Sergio Chejfec’s Darkness
I’ve read novels in which places disappear once the character, or protagonist, abandons them. This, which might be called one of the laws of art, can sometimes leave one profoundly uneasy, among other things because geography is never simply a backdrop; the movement of people through it… [The Dark]
I’ve just finished reading the three works of fiction by Segio Chejfec that have been translated into English and published by Open Letter in recent years: The Planets (originally published as Los Planetas in 1999, translated in 2012), The Dark (originally published as Boca de Lobo in 2000, translated in 2013),and My Two Worlds (originally published as Mis dos mundos in 2008, translated in 2011). Cumulatively, they delve into weighty issues like existence, loss, time, geography, memory, and identity. There are no plots, simply a series of males narrating their thoughts, observations, recollections, and theories. My Two Worlds, the most accessible of the three texts, takes place over the course of two days during walks through a Brazilian city and its main park. In The Planets, the abduction and apparent murder of a close friend stimulates the narrator to think about their relationship and the many deep discussions the two had, much of which transpired during long walks. I occasionally found the nearly abstract, philosophical musings of The Planets unrewarding. While each of Chejfec’s works poses challenges for the reader,the narrator of The Planets is too fond of statements like “It was an adventure plagued by imprecision… or rather, it was a collection of precise imprecisions” and “All and none of these possibilities were of interest to him,” which made me feel trapped in an airless maze with no exit.
I found The Dark to be the most compelling of the three books. In it, the narrator gives us a series of disjointed recollections of an ex-lover – what they talked about, saw, did, and thought as they walked through their city. Chejfec wants to problematize the act of writing and to open up new ways of viewing and understanding the geographies with which we interact. Here’s the opening paragraph of The Dark:
It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us. We retain something immaterial, similar to that something retained by geography, also immaterial. And yet, though it remains unaltered, geography is the measure of change. Just as happens with the temperature of a body, the trace it retains of its former heat allows it to continue being itself, yet this trace marks a difference. Bodies are and are not; they are at once more and less than. The same is true of geography, that is, it’s unruly. I’ve read many novels in which the protagonist returns to a forgotten place. It doesn’t matter whether the landscape is urban or rural. The slope of the hills won’t have changed, but the green will be different, or the mountains, if they’ve kept their color, will disappoint with domesticated angles, not nearly as steep as remembered. The same goes for the city: the old corner has been restored, destroyed, abandoned, and so on. The protagonist is left with a residue, a mixture of reality and oblivion, something elusive drawn from his surroundings, the contradictory signs of which, along with disappointment and resolve, allow him to recognize places. And so some characters, in order to uncover what lies hidden, latch on to the superficial.
Throughout the book, the narrator continues to considers the problems with “novels.” “What happens in novels is deceptive.” Near the end of The Dark, the narrator gives us an ironic summary in miniature of the basic elements of the book we are about to finish. It’s a remarkable passage, worth quoting at length:
It involves a man and a woman. She’s at an age when most people go to school, but she works in a factory. He’s much older, old enough to be her father, though, for a variety of reasons, he never could be. The man has all the typical traits of someone in a novel: undefined age and all that; his character is just a vague impression, as are, shall we say, his voice – in the broadest sense of the word – and his origins. Insignificant beings limited by a complex series of circumstances, they fall in love. But the word love is not strong enough. They idolize and worship one another, when they are apart they feel incomplete, that things are less beautiful, happiness unattainable, and so on. During their extended courtship, they discover the vitality of a landscape that had been hidden before, at least to them. It’s not so much that they like it, but rather that it seems like they only thing they are in a position to appreciate, or enjoy. The geography is like them: conventional yet difficult to define, somewhere between a half-constructed city and half-cultivated fields, left half completed, abandoned, despondent. The people there seemed to be living in a void. Everything looked as though it had been made with scant resources, grudgingly and from materials that seemed inappropriate at first glance, better suited to be given up than to remain. Both walk through these spaces as solitary beings and, though they’re not aware of it, the world watches them. They could go on living this life of nothing forever, but the things that will inevitably drive them apart is already on its way: she is expecting a child. It’s likely that, even without the existence of this child, his abandoning her was already inscribed in the moment they met. Whatever the case, their story takes a significant turn: the man decides to distance himself from the factory worker and, with this, the landscape that served as their backdrop is spent, becoming a useless ornament once the curtain has closed; not unrecognizable, but prosaic. This is what I’ve been getting at. Is there a way to step outside all this and say, for example, “No, I don’t care about the end of the story, their separation, and so on. What I want is for geography to continue on its course until it fully reveals itself, expressing its value in its own terms”?
For me, the existence of a situation that vaguely resembled a “plot” added an important dimension to The Dark that seemed lacking in My Two Worlds and even more so in The Planets. The narrative elements of a man and a woman of different social classes; of a man who spied on his girlfriend and who seemed to know too much about events he did not witness; the discussion of capitalism, the factory system, and unions; and the man’s ultimate decision to leave the woman even as he learns she is pregnant with their child – cumulatively, these elements added a palpable sense of tension and unease, providing an emotional backbone to this book.
Reviewers often compare Chejfec with Sebald. There are definitely some correspondences between the two writers Chejfec, but in several key aspects Chejfec is a kind of anti-Sebald. Chejfec’s narrators are not interested in history, not even in The Dark, in which the abduction and probable murder of the narrator’s friend seems to have been carried out by government death squads. Facts that most novelists would think essential are hard to come by in Chejfec’s novels. Chejfec’s narrators also express little faith in literature’s ability to serve as witness or to attempt the type of restitution so central to Sebald’s writing. “One doesn’t write to uncover what is hidden, but rather to obscure it further,” says the narrator of The Dark.
I don’t want to generalize, but that is the true condition all objects force on us, not only manufactured ones:that of concealing the history they have witnessed, in complete silence. With some effort on one’s part, they can be made to speak; an entire industry has sprung up around making what’s silent speak. For a time I thought that was why literature existed, books in general, or indeed, the written word itself in any form: the written words confronts what exists so as to get it down. Afterward I stopped attaching so much importance to the matter. [My Two Worlds]
…there are novels in which people face adversity according to the strength of their convictions and the measure of their passion, in which reality reveals itself through risk: the world is a formless precipice; unquantifiable, transcendent and, as though that weren’t enough, one that seems to obey a central command. It goes without saying that this was not the case with me, and not only because I’ve distanced myself from the reality of novels. [The Dark]
Chejfec’s narrators start out with good, solid literary intentions, but it isn’t very long before they inevitably become enveloped in a melancholic miasma.
When I arrive at a given place, my curiosity is triggered at once; it may sound naive and somewhat vitalistic, but I long to steep myself in the life and customs of the natives, to immerse myself in local habits and idiosyncrasies. A reading to discover, a story to live. But in my mimetic passion there quickly comes the point, which, moreover, arrives sooner and sooner, after I’ve walked no more than a few blocks: it’s the aforementioned weariness, distraction, something I might call “walker’s malaise – a mixture of rage and emptiness, of thirst and rejection. From then on I act like a zombie…But as if I’d ended up consumed by the blind traction of my automaton’s stride, intent solely on devouring the pavement until dusk, I instantly forget what I’ve just seen and taken note of or, rather, I toss it all into a jumbled corner of my memory, where everything piles up at random, with no hierarchy or organization. [My Two Worlds]
And yes, both writers have an obsession with walking, but Chejfec’s walkers take to the streets and paths for substantially different reasons. “No walk has provided me with any genuine revelation” “I now think I went on walks to experience a specific type of anxiety, one that I’ll call nostalgic anxiety…a state of deprivation in which one has no chance for genuine nostalgia.” [My Two Worlds]
Chejfec is both an extraordinary writer and a problematic one; perhaps the two must inevitably go hand in hand in his case. He’s extremely elusive, sometimes to his detriment, and I don’t always buy into his obsessions. But in a book like The Dark, the contradictions find an equilibrium, the sentences flow gracefully, and the ideas shape-shift elegantly before your very eyes. As I wrote this piece, I would repeatedly go back to certain pages to reread or quote specific passages only to find myself reading on for page after page in sheer admiration, having long since forgotten what I was supposed to be checking.
Over at Asymptote, there is an interview with Chejfec’s two English-language translators, Heather Cleary and Margaret Carson. And at Critical Flame, Scott Esposito writes eloquently about Chejfec’s My Two Worlds and what he sees as the common ground between Chejfec and Sebald.