Exciting! I didn’t know that Juan José Saer‘s El entenado had been translated into English! Apparently I was living under a rock, because Margaret Jull Costa translated it for Serpent’s Tail back in 1991 under the title The Witness.
The novel’s narrator is a young man – an orphan – who hangs around the shipyards of his native Spain, consorting with sailors and prostitutes, and consequently developing a severe case of… wanderlust. He ships out on a vessel bound for the New World (did I mention this is the 16th century?) but his dreams of adventure in faraway lands become a terrifying reality when the entire crew, save himself, are slaughtered during a tribal raid when they finally reach land.
Instead of killing the boy, the tribe brings him back to live among them. Over the course of his ten-year stay, the narrator becomes more and more integrated with the community and witnesses – with a distinctly anthropological eye – the ceremonies and social interactions of the group. Disclaimer/promise: some of these scenes are rather saucy (read: gory and/or sexually explicit), and not for the faint of heart.
After about a decade of this, another ship arrives from the Old World and it is decided that the narrator will be sent back to his ‘own’ kind. The second part of the book, then, is about the his re-integration into Western society. A kindly priest, the only father the narrator says he has ever known, teaches him to speak Spanish again so that he can recount his experience with the tribe. His account becomes such a tremendous hit, in fact, that he ends up traveling through Europe as part of an ambulatory theater troupe that performs the story as he penned it.
The narrator, however, is by now an old man haunted by his memories, into which retreats further and further:
The present moment is only of interest insofar as it bears some relation to the past. The Indians were quite right about me; the confused glitter of the past is the only story I have to tell. Morevoer, since I owe them my life, it is only fair that I should repay them by each day reliving their lives.
It is easy to see why Costa decided to go with the title she did: the narrator goes from witnessing practices he initially views as depraved, to bearing witness to the lives of a community being put in increasing peril by the Westward expansion of the European powers.
This choice, though, does affect the reading of the work. The title of the novel in Spanish, as mentioned above, is El entenado, which translates literally as “the stepson” – a nod toward the narrator’s ability to assume different personae in different contexts, to be at once a son to all and of no one. While the English title suggests the creation and transmission of memories – with decidedly legalistic undertones – the Spanish one brings to mind another of the novel’s central themes: that of personal and cultural genealogies and the place of Latin America in world history (both politically and artistically). Saer’s novel, then, is just as much a portrait of the New World through the looking glass of Old World exoticism, voiced by a narrator at home in neither realm, as it is a personal testimony.
Juan José Saer (1937-2005) was one of the most important Argentinian writers of the past century, and El entenado/The Witness is an exceptional book that may make readers uncomfortable at times and will, without a doubt, leave them speechless. Not to put too fine a point on it, or anything, Publisher’s Weekly calls the novel
a swashbuckling philosophical treatise that combines anthropology, semiotics and a dose of cannibal gore,
which I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, only add that – in its quieter moments – it is also a beautiful rumination on history (both cultural and personal), language, and the strangeness these conceal beneath the veil of the mundane. A gold star to the first reader who writes in with the correct definition of the “two shrill, rapid sounds” transcribed as def-ghi.