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Juan José Saer: El limonero real (The Regal Lemon Tree)

This novel is set on an island community, presumably in Argentina – no places are named. The story takes place on New Year’s Eve, day and night, but with episodes from the past interjected.

We start with one island where Wenceslao (Layo) and his unnamed wife live on their own. Six years ago their son died. We do not know how or why though he had by then moved away from them. We do know that both of them were devastated and unable to function. Wenceslao has more or less recovered to the extent that he can now function. His wife, however, has not. She remains in perpetual mourning and communication is minimal.

Death has served to show, first, that despite their occasional knowledge of each other and the occasional affection between them and the occasional copulations by which they procreated, the two of them have never really stopped being strangers.

As it is New Year’s Eve, it is the tradition that family meet and celebrate together. This involves going (by canoe) to the the wife’s parents house. Also participating are the wife’s sisters, Rosa and Teresa, their respective husbands, Rogelio and Agustín, and their respective children. To make it slightly complicated Rogelio and Rosa have a son called Rogelio and Teresa and Agustín have a son called Agustín.

It is young Agustín (nearly eleven) who comes to pick up his uncle and aunt. As with every year since the death of her son, the wife refuses to come. Young Agustín is nicknamed El Ladeado, The Crooked One, as he is handicapped. His father despises him, blaming his son for bringing him bad luck (Agustín Senior lost his job soon after he was born) and despising him ever since. One of the running themes is that young Agustín wants his father to send him. Where and why are not clear, though it is probably school as we learn that Agustín Senior could be in trouble if he does not send him. Both Wenceslao and Rogelio try to persuade Agustín to send him.

Agustín Senior is a drunk and clearly disreputable. It’s an ugly life without a glass of wine, he says. He gets thrown out of the local tavern more than once in the short span of this book. His house and property are run down. Teresa, his wife, is scraggy and looks very care-worn. His two daughters, Honey la Negra and Josefa, have left and gone to the city. They come back for this event, with their friend Amelia.

As well as the events of the two days, we delve back into the past. For example, we see Wenceslao as a child with his father. They are out hunting in their canoe but there is a dense fog and Wenceslao is very frightened. He is even more frightened when his father tells him to wait while he pushes on further. Wenceslao becomes petrified when he sees an alligator and screams. We will later see him almost drowned as a child and rescued by his mother.

One episode shows the difficult life they have. Wenceslao and Rogelio head to the city to sell watermelons. It does not go well and Saer describes the problems they face, partially brought on by their own incompetence. There are other episodes which highlight the difficult life they face. Indeed, in the local bar, the locals talk about the major flooding and the major droughts they have experienced.

At the celebration, Wenceslao is not a full participant. They seem to constitute a single body, in which the individual bodies and the motions they undertake are merely partial, fleeting manifestations. The women suggest they are going back to his island to fetch his wife. He tells them that they are wasting their time. He disappears for a while. Part of the time he is sleeping but he is also spying on Amelia and el Chacho, Agustín’s oldest son, who are having sex, for which he is paying her. It is, perhaps not surprisingly, a messy business.

The New Year’s Eve celebration is a custom but it also has ritual elements to it. One of the key ones is the slaughter, cooking and eating of the lamb. Saer describes the slaughter in great detail. Most of the work is done by Wenceslao, both the slaughtering and cooking and he makes a big thing about it.

While we are following the events of News Year’s Eve – the lamb, the women trying to persuade Wenceslao’s wife to come, the men, Agustín Senior in particular, going off drinking, the relationships between the various participants – we are also following Wenceslao, both in the present and past. He is clearly detached not only from his wife but from his in-laws. Indeed, he seems to live in a sort of dream world.

Sometimes I think I’ve dreamt something, like I’m about to remember something I’ve dreamt, but then I can’t remember anything, because I didn’t dream anything, and I only thought I dreamt something, because it’s as if something like a memory starts coming to me.

When he disappears from the celebration and sees the messy fumbling of Amelia and el Chacho, he has more of his dreams but also dream-like thoughts. More particularly, he delves back into memories and it is not always clear – deliberately – where we are in his life. These are not always a factual account of what happened but sometimes oneiric and sometimes even fantasy, when he reminisces about the Nymph who predicted the birth of his son and, after the death of the son, the Angel Gabriel steps in.

Of course the key symbol is the Regal Lemon Tree. This tree, planted by his father, is always in blossom and/or fruiting. It is clearly a symbol of both the continuity of life, one of the themes of this book, but also a symbol of something permanent in his life, where not much else is. One other permanence is the phrase dawn breaks and his eyes are already open, which occurs nine times in the book, including both at the beginning and end. He is alive. There is, perhaps, some hope.

This is one of those books which is seemingly straightforward – a New Year’s Eve celebration with a family with its various issues and traditions – but where the main character, Wenceslao, adds a whole different dimension, living in a world of mourning and pain, but also of dreams and memories, of detachment from his not always easy life, of trying but not generally succeeding in getting a grip on his life.

Publishing history

First published by Editorial Planeta in 1974
First English translation by Open Letter in 2020
Translated by Sergio Waisman