The Witness by Juan Jose Saer

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The Witness by Juan Jose Saer

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A young cabin boy is nabbed by an Amazonian tribe of cannibals in this first-person narrative, which looks like a stuffy modernist text but reads like a breeze before collapsing into tedium. The majority is still recommended.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 168 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Serpent's Tail
ISBN: 978-1846686917

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Somewhen, a long time ago, and somewhere, a long way away, our nameless narrator serves as a cabin boy on one of three sailing ships gone exploring. He doesn't have a lot of shipboard life to tell us about, but leaves us in no impression as to exactly what all of that service entails in such a masculine environment. As one of a dozen people on a landing party, however, he suddenly finds himself the only survivor of an attack by the natives, who pack him off to their home, and despite their usual stoicism, use the whole instance as inspiration for a most singular celebratory feast.

The Witness is an ideal title for this book, when you consider the very conversational style of the reportage. The book will look as one whole chunky text to the browser, as it breaks down into larger than average paragraphs, and has a full six words of reported dialogue, but we have something that reads exceedingly briskly and pleasantly.

We also have a book that might look a little fusty with the press quote on the back, talking of the author's preoccupations, Borges and Cortazar (who he?), but this book can be read in perfect ignorant isolation. It doesn't strike one as being about any underlying themes from a South American magic realist, metaphysical writer, or indeed anybody, instead it concerns itself purely with its narrative.

The writing of said plot is done in a very tidy, clean fashion, with surprises, a range spreading from years passing in a sentence to great amounts of detail, and is ever engaging. We don't have a book that appears to be interested in recreating the writing style of a conquistador (at least not in this translation), as the author's swallowed-a-dictionary style is too modern.

What we have remains an interesting and entertaining modernist book. Too often I enjoy such texts initially, only for the eyes to glaze over too regularly during the long, over-structured sentences. Not so here. This is a relatively easy read, and I nearly didn't flag it down as literary fiction - I don't want to provide other handicaps for this book's being appreciated by all beyond those from elsewhere I have mentioned.

But we also, unfortunately, have forty pages to go. And those last forty pages really scuppered the book for me, as the final quarter reverts to life among the Amazonians, and we get exposition galore about how they lived - and possibly hints at the author writing about how we ourselves may be living. This quarter of the book was where all the plodding, eye-glazing and yawning was saved for.

I don't care, nor do I care to know, if this section is what the whole gist of the book boils down to in the author's mind, all I care about is that a book I was going to give a hearty rating to got wrecked. I was all ready to declare my enjoyment, surprise that the last edition came out in 1990 and the not small pleasure I got on this 2009 re-release. I wanted to recommend this book very much - and I still can do - but only for the first 120-odd pages. The last chunk you can bin, if you ask me, which was a great shame.

We at the Bookbag must still thank Serpent's Tail for our review copy.

For better-sustained modernism in small, handily approachable form, we strongly recommend Novel 11, Book 18 by Dag Solstad.

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