cover image The Witness

The Witness

Juan Jose Saer. Serpent's Tail, $20 (176pp) ISBN 978-1-85242-184-7

A 15-year-old cabin boy, en route from Spain to the New World in the 16th century, is the sole survivor of a raid in a remote part of the world. He lives with his Indian captors for a decade and witnesses their annual cannibalistic festivals. The Indians hunt their prey from surrounding tribes or explorers' expeditions, then roast and eat it with a combination of obsessive desire and apprehension. Then the tribe drinks to excess and falls into an uncharacteristic orgy from which it spends lethargic months recuperating. But perhaps most odd, the raiding parties always leave one survivor, def-ghi. The word means many things, including scout or a thing reflected in water. For the Indians, an existentially insecure lot whose word for ``to be'' is most nearly translated ``to seem,'' def-ghi affirms their existence--cannibalism roots the tribe in its history as the visitor bears witness. This is a lyric meditation on the reification of our shadowy world through ``assiduous memories that cannot always be grasped.'' Argentinian-born Saer's first book to appear here contains none of the usual heroes or conventions. It's a swashbuckling philosophical treatise that combines anthropology, semiotics and a dose of cannibal gore. (Sept.)