Sergio Chejfec (Buenos Aires, 1956) has published twelve books of fiction, poetry, and essays since 1990. While living in Caracas, Venezuela from 1990 to 2005, he was the editor of Nueva Sociedad, a journal in social sciences, politics, and culture. Among many grants and prizes, in 2007 he received a fellowship from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation (Umbertide, Italy), and was awarded a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 2000. His works have been translated into French, German, and Portuguese. He currently lives in New York City and is teaching in the Creative Writing in Spanish Program at NYU. His latest novel Mis dos mundos was published in 2008 by Alfaguara (Buenos Aires) and Candaya (Barcelona). An English translation of a fragment of the text was included in BOMB magazine, Issue 106, Winter 2008.
About the Book:
A review from Full Stop
“Neither of us would have imagined that, years later, these events would be written down on paper,” explains the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets. The us the narrator is referring to includes the narrator himself, whose name we never learn, and his childhood friend, referred to simply as M: “M for Miguel, or Mauricio; it could also be M for Daniel since, as we know, any name at all can reside behind letters.” M is the central figure of his friend’s narrative, the enigmatic focal point around which the narrator’s digressions circle. He exists in excess, but also in negation — a simultaneous presence and absence that forms the thematic backbone of the book.
M was “disappeared,” abducted during a period of political unrest in 1970s Buenos Aires, and the novel begins with a mysterious explosion years later. For some reason, the narrator comes to the odd conclusion that M, who has been missing without a trace, must have died in the explosion. Thus, the narrator is “offered the only possibility of an ending.” And yet that “ending” is also a “beginning,” as it becomes the impetus of the narrator’s impassioned remembrances and intellectual wanderings that orbit the ghost-like M. “A sense of loyalty to his memory leads me to write,” the narrator confesses. Yet memory, as we quickly learn, is a problematic thing, one that is endlessly fallible:
I feel unable to attribute any tangible trait, even a trivial one, to M; a feature, a gesture or expression, a past, a family, affect, et cetera. A reflected image that has slowly given way to negation, to shadow. The effect is unreal, and this unreal effect makes his life seem not only improbable, but also incidental. Did M exist? Yes, I say. But what was his time on earth like? It is all conjecture, I reasoned, the more time passes, the less I know. This lack of knowledge has nothing to do with forgetting, though that is what we call it, nor with the length of his absence, but rather with its excess.
The Planets creates concentric circles around the concepts of memory, loss, identity, and change. But what exists at the center of these orbits, and thus what enacts an immense gravitational pull on these concepts, is mystery, uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that is mirrored in M; like the character, uncertainty takes the form of a negation, a lack, and yet it exists in excess, through the superfluity of possibility. The narrator underlines this connection between uncertainty and possibility throughout the novel: “I should say that I lacked then, as I do now, any proof that M was in that explosion. But I was not, I am not, in a position to ignore the possibility.”
This is one man’s attempts to recover, through memory and narrative, something/someone he has lost. We witness a character endeavoring to recreate the past in the vast country of the present, knowing all along that it is futile. But why should futility be discouraging?
I have on occasion wondered whether someone, should someone read this, might think that I am proposing, or hoping to discover, through the image of M, the logic or mystery through which the people have drifted since those years. The truth is that there is little to propose and even less to discover.
The Planets is not a novel of proposals and discoveries. Proposals and discoveries are direct, whereas Chejfec’s book, with its rambling narrative and beautiful, meandering prose, circles ideas rather than approaching them head-on. Chejfec’s words wander through all manner of tangential topics, and while the story seems, on the surface, as haphazardly constructed as a collection of memories should and would be, there is no doubt about the meticulousness behind the text. Heather Cleary’s translation walks this tightrope perfectly, displaying with an uncanny grace both the chaos and the order that make up the core of the book. With Cleary’s crisp translation, Open Letter gives English readers yet another masterfully crafted narrative by Chejfec, after the phenomenal introduction with his earlier My Two Worlds.
Early in the book, describing M’s inability to comprehend space and master geography, the narrator says M is “condemned to perpetual uncertainty.” So is the narrator, and so are we. The Planets is a novel of coming to terms with this ambiguous relationship between reality and our understanding of it. “Because,” as the narrator says, “the same mystery that moves the planets also impels people.” Condemned to perpetual uncertainty, we abide our planetary orbits, continuing on what may likewise be our “greatest adventure.”