02 June 2012


The year is, say, 1520.  The New World is known to exist; nevertheless, a small flotilla of three ships sets out westward from Europe aiming for the Moluccas.  When they reach land, the captain and crew do not know where they are: 

"Of people we saw not a sign.  No one.  If these were the Indies as was claimed, there was no evidence of any Indian inhabitants, no self-aware beings like ourselves within whom might burn the small flame that gives shape, colour and volume to the space around and lends it its externality.

...We saw nothing but blue sky, smooth golden-brown waters and empty shores as we entered the 'sweet' sea: this was what the captain named it when we landed, invoking the King with his customary mechanical gestures.  From the shore we watched him plunge almost waist-deep into the water, scything the air and skimming the waves with his sword in ceremonial gestures.  My inexperienced eyes followed the captain's precise, complicated gestures with interest but failed to perceive the change my imagination anticipated.  After its baptism and appropriation the dumb earth stubbornly withheld any sign or signal.  From the boat... I remained staring at the spot where we had disembarked; although only a few minutes had passed since we left, I could find no trace of our presence there... We nursed the illusion that by discovering this unknown land we were laying claim to it, as if before us there had been nothing but an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape.  But when we left it... we saw all too clearly that the space we considered ourselves the founders of had always in fact been there and had allowed our passage through it with indifference... Each time we disembarked we were like a fleeting irritation come from nowhere, an ephemeral fever that glimmered for a moment at the edge of the water and then was gone."

Acute and well-rendered as this is, the trope is familiar enough: Europeans encounter the unknown wilderness, whose brute and stubborn indifference to them eventually transforms it into mother and mirror to the Lord of flies.  We might remember Marlowe's steamer randomly shelling the West African bush from offshore, en route to the heart of darkness, or Aguirre's hallucinatory violence, or Cotton Mather's Puritan brethren vexed to nightmare and witch-burning by their "squallid, horrid American Desart" (as recorded by William Carlos Williams).

But this is not one of those books.  This is Juan José Saer's extraordinary novel The Witness, a short work of grave and fearsome irony.  It offers quite the opposite nightmare--or is it the same?--with different actors and a different Devil--or is He the same?  Three pages later, the captain and his entire landing party are abruptly annihilated by a "rain of darts," leaving alive only the unnamed narrator, the ship's cabin-boy.  A group of Indians appears out of the jungle and transports him and his dead shipmates to their village in the interior, where a nightmarish ritual takes place--which I shall leave you to discover.  He lives with the tribe for a long time, as a mysteriously cosseted "def-ghi."  Late every summer another such def-ghi is acquired from the neighboring peoples under similar ritual circumstances, is fêted for some months, and then is sent back home in a canoe full of presents.  When his hosts finally detect some Europeans downriver, ten years later, they send the narrator off to rejoin his own tribe.  What the Europeans learn from him about the ways of the Indians and the fate of the original landing party, in what little he can immediately muster of his mother-tongue, impels them inland to 'exterminate all the brutes' (a return to that familiar trope, on the only basis that might make sense of it--and yes, I'm being mysterious on purpose).  He spends the rest of his years trying to recover himself, and to understand those ten years in the wild.  As an old man, he begins to write down the story--in the form of the novel we are reading--and eventually comes to understand that by writing he is at last fulfilling a function which that now-extinct tribe had initiated him into all those years ago.

This is what he tells us about them: "[Their village was] the centre of the world which they carried within them; the visible horizon around it was made up of concentric rings of problematic reality whose existence became less and less likely the further away one went from that central observation point... [On their expeditions] it was they who gave reality to the other places they visited: by their mere presence they gave physical reality to the uncertain, formless horizon."  The echo of the 'social constructionist' European fantasy--"an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape"--is plain: but this is solipsism, the real thing.  Unlike that world of impervious and mindless solidity which refuses to submit to the Europeans' imagination, their world--the very same--is made solid only by their mindfulness.  And yet, their solipsism is of a peculiarly wavering, diaphanous kind.  The Ancestors of the aboriginal peoples of Australia sang their world into being as they walked along its dream-meridians; these Indians, unlike them, have to go on singing up a world always on the verge of melting away:  "They were the resistant nucleus of the world, whose soft outer covering, thanks to their excursions, acquired every now and then transient islands of solid life.  When they left that provisional solidity would vanish."

Indeed, in their world-view, the situation is even less reliable than that.  "The world of the Indians was the most real there was, but... their own existence was in no way irrefutable... It is true that they and the world were one and the same thing, but the single being they constituted was debilitated by a common uncertainty rather than affirmed by their mutual presence."  For example, "A tree... was always somewhat lacking in reality.  It was present as if by some miracle, which the Indians scornfully allowed.  They did so in exchange for some useful advantage: fruit, wood, shade...  [However, they] could not trust in the existence of the tree because they knew that the tree depended on their existence... At the same time, since the tree contributed by its presence to guaranteeing the existence of the Indians, the latter could not feel entirely sure of their own existence.A vicious circle, this--without any hope of external proof or disproof--which the ritual they were driven to enact every year failed to interrupt in any lasting way.  Even worse, their dilemma is unconscious.  They don't live it, it lives them, leaving in their awareness only a pervasive, sourceless dread. "All these lucubrations were much more painful than they seem written down because they knew nothing of them, despite living them out every day.  They lived them in every action they performed, with each word they uttered, in everything they built and in their dreams... Even when it was unrewarding, they constantly worked at making that one known world real.  They had no choice: it was, after all, that or nothing."

In his first days in the Indians' village, the narrator is inclined to see them as "immune from doubt... they gave me the sense of being the measure which defined the place of everything between earth and sky... they gave the enviable impression of being more present in this world than any other thing."  This is truer than he yet knows, but his envy is as absurdly misplaced as Gulliver's envy of the immortal Struldbrugs.  He attributes "their lack of joy and their moroseness" to being so much at one with the world that pleasure was superfluous.  "Slowly, however, I began to see that the opposite was true, that they felt they had constantly to make real the apparently solid world so that it did not vanish like a thread of smoke into the evening air."  Their moroseness manifests the strain of having to ensure the continuation of the world through constant vigilance and work, in the shadow of an implacable doubt about their own reality.  So much are they constituted by doubt that they lack the verb 'to be:' they can only indicate a tree by 'It seems tree.'  Samuel Johnson's famous refutation of Berkeley--kicking a tree, say--would mean nothing to them.

At the end of his life, the narrator comes to recognize why the Indians spared him when they slaughtered his shipmates.  They addressed him as def-ghi, which can mean many things: 'people absent or asleep, or people who were tactless, or visitors who outstayed their welcome;' a mynah-like bird which could be taught to repeat words; 'things reflected in water; something which lasted a long time;' 'certain objects... put in the place of someone absent;' a spy or scout; and ultimately, 'a witness to and a survivor of [the Indians'] passage through this material mirage.'  Since this novel is written in the Latin alphabet, it may not be coincidental that 'defghi' are the letters following 'abc,' the letters which, so to speak, introduce the idea of writing, beyond the simple naming of the alphabet.  The narrator comes to understand that as def-ghi, along with all the other def-ghi who were sent home laden with gifts, he was meant to stand witness on the tribe's behalf "to the vast formless world that, because they had learned to distinguish between the internal and the external worlds, between what now stood in the luminous air and what was still floundering in the dark, they had become the sole support of that harsh reality, the one true people."  A different light is shed even on the killing of his companions: for the Indians it initiated a desperate maneuver in their ceaseless effort to hold back the dark.  He understands finally that what to him was unprovoked murder was also a version of tragedy.

The richness of this brief text is incomparable, and becomes even richer in contemplation; I could go on quoting until none of it was left unquoted.  Abstract as it may sound, the narrative is carried through with such grace and lightness, and such sinew, that it imparts a Johnsonian reality to this extinct tribe of despairing and unconscious solipsists from the tristes tropiques, as well as to the universe they are no longer alive to maintain--or were they ever?  And that is only one of the many rewards of this grimly beautiful and moving novel.

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