The Clouds

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Argentinian writer Juan Jose Saer tells an original and unsettling tale in THE CLOUDS, his latest novel (Open Letters; translated by Hilary Vaughan Dobel). It is narrated by Dr Real, who while in Madrid discovers a manuscript written back in 1801 by a Dutch doctor named Weiss, whose revolutionary ideas about the treatment of mental illness won him a measure of fame. Weiss, a learned and humane man (who frequented brothels) was based in a suburb of Buenos Aires, where his Casa de Salud catered to both rich and poor patients alike. All of them were treated with respect and affection, allowed to move about freely, work at different jobs. Dr Weiss’ golden rule was: “All of a madman’s actions, as trivial or absurd as they may seem, are significant.”

When the Casa is forced to relocate to a town in the pampas called Las Tres Acacias, THE CLOUDS shifts into a different, more hard-driving narrative gear. The challenge of transporting half a dozen deranged men and women through the barren, rugged plains was formidable. At the time, Argentina was a Spanish colony: the occupying army was a minor presence in the wilderness, which was home to hostile Indian tribes, slaves and slave traders, pumas and snakes. The weather was equally menacing: savage wind, rain and fire storms.

Protected by a handful of thuggish mercenaries, Dr Weiss’ wagon train slogged its way through the plains, fighting off predators, pummeled by the elements. The struggle for survival calls to mind Moses leading his tribe through the desert or Virgil’s Aeneas crossing the Mediterranean.

THE CLOUDS can be read in a number of ways: a metaphor for exile, an expose of the brutality of colonial rule, a rumination on the faint line between sanity and insanity. Or it can be read, simply, as a blackly comic adventure tale. One thing is for certain, though: you won’t easily put this book down once you pick it up.