[Open Letter; 2011]

Imaginary picture of a stationary fear  – Edwin Muir

Scars is a varied and deeply internal novel, political through the amplification of the emotional. Its four parts are divided between distinct first-person narrators, each tangentially related to one another, each circling a central event, the murder of a wife by her husband in an unnamed Argentine city. Each narrator is a male, deeply frustrated with his existence, engaging in some act of self-destruction — young Ángel, the journalist, drinks; Sergio, the lapsed attorney, gambles; Ernesto, the judge, labors on a useless translation of The Picture of Dorian Gray; and Luis, the laborer, well, he kills his wife.

It is a testament to the strength of the writing and the complexity of the characters that, although the novel doesn’t explicitly deal with the omnipresent political turmoil and upheaval of Argentina in 1969, the year the book was originally published, this unrest still comes across through Saer’s deep involvement with questions about the individual and their place in society. Each character has a well-defined occupation, yet has become almost completely disengaged with their responsibilities. The men see no reason to continue this pantomime of a failing country. And so the novel follows these men as they isolate themselves amidst a worsening outlook. Put succinctly by the gambler Sergio:

They talk about vices that are solitary and vices that aren’t. All vices are solitary. All vices need solitude to be exercised. They attack in solitude. And, at the same time, they’re a pretext for solitude. I’m not saying that vices are bad. They could never be as bad as virtues, work, chastity, obedience, and so on. I’m simply saying how it is.

Saer is sympathetic to the heretics among us. The ones who won’t go along as if nothing is wrong, as if it isn’t too cold for summer, or that modern life isn’t horribly boring, or society as whole isn’t some big joke. The judge drives around through endless rain, staring out at the “apes” dressed in clothes (a judge, indeed). Of course, we’re all entitled to our alienation and vice, be it drinking, gambling or writing. The veteran journalist Tomatis remarks, “Regrettably, everyone in the world has feelings. Because of this, everyone makes literature.”

But what happens when this disengagement leads not to self-destruction or art (similar concepts), but to violence? Luis, who shoots his jealous wife with a shotgun, is the first to admit that, “Whoever finds me first should kill me.” It’s an unrelenting perspective, and one that offers little escape or redemptions for our characters. Their narratives remain mostly unresolved, and become even worse for the wear.

The young journalist, Ángel, writes the weather column for the newspaper, titled “No Change in Sight.” Each day he reports the exact same forecast.

When the idea of transforming society towards a more enlightened state seems completely hopeless, the intellectual will begin to disengage. They will move to Paris, like Saer. They will become concerned with the interior weather instead of the outer maelstrom. They will stand in awe when something happens, when some violent outburst brings all this crushing ennui to a halt.

What does the man say who has just shot someone? Perhaps there’s something valuable in the words of a man who has committed a crime with absolutely no meaning, no premeditation, just a reaction to an argument over nothing. Awaiting his statement, the judge, the lawyer, the journalist, listen closely. All of our narrators in one room. The killer says one sentence, “The pieces can’t be put back together.” Then he jumps out the window.

Saer’s imaginary picture is as grim as it gets. The stationary fear is that none of what we conceive as law or decency is concrete. A scar itself is a symbol of healing, but the prerequisite is a wound. And the emotions expressed, the characters disengagement with basic humanity, set the stage for what was, tragically, a lot of blood.

Become a Patron!

This post may contain affiliate links.