The Clerk

Argentinian author Guillermo Saccomanno’s The Clerk (translated by Andrea Labinger) presents us with a world that is both instantly recognisable and eerily dystopian. At night, the streets are filled with “gang members, the homeless and cloned dogs,” the skies are patrolled by helicopters, and it’s not unusual to hear distant explosions. The clerk is the most ordinary of ordinary men. He works in a place where dismissals are announced via loudspeaker and the latest victim is then surrounded by security staff and escorted from the building. He lives in a flat which smells of “fried food, tobacco, dirty clothes.” His wife, a woman with a cigarette permanently attached to her mouth, intimidates him (“When she gets riled up, she ends up hitting him.”) He sleeps on the couch in the fetal position. His children are feral. And yet he feels that he retains the potential to be extraordinary:

“If the proper circumstance presented itself, he could be someone else.”

Despite his anonymous and inconsequential life, “he’s convinced that he’s better than the others” though he worries that:

“There’s still the possibility that, after exerting so much effort to make himself appear like a man incapable of killing a fly, he’s really become that man.”

His chance to prove himself comes when, working late, he encounters the boss’s secretary and escorts her home through the dangerous streets. His romantic imagination is enflamed: when she tells him she’s a “refugee from a shipwreck” (an emotional shipwreck), he immediately conjures up the following fantasy:

“If he were involved in a shipwreck, aboard a boat with room enough for only two passengers, and if he, the oarsman, had to deal with the dilemma of choosing the survivors, he would choose the young woman without hesitation, and, if necessary, he’d beat the other shipwreck victims on their heads and faces with his oar.”

The sheer number of clauses in the sentence indicates how far his imagination has wandered from reality. When he discovers that the person who has left her in this state is the boss he immediately assumes “she was duped”:

“The boss sweet-talked her in that half-paternal, half-fatuous style of those who know their own power. He must have hinted at a promotion.”

They spend the night together and a burning love and a burning jealousy develop in the clerk. This love, he feels, is the catalyst which will change him, the passion which will motivate extraordinary deeds. Yet, the jealousy means he cannot entirely trust her. Even as he declares his love for her:

“He sees her sitting on his boss’s lap, telling him about this lunch, about his profession of love. She imitates him. They both burst out laughing.”

In his confusion, the clerk shares his story with a co-worker, a man he has always been suspicious of as he carries a notebook in which he makes occasional entries (“he imagined that there must be something directed against him in these pages”). The clerk’s office mate shares his dreams too, and seals their confessions with an embrace:

“With their arms flung around one another, they cry. But they don’t cry for the same reason.

“The clerk cries out of fear.”

The clerk’s office mate is “deeply into Russian literature” and we may recognise the clerk from Gogol and Dostoevsky, a poor man in a soul-destroying job who believes that greatness lies within him. (Saccomanno also quotes Kafka in the novel’s epigraph: “…so extreme an experience of solitude that one can only call it Russian.”) But his life is not the romantic dream he longed for; “Falling in love,” he realises, “is a sickness.” His actions become less rather than more heroic. Not only does his jealousy remain, but he begins to doubt whether the secretary is quite the person he thought she was (after their first encounter he thinks, “We’re all someone else”, an early warning that he may not be the only one whose inner and outer lives contrast).:

“How can you love someone you fear, he wonders. Because, he realises, she is possibly more frightening than the boss.”

He takes her to a kick-boxing competition – a sport in marked contrast to the meek manners of the clerk – which she relishes:

“She doesn’t root for either one: all she wants to see is blood.”

It becomes increasingly clear to both the clerk and the reader that the women he thinks he loves may be someone else entirely.

The Clerk is a novel about dreams. At the beginning the clerk is subservient and weak but still holds onto the belief he can be better. He dreams of a heroic love in the same way his office mate dreams, Lennie-like, of building a cabin, owning a small farm and living off the land. But, in the world he lives in, a sadder, crueller version of our own, there is no place for such dreams. The Clerk is exquisitely, if bleakly, imagined; the life Saccomanno creates for the clerk feels as lived in as his overcoat in this vivid, hopeless fable.

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5 Responses to “The Clerk”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Sounds quite dark, Grant, and I can definitely see the parallels with Gogol and Dostoevsky. May have to look out for this one!

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m sure you would spot many more Russian allusions than me – I have a feeling there are a number buried in the text (for example the overcoat he is always wearing).

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    This might be a bit wide of the mark as a reference point, but your commentary on this reminds me a little of some of Saragamo’s novels, books like All the Names and The Double, although The Clerk seems even more surreal. There’s something deeply unsettling about a world that feels strangely dystopian yet instantly recognisable, almost as if something fundamental has shifted and everything is off-kilter!

    • 1streading Says:

      It definitely shares the idea of a world like ours but not ours which we see in more than one of Saramago’s novels. These are often the most frightening dystopias!

  3. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead Says:

    Thanks for your excellent review! I’m new to Latin American/Spanish literature (I participated in the reading month last year & discovered some great writers) and haven’t read the Russians in years, so I very much appreciated the linkages you pointed out. As Jacquiwine notes, there’s something particularly creepy about a dystopian world that so closely resembles our own and, from your review, it sounds like Saccomanno has quite a talent for portraying this! I’ll definitely check out his work, if only to find out what’s going on with that secretary!

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