Juan José Saer, The Witness


Literary Architecture

Matteo Pericoli is the founder of the Laboratory of Literary Architecture, an interdisciplinary project that looks at fiction through the lens of architecture, designing and building stories as architectural projects. In this series, he shares some of his designs and what they reveal about the stories they’re modeled on.


The unnamed narrator in Juan José Saer’s novel The Witness is an old man who, in the second half of the sixteenth century, decides to write the story of his life. His voice—intense, measured, meticulous in its details, analytical and strongly contemporary—takes the reader back some sixty years earlier, when, as a thirteen-year-old orphan, the narrator set sail as a cabin boy on one of the first-ever expeditions in search of a passage to India through the New World.

Upon its arrival in the Americas and caressing its coastline, the expedition insinuates itself inland by slowly sailing up one of its muddy rivers. During a survey on the seemingly uninhabited mainland, the crew is suddenly attacked by a group of natives who, in a matter of seconds, kill everyone except the protagonist. 

Taken to their village, he witnesses a cannibalistic banquet in which the locals feed on his crewmates. He lives with the tribe for ten years until one day he’s mysteriously put on a canoe and set free. The next day, he’s rescued by the crew of a Spanish ship and, after seeing the massacre of the tribe, brought back to the old continent.

Upon returning, his desire to remember every single detail grows alongside with his need to understand and interpret his adventure and, especially, to solve the great mystery: What happened? Why was I saved? The tone of his tale, more and more profound and philosophical, becomes hypnotizing—making the author disappear behind his narrator.

“We nursed the illusion that by discovering this unknown land we were laying claim to it, as if before us there had been nothing but an immanent void which our presence peopled with a corporeal landscape.” In having his protagonist describe the journey inland, Saer seems to be offering a metaphor for the reader’s experience. The literary structure doesn’t seem to exist. The voice we hear is only that of the narrator.

The architectural space is therefore perfect, pure. It’s not constructed space, but obtained instead by removing material from a mountain. The structure is the mountain itself, therefore nonexistent. We penetrate and explore, leaving only the space to guide us.

The geometrically and meticulously controlled path, the staggered planes, the absence of reference points or clear directions, which are so typical of “constructed” architecture, are the engine that feeds our desire of discovery. At the end of the path, we notice the circularity of the space and the existence of a central core—a knot, a mystery that is part of the mountain itself. There is something disturbing within. The protagonist saw it and we perceive it, but we can never live it nor understand it because it is part of the mystery buried inside the untouched mountain.


In collaboration with Giuseppe Franco.