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from the September 2011 issue

Sergio Chejfec’s “My Two Worlds”

Reviewed by Jennifer Croft

Technology, for one, has begun to batter life’s perfect syntax

Sergio Chejfec is among the most promising and distinguished of contemporary Argentine authors, though this is his first book to be translated into English, adroitly accomplished by Margaret B. Carson. It is a strange choice for a first translation, because the book is essentially a meditation on his career as a writer, and as such, a reflection that might be better understood by readers familiar with his earlier works. The tone here is one of utter exhaustion: walking toward and then around a large park in a city in the south of Brazil, the narrator ruminates on the futility of his vocation. At one point, he encounters a few fish and turtles and considers speaking to them because, he says, “the realest audience is the one that understands the least, I mean, when it flaunts its deafness, or at least a bit or resistance, when it indicates our uselessness, etc.” It is this final “etc.” that in many ways defines My Two Worlds:an etc. that suggests exhaustion, an abbreviation meant to stave off the inevitability of a longer list. In the first pages of the book we read: “By then I was dragging my feet due to fatigue and the sensation of having paced up and down the streets of the city far too long.” This “by then” actually means something like “from the very beginning.” There is nothing in the text of these first pages that lets on what, exactly, has taken place beforehand. All we know is that the narrator has been invited to give a reading, and that he has escaped the literary conference in order to set out exploring on his own, on foot. If, as the narrator says, walking is “the corporeal experience with the best syntax to accompany one in life,” then the weary, plodding language of this book, from cover to cover, is ideal sccompaniment for those readers feeling ruminative, nostalgic, or just plain tired.

Much is made in the novel of the narrator’s impending birthday. Birthdays, of course, invite reflection on the passage of time as wellas the changing nature of the world (the years come and go, and things aren’t what they used to be). Technology, for one, has begun to batter life’s perfect syntax: “The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links . . . On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several, and these in turn summon other memories or connected thoughts, often by chance, etc., all creating a delirious branching effect that overwhelms me and leaves me exhausted.”

In a 2009 interview with Revista de Letras, Chejfec talks about how literature is always in dialogue not only with the world but also with literature itself. And in this particular book, he nods to “The long tradition of writer-walkers . . . from Sterne all the way up to Borges, with Rousseau, Kafka, Benjamin, Pessoa, Handke, Sebald, Joyce, etc., along the way.” “Being a walker,” he goes on to say, “appears to be the condition for being a good writer” so much so that “as a trope . . . this has produced its own commonplaces. And it strikes me that it is difficult to advocate the literary walk without trying to distance oneself from those other writers.”

Is the novel intended to be another striding labor under the anxiety of influence? Chejfec’s narrator despairs and rejoices at the prospect of never being able to come out of the shadows of his literary antecedents, wallowing jubilantly in these shadows, particularly in Proust’s. And, indeed, My Two Worlds featureselegiac circumlocutions that move haltingly around the perimeters of prose traditions he can’t quite make up his mind about; if kinship with these authors promises the narrator some sort of literary uplift, he also is intent to have his own work overshadow everyone else’s. How, then, does Chejfec propose to get out from under Sterne and Borges? “To walk and nothing but” is the ruminative refrain of the book’s narrator. “Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.” What he wants, then, is not a series of literary intersections, but rather to attain altogether new literary paths, putting “maps,” and with them the prescriptions of genre, “to the test.”

But his narrator is too tired! Too tired to get out from under anyone! He spends many of the pages of the book trying to hide from passersby and, in occasionally dense thickets of prose, from the reader. Hiding from the reader is a constituent part—perhaps even the core—of the test he lays out before the craft he loves. As the Argentine critic Beatriz Sarlo notes in her review of the original Spanish edition of My Two Worlds: “One has the impression of being in the presence of a writer who is completely free of calculation, who trusts he will find readers without going out of his way to seek them out. Impassive, Chejfec writes.” Perhaps there is something, then, to the notion of the impassive walker as a reigning trope? The narrative that goes nowhere, but in a manner so expansive that “nowhere” becomes “something new,” breaking free of the constraints of past literary forms, as in John Barth’s 1967 essay “The Literature of Exhaustion”?

Perhaps this book is less a novel than it is a “superficial archaeology,” as the narrator of My Two Worlds tells us, a tripping-over—rather than unearthing—of ephemera. As the narrator says in a particularly arresting passage:

Generally, when I walk I look down. [. . .] Walking is, in part, a kind of superficial archaeology, which I find greatly instructive and somehow moving, because it considers evidence that’s humble, irrelevant, even random—the exact opposite of a scientific investigation. […] [W]hen I walk on paths I’ve been inclined to leave behind faint, minimal marks—the proverbial initials or the name drawn in the dirt with a stick, ephemera that vanish quickly from the ground or from walls, like sodden footsteps on a rainy day or shoe prints. Not because I believe someone will decipher them in my wake, but because the action implies an innate impulse, one can only hope to leave fleeting traces.

My Two Worlds is both a resignation (a wistful sigh of a book) and an endorsement of the instinct to giving oneself over to felicitous discoveries. The narrator is passive, then, as well as impassive, stumbling along the surface of an exhausted literary life. But the etceterae of this exhaustion somehow manage to maneuver the positions of writer and reader around, like the hands of the watch the narrator sees in a German town completely rebuilt after the war to move counterclockwise, and thus achieve the counterintuitive: the reader of My Two Worlds is being challenged to follow in the narrator’s footsteps—to make something of his amblings—while the narrator himself just drags his feet. It is the reader, then, who has to carry this novel; the reader who does most of the looking backward and reflecting—all the while also advancing to the novel’s close. The reader is pulled in two directions by Chejfec’s forking prose—looking back and moving forward—and so must struggle to make progress along various tines at once. A feat, for sure, but one that may well result in a sort of remapping, a displacement and replenishment of ideas. Yet Chejfec’s notion of the “fleeting traces” of literature is proven right: the near-insurmountable challenge he poses for his reader brings about no literary sea change. The effects of the book are evanescent, even readily forgettable—arguably by design. Its tensions, while initially intriguing, cancel each other out upon final reflection. Chejfec's wandering, "humble, irrelevant, even random," is a pleasure to join along on for a few blocks; sticking with him for longer stretches risks succumbing to some of his own exhaustion.

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