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from the November 2013 issue

Sergio Chejfec’s “The Dark”

Reviewed by David Varno

At his best, the Argentine Sergio Chejfec carries the torch of the great ambulatory writers, from De Quincy to Sebald.

At his best, the Argentine Sergio Chejfec carries the torch of the great ambulatory writers, from De Quincy to Sebald. For readers willing to rove widely, the journey is marked with distinct pleasures as well as startling chills. He often makes us wait to see what he means; he holds off our judgment even as his sentences freely unspool with half-told anecdotes and half-finished thoughts then circle back to show he won’t leave us behind.

The Dark, first published in 2000, tests Chejfec’s characteristic control. Its first sentence needs two readings for its import to register: “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” Only after applying the end of the sentence to the beginning can we surmise where the narrator is going, and where he is coming from. Chejfec seems to hope that we’re game for this kind of constant re-reading throughout the book, as the narrator treads, and retreads, a vacant and ephemeral landscape.

The story is very simple, yet it leaves us with a gaping blind spot. A man begins a love affair with a young woman who works in a factory; they spend their evenings together walking the streets of the town, making love in the shadows of a thistle field. Then after an inexplicably violent sexual encounter with him, she becomes pregnant and they break up. Despondent, the man spends the rest of his life thinking about her and retracing their steps in his mind. The narrator asks us to accept that this woman, who he discarded without explanation, means everything to him. And yet we never actually hear from her; he paraphrases her stories about factory life, explains her actions as characteristic of “her proletarian nature,” even presumes to read her thoughts. But he never gives us her actual words.

What’s different about The Dark, compared with Chejfec’s previously translated work, is the constant dance between author and narrator, which plays out as a dialogue between commentary on the world of novels and the story itself. A telling refrain in this regard is the tagline “I don’t know,” which follows a number of the narrator’s attempts to turn his memories into something like literature: “And then there was [the] coarseness [of her hair], the way it stood on end with the lightest touch, like, I don’t know, like fine-gauge wire.”

This collapse between author and narrator can make it difficult to freely follow the thoughts and impressions of a character who operates with a skewed moral compass, but once again the sense of unease Chejfec injects us with ends up working to his advantage. He’s got us reading closely, starting to look for a reason to leave him behind, and then he lifts us up with a sharp phrase or a dazzling image.

Heather Cleary does a wonderful job at capturing the lyrical concision of a writer who has so much to say yet continues to choose the compressed form of a short novel (this one clocks in at a mere 143 pages). Here the object of the narrator’s attention, a factory worker named Delia, is described as appearing on the street in the moment of overlap between the last daylight and the premature streetlamps, “In the useless glow of nightfall, [when] things seem to appear and disappear from one moment to the next.” That phrase, “useless glow,” expresses the narrator’s outlook, but the image that follows is transparent enough for us to project it onto our own landscape, and now we’re able to entertain the possibility of Delia as a real person.

Chejfec uses his narrator—sometimes a bit heavy-handedly—to explore the origins of fictional material. Routinely, he tips his hand: “Just as I had invented [the group of factory workers] as a herd or a choreographed troupe, as an object to be observed and examined, I would imagine their existence had come to an end, like someone getting up to shut off a television set.”

It can be difficult to stay with a book that has such a plodding, analytical sensibility, yet equally thrilling to stumble on what it conjures. It was easier with My Two Worlds (2008), where the protagonist’s walk through the city added narrative motion to Chejfec’s natural, essayistic mode. An implicit joke of The Dark is that the narrator is interested in the measurement of time, “the measure of activity combined with the passing of the day,” and yet he is utterly static himself. The landscape is not only empty—“[a] long string of ruins—ex-houses or pre-buildings, scattered across the terrain and indifferent to the way people used them”—but defined by a woman who exists, ever hazily, in memory. Fortunately for Chejfec, the narrator’s shortcomings point the way to the author’s strengths. The landscape of the novel, while sparse on the page, is drawn so evocatively that we are moved to follow wherever he might lead. 

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