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.