With the aim of bringing together fond voices to pay homage and bid farewell to Sergio Chejfec, we asked various friends of his, from different times of his life, to write brief notes on their relationships with him and their appreciation of his life and work.
Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza
In Memory of Sergio
The first thing I knew of Sergio Chejfec was not his literature but the look in his eyes, in the wee hours of the morning in an airport in the jungle of Venezuela—a country whose nightmare I was fleeing—when, after an instant of abrupt recognition, one of us addressed the other. I immediately became aware that his eyes worked with the meticulousness of a microscope and with simultaneous telescopic ambition. It did not take long for me to read his work, and to realize that this gaze, both painstaking and broad, was but a reflection of the writing—astonishingly detailed and intelligent—with which he built a literature unique in the Spanish language. He saw that which the rest of us see not. More than a few pages of his books inspired me. One night, taking a stroll through his city beside the Hudson River, he spoke to me of his singular theory of how the letters printed on a fax evolve with time and seem to have a life of their own: a notion that, years later, would serve as my direct inspiration to write the entry “Amor-Fax” in El libro de todos los amores. And this is just one example of many. So it was to stroll and chat with Sergio, whether in New York or when he came, in time, to Palma de Mallorca. If I had to summarize Sergio in a single word, that word would be elegant, even in his relationship with readers, to whom he had the deference to leave a literary corpus shared out in thin volumes but of diamantine density, an immense literature, a sort of Aleph.
Agustín Fernández Mallo
I saw Sergio Chejfec in Buenos Aires, above all. That is to say, I saw him in his city: the city where I lived and he didn’t. I saw him, for example, at Bar Los Galgos; I saw him, for example, at Café Montecarlo. I also saw him in New York, which was not his city; a city where he lived and I didn’t. I also saw him elsewhere, in cities that were neither his nor mine, in which neither he nor I lived; cities as disparate as Santa Fe, Berlin, Mexico City.
Critics have thought of Sergio Chejfec in terms of foreignness (Edgardo Berg: Signo de extranjería. Memoria, paseo y experiencia narrativa en Sergio Chejfec; Marcos Seifert: La extranjería argentina) or as embodying the visitor (Alejandra Laera in her prologue to the Chejfec anthology that bears precisely this title: El visitante). Indeed, they called him “el Polaco,” “the Pole.” And he lived outside the country for many years (but where was he a foreigner? Where a visitor? Here or there? Or in the confluence and disjunction between these spaces?). It is in his literature, in any case, where that air of discreet strangerhood is best expressed, those subtle nuances of a slight alienation, that modicum of eccentricity he spoke of himself.
That being said, if Sergio Chejfec transmitted anything, in his own cities or the cities of others, immersed in some sort of Spanish or in more or less distant tongues, if something was broadcast by the foreigner, the visitor, the Pole, that something was hospitality. A hospitality without undue flash or emphasis, a hospitality as discreet as his strangerhood. One always felt received by him, always well received. Even if he was the one who was arriving. Even if he was the visitor.
I am thankful to those (Graciela Montaldo, for one) who made the decision to bury him in the city of Buenos Aires. I know his cemetery well. The best thing we can do with Chejfec’s final place, with that remnant, quite fittingly, is to simply visit him.
A little over ten years ago, Federico Monjeau suggested I read Gallos y Huesos, a long poem by Sergio Chejfec. The poem was a marvel. Sergio dedicated it, in part, to Igor Barreto, a Venezuelan poet and cock-fighting aficionado who was his friend. I composed a lengthy choral piece on the text’s tonality, and that was the first project we did together, with images and videos by Eduardo Stupía at the Centro Experimental del Teatro Colón, commissioned by Miguel Galperin. Thanks to this collaboration, which was quite successful, we were able to do another project at the CETC, this one a little more theatrical and perhaps more personal for Sergio: Teatro Martín Fierro, with projections, four guitars, three sopranos, and three actor-readers of the text. We put together a sort of team. The interaction and the assemblage of the distinct elements—the visual, the textual, and the musical—could not have been more perfect. It all flowed together with magical ease. I don’t think we ever disagreed. Sergio had the reticence of a well-bred creole. He listened like a composer, and while he wrote he took into account the sounds of words and silences in an unusual, characteristic fashion. His texts sound like him. Setting them to music was relatively easy for me, perhaps because we had a great deal in common. Sergio says toward the end of Teatro Martín Fierro: “Then it is as if you could hear a requiem in the room.” The music that accompanies this phrase ends with a quotation from the Lacrimosa, from Mozart’s Requiem.
Having nothing to say is perhaps the best way to pay homage to Sergio Chejfec in fifteen lines—the space I have been given to comply with the requirements of this digital edition (which is tiring on the eyes, as we all know). Faced with the same challenge, I’m sure he would have asked, what can be said in fifteen lines that cannot be said in just one? But I’m already on my fifth, a third of my allowance, and I have yet to say anything worthwhile. What would be worthwhile to read today, I wonder, avoiding the risk of importuning Sergio’s memory; he was a writer who shied away from characterization, whether in his favor or against him. I’ve said it before: what interested him was digression, which he practiced with indulgence and unhurriedness, irritating those accustomed to speedy reading. An editor friend of mine confessed, not long ago, that Chejfec left him somewhat indifferent. There is some logic to this statement: indifference is perhaps the central trait of our age’s saturated efficiency, except when it comes to ourselves. Literary digression would then become indifference’s radical opposite: flotsam and jetsam that shine on the banks of the current, in the spaces pushed aside by the floodwaters’ strength. This is my fourteenth line, and I realize now it is best to step aside in order to write about Chejfec.
All of Sergio Chejfec’s literature is an inquiry into the nature of representation and the conditions of its possibility, along with the question of whether the narration of an experience is an experience in and of itself. And the astonishing part is—while his narrators nurse certain quite reasonable doubts about this—Chejfec always manages to make the transformative and true truth of the narration of only apparently trivial experiences—a stroll through a park in southern Brazil, meeting someone to talk, waiting for an elevator, reading or buying a blank notebook—manifest before the reader in all its irrepressible intensity, in a flash of blinding light. Sergio was, in this sense, the Spanish-language writer of the past half century who best understood what is meant by this “being in the world” of representation, its transformation into experience, the way we inhabit books and the best works of art and how we are, in turn, inhabited by them. There is not much to say about his towering, irreparable loss, except the following: many of us writers would like it to be said of us that we copy him. I can think of no higher praise, and of no greater pleasure than to keep on reading him.
My first few months in Buenos Aires I got lost repeatedly in the streets, without the Andes to give me my bearings. Thus wandering one day, I came across a fishmonger on Calle San Luis where, like in Chile, they flawlessly fileted the whole fish. The shop supplied the local Jewish community with the mix needed to make the gefilte fish eaten at celebrations. When my grandmother was alive, it was ground at home. First you had to pick out the infinitesimal bits of skin, of nerve, of guts… Still today, recipes recommend you clean the fish thoroughly; you need not only excellent eyesight but also a sensitive touch able to feel out anything extraneous, and agile fingers to extract the tiniest pieces. This is what I feel when I read Sergio Chejfec. I feel that his fingers open up something I thought was solid, finding textures, nerves, guts, bits of skin… Not to discard them, but to expand on their complexity.
To Sergio, to His Absence
How can one talk about Sergio as if he were no longer here? How can one think about or sense his absence? How can one write about him as if he were a memory—recent, but a memory nonetheless? How can one return to New York and find a city without him, as if it had been demolished? How will life be after almost forty years of sharing with him, sharing his passions, his myths, his care, his extreme generosity? The window of my house. He liked it so much. Will I ever be able to walk up to that glass and not see the river like he saw it? Will I be able to walk up to that glass and not feel the eternal calm of his closeby friendship? He liked the river. The bridge. How will it be to see that bridge, that river, now without him, without his placid, friendly, respectful visits? That’s how he treated both me and the river. Everything. Because, without being solemn, that’s how Sergio was: respectful of everything. A quality that is far from abundant. Better said: a quality that’s scarce. That cautious, contained happiness. That talent he had for celebrating—without ceremony, without fanfare. How will the city be now, without him? How will friendship be now, without him? How will it be to write? How will it be to remember him?