The Planets by Sergio Chejfec (trans. Heather Cleary). Open Letter Books. 227 pp., $13.95.
The books of the Argentine writer Sergio Chejfec defy easy classification, but we can say that he writes for walkers: those for whom each step signifies something both taken/found and lost/forgotten. He writes about wanderers: those for whom destinations are rarely known, where every recognized face and remembered story proves too heavy with significance, slipping the grip of its proper naming. This is especially true of his recently translated novel, The Planets. Originally published in Spanish in 1999, Chejfec’s meditation on friendship, loss, and memory defies easy summation. This is fitting, for these also inform the fluid bounds of reality lived and described by his characters. Here, dreams are recited alongside the real events they anticipate and/or create; characters from dreams slide into the parables of protagonists; and iconic females blur within the slippages between vowels (e.g., Lesa/Sela) and consonants (e.g., Marta/Mirta). The Planets, in short, is a strange novel. It is made stranger still by the absence of its principle character, known only by the narrated memories of others, the enigmatic, nearly nameless M. This strangeness is fitting, then, for each story told about or by him is born of a gap—between dream and reality, past and present, cause and effect—and manifests the trauma of his absence.
To read The Planets is not so much to implant oneself within its narrated world as it is to discover oneself in this world’s orbit. Whereas in Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, the reader is invited into not merely the narrator’s world but his very perception of it, The Planets is distinguished by the ambivalence of its intimacy—the holding of its reader at arm’s length, in an abeyant proximity. The result is a work less immediately familiar than foreign. In a time where the pace of life has hastened to an informational blur—the world at our keyboarded fingertips and on our cable televisions, with so much available knowledge that we now question its purported power—it is precisely Chejfec’s ability to inhabit the immediacy of both known and unknown, common and strange, that makes his work so timely.
The immediacy of the familiar and the foreign informs, as well, the friendship between the narrator and M, the ponderous duo at the core of The Planets. Remaining nameless—“M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters”—they navigate Buenos Aires as though on a dual trajectory. Not merely inseparable in the banal way many childhood friends are described, they considered themselves so linked that the identity of one was unthinkable without the other. In recognition of this they exchange photographs, whereupon “M’s photo” accurately describes both the photo of himself and the one given to him by the narrator (and vice versa). Being and identity, they muse, are not steady-state givens, to hoard behind the closed doors of one’s consciousness. They are, rather, intermittent occurrences, dependent on, if not wholly determined by, the perspective of those who bear witness. M’s description of this dialectic is telling:
The houses, whose facades constituted the exterior, were—according to M—pure reality, the backdrop of private experience and real life that nonetheless depended on the street to define itself as such. Safe within their homes, people entered a realm of shadow day after day, like the planets; here, however, shadow was a rhetorical quirk that meant isolation. And light meant the presence of others, of witnesses, in the street.
Where there is one, therefore, there must be a second; where there is one pair, there must be two; and so on, until whole constellations of connected individuals are formed. Each day, as M and the narrator set their respective courses, whether in paired proximity or not, they and their universe were newly formed:
The constellations that M and I believed we formed throughout the day as we connected our individual trajectories needed the space of the city to be understood as such, as the orbit of planets whose course is influenced by the relative effects of mass, force, gravity, and things like that, which define the breadth and depth of their impact as complex equations and reciprocal equilibrium; in this way, the two of us seemed to bear the weight of the city on the transparent lines that connected our bodies in movement.
Suffice it to say, when M is abducted during the height of Argentina’s Dirty War and presumably murdered, the narrator feels a profound loss. With his personal sense of being at stake (let alone that of the cosmos itself), he retells the stories that he associates with M as a means to avoid forgetting. In this way, he seeks to maintain fidelity to M in the face of his country’s silence. In one of the more hair-raisingly stark passages, the narrator makes clear the rationale for his decision:
What is more, at the time, political violence and death hovered in the air; they were recognized as an everyday occurrence toward which many or few could feel aversion or horror—this did little to reduce its power; in fact, it had the opposite effect, preserving it as part of the normal order of things. This acceptance could have been a result of detachment, consent, or debasement, but either way it meant that death had proliferated through its use; a use that was sanctioned by endowing politics with a functional dimension, turning its morals back into action.
The “functional dimension” of Argentina’s politics, ”turning its morals back into action,” the singularity of effect overtaking the multitude of causes, relates directly to what the narrator calls “the sphere of evil . . . the need to complete unfinished stories.” Silence, of course, is its own conclusion and comes with its own kind of violence. Worse still, the course of all friendship and conversation, and thus of the constellations at which we are the center, tend toward silence. How then is it possible, the narrator asks, to speak faithfully when time inevitably betrays our memories, details are forgotten, suspicions are harbored?
The temptation at this point is to expect Chejfec to applaud absence as a virtue in itself and fragmentary knowledge as an absolute. This has become the postmodernist caricature—as much a caricature of the postmodernist as it is a lazy game some of the self-described play—but it is not one Chejfec indulges. On the contrary, where he has a response at all to the question concerning silence and forgetting, he finds it not in the fragment but in the excess:
The absolute meant destruction: the absolute collapsed under its own weight. It was his deepest conviction that forests should never be too dense or plains entirely flat, that peaks could never be too steep or days utterly bright; nature always maintained an excess: nothing was completely anything, there was always something more that could be added.
The reader would do well to remember this as she reads The Planets. Perspectives shift, sometimes abruptly; first-person blends into third via italics; and a character from a story told by M’s father recurs without explanation. There may be a rhyme to Chejfec’s authorial excesses, but for them truly to work as excesses readers must believe, truly give themselves over to the fact, that they have no single reason. Like the nighttime dreams that seem to anticipate a daytime reality, they are the causes that outnumber the effect.
This, the narrator finds, is also the key to remaining faithful to his fading memory of M, and thus to what he believes to be true about himself and his world. M’s stories about nomads presage his embodiment of a “logic that transcends all mysteries.” By this logic, it is impossible to settle in any one place, including in a single memory or tale. Everything is the impossible summation of all the perspectives, decisions, and aspersions cast upon it, and it is thus imbued with more than any single memory can possibly recall. Fidelity, therefore, is not directed toward that which is remembered but to the talismanic act of remembrance: to the telling and hearing, to the recounting and review, and the creation of what might yet become.
Brad Johnson is an independent scholar and writer living in Oakland, California. He blogs at Departure Delayed and An und für sich, and is currently writing his first novel.
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