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The Most Dangerous Dream of All—A Multilingual Most Exquisite Corpse Story

By Sergio Chejfec, Maria Cabrera, Basma Abdel Aziz, and Petra Hůlová
Translated By Heather Cleary, Mary Ann Newman, Elisabeth Jaquette, and Alex Zucker

At PEN America’s Lit Crawl Manhattan 2018, Words Without Borders and SLICE Literary partnered to present a multilingual exquisite corpse, a story authored by four international writers—Sergio Chejfec, Maria Cabrera, Basma Abdel Aziz, and Petra Hůlová—and translated by Heather Cleary, Mary Ann Newman, Elisabeth Jaquette, and Alex Zucker.  

In the exquisite corpse tradition, one writer penned the first segment of the story (in this case, Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec, who was given a prompt line from James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room: “But it seemed to me that morning that my ancient self had been dreaming the most dangerous dream of all”). The next writer, Maria Cabrera, received the final line of that first segment and continued the story in Catalan. And so on, and so on, until we reached the final writer. The end result is a story stitched together by a group of writers, each one not really knowing what came beforehand. As this exquisite corpse was multilingual, it had the added layer of translation, as, for example, the final line of Basma Abdel Aziz’s section, written in Arabic, was translated into English and then into Czech so that Petra Hůlová could complete the story.

At the Lit Crawl event, hosted by WWB’s Jessie Chaffee and SLICE’s Randy Brown Winston, the writers and translators shared the story with the full house at Think Coffee on Mercer Street. Below is the full story, in both English translation and the original languages.

Writers, hosts, and audience volunteers: Jessie Daniels, Jessie Chaffee, Karen Phillips, Petra Hůlová, Elisabeth Jaquette, Mary Ann Newman, Basma Abdel Aziz, Maria Cabrera, Heather Cleary, Randy Brown Winston, and Sergio Chejfec. Photo: Jasmina Tomic/Randy Brown Winston.

The Most Dangerous Dream of All

English Version

1. Sergio Chejfec (Spanish original), Heather Cleary (English translation) 

But it seemed to me that morning that my ancient self had been dreaming the most dangerous dream of allAnd so I woke, determined to do something. If I couldn’t change the dream, I would try to distort its condition of possibility. It didn’t trouble me as a dream, but rather as a harbinger of the next one. I sensed that a chain of related dreams, each more dangerous than the next, would organize itself into a narrative parallel to my waking mind’s, and that this chain would grow so pervasive and come to seem so normal that my waking life would, contrary to custom, organize itself as delirium. So I called my brother to tell my mother not to expect me on Friday. They both knew what that meant. I also knocked on my neighbor’s door to say I wasn’t going back to work until Monday, which meant that our agreement regarding the daytime use of my bedroom would have to be put on hold. I also asked her to see to the elevator. This request was met by a long silence, during which I heard a toilet flush and a door slam. The delay in her response could mean many things; my request about the elevator, on the other hand—as my neighbor and I both knew very well—could only mean one. 


2. Maria Cabrera (Catalan original), Mary Ann Newman (English translation)

The delay in her response could mean many things; my request about the elevator, on the other hand—as my neighbor and I both knew very well—could only mean one. I threw on my bathrobe, belted it, opened the door, and crossed the landing, furious, ready to solve the matter once and for all. Ding-dong! Ding-donnng! I kept on ringing, over and over. I remember the tip of my index finger, red and white with the pressure I was applying to the doorbell. To no effect. She wasn’t home. Then I recalled what a neighbor had told me: in the mornings he often saw her at the coffee shop on the corner, with a friend. I didn’t even know what she looked like, but at that point I just didn’t care: I went down to the entrance to the building—on foot, of course; damn elevator—and, in my distress, I didn’t realize I was wearing my pajamas until the worn beige color of my slippers on the dark asphalt broke into my train of thought. What the hell, if I was going to make a scene, let it be one for the books, Victoria’s Secret pajamas and all. I opened the screen door to the cafe with an air of solemnity, like one disembarking onto the beach ready to wage war. And there they were, she and her friend, sitting sweetly at the corner table. I froze to the spot on seeing them: I remember my rage trickling down my body, the way water trickles down a closed umbrella. Two old people, she and he, laughing and telling each other stories, and each thing they said to each other was as if newly learned, and with that way they had of gazing closely and delicately at each other, it was as if all the light in the bar were concentrated on them, and all the other tables at the bar were in the dark because the light was slow and it took its time lingering on the spots and creases of their centenary and well-worn hands that despite it all were still dancing like the sea with joy over the crumbs on the tablecloth, and then, I remember, they stood up—I was still watching them—and it took them a good five minutes to walk over to the counter to order and still the light followed them and all the tenderness of the things that had piled up inside me also followed them because all at once nothing mattered but the quiet, steady, brilliant dance of being in love in their eighties. 

Writers Sergio Chejfec, Maria Cabrera, Basma Abdel Aziz, and Petra Hůlová. Photos: Jessie Chaffee.

3. Basma Abdel Aziz (Arabic original), Elisabeth Jaquette (English translation)

The light followed them and all the tenderness of the things that had piled up inside me also followed them because all at once nothing mattered but the quiet, steady, brilliant dance of being in love in their eighties. They became one with the small pool of light as if they were the ones illuminating the place, and I surrendered to the tender feelings washing over me, feelings of joy infused with a slight melancholy, and incredible gratitude. My thoughts wandered with the music that seemed softer in their presence, and I began to think of my own eventual old age. How often had I daydreamed of a rocking chair made of fragrant sandalwood, a balcony filled with pure, weightless sunlight, a cheery cactus in a flowerpot. Old age was still far off, but I had been preparing for it for some time, and I asked myself whether I would reach it with him, whether he loved these things as I did. Rippling through their gazes now was a lifetime of being head over heels, deep knowledge of each other rooted in shared history. It was embedded in every cell of their bodies, peacefully, tranquilly, not threatened by the rashness of youth, nothing to roil its clarity. The scent of strong, dark coffee tickled my nose, even though there was none here; I always yearned for coffee when my emotions poured forth or were kindled aflame. Truly, nothing mattered in these moments except the dense presence that their being created; a presence so warm it swelled into ripeness. What were they thinking now, where were they going? I did not know for sure whether there was anything more than what I could see in front of me. When I returned from my reverie, I realized that the lights had nearly all gone dark, and that the soft sounds made by their slow movements had given way to silence.


4. Petra Hůlová (Czech original), Alex Zucker (English translation)

When I returned from my reverie, I realized that the lights had nearly all gone dark, and that the soft sounds made by their slow movements had given way to silence. I was left alone. Just me and my ideas of equality, she thought. Call me Rachel Dolezal if you want. In those days, there was always someone ready to do it. All in a rush to enforce the rules that they thought were important, just so long as it worked in their favor. It wasn’t the fact that they did it when it wasn’t convenient for you personally, but that, like a train turned inside-out, with the scenery rushing by inside while the passengers sit outside freezing, they believed the road to hell was paved with good intentions. Did that mean the road to heaven was paved with ill intentions? Take a crown of thorns and plant it on the head of your community garden. Take all that passive conformity, masquerading as original views and subversive morality, and paint it over with irony. All talk and no action. Not me, though. Because while I was coating Rachel’s face in shoe polish, she was smearing toothpaste the colors of the queer flag all over my body. A pinch of outmoded humor and a dash of faith that we’re living on the threshold of something totally new. As Václav Havel said: Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. 

Sergio Chejfec and the crowd at Think Coffee. Photo: Randy Brown Winston.

El Sueño Más Peligroso de Todos

Multilingual Version

1. Sergio Chejfec (Spanish)

Pero me pareció esa mañana que mi yo antiguo había estado soñando el sueño más peligroso de todos. Me desperté, por lo tanto, decidido a hacer algo. Si no podía cambiar el sueño intentaría torcer su condición de posibilidad. No me inquietaba como sueño sino como anticipo del próximo. Sentía que una cadena de sueños relacionados, todos peligrosísimos, se ordenaría como un relato paralelo al de la vigilia; y que esa cadena se haría tan persistente y normal que la vida diurna, al contrario de lo que por lo general ocurre, se ordenaría como delirio. Llamé entonces a mi hermano para avisar a mi madre que no me esperara el viernes. Ambos sabían lo que eso significaba. Y también toqué la puerta de mi vecina para decirle que no iría a trabajar hasta el lunes, que por lo tanto dejara en suspenso nuestro acuerdo de cesión diurna de mi dormitorio. Le pedí también que hiciera lo necesario con el ascensor. Ante este pedido se produjo un largo silencio. Mientras tanto, escuché la descarga de un baño y un portazo violento. La demora en responderme podía significar muchas cosas, y una sola—como mi vecina y yo sabíamos—mi pedido respecto del ascensor.


2. Maria Cabrera (Catalan)

Que ella trigués tant a respondre podia voler dir moltes coses; la meva petició sobre l’ascensor, però—i tant la veïna com jo ho sabíem perfectament—només en podia voler dir una. D’un rampell em vaig cordar la bata d’estar per casa, vaig obrir la porta i vaig travessar el replà amb fúria, disposada a solucionar l’assumpte d’una vegada per totes. Ding-dong!, ding-doooong! Vaig trucar amb insistència, un cop i un altre: recordo la punta del dit índex, roja i blanca per la força que feia, sobre el timbre. Res, no era a casa. Després vaig pensar en el que m’havia explicat el veí: que els matins la veia sovint a la cafeteria de la cantonada, amb un amic. Jo no sabia ni quina cara feia, però arribats a aquell punt ja m’era igual: vaig baixar fins a l’entrada de l’edifici—a peu, esclar: maleït ascensor—i, atribolada com estava, no em vaig adonar que anava en pijama fins que el beix gastat de les sabatilles sobre la foscor de l’asfalt em va trencar el fil dels pensaments. A fer punyetes, si havia de muntar un escàndol, que fos un escàndol com cal i amb un pijama de Victoria's Secret. Vaig travessar el cancell de la porta de la cafeteria amb aire solemnial, com qui desembarca en una platja a punt per a la guerra. I eren allà, ella i el seu amic, assegudets a la taula del racó. Em vaig quedar petrificada, contemplant-los: recordo la ira escolant-se’m cos avall, com un paraigua que regalima aigua un cop tancat. Dos avis, ella i ell, rient i explicant-se coses, i cada cosa que es deien era novíssimament coneguda, i amb aquell mirar-se amb deteniment i delicadesa era com si concentressin tota la llum del bar, totes les altres taules del bar eren a les fosques perquè la llum era lenta i s’ocupava de resseguir-los les taques i les clivelles de les mans centenàries i gastades i malgrat tot fent danses enriolades com el mar sobre les molles de les estovalles, i després recordo que es van alçar—jo els contemplava encara—i van trigar cinc minuts ben bons a caminar fins al taulell per demanar i la llum els seguia i tota la tendresa de les coses que se m’havia acumulat a dintre també els seguia perquè de cop no hi havia res més que la dansa quieta, ferma i brillant d’estimar-se passats els vuitanta.

Translators Heather Cleary, Mary Ann Newman, and Elisabeth Jaquette, and volunteer Jessie Daniels. Photos: Jessie Chaffee.

3. Basma Abdel Aziz (Arabic)

تماهيا مع بقعة الضوء وكأنهما هما اللذان يضيئان المكان، فيما تركت نفسي تمامًا لذلك الشعور الخفيّ الذي غمرني؛ شعور بالبهجة المُشبَعة بشيء مِن الشجن الرقيق، وبكثيرٍ مِن الامتنان. شردت مع الموسيقى التي صارت أكثر نعومة بوجودهما، ورحت أفكر في شيخوختي المتوقعة. طالما راودتني خلال أحلام اليقظة التي أبرع فيها، مشاهدٌ لمقعد هزاز مصنوع مِن الخشب الصندل ذي الرائحة القوية، وشُرفة تدخلها شمسٌ خفيفةٌ رائقة، وأصيص به نبتة صبار بهية. ليست شيخوختي بقريبة بعد، لكني أعد لها مِنذ فترة؛ وأتساءل في الوقت نفسه إن كانت الحال ستسمح لي ببلوغها معه، وإن كان يحب مثلي هذه الأشياء. تموج نظراتهما الآن بما هو أكثر مِن وَلَه مُمتد، طويل العمر، ثمّة مَعرفة عتيقة مُوغِلة في التاريخ؛ تجذَّرت في كل خلية مِن خلاياهما واستقرت في سلام وسكينة، لا يحدها نزق الصغار، ولا يعكر صفوَها أمر. داعب أنفي عبير قهوة ثقيلة داكنة رغم خلو المكان منها؛ أهفو إلى البُن في العادة كلما اضطرمت مشاعري وتدفقت. بالفعل؛ لا شيء يهم في هذه اللحظات، سوى الحضور الكثيف الذي صنعه وجودهما؛ حضور دافئ إلى حد الاكتمال. ترى فيما يفكران الآن، وإلى أين يذهبان؟ لا أعلم على وجه اليقين إذا كان هناك أبعد مما أرى أمامي. عدت من شرودي وقد انطفأت الأضواء تقريبًا، وسكن الصوت الخافت الذي كانت إيماءاتهما البطيئة تحدثه.
4. Petra Hůlová (Czech)

Když jsem se probrala ze svého snění, uvědomila jsem si, že skoro všechna světla už byla zhasnuta a že ztichly i měkké zvuky vytvářené jejich pohyby. Zůstala jsem sama. Jen já a moje představy o rovnosti, si myslela. Můžete mi klidně říkat Rachel Dolezal, chcete-li. On se tenkrát vždycky našel někdo takový. Nevděčník, co se najednou překotně uchyloval k pravidlům, která ho zajímala, výhradně jen pokud nebyla v jeho neprospěch. A nešlo o to, že se k nim uchyloval ve chvíli, kdy se to nehodilo vám osobně, ale že jako vyvrácená rukavice vlaku, v němž krajina ubíhá vevnitř, zatímco pasažéři sedí vně a jako při fénování jim vlají účesy, měl tenhle za to, že cesta do pekel je dlážděna dobrými úmysly. Je tedy cesta do nebe dlážděna těmi zlými? Trnovou korunu nasaďte vaší komunitní zahradě na Hlavu 22. A všechno to trpné pasivní snášení všeho maskované originálními názory a tak zvanou subversivní morálkou, přelakujte ironií. Ve skutečnosti skutek utek. Ne ovšem v mém případě. Protože zatímco já jsem Rachel natírala obličej krémem na boty, ona mazala celé mé tělo pastou na zuby v barevnosti duhové teploušské vlajky. Trochu výprodej starých fórů a trochu víra v to, že žijeme na prahu něčeho zcela nového. Jak říkal už Václav Havel: Naděje není přesvědčení, že něco dobře dopadne, ale jistota, že něco dává smysl—bez ohledu na to, jak to dopadne.

Published Apr 23, 2018   Copyright 2018 Sergio Chejfec, Maria Cabrera, Basma Abdel Aziz, and Petra Hůlová

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