I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, have made me realize that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived. The idea occurred to me in Brazil, while I was visiting a city in the south for two days. In truth, I’m not sure why I agreed to go there, without knowing anyone and having no idea about the place. It was a hot afternoon, and I was walking around looking for a park about which I had almost no information, except for its somewhat musical name, which, by my criteria, made it promising, along with the fact that it was the biggest green space on the map of the city. In my mind a park that big had to be worthwhile. For me a park is good if, first of all, it’s not pristine, and second, if it has been taken over by solitude, which becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, who might be sporadic, but, from my point of view, must be completely absorbed or lost in thought, as well as slightly confused, as though walking through a space that is at once strange and familiar. I don’t know if “abandoned” is the right word; what I mean is a place that seems relegated to the side, set apart from its surroundings, and which could be any park, anywhere, even at the opposite ends of the earth. A place that’s out of the way, indistinct, or better yet, where a person, prompted by who knows what kinds of associations, withdraws and is transported to some other, indeterminate location.
The day before I had attended a literature conference, and when it was over I walked through the plaza where the local book fair had been organized, in what I assumed was one of the city’s historic districts, even though many of its original buildings or landmarks seemed to be missing. People were walking slowly, crowding into the streets because of their numbers. I must have been the only solitary walker that day, which luckily attracted no one’s attention, because families, groups of friends, and couples did keep doing their own thing as I wandered about. Earlier, while waiting in an empty room for the conference to begin, I read in the newspaper that every year, during the book fair, the crafts market moved its stalls and tables to adjacent streets. I forget why I thought this information was important, and even more, why it stayed in my mind. (The following day I discovered, a few blocks away, its temporary site, where the artisans had organized themselves by craft, as if protecting themselves from some imagined danger.) At the end of the conference, I didn’t stay to ask questions; in fact, I was the first to leave the room, searching for a quick exit to the street. I walked down a glass stairway that led to a huge interior garden, and when I finally found my way out of the building, which must have once been a government palace, I had no choice but to join the steady stream of people, as if I were a fugitive trying to blend in.
The layout of the plaza was traditional: a rectangle with two diagonal and two perpendicular paths that met at the center, where there was a statue. Despite this simple design, I began to feel lost within a few minutes, no doubt because of the crowds, along with the dense greenery and the evening shadows. I often found myself standing in front of the same bookstands; in reality there were only a few displaying titles that piqued my interest, which was limited in any case, and only after peering over the shoulders of an army of onlookers did I realize that I had already stopped in front of the same books. But because I felt there was more area to cover, I wasn’t sure which stands I had already visited. And so I joined the multitudes again and let myself be carried by the flow. I remember that as I walked, the repetition of the light bulbs decorating the stands made me feel drowsy, as if in a scene from a movie. The food stalls, also mobbed with people, had been set up behind the plaza (to the back of the statue) on a short street that led to several government buildings. Depending on the breeze, the odors from the burners, generally of fried foods or rancid oil, wafted over; and at times I could see columns of smoke billowing through the strands of light bulbs and the fringed edges of the awnings. Anyway, I should say that it was the sensation of being hemmed in by an incessant swarm of people that prompted me to think of the existence of a park I’d want to visit. It would be just compensation, I thought.
If you look at the map of the first city that comes to mind, everything seems walkable: it’s simply a matter of following the street plan. But on the afternoon in question, reality, as is almost always the case, turned out to be different. The retaining walls of the elevated streets, the access roads and overpasses, the ramps for pedestrians or those exclusively for cars—all were barriers that time after time, and in a variety of ways, kept me from leaving the place I’d chosen in the center of the city for the sole purpose of walking to the park. If I tried to take the long way around, however, I would risk getting lost or, even worse, spending the rest of the day wandering through indistinguishable and unavoidably sad streets; for if the map had proved useless in showing me the shortest way, it was absurd to follow it in taking a longer one.
In truth, we can only read the maps of cities we know. In my case, for example, and first and foremost, Buenos Aires. The problem is, under normal circumstances, a map plays a kind of trick on us, because if we know a city well, any detail it shows us will be either redundant or limited. Come to think of it, that describes the relationship I have with Buenos Aires: redundancy and insufficiency. I don’t know if the same thing applies to others in their own cities. The urban topography is underscored by my own experience and, in particular, by my past; I’d even say that the physical characteristics of the terrain (which are negligible, given the nearly perfect horizontality of the land the city is built on) are part of the deepest memory of its residents, like those poems learned in school to the point of exhaustion. The same could be said with respect to the general shape of the city or its neighborhoods, the angles of the street corners, the unchanging composition of the light in its streets, the profile (at times reproachful, obscene, or felicitous) of certain facades, the commercial character of its avenues. What I mean is that for me, Buenos Aires, as a city, is a map of itself, because even though I know it inside and out (whatever that means), it always seems as if its details were in perpetual conflict and change. I can stand on any street corner and for the first few moments I don’t understand what’s in front of me; it’s a feeling that mixes a sense of one’s origins, the weight of the past, and one’s day-by-day and, at the same time, uncertain knowledge of the life of the city. From this combination another map emerges, one that, for the most part, is not easy to read.
On that afternoon in the Brazilian city, the grounds of a gigantic hospital, like those from years ago with enormous pavilions and endless gardens, lay to one side. A overpass rose before me, with ramps and sidewalks that didn’t seem to go anywhere in particular. On the other side, an express lane cut through the streets. I was, however, alone in my indecisiveness in this corner of the world, since everyone else was coming and going with remarkable ease, sure of their direction. I noticed that the more I stared at the map, the less I understood it; and what’s more, since my eyesight is poor and my glasses aren’t strong enough, I must have looked pathetic as I held the map practically against my face in order to see it above my eyeglasses. Every now and then I raised my eyes, hoping to find some point or street sign that would help orient me, but soon realized that it was futile, and wasted more time trying find myself on the map again. I was like this for a good while. I realized that my sense of direction, which had always been a secret source of pride, and was, in fact, almost the only thing I could brag about, had suddenly failed me as well.
And curiously, due perhaps to the never-ending flow of people at my side, no one stopped to offer me any help or to ask if things were all right. I felt invisible with my face hidden behind the map, and didn’t want to communicate with anyone. Then someone went, “Psst.” It was a street vendor who needed to pick up a heavy load and put it on a handcart. I thought he was calling me, and looked at him, half curious and half hopeful: maybe he’d feel sorry for me and would gesture to me to come over and keep an eye on his merchandise. But it turned out that he was calling someone else, a young man passing behind me, to ask for his help in lifting the load. Oh, I thought, You have to ask… . I began to imagine the aerial view of this part of the city, probably similar to what was depicted on the map, with me an immobile figure amid cars and people that kept passing by. I’m not sure why, but this physical image of my solitude or helplessness made me lose my patience. Moved by an inexplicable impulse, I started turning the map to see it from another angle, rotating it as if it were a steering wheel; that would help clear things up, I thought. The aerial observer must have been circling around, I supposed, and that explained why the map turned as it did.
The night before, on my walk through the book fair, I only became alarmed when I found myself, for the ninth or tenth time, in front of the stand for the local historical society. What worried me wasn’t that I felt the same anticipation as I did when I first arrived, that is, an anxiety to discover an important book, one that perhaps I had been hoping to find for years without knowing it, and which would open up an arcane and half-guarded field of knowledge for me; no, what alarmed me instead was that the repetition I had succumbed to no longer bothered me. Even when I looked up at the sky, searching for something clear and simple to dispel my confusion, I discovered, for the most part, columns of smoke rapidly ascending from the food stalls, and not much else, nothing that could be found consoling or inspirational. Another bookstand that was by now rather familiar to me was run by the publishers’ association, as well as one for a local bookstore that displayed an assortment of popular titles. I wanted to forget why I had come to that city, and even more, I was tempted by the idea of forgetting my own name and trying to be someone else, someone new.
That triggered a long train of thought not worth summarizing. I will only say that being someone new meant not so much a new beginning or a new personality, but rather, a new world, I mean, that the world would lose its memory, and that the memory of each individual would be lost as well, and I would be admitted as a previously unknown member, a new arrival, or as someone with no ostensible ties to the past. However, it was clear to me that I wasn’t referring to the world in general, with its billions of inhabitants, countless animal species and innumerable cities; I was actually referring to the world of my city. The impossible fantasy was that all the inhabitants of Buenos Aires would fall victim to a spontaneous amnesia and would admit me into their world as a new arrival, free of ties with the past and its consequent compromises with the future. Buenos Aires, a private stage for those literary utopias of the past that told of a stranger, a representative of the real world, who accidentally arrived in a community that had turned its back to the real world, ignoring it. Because, in a way, that is what occurs to us: more than a desire to be someone else, we want our community not to recognize us, and by not recognizing us, make us believe that we’re total strangers.
Maybe that’s why the best way for meto talk about Buenos Aires—whatever “best way” means—is by not referring to it: to eliminate all risk of testimonial narratives or metaphysical vicissitudes. I don’t like to see reality constructed for the sake of literature. I could talk, for example, about the buses in Buenos Aires; in particular I could go on about their unusual and obtuse routes, which seem to follow the impulse of its inhabitants to go in all directions at once. These routes are etched on my memory as if they belonged to a spatial category of their own, or even more, as if they were the principal actors in a fifth dimension that organized the urban landscape in an invisible but palpable way. For many years, and still today, I have connected the points of the city according to the routes of its bus lines, as if they were tracks of activity that dissipate, leaving nothing in their wake, yet endure, dispersed and real, like the traces of nomadic people. Or I could talk about the trains and their lost battle to make visible an urban landscape that is always temporary. The buses and trains of my city are the things I have always loved the most, perhaps because of the promise that they can function independently, as urban machines that have nothing to do with the will—in the good and bad sense—of the people. I could talk about all that, but despite the elusiveness of the subject, I prefer not to: I believe it’s appropriate to leave that undefined. And just as I don’t like to see reality organized for the sake of literature, I reject the clear, the explicit, the so-called forms of truth that seek to impose themselves as such, and I reject any attempt to show my city or any other city that way.
As I was saying, when I grew weary of the crowds at the book fair, I decided to get a map of the city as soon as possible, to see if it would confirm the big park’s existence, one that’d meet my expectations.
The following afternoon, standing on a street corner, I had almost given up when a fairly obvious idea occurred to me, which under those circumstances seemed providential: it would be best to find my way through the streets by referring to the general surroundings instead of following a set path. The map showed routes that were not only impossible, but also unverifiable. On the other hand, the spatial organization of the area could hardly be false; it was, at most, approximate, which was in any case, advantageous, and would keep me from walking unnecessarily. At that point I was exhausted: I had been roaming the streets far too long, ever since leaving my hotel early in the morning when it was still cool. On several occasions, I had walked down the same block two or three times, unintentionally of course, led there by random chance, disorientation, or frankly, my lack of interest. More than once, I thought I saw looks of surprise, or maybe simple curiosity, at this foreign visitor who was acting strangely and kept returning to the same streets.
For me, wandering around has turned into one of those addictions that can mean either ruin or salvation. I acquired the habit in childhood, when as the result of a disease I stopped walking. From my seat in the doorway, I’d watch people and cars passing by. During that time, walking turned into a remote and elegant anatomical feat I wasn’t capable of, for reasons unknown to me, a gift that included the ability to cover distances. A year later, I was authorized by a new medical report to stand up again. For me it was as if, thanks to the word, I’d recovered a physical skill, as if a god had conferred on me part of his freedom. At that early age I could only go to the corner or around the block; but from then on, as successful people say, nothing could stop me. Before I could be certain of it, my instinct probably told me that the main argument in favor of walking is its speed, which is best for observation and thought, and even more, for forgetting about one’s self temporarily, or letting one’s concentration drift. It occurred to me that walking is a physical activity that is natural and affected at the same time, almost theatrical. A corporeal experience that most resembles a syntax, because its arbitrary rules govern us as we move through the world. I’m afraid I can’t, however, be certain of this.
It’s true that many things related to walking have changed, some of which I will refer to later on, but this habit, which I’ve kept in times of misfortune or general ups and downs, supports my idea of the eternal walker; it is also what has saved me, though I don’t know from what, maybe from the danger of not being myself, something that, as I mentioned earlier, tempts me more and more, because to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all, the myth of authenticity. The habit itself helps strengthen my argument, because as soon as I arrive in a city the first decision I make is to go out; I want to familiarize myself with the surrounding area, to blend in with it using the simplest, handiest, and most convenient means, which is to walk.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson.
Margaret Carson’s translations of plays by Griselda Gambaro, Virgilio Piñera, and Diana Raznovich appear in Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance (University of Michigan Press, 2008). She teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College.
Sergio Chejfec is the author of a dozen books of fiction, poetry, and essays. His most recent book, Mis dos mundos—from which the present excerpt is taken—was published earlier this year by Alfaguara. While living in Caracas from 1990–2005, he was editor of the journal Nueva Sociedad. He currently lives in New York City.
This excerpt is reprinted online with permission from the publisher, Open Letter Books.
Originally published in
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.