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Posts from the ‘Sergio Chejfec’ Category

Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes


It’s the most innocent of beginnings: “Now I am going to tell the story of something that happened one night, years ago, and the events of the morning and afternoon that followed.” The nameless narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s The Incompletes (Open Letter, 2019) begins to tell us what happened on a pier in Buenos Aires when he saw his friend Felix off on a voyage decades earlier. But scarcely three pages elapse before the narrator digresses and begins to relate the strange tales contained in the postcards and letters that Felix has written him during the many years of his restless travels.

The Incompletes is Chejfec’s fifth novel to be translated into English and its my favorite so far. His narrator spends most of the book telling us about Felix’s strange experiences in Moscow and his interactions with a woman named Masha. But on nearly every page the reader is confronted with the fact that the narrator knows far too much. Like a magician who produces a live elephant from his top hat, Chejfec’s narrator not only recounts the details of Felix’s daily life and exposes us to his Felix’s innermost thoughts, he can also somehow account for the independent meanderings and thoughts of Masha. She manages the Hotel Salgado, where Felix stays in Moscow, a hotel which “innocently offered the traveler protection and shelter, though with the implicit warning that under certain conditions their haven might become a living hell.”

A hotel in a foreign land. Felix could imagine himself living a borrowed life there as he could almost nowhere else; a life that was decidedly his, but whose details . . . could easily have been assigned to another; all it would have taken was the smallest difference, being just a few minutes too early or too late, to dispel the sequence of actions that had delivered him to where he was.



Throughout The Incompletes, Felix is constantly aware of the contingency of his life. His own particular story, perhaps his every action, seems dependent on chance or on something outside his control. At this point, of course, the reader is reminded that Felix is but a character in a novel whose exploits are being narrated (or imagined) by a narrator who has been created by a writer named Sergio Chejfec. Chejfec’s novel is filled with references to the theater and the implication that Felix is only an actor on a stage, but perhaps the most telling clue is the mysterious photograph that hangs in Felix’s room in the Hotel Salgado of “two arms extended downward.” Felix finally discerns that there are strings wrapped around the arms, indicating that these are the forearms of a puppeteer who is manipulating “two marionettes that do not appear in the image.” (Are these marionettes Felix and Masha?)

And then there is the strange nature of space itself. “The Hotel Salgado had an accessible form that unfolded the deeper inside you went. A guest’s first impression would be that the place was too big, and that its size translated into an unusual complexity.” Both Felix and Masha experience the Hotel as if its space is entirely pliable. “Just as Felix had observed that the Hotel Salgado was disproportionately large relative to its front door, the lights he could see from his room seemed too faint . . . This gave him the sense that it was his perception that was maladjusted.” For Masha, the Hotel is “a gallery of irresolvable spatial vagaries . . . As soon as one stepped into a space, its shape and dimensions changed spontaneously.” Perceptions, memories, and fiction bleed into one another throughout The Incompletes, as if they are interchangeable.

Mysteries and clues abound in The Incompletes, but there are no answers, only dead end and new mysteries. After puzzling at length over a strange note left in his hotel room, Felix finally decides “that no matter how much he might want to, or how much effort he might put into finding some concrete trace of meaning, he will eventually need to acknowledge that, as usual, little is to be gleaned from things only partially seen.” The clue had gone from “a secret to a warning, from a confession, to a joke.” And yet, Felix travels on, still searching.


The Incompletes is also a book about the notion of fiction itself. One day, on a “fake floor” in the hotel that she had never seen before, Masha discovers a hidden room where she finds a bundle of money and a book underneath a mattress. The book’s cover depicts a woman holding a very large flag. “To be interesting or real, Masha thought, the book should be about her . . . She wanted to be the hero . . . ” Masha has never read a novel but she is “in the grip of a primal fear, the way someone might fear the dark or the sea, grounded solely in the impossible idea of turning into a fictional character.” Felix, too, thinks of Masha as a fictional character at one point:

Felix thought that if he had the chance to work on a novel . . . Masha would occupy the vacillating space of the incompletes—mysterious and cyclical people exiled to their lunar world. He imagined her as a fragile being, exposed to the elements and too partial, almost hindered for some unknown reason, to expose herself to fiction without risk. Despite this, she never left the fictions she encountered, and into which she immersed herself just as she was. This demanded Masha perform a labor of displacement; if she existed in real life an an incomplete, in the invented life, the one that was read, she attained a balanced symmetry. It’s not that she was different from one place to another, but rather that the two worlds sought to complement one another, which gave her comfort.

The narrator sees both Felix and Masha as two-dimensional people “without psychology, contradictions, or even subjectivity.” It seems to him that they behave in “a limited way” and that “something was being withheld from both of them.” They remind him of the way in which fictional characters “sometimes become hostages of the space they inhabit.”

The big question for the reader is: Who and what are “the incompletes”? The answer seems to be: all of us. Chejfec’s narrator tells us that circumstances have led him to have “the most pessimistic state of mind.” (140) “People,” he tells us, “were hobbled from the outset; a decisive emptiness fettered each and every mortal.”

In the perpetual end of the road that is the present, unrelenting madness and eternal cruelty emerged as proof of humanity’s wild ambition. Faced with such a somber and irremediable panorama, I thought, the only alternative would be to trust in artificial beings. I didn’t expect them to provide some kind of justice or correct any wrongdoings, I simply imagined them as an alternative, a way of announcing that another world, also incomplete, would have been possible and that this other world—insofar as it presented itself as a corrective to the so-called real one, or as its complement and commentary—was infinitely more fair.

The kind of “artificial being” that the narrator has in mind is is toy figurine that Felix found half-buried in the soil one day. It is “the only complete being” and it “represent[s] everything people have not managed to be in the world as it stands.” The rugged, mangled figurine, which has already lost an arm, is related to, the narrator suggests, “the precarious or clandestine lives of the persecuted, who at the end of their lives are also the most forgotten: the poor migrant, the ostracized, the segregated.”

As you might be able to tell from my radically abbreviated synopsis of this short but still very complex book, reading The Incompletes is a wondrous, if puzzling experience. Wondrous, because Chejfec is using his restless, deeply philosophical imagination to try to get at the heart of the human condition. There are moments when it feels as if Chejfec is attempting to place the reader at the center of an orrery, one of those elaborate mechanical clockwork universes, so that we might look around and suddenly say “Ah, I get it now, I see how the universe ticks!” Puzzling, because what he is pursuing is eternally elusive and indescribable. Chejfec doesn’t worry if his story ultimately contradicts itself or leaves the reader momentarily lost in the thickets. I don’t know how many times I have read parts of The Incompletes, but I can’t claim to understand his idea of “artificial beings.” But I don’t really care. Reading Chejfec is magical.

In a 2011 interview over at Guernica, Chejfec said:

there is a necessary tension between the determinacy and indeterminacy, the definite and the indefinite, of possibility. And at one point I felt a tension between objects, their real, physical lives, and the idea of meaning: the physical, material reality of a book, and the totally intangible experience of reading it. A word, and all the infinite fluctuations it may possess. Like that moment when you know you have something to say, and you know you’re speaking, even, but you still have no idea how you will say it. Or the moment when, as a reader, you’re reading, and you are understanding what you are reading, but still have utterly no idea what will come next for you, what precisely the author wants to say. For me, that is the ultimate level of literary depth, of literary density.

The Incompletes was published this month by the invaluable publisher of translations Open Letter and was translated from the Spanish original Los Incompletos of 2004 by Heather Cleary. She has previously translated his novels The Planets and The Dark. I’ve written about Sergio Chejfec’s previous four novels here and here. It’s hard to assess Chejfec as a writer since only five of his more than twenty books have been translated into English and those five represent works that were originally published in Argentina between 1999 and 2008. Regrettably, none of his eight books after 2008 have been translated.

Photograph: Tina Modotti, Hands of the Puppeteer, 1929.



Baroni Chejfec

“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.

El Santo médico y mujer crucificada de Rafaela Baroni
[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, .

Sergio Chejfec’s Darkness

Chejfec Dark

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.