Traveling the Interior: Sergio Chejfec by P. T. Smith

In his most recently translated novel, Sergio Chejfec continues to craft a style and world all his own.

Sergio Chejfec

Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.

This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.

In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.

This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader. He often contradicts himself, at one point refuting novels that use a character’s clothing to define or reveal them, then later, telling us what Delia’s worker uniform says about her. But Chejfec so carefully organizes the order of thoughts leading up to the contradiction that you are reminded that if you let anyone ramble long enough, and pay close enough attention, they will always reach new conclusions that contradict past ones. When thoughts wander across consciousness as across a landscape and then approached from a different angle, that landscape can appear wholly different than at its last sighting. By making the thought process careful, considered, and something the reader must be pulled along by, Chejfec brings a certain fragility to his narrator, even while he remains vaguely menacing, asking for understanding.

To find this understanding, we must allow ourselves to be pulled into the flow of the novel, to follow the narrator wherever he goes. Yet to not be lost in his confusion, in that unsettled state he lives in, we must remain outside of him. It is a careful balance between being removed at just the right distance, not too far, not too close, to find ways of understanding, to see what he wants us to see, and to see what to him is just the dark. It is a great testament to the skills of translator Heather Cleary that this complex flow is clear in English. She needs to find an even tighter balance and must both give over to the flow of the narrator’s lost, but full of beauty and insight, consciousness, while maintaining enough control to bring it to another language. It is no surprise that her translation of Chejfec’s previous novel, The Planets, was a finalist for the 2013 Best Translated Book Award, and The Dark should be another strong contender. This area of borders, of insides and outsides, of knowing but not knowing, is where reading The Dark can come to thrilling life, and it is something Chejfec, and his narrator, through Delia, is aware of: “Now she knew what the object was, but still wondered what its name could be. This renewed ignorance doubled the mystery and increased her fascination.” Or: “Delia also had to perform an archaic task: that of monitoring, though some of the processes and most of the details were beyond her.” Stepping outside, after letting ourselves in, is the best way to process and interpret.

This meandering of the narrator’s writing—and he does carefully express himself as writing, focusing on the physical meaning of the act—is reflected in it being also a novel of walking. He and his lost love Delia spend their evenings together doing little more than walking. The land they walk through is almost entirely empty, and even named the Barrens. The whole physical world of the novel seems to be a void: “The immensity of the territory stretched out before us, an apparently limitless expanse flecked with clusters of shrubs, scattered houses, and gentle slopes. It wasn’t just the size of the surface that gave this sensation: one saw it this way because of its homogeneity, the vertigo of simple things.” There is the factory Delia works at, the area the narrator lives in, those few scattered houses, and the Barrens, with the single shed the two make love in. The workers in the factory are clearly impoverished, borrowing clothes from each other, borrowing money in order to buy soap, so it is possible to interpret this emptiness, the dirt roads, the houses built of whatever abandoned materials can be found as utter, abject poverty. But this doesn’t find grounding. Even trash is rare here.

We are either challenged to imagine a world where there is nothing, where the factory and its workers are almost isolated Platonic originals, or that this is a world of sparseness because it is the narrator’s perception. There is nearly a complete lack of color used to describe the setting (finishing the book, I thought there may be none, but a skimming review found “yellow paper” and black). The description of the landscape is often so minimal that it is easy to envision the set of a play—a few scattered objects, a black backdrop, and two actors walking amongst them, in near silence, with one occasionally pausing, stopping the action, to narrate—a sense confirmed when a character enters “as though she were stepping onstage.”

When the narrator does allow the landscape to enter in from the dark, it mostly comes in abstractions: “Everything built is the promise of a future ruin, even new constructions. We live surrounded by debris; living in a house means inhabiting a ruin—and I don’t mean this only in a literal sense.” Within this the narrator is not only giving his sense of the world he walks through, but also the way that time, and the movements of time permeate the landscape, and throughout his mind, in a way that is almost physical. The newly built house already has its ruin present in it, and the ruin of a house can still reveal its early construction.

The movement of time is endless and endlessly unsettled. There is no straight line from past to present to future. The narrator is unable to settle in the present. Even in recollecting his memories, he does not settle in, but moves again to the future or to a deeper past. This isn’t reflected only in his stated thoughts, but the structure of the narrative. Amongst his many repetitions is the promise to tell a story later on or to describe something: “Later, I suppose, I’ll describe Delia’s scent.” He keeps to these promises, and is also keen to remind us when a point is returned to. He does not want to express himself inaccurately, does not want to be misunderstood, even as we often see more than he wants us to.

This movement both reveals and conceals, though the concealment cannot last. It comes when the narrator slips a shade over a moment or a thought and moves on. It inevitably reoccurs however, or is glimpsed fleetingly, and clarity can be found. Objects are also signs for the narrator, meant to be interpreted, and they too can move and reveal. While standing outside the factory yard, watching Delia from afar, he describes how she rolls down her sleeves, kept up for the workday, and “In the contrast between the protected and the exposed fabric, one could imagine the time she spent at the machines.”A borderland demarking one piece of fabric from itself creates a full scene of space and time. It is in these touches that the brilliance of Chejfec shines, the complexity of ideas is present not just in the direct philosophizing of the narrator, not just in the structure of the book, but in the details.

It is a testament to the depth of this book, and Chejfec’s control over its complexity, that he is able to smuggle into the narrator’s obsession with Delia a commentary on the working class. The only workers we see are factory workers, poor factory workers who know nothing but work and production. We never find out what they produce, only that they exist to do so. The narrator holds up a strange belief, seemingly inverting the Marxist ideas of workers and their connection to work, and making it instead an ideal: “it was only through participating in and leaving his mark on production at the machine that he found a tenuous, but profound, justification for his existence.” Later though, in one of the rare moments of stripped of abstraction, he reaches an alternative conclusion:

After isolating, evaluating, and determining what profit could be drawn from them, it hired them, consumed them, and returned them to a life of repetitive actions. One word gives a particularly good sense of it: ‘exploitation,’ hiring someone in order to squeeze every last drop from them. 
By keeping the factory workers so minimal throughout, the product not described, a company never mentioned, they become representative, not of factory workers, but of the vast 99%, workers of all types in a culture of debt, with no retirement in sight, detached from all relation to their work, but reliant on it. This trick, the minimal expanding to the maximal by giving the reader the room to do so, is a wonderful one, and it is managed silently, behind the scenes of the narrator’s consciousness.

Silence is essential to The Dark and the silence that encompasses Delia and the narrator’s walks is central to their relationship. At first, it is his silence, “As with other mysteries from which one can only retreat, it never occurred to me to ask her questions about the strange quality of her skin,” but later on, “Upon finding herself exposed, generally after reacting to something, Delia would close herself off inside a delicate silence tinged with anticipation, like the moment before glass breaks or the hunter attacks.” In fact, throughout the novel, Delia becomes more and more like the narrator. The similarity between the two is essential to him; it is what lets him love her to such desperate degree. It is the only thing that lets her enter his closed off world and expand it. But we only know they are similar through him, his perception.

From the beginning, the narrator admits that Delia is young, and nothing is said about his age. Her age is never specified, and he is not out to suppress it, but there is a sense of shame, of hesitancy to admit. Eventually, while trying to evoke a photo taken of the two, needing to step outside both of them to describe the scene, he admits that they would be perceived as father and daughter. In the interior of his mind though, this is not how she is perceived. His evocations of her are not pedophilic or even necessarily evocative of youth. Returning to his promise to describe her scent: “There was the scent of her body, of course, the most astounding I’ve ever known: to say that hers was an animal scent would hardly express it; it blended the smell of a beast in the wild with the sweat of a hard day’s work.” Unless he lets her go into the dark, he can only express her as he perceived her, and needs to continue perceiving her to protect himself.

He is not out to control our perception of him or Delia. This is not a narrator with the historical authority that Sebald resonates, or the absolute confidence of a Nabokovian narrator. He is a weaker, possibly pitiable, man who in the middle of attempting to put forth a belief with conviction can falter:

Anyway, as I was saying, on those walks through the outlying neighborhoods I confirmed that nature holds greater sway in the dark, just as beauty does. If we employed all our senses, we could hear the crackle of ants marching across the ground, the way the smell of food, indicated what was being cooked inside the invisible houses. I don’t know.

Chejfec trusts the reader to be able to see through the narrator, and lets the narrator admit enough—such as with the hint of threat that surrounds Delia’s silence but not his own—so that we can find glimmers of light that let us create a perspective just outside of the narrator’s interior. The narrator cannot help but reveal this. One of his most repeated phrases is “I’ve read many novels …” which he uses to compare to his situation, as something his life can defy or to help prove a point. However, these novels are never named, and they become a flailing, a desperation for support, and it can be heartbreaking, as when, while defending his leaving Delia, he tells us “Though this is no excuse, it there should be an excuse at all, the way we learn about something inspires our reaction, whatever the facts may be. I’ve read many novels in which this happens.” Here it is a plea, begging us to let him off the hook because of something he came across in a novel.

In the end, even without Delia, without his access to another world, the narrator continues his walking: “This is the room I walk around every day. Before, Delia and I used to walk through the city and its surroundings; now I keep to these four walls.” And as he walks in the dark, he also writes in the dark, putting his words down on paper he can’t see, letting it “immediately break free.” Through this writing, he is desperate to break through himself. The Dark is a confessional by someone unable to confess. He is aware of the suffering he put on the girl he loved by abandoning her, by the cruelty of his actions leading up to the abandonment and their aftermath, and unable to hide his cruelty from us. But he cannot take responsibility either, it is yet another thing that is outside of him. The minute he wounds Delia, she must become part of the dark, because if she remains as the reflection of his own thoughts, that wound would become his too.

P. T. Smith is a reader and critic living in Vermont.

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