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The Horizon Artist (The New Republic/The Book)

NOW, SEVEN YEARS after his death, it is a commonplace to tout Juan José Saer as one of the twentieth century’s greatest Argentine writers; or, as Ricardo Piglia rightfully said while Saer was still alive, “one of the greatest living writers in any language.” But who, in English anyway, has taken the time to read him? Inevitably, we can gripe that more remains to be translated, since there is so much to his name: twelve novels, nine books of essays and stories, and a poetry collection. What exists in English, though, leaves little room for complaint. Some of his best novels are rendered by the likes of the dexterous Margaret Jull Costa, Helen Lane, and, most recently, Steve Dolph, who has done an excellent job with Saer’s slightly brisker, more angular novel Scars.

Saer is not a writer with an instantly eye-catching signature like Cortazar with his brasher, vanguard luster, or Borges in his wry erudition. But he was a virtuoso who went against the grain, and seemed all the more conventional for it. He dismissed the more fashionable trends of his time—the gaudier experiments of magical realism as well as the heady dictates of postmodernism. He once debated publicly with the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu about the responsibility of the social novel. Bourdieu argued that it should adapt itself to the landscape of new media, while Saer maintained that the literary realm was better off as a hazy faraway locale forged in naturalistic hues and layered Proustian sentences.

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