Some critical theorists in the universities have suggested that literature’s reality is not what’s in a text but, literally, the text itself. And there are novelists, mainly European, who similarly doubt the reality of story and character. In this constricted circle even the author decides to doubt his or her own reality. The ultimate step is to doubt the reader’s.
“If the sun and moon should doubt/ they’d immediately go out,’’ William Blake proclaimed. Such writing does tend to extinguish itself and to a considerable extent, its audience. “Love moves me and makes me speak,’’ Dante’s Beatrice told her heavenly visitor; here it is dislike that speaks. And pretty much doesn’t move.
The most prominent of these writers was the Austrian novelist, the late Thomas Bernhard. His books - if not widely admired, certainly narrowly and fervently - impose numb indifference, whether in the narrators’ views of themselves, or of others, or even of their pastimes. If they have a toothbrush it will erode, not clean. Endless sentences and paragraphless pages declare that meaning and distinctions have been drowned under the mudslide of the contemporary world, along with Bernhard himself and, of course, his readers. They buy his books, nonetheless, and teach seminars about them.
Bernhard has bite, though, despite his purposeful gumlessness: sparks of fury, denunciation, wit sometimes, and writing whose energy insists on breaking through the mudslide. Beneath the gray blanket is a dim but vigorous kicking. Some of his followers have managed to suppress even these things; none more so than the late Juan Jose Saer, Argentine who lived in Europe.
For most of its length, Saer’s “Scars,’’ first printed in 1969 and now translated into English for the first time, is an anti-book, populated by anti-characters living out anti-stories and told in a kind of anti-writing. There is a reason for it: a last section of such grisly and brilliantly written realism as to declare, in effect, that life in the world is so bad that non-life is the only proper way to convey it.
A reason is not a justification. The first three sections of “Scars’’ are written so as to destroy themselves; something like the machine built by the artist Jean Tinguely, whose hundreds of whirring parts work to destroy it. The machine was fun; Saer’s three sections are mortally tedious.
Each belongs to one of three men, living in an unnamed Argentine city, inland and beside a river (Santa Fe, perhaps). The weather, of course, is unremittingly bad: freezing and rainy, or enervatingly hot. Each of the men is depicted engaging in some futile and incessantly repeating activity.
Ángel, a journalist, writes the paper’s weather report. He writes the same one every day, regardless of the weather; the headline invariably reads: “No Change in Sight.’’ A bright touch, but about the only one. Otherwise, Ángel performs the same few actions over and over. One is a series of vague efforts to seduce women. Another is repeated quarrels with his promiscuous mother; at one point they beat each other up. No passion is involved; they could be robots programmed to perform a few limited tasks and register a few imperceptible emotions.
Ángel, though, is veritable fireworks compared with the other two. Sergio, a lawyer, is a compulsive gambler who goes through repeated cycles of losing everything and winning it back. Saer has him discuss in teeth-grinding length and detail, the mechanics and tactics of baccarat, Sergio’s nightly game. He borrows from friends, mortgages his house, recoups.
You might think of Dostoevsky’s “The Gambler’’ (Sergio reads it) but that is about a person. There is no person here, only a hopeless routine played out at least a dozen times. Saer shoves readers into a Dantean circle of Hell where they must repeat eternally the same futile task.
The third section presents a judge who interrogates witnesses to a wife killing. Their testimony is refreshing by contrast with everything else. For 70 pages we get the judge imagining everyone he sees as a gorilla; driving endlessly around the same city streets, eating the same soup, and crossing over and over the black and white tiles in the courthouse lobby. Saer’s insistent repetitions deliberately overshadow his shadowy characters, and their even more shadowy stories. It is his point: They have no more reality, less even, than gambling, gorillas, soup, driving, a tiled floor.
The last brief section, a splendidly written account of an awful family picnic ending in the wife murder, shows what Saer can do when he chooses. He does not choose; instead the tragedy serves to show a real world so terrible that a frozen anomie, and characters flattened to the point of nonexistence, are the only way to write of it. Hard on readers; but then Saer has pretty much decided that they don’t exist.