The last book by Sergio Chejfec, published a few short months ago, is called No hablen de mí. Its subtitle reads Una vida y su museo. With the Argentine writer’s passing, following a short battle with pancreatic cancer, these words take on another meaning and another resonance. What in the book is a reader’s generosity—it is dedicated to the work of a colleague, Darío Canton—now turns, in another light, upon the author himself. Based in New York since 2005 along with his wife, essayist and professor Graciela Montaldo, after a long stay in Caracas—starting in 1990 and lasting fifteen years—Chejfec “the Pole” left behind a body of work that lends shape to a life (and vice versa), which will be talked about for many years to come.
His was an open-air museum, outdoors as he preferred to be, fond as he was—after working as a Buenos Aires taxi driver in his youth—of geographic journeys, of outings on foot, of the taciturn drift of an urban jaunt. Perhaps he intended for each stroll to turn him into a foreigner; to rarefy the world, to make it more precious and, in secret, kinder. Distance was his way of being among others and facing the real, even for the things he truly loved the most: in his goodbye to a friend, the great music critic Federico Monjeau, the goodbye’s subject goes unnamed. Chejfec believed that, sometimes, emotion had no need of bombastic gestures or evident manifestations. His work is a great antonym of demagoguery.
Speaking of lines he preferred not to cross, Sergio Chejfec outlined his own territory, which he defended, remaining courteously indifferent to the English that surrounded him in New York—a territory that did not exist before in Argentine literature (or any other). Gradually distancing himself from his mentor Juan José Saer, in his most original books—Baroni: un viaje and Mis dos mundos, Modo linterna, Últimas noticias de la escritura, Apuntes para un panfleto, Teoría del ascensor, El visitante—he cut a new path for each one, crafting each into a distinct, unrepeatable shape.
This is all that happens in Mis dos mundos: a man wanders around a park in a city in southern Brazil. That is to say, nothing happens, but continuously: “It is true that many things related to walking have changed, some of which I will refer to shortly, but the custom itself, which I have preserved even in times of misfortune or general ups and downs, supports the idea I have of myself as an eternal walker; it is also, without a doubt, what has saved me, though I am not quite sure from what; perhaps from the danger of not being myself, which tempts me all the more as time goes by.”
Walks—and the irony of a late-coming solipsist—come from afar in Chejfec’s work. His alter ego, the poet Samich, puts forth good-natured distinctions between the Caminante and the Caminador in the novel Moral. From this book to La experiencia dramática, roaming and rambling are the golden thread running through an ascetic literature. This, among other things, places his books on simultaneous planes. In fact, Mis dos mundos has a twin story, included in Modo linterna and titled “Donaldson Park.” Just as sister cities exist at different points on the planet, Chejfec created a family of narratives whose widespread participants are similar but not equal, some seeming to be versions of others. Not for nothing, one of the most frequent verbs in Teoría del ascensor is reponer, “to replace.”
The reader retorts to Chejfec’s way of walking: the reader advances without wanting to advance, wishing the book would never end. The prose of Mis dos mundos sees fit to help him along: like a cartoon character, the author accelerates while staying stuck in one spot. His pointillism—“a show of minutiae,” he lets slip—and his digressions seem to poke fun at the elemental demands and the volatile impatience of the everyday reader.
His novels invite us to a pacific experience of smooth perplexity, punctuated by the virtuosity of his transitions, the singularity of his verb tenses, the logical and methodical inferences of his phrasing. What we read are instructions with which to mentally reconstruct the testimony of an affable witness. The mind as a theme park: to think via perception. This procedure cannot help but bear cold, aseptic fruits; this is proven by his Lenta biografía.
Chejfec’s passengers in transit play with scale and, shrunk down, stroll hand in hand with amazement, as if through architectural mock-ups. This lends his stories a certain air of chamber theatre, of readers’ theatre, pared down, pinpointed, like in La experiencia dramática. As if the reading itself fell into some sort of machinery, in the style of Raymond Roussel. The climate—reality—fluctuates, but the page’s surface does not.
Nonetheless, it is clear that Chejfec was tempted by the idea of the imperfect copy (of the visible), and he composed his work as if training in strange techniques of perspective, with a retouched documentary style that was a good fit for the author of Baroni: un viaje, an elegant poetic document. All his books are elegant poetic documents, even in their reader’s and viewer’s manners and courtesies.
The unexpected—and unnoticed?—Sobre Gianuzzi is a book by a reader as unsteady as he is accurate, which turns to a body of work years after his first encounter with it, evaluates the echoes, both initial and recent, and details the highs and lows of any and all reputations. (Chejfec was astutely sensitive to the laughable accessories of public imagination: “Playing the writer is difficult and easy at once—like everything that does not depend entirely on oneself—much like becoming a writer”).
The author of El aire narrated as if he had just discovered the world—at risk of absolute submission to ingenuity—and was not yet over the surprise of learning that writing had been invented within it. This, perhaps, is why his novels are also essays on writing, on the literary experience per se: “One knows, we suppose, how one comes to a language. But not how one stays in it.”
In his narrative, we see something obvious—perhaps this is why he insists upon it—but often forgotten: at the center of writing lies writing. A lone certainty in the midst of absolute uncertainty. His fascination with its opposing face (illegibility) and the tactics with which illegibility might appear gracefully—in the work of artist Mirtha Dermisache, for example—therefore comes as no surprise.
His essay Últimas noticias de la escritura gave shape to this matter, studying examples of an author’s and a receiver’s relationship to writing, the different ways of creating and appreciating it. With an amusing repertoire of formats and foundations, the practice is also celebrated between the lines, right there in a book about the tension between materiality and immateriality, the limit that housed another of his interests: the infinite palette of orality. One of Chejfec’s admissions proffered another question: does someone who admits they lack a natural relationship with writing feel they have no right to write by hand?
Maybe he refrained from writing by hand—others need to do so to achieve the same goal—with the aim of preserving a certain ethereal quality he observed in literature. The paradox is that the author’s style seems to be that of a writer who can only write by hand. Chejfec’s is a cursive prose, one of loops and spirals, of magnanimous slownesses and pampered subordinates, and this calligraphic modality was imprinted upon his literary genetics, like a reflex action, after his having schooled himself by copying Kafka stories into a lined notebook.
There are many forms of ponderousness, and Chejfec’s belongs to an old family that starts with Sterne and ends with Saer and Sebald, only to then start again. Framing Sebald in El visitante, he was actually painting a mirror’s image: “A preplanned shot in slow motion that seems conceived to make of the story the descriptive development of its own elaboration.” But his prose clearly responds to a character and a temperament—such that it can be neither epigonal nor imitated—and it copies them, and it makes them applicable.
Últimas noticias, like El visitante and Teoría del ascensor, puts forth good, seditious ideas, liable to give the happily anachronistic reader a fright: “That floating condition of writing on the screen makes me think it possesses a dimension more distinctive and tight-fitting than the physical.” These apparently inoffensive instigations—a shy player’s pitches—are unobtrusively coupled with the Buster Keaton-esque hilarity that tends to mark Chejfec’s narrators. Their lack of false candor can be noted starting with Moral, but becomes all the more evident in Sobre Giannuzzi and Modo linterna, in whose case it is perhaps the price of pursuing that uncommon horizon: the premiere of a new format for every work, every stretch of the same journey.
Paradoxically, this model student of the school of the gaze, extremely alert to the contemporary, sometimes gave the impression that he was courting nineteenth-century stories. This, at any rate, demonstrates the presentness that still emanates from the mismatched first persons of Eichendorff and Stifter and, closer to home, Robert Walser, or the invincibility of the walk as form and process.
Distant family, emigrated from the past, Chejfec’s narrators sound calm, objectively delirious. (Or they whisper: to be so, every narrator must be mildly unhinged.) But they display a remarkable psychological acuity and they undertake to deliberately distance themselves from pathos, which often ends in scenes of muffled comedy.
Perhaps this was part of his modesty, which sometimes deceived him when it came time to choose titles more opaque than what the work gave off, as in the case of another of his most recent publications, Apuntes para un panfleto, a book far superior to its title’s timid promise. His death serves to disprove one of its lines: “At every moment, the present is saturated in redundancy.”
And it is in this book—now almost an indirect, involuntary testament, whose first word encodes his clear wager on the instability of the transcript and of his vocation itself—where he found a way to draw a circle with a single stroke: “The true life of a poet and what he decides to do with it are not so decisive, since, at any rate, his creation will find a way to shape life.”
Leaving behind a literature of uncommon continuity and consistency, it is as if Sergio Chejfec had turned it all over to the press in these past years—even getting payback in advance for the closing brought about by an untimely end—with the same warning: subject to change.