o poco menos, las aletas del día…

Juan L. Ortiz


(You have surprised me, telling me, friend,
that “my poetry”
must seem like the river that I will never, ever finish telling…

Oh, if she                                                        
seemed like that almost thought that accedes
till it pulses      
in a dawn, one could say, of fans,
with the Ibicuy salmon….:
upon its death, thus,                                                      
opening as it cruises upstream, or not quite, the day’s fins…)

A river without shores. An endless stream of currents and reflections that cannot be grasped. A shape defined—as Rilke would have had it—by the very limits that don’t exist: the space outside ourselves translates things, but to give it existence, we must invest it with our own inner space. The paradox of language, the paradox of reality. A river without shores. Juan José Saer’s writing dwells inside this contradiction. It exposes, at the same time, the limits of expression and the impossibility of saturating it. This aporia resolves within itself. For Saer, the private language of a writer is a secret garden in which he can cultivate whichever species he pleases. Inside, the rules are relative. Beyond the meaning that dictionaries and grammar assign lies the multicolored palette of connotations born of personal experience. Only inside the native (in Spanish, significantly, “mother”) tongue of a writer is this possible. And even so, only in the form of a paradox, because it is only through inner experience (space) that outer experience becomes apprehensible. What to do with a translation, then? Would it be an impossibility built upon an impossibility? One would not necessarily be wrong to think so.

Fortunately, what could be a closure, a denial, becomes the very basis of the translation’s occurrence. Sergio Waisman’s acumen, born in part of his study of Borges—perhaps the greatest literary theorist of translation in the past century—thrives inside this seeming contradiction: translation is a type of fiction. It is not only a transposition, or a retelling of the story. It is, as Benjamin would say, an artistic form. One that lies within the original, only to be brought to light. What we find in a translation is the writing brought out upon itself. The result resembles a double exposure: an image upon an image, a fiction upon a fiction. Two distinctive shapes, forced to be seen as one. Coexisting as a whole by the very differences that identify them. What we see in one cannot be seen in the other, but what we see in both reveals a picture that is greater than the sum of its parts. In Waisman’s translation we are given the gift not merely of a version, but of a new novel where we can rediscover Saer outside of Saer.

The plot, if we could call it that, is minimal: a family gathering on the last day of the year, from morning to evening. The novel follows Wenceslao, the central character, through his day, marked by the absence of his dead son and his mourning wife, flowing through the ebbs of memory. The action takes place in an island town on the shores of the Colastiné river, a part of what we could refer to as Saer’s literary zone. But upon this meager foundation, rises a monumental piece of art that took nine years to be written. A novel that explores existence, loss, life and death, reality and perception, experience and memory, time and consciousness. It is a novel of light and shadow, of obsessive description. A carefully constructed canvas of visual virtuosity, built as a baroque spiral painted by an abstract expressionist, in which the author explores the possibilities of narration and its limits.

It is through the obstacles that hinder the process of translating such a narrative that the process itself is possible. Were it not for its necessary choices, its futility, its hopelessness, translation would not exist. Or maybe it would be more precise to say: it would not matter. The first obstacle comes with the word itself: trans-latio. An obstacle of movement, to ferry something across to the other side—or should we say, to the other shore. It is not only a matter of rewriting, but of displacement. The new language is a new place, a new zone where “the original” must grow roots so as not to shrivel. Saer’s work requires a special treatment in this regard, given that it struggles to create a literary region of its own. Much like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, Onetti’s Santa María, or García Márquez’s Macondo, it builds a world within the world. In his case, the Argentine Littoral. Waisman understands that this is not only a matter of geography, but of customs, of images, of words and expressions. Though impossible to recreate, Waisman’s translation strives to ferry it across. The result is an unusual mixture, whose strangeness grants it its efficacy. Neither “ordinary” English nor identifiable Spanish. As with poetry—with which Saer’s writing shares many similarities—the choice between form and meaning is never clear. Even when it comes to mundane expressions, Saer’s writing exploits one of the Argentine tongue’s more distinctive traits: wit. Although not necessarily commonplace, there is a familiarity in the way the characters express themselves that goes beyond cliche or idiom. The result, we could say, paraphrasing the translation, leaves us “madder than when you wake a skate from its sleep.”

But it is precisely through this displacement and peculiarity that Waisman’s translation gains its effectiveness. For it achieves its goal: a linguistic and rhetorical uniformity become literary space. We have to remember, Castellano is not Spanish. One of Saer’s main concerns, as shown by his letters during his exile in France, was to remain faithful to the Argentinean voice. Not to lose touch with the way people—his people—spoke. The cultural and social meaning of saying “usted” instead of “vos” (“you”), or “capaz” instead of “quizas” (“maybe”), or “breva” instead of “higo” (“fig”), or “lobizón” instead of “hombre lobo” (werewolf) gets lost in the journey. For alongside those meanings, burrowed inside them, come many of the themes that make up his world, that present a counterbalance to his apparent nihilism: friendship, fellowship, belonging. Although destined to fail in this regard, through its struggle to grant each character their own voice and inflection (be it el Segundo’s speech impediment or Wenceslao’s distinctive demeanor), and to uphold the idiosyncratic nature of Saer’s characters’ interactions, Waisman’s translation stays essentially true the spirit of an unyielding shared existence: humanity, even on the face of oblivion. And that is because it manages to imprint a sense of familiarity, of self-generated balance to this world inside the world. One does not need to know the landscape. One does not need to be acquainted with the minutiae of social discourse in the Littoral to share the feeling. To belong. The translation adeptly sustains a tonal arrangement, as in a painting, albeit an arrangement that is all its own. Lighting and color; shades and textures: a verbal composition, but a visual one. Ekphrasis, but built around the intricacies of a private tongue. In the same vein, the choice of preserving some expressions shows the will not to renounce the certainty of futility. “Mate,” “almacén,” carry with them not only a reference to the material world, but the identity of a place, of people and their very existence—although the decision to single them out is debatable. We will return later to this matter.

We said “material,” and not “real”, for Saer’s work dwells in the problem of reality, perception and existence. There is a perceptible world, a material entity, a reality. But there is not necessarily a correspondence between them. El limonero real (the regal lemon tree), could just as well be understood to mean “the real lemon tree.” As in many of Saer’s works, the double meaning remains floating in the river, unable to cross to the other side. Nadie nada nunca [Nobody Nothing Never, tr. Helen Lane]: “Nobody ever swims.” From the title we are—we should be—confronted by the central problem of Saer’s narrative: reality and its impossibility. Though crippled from the start, the symbolic nature of the novel finds its way through narration itself: the lemon tree, “It’s been there, I’m telling you, since before I was born, always the same…” It is not the image, but the manner in which it is constructed that expresses it. It is a rhythm, a dwelling in the objective world that erodes it and transcends it. A stimulus overload that renders reality null. The strangeness of an objective description saturated, filled to the limit, where the outlines start to appear blurred, is a desired effect of Saer’s style, and one that this translation seizes to its full extent. And knowing that this effect not only limits itself to physical description. A narrative saturation that is perhaps even clearer in English than it is in Spanish, for we are more accustomed to verbal “barroquismo” (baroque style: the epigraph from Gongora is no accident) that seeks to smudge the limits of experience and consciousness itself, and to blur the passage between the immediate world and its counterpart: the past. The Proustian influence is undeniable, but transformed, translated by Saer himself, adjusted to his own goals. Whereas in the former the passage comes from the dissolution of a material source, from the direct contact with the senses, in the latter it manifests from an evanescent shape, an intangible experience: smoke and fog. Vision, the most immaterial of senses, as the paradoxical gateway to experience, to memory. Wenceslao’s past brought back as present:

The smoke stays behind him, a grayish cloud in the still air that never completely dissolves or disappears, so evanescent it casts no shadow on the ground.

The canoe has glided along the last stretch, and now reaches the shore, the oars at rest. The fog surrounds everything, dense, damp, and white. (p. 17)

Vision is, after all, the center around which the novel’s sensorium is built. We can see it in the very first phrase, repeated as a refrain, as a narrative anchor: “DAWN BREAKS / AND HIS EYES ARE ALREADY OPEN”. We find here the epitome of this dispersive effect, for it establishes the intrinsic ambiguity of Saer’s novel. This is a difficult expression to translate, for, in the original, there is no subject: “AMANECE / Y YA ESTÁ CON LOS OJOS ABIERTOS.” Noting the lack of a subject is essential, for “amanece” can also mean “wake up.” There is no “he,” no “his,” only the timeless present of “está.” Who or what is it that “amanece”? The day or the person? An ambiguity that must be resolved, for we find it as a final unknown, staring at us in the last paragraph of the novel with the elegance of a baroque spiral, where it cannot remain and be translated at the same time:

…está sentado en la cama, el corazón latiéndole de un modo violento, en el recinto incoloro, porque amanece, con los ojos abiertos.
y ya está con los ojos abiertos

…he sits up in bed, in a colorless space, his heart pounding, for he wakes up, and his eyes are already open.

Waisman opts to resolve it in one direction, as inside the full syntactic structure, in English, it cannot refer to the person and the day at the same time. The verb must appear alongside the subject. In Spanish, that is not the case: the syntax is built (though ambiguously) by the morphology of the words. But as on many other occasions in which the referent of a sentence or phrase appears blurred, we must remember that it was for the reader (impossible) to resolve.

Every instance of “reality” finds itself diluted and dissolved, be it by Saer’s narrative syntax or by his imagery. Again, this goes beyond mere description or allusion: it lies in the language itself. Wenceslao drifting to sleep, his inner voice dissolving along with his consciousness. His open eyes unseeing. A dark blot: nothingness. And then the journey back. A childlike reverie that marks the reintegration of awareness. Again, it is not only the picture or event, but the expression that crystallizes the meaning. As in the first memory of the lost child, the sentences are invaded by diminutives. Here, the translation’s perspicacity shows itself once more, for the “little island” could just as well have been “small.” But the use of the Spanish suffix “-ito” carries with it a distinct emotional weight: that of candor, affection, and infancy. Also, a distinct social voice: as we have already said, an identity. Saer’s manipulation of syntactic and semantic structures to express images and narrative movements requires an acute ear, even in its original form. Maybe it was in order to preserve them and to retain the clarity of expression of his prose that Waisman decided to sacrifice the personal inflection of certain passages. As shown by the story of el Cabezón’s (Mr. Brains’) musings: “Así se estaba el Cabezón mateando a la sombra y reflesionando, el santo día, y al cabo de un tiempo usté no podía caminar por el patio…” (“That’s how Mr. Brains spent all goddamned day, drinking his mate in the shade and thinking on things, and after a while it was hard to walk across his patio…”) We don’t find the transliteration of the “common tongue.” We don’t find the “verbalization” of the substantive.

This is, however, a central challenge for any translation of the novel. Its solution, a necessary evil. In the case of Waisman’s translation, we can still feel the weight of orality, though understandably diminished. It is, however, crucial for understanding Saer’s writing. The importance of spoken language goes beyond that of cultural identity. It is an aesthetic choice driven by expressive needs. As in the poetry of Juan L. Ortiz, one of Saer’s greatest influences, there is a painstaking effort to lessen the seriousness of language, to alleviate it of its gravity. In Saer, this even borders on humor. Not as comic relief but to work as a counterpart, a complement. To quote the author himself: “[Ortiz’s] objective was the treatment of a larger theme, of which his whole work is a series of variations: pain, historic or metaphysical, which perturbs the contemplation and enjoyment of beauty, which for this poetry is the world’s first condition” (“Juan” in El concepto de ficción [Seix Barral, 4th ed., 2014], p. 81—my translation). This appreciation of Ortiz’s poetry might as well have been a self-reflection. The aesthetic beauty of a world filled to the brim with visual stimulus, over-saturated; the lighthearted inflections and mannerisms of orality; a dark hole in the middle, loss and mourning. There is a triple tension here, between tone, style, and the subjacent thematic current that permeates the whole novel. And that constant strain is one of Saer’s identifying traits. We find it in Glosa [The Sixty-Five Years of Washington, tr. Steve Dolph], we find it in Lo imborrable. To deprive it of one of its parts would come at a high cost. We find this effort in the translation, as it distinctly maintains the conversational tone of the original, but lessened as it chooses not to replace the mannerisms of the character’s parlance with an English analogue. Perhaps for respect towards the language itself, or, as said before, as a means to facilitate the reading experience.

Nevertheless, Waisman’s translation deserves praise for its exceptional understanding of Saer’s writing style and narrative tempo. As in a musical composition, we have the themes, the variations, repetitions and movements. Sentences expanded to the brink of coherence, stretched until they seem ready to snap. And then the contraction, narration condensed in a single phrase. A stream of words, stumbling upon appositional islands, hesitant. Phrases in a state of suspension, irresolute. Assertiveness diluted by the constantly proliferating instances of descriptive expansion, by the hazy appearance of the conditional. Forced to face the English cadence, they see themselves transformed at their core. The technique is safeguarded, but the rhythm has changed. What had been a flow of breath, a legato of long-winded words, acquires the sharp insistent strokes of staccato. The same melody, transformed by the instrument on which it is forced to be played. The timing is altered, but still remarkably strong in its construction: a verbal architecture with its foundation firmly upheld by a profound knowledge of both languages.

A temporal displacement, or metamorphosis, that also transfers to grammar in the dance between the two languages. Narration and time. Time ebbs and flows, from present to past to future. A river that can also be navigated upstream. The Regal Lemon Tree is a temporal novel as much as it is a visual one. It fluctuates and weaves between the immeasurable continuum of time. Time’s limits are as artificial, hazy, and impossible as every other limit in the novel. And as absolute. We encounter here another problematic instance, for even though Spanish and English share many similarities in their narrative use of verb tenses, the manner in which they are conceptualized differs drastically:

Volvía media hora después, chorreando agua, la piel oscura quemada y vuelta a quemar por el sol, el pecho flaco listado por la presión de las costillas, y se quedaba parado, casi en el mismo lugar en el que ahora está el brasero, riéndose y mostrando una doble hilera de dientes blancos que brillaban y brillaban.

He’d come back half an hour later, dripping wet, his skin burnt and burnt again by the sun, his skinny chest, the stripes of his ribs visible. And he’d stand there, almost in the same place where the small stove is now, laughing, showing a double row of white teeth that beamed and beamed. (p.16)

The memory of a lost child, imprinted in the everyday occurrence, but never resolved. The Spanish “pretérito imperfecto” (“imperfect past”) finds itself transformed, and an interesting semantic effect occurs: what is duration in the past, a habit, an indelible mark in memory, also becomes past future. “He’d come back half an hour later…” A botched possibility as much as a recurrence. A future always coming in the space of memory, there to be relived as a prospect, a failed hope. As if the necessities of expression were there to reveal a hidden meaning, more apt than the original to unveil it. The same happens with the present, expanded from the ephemeral instant to a stillborn continuance. From “pretérito perfecto compuesto” (“perfect past”) to present perfect: “Ella no se ha movido de la silla” / “She has not moved from the chair.” An inverse temporal movement: in one case, from now to then, in the other, from then to now. A forward movement against a backwards one. A paradox of expression, for although conceptualized in an absolutely opposite manner, the effect remains and conveys the same narrative crux: the temporal weave becomes entangled and the movements get blurred. Time, memory, and experience overlap in a struggle of two languages trying to express the inexpressible. An unrelenting tension carried throughout the novel as a conflict that can never be resolved. As with many other aspects of Saer’s writing, the discord between original and translation imprints a new shape to be gleaned, where we find, perhaps no solace, but a unique road to explore its plight. While we do not have the space to do so here, it would be interesting to continue these reflections with an examination of Roanne Kantor’s translation of La mayor [The One Before], which is perhaps Saer’s most experimental piece, and the most beautiful and faithful narrative representation of the impossibility of the present—and its experience.

It is not only in these aspects that we must say that Waisman’s translation does an admirable job at sustaining the inner structure of what Antoine Berman would call la lettre. Repeatedly, we find the same words, the same expressions, the same objects, the same scenes. And the same connection between them. Shapes and shades, a chromatic structure, in the musical sense, as there is a specific harmony in the elements of the composition. Saer’s literary language builds upon itself, establishing connections and correlations that emulate the macrostructure of the novel. Each iteration a new layer, a new burden for the reader to carry alongside. A richness that is born from the very act of reading, beyond plot, characters, or events. It tries to remain faithful to the lexical choices and the inner design of the novel. Especially when it comes to visual stimuli, in a world that is all sight. In spite of some minor discrepancies in the subtle variations that Saer uses—“destellar” and “centellar” are both translated as “glimmer,” but are not quite the same: the first, either a flash of light, quick, explosive and sudden, or the strain of light and color emitted at the margins of an occlusion; the second, a variable shining, uneven and multiple—the complexity of the original arrangement remains unscathed, and the internal verbal logic of the novel appears for the reader to behold. Here we see Saer’s mastery, as a writing founded upon dispersion, fragility, isolation, and emptiness, configures a totality where the space between, the void that cannot be filled acquires the solidity of a monument. Pieces that cannot fit, inadequacy turned to the bonding agent of expression, as attested by the final page of the book:

…ha cerrado los ojos por última vez, dejando que el enjambre de sus visiones, de sus recuerdos, de sus pensamientos, vuelva, gradualmente, y sin orden, a entrar, de nuevo, al panal, merodeando primero alrededor de la boca negra, entrando por grupos que se desprenden de la masa compacta, homogénea, de puntos negros que giran sin decidirse a entrar, hasta que van quedando, en el exterior, cada vez menos, dispersos, revoloteando sin orden, entrando y volviendo a salir, caminando, con sus patas frágiles, peludas, sobre el marco pétreo de la abertura, indecisos, y cuando queda por fin el espacio vacío, sin nada, hay todavía algo que sale, bruscamente, de la boca negra, sin dirección, y vuelve, con la misma rapidez, a entrar…

…he has closed his eyes one last time, letting the swarm of his visions, his memories, his thoughts return, gradually, in no particular order, and re-enter the honeycomb, first hovering around the black mouth, entering in groups that break off from the compact, homogenous mass of black dots circling around before they decide to go in, until there are fewer and fewer outside, dispersed, flying around randomly, going in and coming back out, walking indecisively on their fragile, hairy legs on the rocky edges of the opening, and when the space is finally empty, without anything, something still comes shooting abruptly out of the dark opening, directionless, and just as quickly goes back in… (p. 228)

A journey from nothing to nothing, from same to same, that starts and ends in the same impossibility. In a way, what started this review. But, as is beautifully given voice by Waisman’s translation, something still comes, abruptly, directionless, and just as quickly goes back in.

Juan Agustín Mucci is a teacher and amateur translator based in La Plata, Argentina. He is Licenciado en Letras from the Universidad Nacional de La Plata and has been awarded a national scholarship to facilitate the writing of his doctoral dissertation, which focuses on fiction and translation in the Río de la Plata region in the 20th century.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, May 11, 2021

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