28 January 1999
by Juan José Saer
The metaphysical detective story, in which the business of solving a crime is inextricable from philosophical concerns, seems a peculiarly modern literary game, exemplified by Paul Auster’s scintillatingly refractive New York Trilogy. But the first writer of detective stories was one of the genre’s most metaphysical-minded practitioners, Edgar Allan Poe. In fact, the very idea of a detective story hugs to itself questions about the nature of truth and how the world is to be read, so that the modern “straight” detective novel is a debasement of a richly suggestive form. The true heirs of detective fiction are the most ludic and literary of modern fabulists rather than the lurid genre hacks filed under “crime”. One of the greatest writers in this tradition is Jose Luis Borges, whose story “Death and the Compass” sees a murderer and detective arguing over cabbalism and Greek geometry. The detective, Lönnrot, likes to think of himself as “an Auguste Dupin” — and Auguste Dupin, by the way, is the name of Poe’s original detective hero. Elementary.
With a title that is on the one hand as forbiddingly hermetic and on the other as provocatively Platonic as The Investigation, it is no surprise that Argentinian novelist Juan Jose Saer’s latest book (written in 1994, but only now translated from the Spanish) owes far more to Borges than to Colin Dexter. It tells two stories. In one, a Parisian police inspector, Morvan, hunts a serial killer who butchers old women of the 11ème in their homes. In an amusingly Borgesian triangulation, the perimeter of the murder locations is closing in around Morvan’s own police headquarters, while Morvan himself is troubled by dreams of a ghostly city. The other story takes place in Buenos Aires, where three friends examine an anonymous 800-page prose manuscript that has been found among the papers of a dead Argentine poet who hated novelists.
In fact, Soldi, the youngest among the three friends, christens the book not a manuscript but a “dactylogram”, a coinage for which Saer gives no explanation. It is almost a straight Graecified transliteration of “manuscript”, but it also carries the sense of sign-language, constructing meaning with the fingers. This is pertinent because the other two men, Pigeon and Tomatis, the latter of whom has just returned to Argentina after 20 years in Paris, are old friends whose affections are redrawn, over the course of one hot summer day and evening, on meanings that are never spoken, but constructed by sleight of hand, through pregnant trades of stories and beers.
It would be invidious to reveal the connection between these two fictions: one of the great pleasures afforded by The Investigation is its dazzling loops and conjurings, so that no voice is what it first appears. The novel’s very first line contains a “however”, as if continuing an argument that was previously an inaudible murmur between the closed pages on the shelf; the first six pages consitute an epic period, a virtuoso via negativa of enumeration, classification and reclarification that only reveals its rationale later on; and the narrator, most surprisingly, suddenly claims to know the reader well, and bases his rhetorical scheme on our imagined questions.
Literary detection has an essentially hermeneutical aspect. Just as Morvan tries to make sense of the killer, so Saer’s other characters try to make sense of the world. None of them gets very far. Indeed, to Morvan, the gorily Dionysian chaos of a murder scene makes “almost too much sense, infinitely more than the derisory amount of it that an ordinary mind resigns itself to making of the opaque and nearly mute world”. The world itself is precisely a dactylogram, communicating in a sign-language the visual glossary to which has been stupidly mislaid or never existed. We have only the surface, which unfortunately is unreal: the shade of a tree is “illusory”, the drone of a motor is “an illusion”; Pigeon and Tomatis, phlegmatically, “have resolved, almost by instinct, to take things as they come, one by one, in the perhaps illusory order in which they present themselves”.
The Investigation is also, again in the true detective tradition, a story about truth and fiction, and how they are not opposites. The dactylogram is called In The Greek Tents, and set over one night in the Greek camp outside Troy, the evening before the wooden horse is accepted by the unwitting enemy. Two soldiers converse: the Old Soldier, who has been with the army for nearly 10 years, knows very little about the campaign except its sheer mind-numbing length. The Young Soldier, meanwhile, has just arrived, but knows everything about the war thanks to the heroic stories and songs back home. Empiricism doesn’t get you everywhere.
Saer’s writing mixes fabulously sensuous descriptions (on a riverboat journey, the reader moves among acres of lovingly individuated plants that bleach under “the arid, gleaming sun, surrounded by fusing splinters and spots, as though incandescent matter has been raining down all through their passage”), with abstract asides of an almost Conradian opacity (the mind is “the internal transparency that wavers and grows thinner”). Saer does not avoid portentousness; rather, he confronts it and amplifies it into an ironically apocalyptic nihilism. When Pigeon buys a box of cigars and imagines Tomatis’s pleasure on receiving them, it is described as “a sort of pleasant anticipated memory, an experience lived intensely before the deadly talons of what is actually occurring seize it, trivialize it and then dump it, without rage or remorse, into the dustbin of oblivion.”
This comic crescendo is essentially humane: Saer is sympathising with his character’s frustrations, and recommending derision, and perhaps another cigar. The emotional core of the book is in this story of friendship, and this provisional warmth, alternating with the icy brilliance of Morvan’s murder mystery, invokes delightful climatic shivers. In this superbly playful novel, the cosmos might be elaborately futile, but for all true detectives, beer and conversation are defence enough for now against the absurd.