“Artists naturally gravitate toward indeterminacy.”
Baroni: A Journey (Almost Island Books, 2017) is the fourth of Sergio Chejfec’s novels to be translated into English since 2011. In 2014, I wrote about the first three: “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.” With Baroni, Chejfec continues in this tradition, meditating on themes that include art, chance, landscape, and the puzzling sense that he is suffering from a prolonged despondency, “sunk in the most complete indifference.”
The Baroni of the title is Rafaela Baroni (born 1935), a popular (and very real) Venezuelan self-taught sculptress. She is also a seer who has experienced miracles and had several remarkable episodes of catalepsy. Key portions of Chejfec’s book deal with two wooden sculptures that he has acquired from Baroni: El Santo Médico and Mujer Crucificada.
In his previous books, Chejfec has expressed a wariness about the very idea of writing fiction, of novels. At one point in Baroni, he starts to invent a past for the woman on the cross (Mujer Crucificada), but he catches himself.
For certain things fiction wasn’t any good; I’d always suspected this, but now it was absolutely clear. And why wasn’t it? Not because it distorted the truth, that could be praiseworthy, but because it revealed itself to be a useless trick. I couldn’t imagine who would be interested in the past of a wooden figure, even if I happened to present her as somebody real. But interested wasn’t the word: who would be inspired by it to some feeling, to at least an affinity, or be afforded some lesson, when we all know that life hides no secrets.
In this quotation I’m struck by the implications of what fiction might be good for: fiction would be “praiseworthy” if it could “inspire” someone to a feeling or afford the reader a
“lesson.” And yet, Chejfec concludes, “we all know that life holds no secrets.” In other words, is there anything left for the writer to attempt? Elsewhere Chejfec writes that “inner depths [are] something I obviously couldn’t believe in.” Baroni, originally published in Spanish in 2010, is the most recent of Chejfec’s books to be translated into English, and it indicates a progression towards autobiography. The reason for this is, I believe, what appears to be an increasing sense of pessimism. In Baroni, Chejfec repeatedly sets out full of optimism to try to understand the universe and his place in it, only to conclude with a growing sense of despair that the universe operates randomly and without purpose.
[Photograph by Francisco Martínez Bouzas,
from his post on Baroni at website Peregrino de Letras.]
It is the subtitle of Chejfec’s book that is key to what most interests me. Much of Baroni: A Journey , of course, is about the artist, her family, the strange occurrences in her life, her home, studio, and garden, and her art. But Chejfec’s pilgrimage to the residence and studio of a fellow artist is also a deeply personal, almost private inner journey that Chejfec admits he barely understands himself.
This inner journey is made physically manifest in the numerous trips he makes within the book. Geography is a subject at the heart of each of Chejfec’s books, but it plays a starring role in Baroni. The book includes detailed descriptions of drives into the mountains of Venezuela, not only to Baroni’s place but to the houses of other friends and to remote small villages that seem to be more or less random destinations. His almost obsessive excursions into the unknown signals both searching and fleeing. Chejfec seems to be looking for the clue or the pattern that will help him organize the chaos and randomness of the world, of life. “I occasionally wondered if I were really still on the route and if I might not be advancing without any kind of route at all.” His continual failure to find such an insight or even a destination only sends him deeper into depression. Here he is driving away from Baroni’s place at dusk, watching the mountains turn into “a single interminable shadow”:
This impression became still stronger when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw that the machine I was traveling in was giving off pure darkness, nothing else, just like an insatiable mouth that was pursuing me, only to expel me, because I kept leaving it behind, upon another darkness, blacker than any I had known before.
In this next quote, Chejfec’s vigilant search for what is true becomes transformed within the course of three sentences into a nearly paralyzing sense of futility:
For Baroni there wasn’t always a true distance between reality and fantasy; and I devoted my time, every day, to distinguishing what was true from what was false, with the additional problem of always keeping myself on the side of the unresolved. Nothing had sufficient weight to be truthful; even what was crudest and most material, most definitive, presented itself as provisional, or at any rate circumstantial, or, more complicated still, feeble and formless: it could happen that reality was irreconcilable with fantasy . . . I was finding the truth to be not only feeble, but also malleable, abject and fragile: at this point it translated as fantasy.
The relevant phrase, it seems to me, is his insistence of “keeping myself on the side of the unresolved,” something which repeatedly prevents Chejfec from being satisfied with the results of his own philosophical inquiries.
On several occasions in Baroni, Chejfec makes mental maps of where he has traveled, imagining the area’s “physical organization from directly overhead.” In part, Chejfec seems to use this idea of mapping as a way of actually proving to himself that he exists.
I imagined a sketch or small-scale maquette where my actual displacement appeared. The geographic features were signaled by their names, with an indistinct point almost at the edge of the page, which turned out to be myself, moving farther away. That drawing included everything. I was aware that it was a map, and of the most arbitrary and artificial kind imaginable, which nevertheless rendered this moment of the journey more true.
Two pages later, this mental map is transformed into a three-dimension object in which the point that represents himself is suddenly trapped.
So I imagined I was seeing a crumpled piece of paper, and that there, at a confluence of wrinkles and creases, I stood indiscernible, looking out into the distance. From that piece of paper you were unable to leave.
Then, in the final pages of the book when Chejfec is back in Caracas, his trip to the countryside finished, he finds on the floor of an elevator a crumpled paper bag reminiscent of his imaginary crumpled map. His final act is to place the “injured ball in its precarious place” in his apartment, not far from his two sculptures by Rafaela Baroni. For an instant, he thinks that the woman on the cross squinted at him as he passed by. “I should say it was another of the things that, at least until now, I’ve never been able to verify.”
And there, in a word, is the world as Sergio Chejfec sees it: unverifiable. Provisional. Arbitrary. Malleable. And yet, in almost Sisyphean fashion, the man who always wants to remain “on the side of the unresolved,” cannot stop himself from trying to understand what makes this universe tick.
Baroni: A Journey. Almost Island Books, 2017.Translated from the 2007 Spanish original Baroni: Un Viaje by Margaret Carson. Carson, who translated Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds (Open Letter, 2011), made an initial translation of Baroni: A Journey and wrote about Chejfec’s use of ekphrasis for her dissertation at the City University of New York, .