Review of La Grande by Juan José Saer

Long at 500 pages but not-quite monolithic, this scattered Argentinian novel about a confusing literary movement called Precisionism, is less precise than the dependably inaccurate blurbs led me to believe.

Jumping from close-knit characters to disparate scenes to clandestine moments of startling imprudence, through days and nights and the tired territory of restaurants and bedrooms, childhood and romantic entanglements, I was propelled through the narrative in the same way I enjoyed many bigger, better Spanish language tomes in the past. But unlike Terra Nostra or Infante’s Inferno, Le Grande appears at times hastily composed. Many sentences rely on similes and strained metaphors, but as often as they shed light on pithy topics, they distract from action and tension, going on at exuberant length to prove a point I might have gleaned from a few choice words. Nonetheless this was an occasionally entertaining, readable, slightly tedious novel, with mesmeric atmosphere and an effective setting. Disregarding the politics it describes (not my department), the South America is presents is both exquisitely beautiful and rife with commonplace sin and disillusion.

Like Bolaño’s contrived literary movement in Savage Detectives, you might read a thousand pages more about the bit players of Precisionism before being swayed by their views.

I counted six pages in a row describing one character threading a needle. It really got to me. I recall passages in Beckett minutely cataloging inconsequential actions, but since Saer didn’t prepare the reader for this side-quest, it came as an unwelcome surprise. The majority of the pages contain mundane descriptions of one sort or another interspersed with just as many good literary choices. Most of the paragraphs take up 2 full pages, cut through by sparse resuscitation of dialogue. Great lines might pass you by if you aren’t paying attention, and when the description isn’t fantastic it is just long. The main and only downfall of this book is the perspective. It is difficult to zero in on and understand these literary characters, bewildered as we are by the flood of detail.

La Grande is a twisted look at a fascinating culture and time, but made for an uneven reading experience in my opinion. Admittedly, there are unifying themes, images and motifs (especially wine). The characters are not shallow puppets but fleshed, flawed, damaged individuals. A dense and complex amalgamation of memory and texture, fruitful relationships and a definite, disturbing undercurrent. Read it for the publisher, who is making a valiant effort to fill the gaps in foreign literature available in English. Read it for Saer, who put his impassioned talent to use, reaching for a greatness he might not have fully attained, but certainly approached.

I may tackle more of Saer’s books in the future, but I see myself enjoying the rest of Cortazar first.

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