The Clouds

Deep Vellum Publishing of Dallas, TX (book featured in August 2016) and Two Lines Press of San Francisco, CA (book featured in December 2016) are both reputed non-profits committed to bringing the best in world literature to an English-speaking audience. Their translation efforts, it turns out, were preceded in America by Open Letter Books – this one an outfit based at the University of Rochester, NY (@open_letter).Since 2007, Open Letter has run a literary website called Three Percent – referring to the statistic of translated works that are published each year in America when seen against the total number of books released.

The Clouds (1997) by Juan José Saer translated by Hilary Vaughn Dobel (2016, Open Letter Books)

I learnt about Open Letter when one of their titles The Clouds (2016) was recommended to me on Amazon as I was browsing foreign works. First published in Spanish in 1997, this is a slim novel by acclaimed Argentine writer and lecturer Juan José Saer (1937– 2005). Saer, who was born to Syrian immigrants in the small town of Serodino in centre-east Argentina, studied law and philosophy at the National University of the Littoral in the city of Sante Fe and, in 1968, moved to Paris on a scholarship. He later taught at the University of Rennes in Brittany in north-west France.

Juan José Saer, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
The Clouds – smoothly rendered into English by Boston-based Hilary Vaughn Dobel (@hvdobes; MFA from Columbia in poetry and translation) is a story within a story. It begins in modern-day Paris when an academic called Pichón Garay receives a computer disk containing a manuscript – of a narrative called The Clouds – memoir? fiction? – we don’t know.

It is a tale largely set in 1804 in South America and narrated by a certain Dr. Real – pupil of an enterprising (and philandering) Dutchman Dr. Weiss – who must lead a cluster of five mental patients across the desert to a newly constructed asylum. The group includes a nymphomaniac nun who has devised a new theology of physical love on the basis of a mystical experience and must sleep with everyone around and a narcissistic man who has conceived a grand political programme to change the foundations not only of society but of the entire universe. The vagaries of weather and the various insanities of the convoy ultimately clash to give way to a funny and exhausting end.

There were two big things that I did not like about the book: the lack of conversations (which made it a tedious read for me) and the abrupt conclusion (I was left wanting to know more). Nonetheless, as the tragicomedy enquired into the nature of madness and articulated the state of exile, it yielded a number of interesting reflections. I would share some of them.

On the strange relationship between madness and reason – played out at the personal and public levels:

That inability to recognize madness is in no way unusual, and I would even dare assert that he [“the gardener”, a character who has had carnal relations with the nun] is nothing out of the ordinary, that such inability was no phenomenon of isolated individuals, but rather of entire nations which, as history has already repeatedly shown, may be under an influence like the gardener, and driven into the abyss by the seemingly flawless logic of delusion, when in fact all logic has been abandoned.


Dr. Real writes: “For the general populace, the madman’s outlandish behavior is stubbornness, pure and simple, or even a fabrication. Impervious to common sense and reason, those who insist too much on trying to redeem the mad are the very persons who find their own minds disturbed.” [Painting is The Madhouse by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), Wikimedia Commons]

On the non-discriminatory impact of nature on human beings:

With the heat, the silence of the empty countryside seemed to grow, as if all the species that populated it, unable to move, lay spent and lethargic. We too, who claimed to reign over them all, went about as if in sleep, men and women, civilians and soldiers, believers and agnostics, erudite and unlettered, mad and sane, made equal by that crushing light and the burning, brutal air that rubbed out our differences, reducing us to our equally feeble sensations.


Dr Real writes: “I had the impression, more sad than terrifying, that we had arrived at the very heart of isolation…For leagues and leagues, in every one of its parts, the desert remains identical.” (Argentinian desert by User “Eassi”, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)


As members of Dr. Real’s party pass the wilderness in wagons in a journey that carries echoes of the Biblical book of Exodus and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1834), they look up at the clouds in hope of rain and relief. Large and white, the formations parade across the sky, then they turn yellow, orange, red, lilac, violet, green, gold, blue. Before and below the colourful and frightening and corrosive and seemingly boundless elements – every individual is small and vulnerable.

I take this book as a parable of humility.


This blog post originally began with the sentence – “Operating in the tradition of Deep Vellum Publishing of Dallas, TX (book featured in August 2016) and Two Lines Press of San Francisco, CA (book featured in December 2016), Open Letter Books is an outfit based at the University of Rochester, NY (@open_letter) that hopes to cultivate an audience for world literature among English-speaking readers.” This was corrected when Twitter user  pointed out that “Open Letter was publishing long before DV and TL got into the game.”



5 thoughts on “The Clouds

  1. I have never heard of this writer, but will try to hunt his works out. The plot seems an interesting one and I like how it can be interpreted to modern society. Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I have a passion for history, and the lesser known characters who plated a part in it or observed and wrote about it.
        The past is what brought us to where we are now, so it is always important and relevant.

        Liked by 1 person

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