“Memories, of course, are always delicate. They unfurl in the air, and once they reach us they get to work—with resolve—eager for pointillism and originality.” These words from Sergio Chejfec’s first novel, Lenta biografía (Buenos Aires: Puntosur, 1990), while evincing the intellectual density and lucidity that characterize all of his literary work—always luxuriously ponderous and reflexive—also allow us to enter, with certain liberties, into the enigmatic realm of recollection, such that we might, from there, remember him.
We met in Caracas, not long after he arrived in the city. He decided to take up residence at the foot of the Ávila. He got there in 1990 to assume the role of chief editor of the magazine Nueva Sociedad, and he lived there until 2005, when he and his wife, Graciela Montaldo, decided to set off on a new move: this time to New York, where she had received a job offer from Columbia University, and where he started teaching in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in Spanish at NYU.
During his time in Venezuela, we met and spoke on many occasions, at gatherings of friends, literary events, etc. Throughout his time in Caracas, his discreet warmth and honest modesty opened the doors of friendship and fondness to him, wherever he went. Many of us bore witness to this; he made many friends over those years, won over by his quiet, affable gaze, which looks out at us also from his writing, always unhurried. Writing that takes pause over the recreation of detail and the aftertaste of contemplating the passage of thought.
His special bond to Caracas, and his friendships born there (with Salvador Garmendia, Victoria de Stefano, and Igor Barreto, for example), are evinced on many pages of his book Teoría del ascensor (Zaragoza: Jekyll & Jill, 2016).1 In 2011, Gina Saraceni, another of his close friends in Venezuela, along with myself—we were then professors at the Universidad Simón Bolívar, where Graciela Montaldo also taught for many years—invited him to Caracas for a creative writing conference that would take place in November of that year. In his response, a day later, to the note I sent him on September 29, he expressed his regret at being unable to accept the invitation, owing to other inescapable commitments, in these terms: “I can’t tell you how sorry I am that the dates won’t work. I would have loved to get back together with friends and with the whole beautiful city.” The last time we saw each other was in Bogotá, at a literary conference at the Universidad Javeriana. I remember we spoke there of the contrasts between Caracas and Bogotá, considering our own experiences of life in both cities; of Roberto Bolaño’s “Caracas Speech,” read at the Rómulo Gallegos Prize ceremony in 1999; and of what Ángel Rama says in The Lettered City, where the Uruguayan intellectual inquires into the notion of the “geometric city” and the implications of ordered and disordered planning in the cases of these colonial settlements, the capitals of Venezuela and Colombia, with the goal of exposing the interred ideologies that acted—and still act—upon the urban concretion of each.
This link with Venezuela lasted forever. I saw proof of it on several occasions, when we both lived in the United States—he in New York, I in Cincinnati and later Oklahoma.
It must have been in 2005, I figure, on a spur-of-the-moment weekend trip to Chicago with my Colombian friend Julio Quintero, when I bumped into Sergio and Graciela walking down Michigan Avenue, going the opposite direction down the same sidewalk. Neither they nor I lived in that city, and the likelihood of our meeting in that place, at that moment, was slim at best. Of all the things we talked about when we met then, I only remember that he mentioned he had just come back from Venezuela, or he was about to go there, as he was doing research in several archives about Rafaela Baroni, a character about whom I had heard little at the time, but who would spark the narrative of his novel Baroni, un viaje (Buenos Aires: Alfaguara, 2007; translated to English by Margaret Carson as Baroni: A Journey). After this encounter, I spoke to Julio about Sergio’s literary work, of which he was unaware, and two years later, to my surprise, after a trip he took to Buenos Aires, he told me he had come across that “Venezuelan book” of Chejfec’s at a bookstore. I immediately asked to borrow it, and after an absorbing read, I felt inspired to write a quick review, which unexpectedly won a prize for writing in that genre in Venezuela. The text read as follows:
Starting with its very title, this book invites us to travel alongside its narrator along a surface we will ultimately find metaphorized into a diminutive sheet of brown paper, wrinkled up by a clenched fist. And, while this is the site of this imaginary journey through certain regions of Venezuela, the symbolic weight of this unsmooth paper leads us in the footsteps of a discourse of uncertain mobility, moving between the folds of a multiplicitous geography, in physical terms and in an emotional and intellectual sense.
Starting from a descriptive reflection on the figure of José Gregorio Hernández, based on a wood carving by Trujillian artist Rafaela Baroni, Chejfec sets about assembling a unique constellation with Baroni’s character at the center, irradiating various bonds with figures such as the the aforementioned doctor-saint of Isnotú, poets like Juan Sánchez Pelaez and Igor Barreto, and artists like Armando Reverón, Juan Andrade, and Tomás Barazarte.
This is a journey through interiorities and interstices, a paused and cautious approach—profoundly intellectual and admirably unadorned—that explores a certain immanent innocence, a certain purity of soul, and the recondite artistic wisdom rooted into that particular geography. Just as the narrator says in the long monologue that constitutes the novel: “It struck me that this innocence is a genetic code of art, and that if I wanted to talk about Baroni I would have to obey it, just as if I wanted to talk about anything else” (p. 101).
The discourse unfolds into an enigmatic (yet very concrete) and detailed reflection on a space that is constantly mapped on at least three planes: the plane of the physical entities mentioned in the narration (Boconó, Betijoque, Isnotú, Valera, Mérida, Hoyo de la Puerta, Maracay, Caracas, etc.); the plane made up of the existential dimension of the cited poets and artists, linked to these entities or experiences arising from them; and, lastly, the plane of the text itself as an extension—explored already, or yet to be explored—in which we are reminded how (or where) the previous discourse has been narrated, and in which we are told what, possibly, has yet to be said.
A sort of weightlessness defines all of this novel’s spatio-temporal perceptions. Weightlessness as well as a web of indefinition around a plot that vanishes into a continuous latency. Through this prolonged reflection in geographical movement, the topographical attributes that marry space to thought are made clear: “space in the most abstract and intangible sense of the word, the fluttering of the surroundings, the sensation of harmony, of doom, or of menace, the tone of the environment” (p. 79). With a foreigner’s gaze, the unnamed narrator finds—in the other and in otherness, in difference—an incisive presence in which the elemental values that bring together artistic innocence and the simplicity of the primitive are made manifest: that which lasts without turning its back on the primeval.
This inquiry becomes obsessive, summoning up admiration and nostalgia for that which is self-consciously authentic, but inaccessible (irremediably alien): forms of artistic undertaking profoundly linked to a natural, ritual, and collective order, where—among masks and shadows, rituals and stage settings—we find a state of constant challenge between the limits dividing the real and the fictitious, the sacred and the profane, the learned and the popular, life and death.
Perhaps, at first sight, one of the most puzzling features of Chejfec’s work is precisely its contrast between the sophistication of its verbal endeavor, the confection of a writing style not meant for all audiences, and its interest—at least in a certain area of his extensive bibliography—in a type of art and artists linked to popular and ritual traditions, disengaged from the conventions of learned, urban society. Nonetheless, maybe this strange product of the ignorance of the alien and a fascination for experiences imbued with a truth and innocence somewhere between the elemental and the ancestral—a product scarcely imagined—blends organically with the pursuit that underlies all of his literature. Not in vain was his closeness to the poetry and person of Igor Barreto, the poet-chronicler of Venezuela’s plains and urban shantytowns and a breeder of gamecocks, to whom Chejfec dedicates his verse collection Gallos y huesos (Buenos Aires: Santiago Arcos, 2003). The same could be said of his attraction to figures like the aforementioned Rafaela Baroni or the painter Armando Reverón, the poster child of Venezuela’s unique artistic modernity. Speaking of Reverón, in 2007—the year his novel on the multidimensional, autodidactic Trujillian artist, actress, and singer was published—I traveled to New York from Cincinnati with my friend, Chilean writer Marcelo Rioseco, to see an exhibition of works by the Macuto artist at the MoMA. There I met with Sergio once more, at an event in which Argentina and Venezuela came together, again, in Manhattan. At NYU’s King Juan Carlos I of Spain Center, on March 23, a poetry reading took place featuring poets Patricia Guzmán of Venezuela and Mercedes Roffé of Argentina, introduced respectively by writers Alejandro Vardieri of Venezuela and Sergio Chejfec of Argentina. That day, we spoke of poetry, of Reverón, and of the situations of Venezuela and Argentina in the times of Chávez and Kirchner.
On June 5, 2008, the poet Eugenio Montejo died: a friend to us both who shared a manifest passion for Reverón. When I wrote to Sergio, a few days after receiving this sad news, to tell him also about my review of his book being published in Hispamérica, he said to me: “Thank you for letting me know. I’ll be sure to get a copy of the journal. I’m in Buenos Aires now, under the sad wave of Eugenio’s death. I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t.” This phrase echoes now, loud and clear, as I think of and feel Sergio’s own death as something as-yet unheard-of, something unbelievable. Sergio died on April 2 of this year. The news surprised us all, and surprises us still. On another April 2, six years before, I wrote him to say the following:
I’m still at the University of Oklahoma for now, as a visiting professor. I imagine I’ll be here for one or two more years, given the limitations of my visa, and taking time to see what happens in Venezuela.
I wanted you to know that, along with a group of friends, I’m getting a new project underway. We’re putting together a bilingual literary journal, called Latin American Literature Today (LALT). We thought of you as a possible member of our Editorial Board. I hope you’ll agree to join us. Let me know.
His answer, on April 3, was as follows:
Count me in, and many thanks for thinking of me. I hope the journal will become everything you hope for and more.
Thank you, Sergio, for your support and your friendship. Today, from the pages of the journal you helped shape, we remember you and pay homage to your memory, with admiration and fond feelings. We will always need you.