Review: The One Before

The One Before

By Juan José Saer

Open Letter, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-934824788

$12.95 (paperback)


Reviewed by Ryan C. Corder

The One BeforeJuan José Saer has been regarded as the “most important Argentinian writer since Borges” by The Independent. Considering Borges’s legacy, including many works across a number of genres, this is no passing compliment. Saer, too, has a bibliography that spans various literary forms and demonstrates his unique, complex writing style. Translating any work by a writer directly compared to Borges is a daunting task, to say the least, but Roanne L. Kantor, translator of Saer’s La mayor (The One Before), has risen to the challenge.

Saer was born in 1937. He spent much of his time self-exiled in Paris to escape a dictatorial regime, and died there in 2005. The One Before was published in Spanish as La mayor in 1976, and came at a time in which Saer had already garnered widespread readership following the release of novels such as Cicatrices (Scars) in 1969 and El limonero real (The Royal Lemon Tree) in 1974.

The One Before is divided into two sections. The first half consists of short, one- to three-page pieces called “Arguments,” which deal with various topics evincing central themes of existence, memory, and exile. The second half contains two longer pieces, which read more like short stories. The Arguments are captivating and each of them unique, joined only by their inclusion of common characters and themes, such as memory, existentialism, insomnia, and exile. In fact, characters recur throughout Saer’s books, creating continuity and blurring the lines of time and existence in the creation of Saer’s own literary world.

In The One Before, the prose is reminiscent of a mind filled with nervous, racing thoughts. Many themes are repetitive, at times even obsessive. Kantor provides a similar, methodical narration, as evidenced by the repetition of certain elements that receive particular emphasis and often serve as a point of reference for each story’s events. One such theme is existence. Throughout the book, the narrator questions what it means to exist and in which space and time existence occurs, has occurred, and will occur. For example, in the titular story:

“Now I am existing at the edge of the staircase, in the cold, dark air of eight: and now I am existing on the last stair, I am existing on the second to last stair, I am existing on the third to last stair now. On the fourth to last stair now. And now I am existing on the first stair.”

In the second half of the book, especially, many of the common elements seen up to that point can be summed up in one key quote from “Half Erased”: “Of all of the things in this world, I am the least real. Moving an inch, I am erased.” Embedded in this quote is the confusion and feelings of unimportance experienced by the narrator as he attempts to reconcile his past and previous existences, which helps to set the framework for the racing, nervous, back-and-forth style of writing.

Furthermore, there are repetitive mentions of everyday objects, suggesting that the narrator clings to particular items in the immediate environment that remain constant amid the existential chaos of the world. Perhaps one of the most glaring examples is the “green folder where it says, in red ink, in large, printed letters, PARANATELLON,” which creates continuity in the text, since the same folder is found in the Argument entitled “Friends.” Sometimes the phrase remains unaltered, while other times a detail will change slightly. We see this repetitive style in such lines as:

“Now I am sitting before the table, the empty cup beside my hands resting on top of the green folder where it says, in red ink, in large, printed letters, PARANATELLON. I am immobile: one hand resting on the other on top of the closed green folder, where it says, in red ink, in irregular, hurried, large printed letters, PARANATELLON.”

The sentences are often laden with descriptive prose. While readers can clearly envision the narrator’s surroundings, the intricate, obsessive nature of his description can be a lot to manage. The overburdening sensation of the prose may be due to the limitations of the English language, which is typically written in shorter sentences and with fewer clauses than Spanish. The long, drawn-out phrasing becomes the norm in the second half of the book. Saer’s baroque prose is present in the Arguments as well, but goes mostly unnoticed because each story is so short.

The perceived problem of the long, sometimes awkward phrasing is a complex one in this book. Kantor does mirror Saer’s style of writing through the use of long, clause-filled sentences fragmented by an incredible number of commas. The grammatical limits are seemingly pushed as far as they can go. As a taste of the complex structure, consider the following excerpt from “The One Before”: “It was, it was in the midst of being and it was being, it is, it is in the midst of being, it is still, it is still being.”

This fragment is complex, but may certainly be understood with a small amount of effort. The issue arises with the longer sentences, which frequently take up half of a page or more, and are spliced by so many commas that it is hard to keep track of the details buried within each clause. A further example may be found in “The One Before”:

“They would wet, slowly, in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter, the cookie, soaking it, and raise, afterward, their hands, in a single movement, to their mouths, they would bite it and leave, for a moment, the sugared dough on the tip of their tongues, so that from it, from its dissolution, like dew, memory would rise, they would chew it slowly, and now suddenly they would be outside themselves, in another place, clinging to, for as long as there remained, in the first place, the tongue, the cookie, the steaming tea…”

This excerpt is just half of the sentence. The constant pausing often requires rereading, and makes reading more of an arduous task. That being said, a look into Saer’s original work in Spanish, and this excerpt in particular, will show the same sort of structure—long sentences laden with commas in a rhythmic fashion, meaning that Kantor has reproduced the style. The age-old question is, then, is it best to maintain extreme fidelity to the original at the cost of readability, or is it best to create a more readable translation that retains some, but less, of the same artistic or poetic style?

Overall, Kantor has demonstrated an ability to provide a highly descriptive and nearly poetic performance that closely matches the structure of Saer’s writing. The first half of the book brilliantly keeps the reader interested, and the ability to capture the thought-provoking narrative in such few pages is skillfully done. That wonderment does wear off some as one progresses into the second half of the book, however, when it becomes more difficult to follow the plot in the midst of a number of cumbersome sentences. Nevertheless, Kantor has shown her ability to portray Saer’s descriptive sentence structure. It is up to the reader to determine if this aspect of the translation is a slight limitation or a positive quality.

(Read K.E. Semmel’s “Translator’s Cut” interview with Roanne L. Kantor in this issue of the SFWP Quarterly.)


Ryan C. Corder is a high school Spanish teacher in the Greater Milwaukee Area. He is also pursuing a Master of Arts in Language, Literature, and Translation at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, focusing on Spanish>English translation.