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Sergio Chejfec: A Machine of Illusions

November 3, 2011

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The Argentine writer on the English translation of his novel My Two Worlds, its meandering motifs, and its desire to remain or disappear.


mytwoworlds_large.JPGMy Two Worlds is Sergio Chejfec’s first novel to be translated into English. In the novel, the narrator, an unnamed Argentine writer, wanders a city in the south of Brazil. He views his walk as a deeply significant act, going so far as to claim that it “saved” him, “maybe from the danger of not being myself… because to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity.” Chejfec’s narrator is a man trapped between the physical, urban reality of his surroundings, and the boundless, nebulous world of thought.

We sat down with him last week to discuss his novel—its translation, its meandering motifs, its desire to remain or disappear. What follows is a transcription of that conversation.

—Carmen García Durazo and Craig Epplin for Guernica

Guernica: I only read My Two Worlds in English, and so I don’t have much to compare it to. What did you think of the translation?

Sergio Chejfec: I thought it was excellent. Margaret [B. Carson], the translator, lives in New York, and over many months we would meet up and talk about it. My questions for her were very open because translation is necessarily a flummoxed process, and, really, what’s at stake is so much more than simple, didactic or denotative meaning. The question is how to make the translation not only faithful, you know, because the meaning of the text depends on so many other things. There are other texts that need a denotative, literal, “faithful” translation, sure, if only in order to revive a certain type of tone, or vibe, that permeates the text. There are others that require more originality in order to revive this sort of range, tone. Margaret’s translation really illustrates this—she revives a tone that at times requires some instances of literal deviation from the original. It doesn’t happen very often. But she needed to access certain very difficult, very Spanish ways of saying things, she felt, because there are certain paragraphs that are argumentative, or pointed, and secretive. And she needed to find a way to access this.

Guernica: Well yes, because for me the text, the literal meanings of the words are important, obviously, but the text develops in such a way that—well, for example, at one point the narrator is in the park and is watching a man who is very similar to him, that perhaps could be him in a different phase of life. And what’s important, what’s so crucial in this passage is not so much the specificity of the details, that he’s sitting on a park bench or the age of the men, for example, but instead the onda, the vibe, the connection between the two men, and what that means. Or doesn’t mean.

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, yes, and because of this, I feel that Margaret captured it very well in her translation. She felt it was very important to follow the tone, the environment, and how it was very important to remain faithful to that species of interaction.

Guernica: In your reading at McNally-Jackson, you spoke about this idea—the idea that the text “walks.” It meanders a bit, it strolls, it creates the tone in this way.

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, definitely—and I know Margaret at first was a little apprehensive about this. She was wary of standard English, of “literary” English. She wasn’t sure how to use it—with all its stops and starts, and its specific phrasings, to “walk” in the same way the Spanish did. So she worked in anticipation of this idea, realizing that it would be crucial to capture this effect in the translation. She felt that the language had to be at once literary and conversational. But the English narration was so successful thanks to her work, her skill. Because it happens in the original as well—I’m not sure if you can speak of a native, or innate link between walking and narrating. But there’s definitely an idea of flux, right? An idea that the narration functions more than a mere description of a particular action, but as a reflection of it, too. The narration itself can be seen as an instance of a reflection, or a reflection of an instance. The elements of language that work together develop, or provide an illusion, that is partial, sort of like features on a face: at one point it’s superficial, a surface reality, but at the same time they work to convey something of greater depth. Anyway, the idea was to do away with the idea of a fixed “thesis” or “argument” and instead let the argument unfold, meander. There is, again, this idea of flux, of flow.

One is often betrayed by the city, right? There is a strong desire to come into contact with the environment, even though it may never truly happen.

Guernica: Can you talk a little bit about the text as a sort of index of the walker, of the very act of walking? Because I feel like the text proposes a certain idea of the novel. At one point, it says that the narrator writes “novels that aren’t novels,” and in your own writings and in this novel especially, you speak about the idea of the index, a raw impression, of not losing oneself in abstractions or symbols.

Sergio Chejfec: Novels with a “thesis” don’t interest me. They just don’t—novels that want to “show” something, that want to “argue” something specific. I don’t read novels that are looking to convince me of anything. I believe that literature needs to be a machine of illusions. What’s more, in this case, in the case of My Two Worlds—the walk is a trope that permits the illusion of superficiality, the illusion that the narrator is exposed to, and is thus experiencing, all sorts of things on the surface. But then must interpret them then in flux with his own impressions, illusions, emotions. Motives.

Guernica: We might compare it to a fingerprint—a direct mark that doesn’t have a symbolic level, doesn’t have abstraction.

Sergio Chejfec: The walk is like a matrix, like a diffuse, vague happening. It’s like—imagine a play, a work of theatre, that is totally vague, almost devoid of details that consists in one person going on a walk. And as a consequence, there is a necessary tension between the determinacy and indeterminacy, the definite and the indefinite, of possibility. And at one point I felt a tension between objects, their real, physical lives, and the idea of meaning: the physical, material reality of a book, and the totally intangible experience of reading it. A word, and all the infinite fluctuations it may possess. Like that moment when you know you have something to say, and you know you’re speaking, even, but you still have no idea how you will say it. Or the moment when, as a reader, you’re reading, and you are understanding what you are reading, but still have utterly no idea what will come next for you, what precisely the author wants to say. For me, that is the ultimate level of literary depth, of literary density. Like when you pick up a book and you don’t realize what type of text it is—it could be an essay, a novel, a biography—and at one point you realize you don’t know where, as a reader, you want to be. Where are you going with this text? What is the goal? How are you supposed to interpret what you’re reading? And people’s responses vary—some dislike it, and are put off by the confusion, the lack of comprehension. But at times, there can be pleasure in it. I wanted to find a sort of equilibrium between this indeterminacy and structure, expectancy. That’s what I wanted to do with My Two Worlds. It was an excuse for me to play with various things, talk through various thought processes, and use the medium of the park as a way to access them.

Guernica: And I was thinking—for example, in the novel there are two distinct levels, two worlds as the title suggests—two worlds within the narrator. One, is his surroundings, of course, but also his thoughts and reflections within them. I was thinking, for example: are the specific details even important? Is it important that the narrator is in Brazil? That he’s attending a literary conference? That he’s a man? Is it for a frame of literary reference? Which level is more important—his reflections, his inner life, or the fact of his surroundings?

Sergio Chejfec: Look, I don’t even know—for me, it’s difficult to decide which is more important—the things or the thoughts. It seems to me that certain things came up more or less naturally. For example, the fact that he’s a writer is important, right? Because the novel is built on a level of self-reflection, thoughts about his work, his words, the writing process. It permits him the ability to divulge. But also his work, writing, is very intimate, secretive, clandestine. The fact that the novel takes place in Brazil, well, apart than the fact that Brazil is a very huge place in Latin America, it’s a place of difference, both culturally and linguistically, on the South American continent. In that regard, it’s a country that is immense, physically and otherwise, that carries a multitude of meanings, of truths. It is a country that is more than a country. In other words, the choice to set it in Brazil was deliberate, but maybe not important. It wasn’t chosen randomly. Because with Brazil, one can feel that strangeness, the feeling of distance that the narrator feels in regards to the city. He’s divided by a language barrier, within a country where he feels sort of alien, even while remaining in Latin America. I wanted to capture this. I had no intention of using Brazil as a way to make any sort of political commentary. I wanted to point to a much more general, a more literary sense of difference, of strangeness.

Guernica: Building on that, I was thinking about this question of determinacy, because to walk alone in a foreign country is to be open to surprise. And chance. It seems like that perhaps this is the experience of the narrator, which made me think of artists that work with this concept of chance—John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, who work with that species of unpredictability. How did you come to this sort of narrator, one whose journey is fueled by indeterminacy?

Sergio Chejfec: What I find is that many times when I work with chance, with indeterminacy, I am more open to experience, less prone to a fixed process, and I think it creates a very important challenge. It creates a way of writing that is, in a way, flatter or smooth, a surface conducive to release, to movement. And in this way, the form of writing gets delightfully melded with the process of the writing. Not to say that the process assumes anything of “greater” or “lesser” importance, though: it’s just more graphic information. Take the surrealists, for example, or a work by Cage. For me, there’s a great value in doing this with literature. There’s a certain form of dependence; process and product inform each other, depend on each other. I consider myself a writer who doesn’t write with a style, almost. I begin with tension, with a vibe, a character. In My Two Worlds, the narrator’s walk is a form of mobility that one can compare to a trip, which is, for literature, is a commonly used form of character mobility and development. It creates displacement. The walk is a way to focus on this. Because to walk through the city also, I think that it’s a way to walk, to be a flâneur, and a way for the character—and the reader—to lose himself or herself. All walkers are consumed by their own literature, their own cultural history, the capitalist or urban economy. Thus I find as a way to write, it is a way to access the same urge as the contemporary, urban walker—the urge to know, to see that type of frustration, of weariness, of unease, of deception. Because the city promises you many, many things, but in reality is doing no more than showing you their possibility. Because the time has already passed in which the city was machine, a factory of revelations, of self-awareness. One is often betrayed by the city, right? There is a strong desire to come into contact with the environment, even though it may never truly happen.

Guernica: Does the narrator have a name?

Sergio Chejfec: No, it isn’t mentioned.

Guernica: Other than Brazil, there is a noticeable lack of proper nouns.

Sergio Chejfec: There’s also the name of a South African artist in there, but, really, not many proper names. I wanted to work with as few proper nouns as possible—like what we spoke about earlier, there’s a sort of indeterminacy I wanted to uphold. There aren’t incidental proper nouns: I used them purposefully to identify people or characters or places, and thus convey all the sensations that may accompany those associations. It’s like what we spoke about before: there exists this dialectic between determinacy and indeterminacy. Sometimes I like to have narratives that are completely indeterminate, characters that could, really, be anyone, and thus leave the reader more open to that experience. But then again, when I use a name or place, I want to leave the reader open to the waterfall of determinacy that it may provoke. And I don’t know, but I must mention the name Borges. I try to mention it in every one of my works. It’s a mark, a stamp, a sort of homage to Argentinidad. But it’s an homage that works through pat phrases, those stock images that populate his work: the night, labyrinths, libraries. That is, I don’t want simply to pay homage to Borges, but rather the contrary: to recall his commonplaces.

My Two Worlds is a text that has no desire to remain, to leave a trace. I want readers to remember these scenes, those shifting environments, as one limitless thought.

Guernica: Something else I noted in the text, something that interested me, was the narrator’s experience with nonhuman things, and things that are untraceable. You mention well-trodden paths that have been walked countless times by other human beings. And at one point you say “the ground of the world speaks different, near-incomprehensible languages.” Could you talk about instances like this, instances your narrator experiences that don’t belong to the realm of human experience?

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, for me, this speaks to the stuff of life, the unnatural stuff of life, which is quite distinct from the life of nature. One must distance oneself from the idea of strict realism. It seems to me that real nature doesn’t exist anymore, this idea of “the wild.” This is why I love parks, and why I chose to use them in my work—they are beyond nature. I see nature as a resource. We can speak of politics, ethics, and in this way, speak about the world. But at the same time, it’s always in a way that is totally nebulous and abstracted, this way of thinking about reality. And that’s why I write the way I do—it’s an almost immortal way to show dependence on the biological, the political, the moral parts of us. I say immortal because we now have to find new formats, new eloquences, and resolve within ourselves this “constructed” life, a life that is incomplete, imperfect. I find that, for me, it is this concept of borrowed or built life, life on loan, that gets me writing. It’s similar to speaking about literature. I like it, and then I don’t like it. It has such an inherent vein of pretention, because you’re not speaking about real things. There’s a literary pretentiousness made of speaking and spending so much time on unreal persons. And it seems, now, impossible to create an unpretentious, totally organic character.

Guernica: And after Don Quixote, it’s impossible anyway, right?

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, yes. For me, it’s a way to find a fiction within a fiction. To find a way to uncover that blunder within the “lie,” because when you look closer, every “lie”—and I say that with quotation marks—can be much more complicated. Because that is what fiction is: it’s probably the least important thing in the world. It’s rich, but it is put-on, it passes the time. It borrows from the world, but it does not invent it.

Guernica: With the Internet, it’s possible to arrive immediately at what you’re looking for. At one moment in the text you mention the old days, when you had to browse in order to find what you wanted.

Sergio Chejfec: Yes, this may have been before your time, the nineties, there was a primitive sort of Internet, and there weren’t good search engines. So there was this search, a quite literal “search”—you had to search through many, many things. Now, search engines are more streamlined, more pointed—you find things without that long, capricious quest. And this, I think, produces a bit of nostalgia that makes the user—all of us, now—less open to chance. To the idea of chance. It used to depend on the concept of imperfection. But in reality, in the early days of the Internet, the word “navigation” had this ingrained in it. There really was a sensation of the cyber-flâneur, as you really would have no idea where you would end up. You would end up on pages that had nothing to do with what you wanted, experiences that were totally unanticipated. You had to connect the dots, connect the parcels of your experience. It was totally open to randomness. And now, thanks to Google and other search engines, things are more perfect. There’s less surprise, more efficiency. But I think to use this word “navigation” is a way give this metaphor to this experience. But I like to compare the first experiences of the Internet—the fortuitousness, the chance—with reality, with the experience, for example, of being in a city that you don’t know. Many times—and I don’t know if I can totally defend this argument—I’ve found that the way one experiences the world, and daily life, we are constantly dealing with these perceptions. And it seems like it works, this superficial perception of determinacy, but it’s completely ridiculous. And that’s what one must do—navigate between what works well and what is ridiculous. Like when you click on something in a search online—you filter out the ridiculous, to make room for the sane. And with literature, one finds a way to communicate both. That’s why it can be so productive.

Guernica: One final question about traces, because those early days of navigation left traces, a path. It seems to me that in the novel, there’s a tendency to speak of leaving traces intentionally, or reclaiming lost ones. When you talk about the German city that was destroyed in a bombing and then rebuilt to resemble its old self it seems there’s a sort of virtue in that, in leaving or discovering a trace.

Sergio Chejfec: For me, it’s a type of nostalgia. Nostalgia for people, cultures, everything. There’s an ability to use these marks to note things that are erased, deleted. Traces are a species of history, of evidence. It’s a way for the way the narrator to construct a semblance of self, even though all of this creates a deception, a way to think of one’s traces as a real way to define oneself. The trace is fallible, impermanent. It’s one of the motives I had in mind throughout the text. And it’s present throughout the novel. My Two Worlds is a text that has no desire to remain, to leave a trace. I want readers to remember these scenes, those shifting environments, as one limitless thought. I don’t care about having a thesis.

My Two Worlds is available through Open Letter Books.

________________________________________________________________________

Sergio Chejfec, originally from Argentina, has published numerous works of fiction, poetry, and essays. Among his grants and prizes, he has received fellowships from the Civitella Ranieri Foundation in 2007 and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation in 2000. His books have been translated into French, German, and Portuguese. He teaches in the Creative Writing in Spanish Program at NYU, and My Two Worlds is his first novel to be translated into English.

Carmen García is an editorial intern for Guernica Daily. She lives in Brooklyn. Follow her @Carmen1Garcia.

Craig Epplin is a lecturer in the Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures at Columbia University, and an editor at Rattapallax poetry magazine. He writes on contemporary Latin American literature, film, and media culture, and is also a translator.

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