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The Regal Lemon Tree by Juan José Saer (Open Letter, 2020)

Though I’m less than certain about the world, and definitely not optimistic at all about this country, as far as I’m concerned the New Year couldn’t have started better. I spent it at a family celebration: three brothers-in-law, two of their wives and all the kids, the girls back from the big city, a friend in tow as well, roasting a lamb, sitting together outside around a big table, reminiscing about old times and imagining the future, drinking lots of red wine—eventually some local musicians showed up, and then the dancing began. It doesn’t get any better.

Okay, yeah, that didn’t happen. Instead, here in Massachusetts I got an email, a text message, and repeated robot calls warning me to stay home, to stay safe, and to remember that most of our state is at high risk for the virus. As if I had any plans to do otherwise.

And yet I will insist: not only did I attend that New Year’s Eve celebration, I had in fact been waiting for it for years, ever since I’d first sat down at that table, back in Paris, roughly thirty-five years ago. Wait a minute, you say, sitting around together outside, for a family meal at New Year’s? That seems impossible in Michigan or Massachusetts, and not much more likely in Paris.

What I’m actually referring to, as you may have guessed, is a novel, one that I first read as a student in the mid-eighties: El limonero real (1974), the first of many great novels published by the Argentine author Juan José Saer, and arguably his masterpiece. I initially read it in French, for a class, a marvelous translation by Laure Guille-Bataillon. After lecture, I asked my professor, M. Gabriel Saad, whether he happened to know if the novel had also been translated into English. I was so struck by it that I wanted all my friends to read it, and most particularly the co-founders of an experimental theater group that I had been working with in Boston. This group—a spin-off from Herbert Blau’s KRAKEN ensemble—had already staged work by Shakespeare and Kafka, and in my mind’s eye I could already see them taking this on as well. My prof didn’t know, he said, though he did know Saer. He gave me the author’s number and told me to call and ask. Two or three weeks later, I got up the necessary nerve. Saer said, No, it hadn’t been translated, but I should come over for coffee.

Let me give you a somewhat fuller summary. As I’ve already suggested, El limonero realThe Regal Lemon Tree, in Sergio Waisman’s masterful translation, just out with Open Letter Books—depicts a single day, the last of the year. We follow the life of a peasant farmer, Wenceslao, who lives on a island in a river; his relatives, living on a neighboring island, invite “Layo” and his wife over to celebrate the New Year. The latter (who remains unnamed in the text) declines the invitation, as she has all others in the six years since their son died. Though Wenceslao does go on alone to visit the others, the memory of his son (a vision of the boy running and diving into the river) and the thought of his wife’s refusal (along with her insistence that she is in mourning) return repeatedly throughout the novel, forming, together with the various rituals of the day (drinking maté; slaughtering, roasting, and eating a lamb; the dances), the substance and ground of the lived experience meticulously represented in Saer’s text.

This summary, however, gives little indication of the complexities of narration and the formal rigor with which the story is rendered. As Saer once explained in a conversation with Gérald de Cortanze, the regal lemon tree of the book’s title—a tree which carries in its branches at all times throughout the year all the cyclical variations in its vegetation, from blossoms to mature fruit—is at once an image of the world and the book, a nod to structuralist definitions of the signifier. At the same time, Saer’s book should also be read as a provocation aimed at those same high priests of structuralist theory—a return to and investment in their traditional scapegoat, realism. The Argentine critic Mirta Stern’s commentary on the novel elaborates the first of these themes, arguing that:

This projection of the cyclical process of écriture (which exhibits the text as work) is represented at the level of construction by the repetition of a single syntagm (“Dawn breaks / and his eyes are already open”) that presides over each of the text’s nine narrative segments. Within this systemized scansion, each segment develops a progressive linear sequence, preceded in each case by a summary—in past tense—of the earlier segments, interrupted in turn by minor narrative units. Consequently, the narrative beginning in each new section alway returns to the point of departure (effacing), summarizes (repeating) and comes back to narrate again (expanding) . . . . [T]he text is transformed into “a story about the process of constructing a story” in which the mechanics of écriture are prodigiously and exhaustively displayed. (23)

At a distance of decades, Stern’s language is likely to seem off-putting, yet it does describe with precision certain aspects of what Ricardo Piglia referred to as the “poetica implicita” of Saer’s text. What it tends to neglect, however, are those very sensorial qualities which de Cortanze mentions as the novel’s most immediately salient and memorable:

If I tried to sum up your work in a few words, particularly the work in El Limonero real, the first words that would come to mind register sense impressions, I would say: odors, minute sounds, liquidity, apprehension, blinding light, death. (55)

Saer’s meticulous attention to material experience, as several critics have noted, associates his work on some level with that mode of writing or group of writers commonly referred to as the “Nouveau Roman” (or the “novela objetivista”).  Such an identification, however, is itself not easy to reconcile with the repeated production in Saer’s text of those “minor narrative units” which Stern mentions, interpolated stories each with distinct modes of narration (including changes in voice, tense, and person, flashbacks, flash-forwards, a dream, a delirious monologue, a folk history, and a fairy tale); many, even most, of these narrative units do not adhere to, and frequently challenge, the various fashionable dogmas that circulated in literary criticism back in the seventies and eighties. Like the miraculous tree, which stands outside Wenceslao’s cabin, outside the book in which it is described, and outside time itself, the narrative production represented by Saer’s text has its roots in a variety of soils, and it resists characterization on any one level alone.

The path of least resistance into Saer’s text may well be to follow the through-line which is the novel’s most explicit focus, viz. the complex relation between narrative and time; the book offers, as it were, an extended explication of the famous Heraclitean saying, that “one never steps into the same river twice.” Throughout its pages, The Regal Lemon Tree evokes three distinct modes of temporal representation, and it is these modes which serve in their turn to organize its complex structure of narrative strategies and styles.

The first is that of the subject in relation to time; in other words, the individual that steps, that plunges into, that swims or crosses over the river. That individual, it should be clear, is tied to the river by a precise moment of time, a unique point, beyond repetition and in contrast to the directed flow of the water, to the so-called “arrow of time.” As a temporal image, this moment forms part of the everyday representation of history as linear time (where an event is idealized as a point on a line and an individual’s life is mapped out as a segment).

The second temporal image is that of the river which flows. Here the river is construed as beyond all relation with individual human existence; it resists the grasp of ordinary perception and is available to understanding only as an abstraction or symbol (although is it perhaps intuited by the body as well). Thought abstractly or symbolically, the river is an emblem of perpetual change, a fluvial uroboros; its time is circular and cyclical. As a consequence, this second image is in contrast with, although not opposed to, the first: whereas one representation is “human” and linear, the other is spatial and “natural”—both eternal and eternally present-tense: its prototype is the circle. In Saer’s text, the intention to depict this second form of temporality is absolutely explicit; it marks the literal and figurative ground of the work:

[Wencelaos] makes his way toward the center of the island, the flattened top of the green knoll.The island stretches out from the center there, spinning in concentric, green circles around it, the edges cramped by a ring of dense water. The island and the water are, in turn, inside another ring, the ring of summer, which is, in turn, inside the larger ring of time. (TRLT 99)

As for the third image of time, that which is most specific and central to Saer’s work, it is first and foremost a negative image, though it does enable an extensive, intimate relation between the individual and the river. Whereas the first representation depicted a person limited in contact to a single point or segment in the flow of time—itself limited to a linear and vectored image—and whereas the second representation suggested time in the abstract (conceived but not perceived), the third image is that of the descent, negative in that it is both always repeated and always failed. Here, one hastens to add, “There’s been no recognition only certitude. An empty certitude, solitary, without understanding, without knowing the object of its certainty” (ELR 107, my translation; compare to TRLT 107).

In any analysis of narrative representation, it is essential not to lose sight of the integrity of the text. The seamless interaction of these three temporal images makes Saer’s work lyrically poetic and memorable; in a different context, Bakhtin argued that the separation of time and space, although analytically feasible, is in fact alien to artistic creation, and that dividing them up is equivalent to asking the artwork for a pound of its flesh. Imagine then, if you will, the linear movement of human time directed at the center or source of the concentric circles of the natural world evoked in Saer’s text. Imagine it either as that arrow of time which, according to Zeno, must be understood as never reaching its target, or as the pebble that, thrown at the glassy surface of a pond, is itself the source of those circles. As projectiles, both arrow and pebble share a path that is parabolic rather than straightforward: this path is also shared by the single most frequently repeated memory fragment in Saer’s text, the vision of the young boy, Wencelaos’s son, running toward the river followed by the sound, a moment later, of his dive.

Like the explosion of Wenceslao’s own dive into the river that day (which gives rise to the most sustained and complex dislocation of the narrative from its present-tense discursive situation), this third image of time reflects the near impossibility of thinking the first two together, a problem that for Saer is both the source and the end of narration. In The Regal Lemon Tree, this problem is explored by means of a multiplicity of zones of flux or fluidity in the experience represented (or created) by the text, zones which mimic the encounter between a cultural experience of individuality and progression and the alien, superhuman surface of cyclical, natural time. The structural significance of these zones of flux to the text is paramount: they are the vehicle it uses to articulate its many changes of scene and narrative mode. It is as if, by working the encounter in narrative of the first two temporal modes, an approximation of the third is evoked. Almost as if the pebble, rather than dispersing concentric circles across the surface of a pond, were instead, as in a movie shown in reverse, the miraculous product of converging circles.

In his conversation with de Cortanze, Saer, while speaking about the influence of musical composition on his work, makes a revealing comment about the writing of El limonero real.

I listen to a lot of music, and its formal perfection often sparks in me the nostalgia for a narrative that would be pure form—which is where, without a doubt, at the end, El Limonero real is leading, trying bit by bit to detach itself from events in order to be resolved in pure form. (53)

In fact, the two final sections of the book—each only several pages long—both consist of a single sentence, by far the greatest part of which summarizes (in different manners) the activities of the day, and which ends in a brief notation of the present-tense state of affairs. In such moments (beautifully and rigorously rendered by Waisman, also in two single sentences), a “narrative of pure form” does indeed appear as a distinct possibility: the words on the page, through the force of repetition, begin to read rhythmically instead of semantically, as if they fell into place effortlessly, one after the other, like the oars which mark Wenceslao’s return across the river:

Wenceslao rowed calmly across the river, not thinking about anything, not hearing anything, not feeling anything, and, even more importantly, not remembering—as if he were floating, for a moment, impalpable, in a dimension above that of his other days, not so far above as to cause any kind of vertigo, but enough to float over death, the sun, memory . . . (TRLT 226)

This moment, in which Wenceslao loses himself, Zen-like, by means of meticulous attention to the formal requirements of the task at hand, is itself a continuation of an earlier, similar activity, one prompted by the music that had accompanied it. When the band for the evening’s festivities plays a famous waltz, “The Airplane,” Wenceslao stands up, crosses the dusty courtyard, and invites his young niece Teresita to dance. The most detailed evocation of this scene is given earlier in the text, towards the end of its first-person monologue:

The reddish cloud of dust was still there after the Chamamé was over and everyone had stopped dancing. Everyone standing there and the reddish cloud of dust floating under the light from the lanterns, neither drifting any farther up, nor falling back down. Barely a minute must have passed before they started playing again. Barely a minute passed, you know. All of a sudden, they broke right into “The Airplane.” You should have seen how pretty that child looked with the flower-patterned dress her sisters had brought her from the city. She danced like no one else, she never missed a step. I wasn’t thinking about anything anymore other than my spinning on the balls of my feet, and after a while not even that. I’m telling you, I don’t know how to say this. I don’t know to how to say this, I’m telling you. After the waltz ended I started saying goodbye to everyone. (TRLT 165-66)

Here the immersion of the protagonist in the dance (in a zone of flux, like the island’s fog, like the memory of his son or the river, a zone which serves to blur the boundaries between the protagonist and his environs), rather than entrapping, appears to liberate Wenceslao from his immediate surroundings, thus effecting a reversal of perspective which is the final motivation for the repeated and detailed evocation of his surroundings.

It is this sentiment, a feeling of lightness and abandon, that continues with the protagonist as he returns across the river:

You should have seen how I was making the oars drop into the water without making any sound whatsoever. Just barely if you heard anything at all. I was rowing, slow, and as I got further away, the music started to fade, slow, until I couldn’t hear it anymore. I heard it again when I reached the shore. As I was coming down the river you couldn’t hear it anymore, or any sound from the oars, you know. It was like they didn’t weigh a thing. As if the current itself were taking me. You could see the full moon hanging low on the horizon, the shoreline standing out clearly. It had been years, you know, since I’d rowed in the dark like that, so calm, not thinking about a thing. But just as soon as I reached the shore, I heard the last strand of music, which woke me up, and when I tied up the canoe and took out the basket and the chain to moor it properly, I was already thinking back on the day. (TRLT 166)

For me, too, it’s been years since I read a novel like that, “so calm, not thinking about a thing.”

Thanks to talent, dedication, and perservance of Sergio Waisman and Chad Post at Open Letter Books, I can still hear the music. Plus I can buy a copy for my friends.

As new years go, it doesn’t get any better than that.

Works Cited

Juan José Saer, El limonero real. Buenos Aires: Centro Editor de América Latina, 1981.

---. “Entretien avec G. de Cortanze.” Trans. P. de Place. Une littérature sans qualités. Cognac: Arcane 17, 1985. 47-57.

---. The Regal Lemon Tree. Trans. S. Waisman. Rochester: Open Letter, 2020.

Stern, Mirta E. “Juan José Saer: construcción y teoria de la ficción narrativa.” Hispanamérica 37 (1984): 15-30.

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