Indeterminate Locations by Chris Cumming

Chris Cumming on Sergio Chejfec’s abstract and sometimes grotesque novel, The Planets.


Image courtesy Talbott/NIST.

The novels of the Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec are just beginning to be translated into English. Last year there was My Two Worlds; last month, in Heather Cleary’s translation, The Planets; and coming next year, The Dark, all from Open Letter Books.

The Planets was first published in 1999, during a long period that the Buenos Aires-born Chefjec spent in Venezuela. It’s a mid-career work—his first novel appeared in 1990—but the style is mature, to say the least. It is an extreme example of abstraction and narrative discursion in fiction, nearly as far as a novel can go toward abstraction and still seem to be telling a story. Chefjec’s is a very peculiar type of abstraction. While the novel is set in a specific place, and some of the characters are even given names and personalities, it’s mostly composed of interpretations and analyses, rather than direct narratives, of people, things, and events. It is abstract more in the way Robert Musil is abstract, for instance, than Samuel Beckett. But everything about the novel, including its abstraction, is Chefjec’s own.

The Planets is not a novel with a single unitary and forward-moving plot, but rather is a compilation of many stories, suspended within extremely prolix analyses of the city, time, space, movement, memory, and identity. The novel’s main plot (around which many other plots circle, planetlike) is barely more than a sketch. The narrator reads in the newspaper about an explosion in the countryside. This puts him in mind of M, a friend from his youth who was abducted and killed during Argentina’s period of violent political repression, while they were still university students. This sounds like the beginning of a political novel, but The Planets is maybe as apolitical as a novel about the Dirty War can be—almost the whole book is memories of walks the narrator and M took around Buenos Aires: the things they saw, the stories they told. The narration shifts between memories of M and of the more recent past, in which he encounters traces of his friend—M’s elderly mother, an old school friend who knew them both.

The novel is most centrally concerned with the relationship between geography and memory. The narrator and M appear to wander through Buenos Aires at random, but actually follow specific trajectories, visiting the same streets day after day, exploring their neighborhood in widening orbits. Like planets, the two young men are apparently autonomous and self-contained, yet they leave traces on the city and are marked by the city in kind. After M’s disappearance, the narrator tries to repeat the trajectory that the two followed in their walks together. He finds that

[t]he 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 orbits 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 same way, the two of us seemed to bear the weight of the city on the transparent lines that connected our bodies in movement.

A great deal of The Planets describes this interrelation between the city and the narrator’s memories and perceptions.

Walking, the main action of The Planets, is also a metaphor for the construction of the book—the stories wander, following one another in sequence but not logically. In an interview that Chefjec gave to Guernica to discuss My Two Worlds, he explains why walking is central to his fiction. A walk is a “matrix,” he says, of different tensions: between material reality and one’s perception of it, between “determinacy and indeterminacy,” possibility and actuality. When we walk and observe the city at random, we experience a sequence of juxtapositions: we see things that do not fit together logically. We feel a contrast between our memories and the physical objects that conjure them up. He aspires to achieve this effect in his fiction. “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,” he told Guernica, “is the ultimate level of literary depth, of literary density.”

If that’s the goal, well done; I had no idea what precisely the author of The Planets wanted to say in many of these long passages analyzing movement through the city. Where is the line between “indeterminacy” and simple lack of focus? In this novel the tension between determinacy and indeterminacy—if I am understanding Chefjec’s terms—is frequently slackened, and there are pages and pages of impossibly subtle digressions that feel like pushing on a string.

But when the tension is maintained and the indeterminate appears unexpectedly rather than routinely, its appearance is exciting. Chefjec’s commitment to unexpectedness—to non sequiturs, to the grotesque, to sudden breaches in reality—is the best and most original aspect of his writing. What saves The Planets from being unreadably dense and overwrought are the frequent irruptions of the grotesque amid all this analytical prose. There are three or four page-long sections of the book that left me with a legitimate shock of strangeness and surprise. Like this one: As M is walking along the train tracks near his house he finds an eyeball on the ground. “M did not know what to do. Somewhere nearby, perhaps no more than a few meters, was an empty socket.” M suddenly remembers watching a woman and her child sitting on a bench in a train station, moments before the mother killed herself and her child by falling in front of a train, and recalls that the mother grew irritated with the fussy child as they waited on the bench.

On one hand, the desire for suicide; on the other, childish agitation. The first is the mother of the second … If we believe this, that these two states have taken on form and that mother and child—two beings only half protected from the cold—are no more than the vague ideas known as Suicide and Agitation that inhabit bodies of flesh and bone, what name can we give the remains scattered on the tracks once the train has passed? What do you call the torn overcoat, the lone shoe with a foot still inside it, the crimson scarf?

Then M brings his heel down and crushes the eyeball.

Here’s another one: the narrator and M witness a car collision that causes one of the cars’ trunks to open. Inside the trunk is a swarm of rats. The driver gets out and approaches them:

They were looking at a man whose face had been transformed. This change had nothing to do with the passage of time or evolution—or, at least, not as it is commonly understood, as aging—the change was related to surprise, mystery, or magic. In the most literal sense, the man had the face of a rat. His features were not approximate, they did not share common traits—the way some say, “He looks like a dog,” or, “He looks like a monkey.” Instead, each detail of his face combined with the others to compose another countenance, that of a rat. Under different circumstances, this would not have surprised them at all; they might not even have noticed it. But there, with the car turned into a swarm, this face not only confirmed the apparition, it also endowed it with a sense of mystery and menace. “Close the trunk. I can’t stand the sight of rats,” he begged.

I can’t describe precisely the impression these bizarre, grotesque surprises made on me, and I can’t think of any other fiction that has this exact quality. It seems to belong more to visual art or movies—expressionist art, maybe. Taken out of context (i.e. not among pages and pages of abstruse commentary on the nature of movement through a city), they might not seem very impressive, but they are. “Weird” may really be the right word for them. It’s a weird and unfamiliar literary effect, and if you have time and inclination, it’s worth reading the The Planets for.

Chris Cumming is a financial reporter in New York City.

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