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During long walks through an unfamiliar Brazilian city, where he is attending a literary conference, an Argentine novelist free-associates on the nature of writing, memory, surroundings and human interaction.
This first novel by New York–based Argentine native Chejfec to be translated into English is a slim, gracefully discursive work. The unnamed 49-year-old writer, who we assume is very much like Chejfec, is determined to find his way to a park without the benefit of a map—an intuitive, improvisational approach that reflects his thought process. For the narrator, consciousness works like the Internet, one observance or reference point linking to another. But though his walks all begin with a sense of adventure and possibility, they quickly leave him in a state of uselessness and boredom, leading him not to revelations but a "nostalgic anxiety." Word that his new novel is getting poor reviews doesn't help his mood. For all that, the novel never hits a dull patch in reflecting on the duality of writers who exist with one foot in reality and the other in imagination. Chejfec is especially good in analyzing our relationships with simple passed-on objects such as cigarette lighters and watches, which have a penchant for "concealing the history they have witnessed, in complete silence." It's up to writers like him to make them speak. Combining the documentary insight of W.G. Sebald with the fanciful flights of Italo Calvino, the book allows us to enter the thoughts of a restless intellectual whose streams of thought involve the reader in his quest to find meaning in everything he sees and does.
A short but penetrating novel about coexisting in the material world and the world of thought.
The day before I had attended a literary conference, and when it was over I walked through the plaza where the local book fair had been set up, in one of the city's historic districts, I assumed, though many relics or landmarks now seemed definitively missing. People were walking slowly, crowding the thoroughfare because of their numbers. I must have been the only solitary walker that day, which luckily no one found strange, because families, groups of friends, or couples went on with their business as I strolled about. Earlier, as I was waiting in an empty room for the conference to begin, I'd read in the newspaper that every year, when the book fair takes place, the regular artisans move their stalls and tables to the adjacent streets. I don't know why that information seemed important to me, and even more, why it stayed etched in my mind. (The following day, a few blocks from the plaza, I discovered the artisans' temporary location, where they'd organized themselves by craft, as if protecting themselves from some danger.) Later, at the end of the panel, I didn't ask any questions; I was, in fact, the first to leave the room, in search of a quick exit to the street. I rode down a glass elevator that looked onto a spacious interior garden, and when I finally left the convention hall, which seemed to have once been a government palace, I had no choice but to join the steady stream of people, like a fugitive trying to blend in.
The layout of that plaza was, as I said, in the old style: a rectangular block with two diagonal and two perpendicular lines that meet at the center, where there's a statue. Despite such a simple design, all the same the moment soon arrived when I felt lost, probably because of the multitudes, to which you'd have to add the dense foliage and the nighttime shadows. I found myself stationed from time to time in front of the same booths; in reality there were only a few offering any titles that aroused my curiosity, which was weak in any case, and only after peering at the tables between the shoulders of an army of onlookers did I realize that I'd already been there, and had of course stopped in front of the same books. But though I sensed a few areas remained to be covered, I wasn't sure which ones I'd already visited. And so I joined the throngs once more and let myself be carried by the flow. I remember that as I walked, the repetition of the strands of incandescent lights made me feel drowsy, just as in some movies. At the rear of the plaza, keeping in mind the orientation of the central statue, and on a short passageway that led to several public buildings, the food stands for the book fair had been set up, and these were also mobbed. Depending on the breeze, the odors from the burners, generally of fried foods or rancid oil, wafted over; at times when I raised my eyes I could see columns of smoke billowing through the strands of lights and the fringed edges of the awnings. Anyhow. I should say that it was this sensation of being hemmed in by the incessant swarm of people that led me to think of the existence of a park I'd like to visit. It would be just compensation, I thought.
One consults the map of the first city that comes to mind and everything seems accessible: one needs only to obey the street plan. But on the afternoon I've been talking about, reality, as is almost always the case, turned out to be different. The retaining walls of the elevated streets, the access roads and overpasses, the ramps for pedestrians or those exclusively for cars—all of them prevented me, at each moment and in different ways, from leaving behind the point I'd chosen downtown for the sole purpose of continuing onward to the park. On the other hand, if I tried to take the long way around, I'd risk getting lost or, even worse, would spend the rest of the day meandering through indistinguishable and unavoidably sad streets; for if the map had proved useless in showing me the shortest way, it was absurd to follow it in taking a longer one.
On one side I had the grounds of a gigantic hospital, like those of years ago, with enormous pavilions and endless gardens. An overpass rose before me, with ramps and streets that didn't seem to go anywhere in particular. And on the other side, an express lane cut the grid of the streets in two. I was, nevertheless, alone in my indecisiveness in this part of the world, because the rest of the people were coming and going, sure of their direction and moving with remarkable ease. I noticed that the more I looked at the map, the less I understood it; what's more, because my eyesight is poor and my glasses aren't strong enough, I must have looked pathetic, since I had to put the map practically against my face in order to see it above my eyeglasses. Every now and then I raised my eyes to the street, hoping to find some point or street sign that would orient me, but I immediately understood that the effort was in vain and I looked down again, spending more valuable time trying to find myself once more on the map. I was like this for a good while. I realized that my sense of direction, which had always been a secret source of pride, and was, in fact, almost the only thing I could brag about, had suddenly abandoned me as well.
And curiously, due perhaps to the never-ending flow of people at my side, no one stopped to offer me any help or to ask if things were all right. I felt invisible, as if I had hidden my face and didn't want to talk to anyone. Then someone went, "Psst," toward where I was standing. It was a street vendor who had to pick up a heavy load and put it in a two-wheeled cart. I thought he was calling me and I looked at him, half-curious and half-hopeful: he probably took pity on me and was waving me over because he didn't want to leave his merchandise unattended. But it turned out he was calling someone else, a young man passing behind me, whose help he wanted to lift the load. So you have to ask for help, I thought ... I began to imagine the aerial view of that part of the city, probably similar to what was depicted on the map, my silhouette motionless while people and cars continually passed beside me. I don't know why, but that physical image of my solitude or helplessness made me lose patience. Moved by an unjustifiable impulse, I began to rotate the map in order to see it from another angle, and even turned it like a set of handlebars; maybe that would clear things up, I thought. The aerial observer was circling, I supposed, and that's why the map revolved as it did.
On my walk at the book fair the night before, I only began to feel alarmed when I found myself, for the ninth or tenth time, in front of the booth for the local historical society. But what worried me wasn't that on each new turn I felt the same innocence as I had initially, that is, an anxiety to discover an important book, one that perhaps I'd been dreaming of for years without realizing it, and that would allow me entrée to a rather difficult, half-guarded store of knowledge; no, what alarmed me instead was that the repetition I had yielded to no longer exasperated me. Even when I looked upward at the sky, seeking to find something simple and clear to dispel my confusion, I discovered, for the most part, columns of smoke that were rising quickly from the grills, and hardly anything else, nothing that could be found consoling or inspirational. Another booth that had by now become rather familiar to me belonged to the publishers' association, as had one for a bookstore that offered an assortment of popular titles. I wanted to forget the reason I came to the city, and was even tempted by the idea of forgetting my own name and trying to be someone else, someone new.
That touched off a long train of thought not worth summarizing. I'll only say that being someone else meant not so much a new beginning or a new personality, but rather a new world, I mean, that reality and all people in it would lose or cast aside their memory and admit me as a previously unknown member, a recent arrival, or as someone with no ostensible ties to the past. Later on, as I was saying, when the crowds began to tire me, I decided to get a map of the city as soon as I could, to see if it would confirm the existence of that great park, one that was fairly large and that would measure up to my expectations.
By that point I'd almost given up when a fairly obvious idea occurred to me, which under those circumstances seemed providential: it would be best to find my way through the streets by attending to the relative position of places, rather than plotting an exact path or following a sequence of street names. The streets drawn on the map showed routes that were not only impossible, but also unverifiable; on the other hand, the spatial organization of the area could hardly be wrong; it was, at most, approximate, which was, in any case, advantageous, and would save me from needlessly lengthening my journey. By then I was dragging my feet due to fatigue and the sensation of having paced up and down the streets of the city far too long, ever since I'd left the hotel in the early morning, when it was still cool. More than once, after walking along the same block two or three times—unintentionally of course, I'd done so because of chance and disorientation, or frankly, lack of interest—I'd been led again to the same block: and more than once I thought I'd seen looks of surprise, or maybe simple curiosity, at this outsider who was acting strangely and kept reappearing.
For me, wandering has become one of those addictions that can mean either ruin or salvation. I acquired the habit in childhood, when in the aftermath of an illness I stopped walking. I would sit in the doorway to watch the people and the cars pass by. At that time, using my legs had become a remote and elegant anatomical ability for which I was unprepared, who knows the obscure reasons why, a gift that enabled one to to cover distances. A year later, a new medical report authorized me to stand on my feet again, and to me it seemed that thanks to the word, I'd recovered a physical skill, as if a god had delegated part of his freedom to me. At that early age I could only go to the corner or around the block; but from then on, as successful people say, nothing could stop me. Even before I could understand it with any certainty, in all likelihood I sensed that the main argument in favor of walking was its pace; it was optimal for observation and thought, and furthermore, it was the corporeal experience with the best syntax to accompany one in life. But I'm afraid I can't be sure.
It's true that many things related to walking have changed, some of which I'll refer to in a moment, but the same habit, which I've kept even in times of misfortunes or of ups and downs in general, supports the idea I have of myself as the eternal walker; it's also what's definitively saved me, in truth I don't quite know from what, maybe from the danger of not being myself, something that tempts me more and more, as I said just now, because to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity. The actual habit itself thus helps to sustain that version, because as soon as I arrive in a city, the first decision I make is to go out; I want to become familiar with the surroundings, to permeate it by means of the simplest, handiest, and most convenient act, which is to walk.
As soon as I returned to the hotel, I asked for a map of the city at the reception desk. Given the late hour, and maybe because the staff had gotten in the habit of seeing me come and go all the time, greeting them at every turn and asking questions or making banal remarks, this request took them by surprise. And so I waited a good while, leaning my elbow on the counter. I can't say I remembered ever having had a similar experience, because in truth I didn't remember anything in particular. But I had the clear conviction that I'd been in that kind of situation before. Standing expectantly at hotel counters, the odd world, half-clandestine and half-disjointed, that one steps into while waiting for something at the reception desk. Suddenly a map was placed before me, the sort that folds eight or twelve ways and carries ads for important businesses. My first reaction was to look on the map for the green blotch. It didn't take me long: I saw it whole, almost round, like a barely contained ink spill. I felt relieved to know I'd immerse myself in it the following day. After that I wanted to locate the hotel, something that took more time and that I finally managed to do, thanks to the help of a receptionist. Then I set about planning my walk, which in fact didn't require much preparation; it was only a question of preparing myself mentally.
Though I've enjoyed long walks throughout my life, and continue to do so, to the point of feeling they're an essential part of my true life, a habit without which I couldn't recognize myself, for some time now walking has been losing its meaning, or at least its mystery, and sometimes all that's left is my old enthusiasm, which usually dissipates within the half-hour like a wisp of smoke. I've often thought that the cities themselves are to blame. The visual and economic uniformity, the large chain stores, the transnational fashions and styles that relegate the unique to a secondary level, to a hazy background of faded colors. Finding distinctive features in the streets takes some doing; and even when I recognize them, it's as if the local idiom had fallen silent and the signs of a practical and omnipresent language had been imposed, a well-known language, one that's indistinct, even unnecessary, and lacking manners of its own.
But it's also possible that I myself am to blame; for various reasons, when a certain moment arrives, I can only see what's repeated. I've even begun to notice, to my own mortification, that the breath of adventure—or in any case, intrigue, which has always accompanied me on my endless excursions through the streets of every new or familiar city or locale I visit—gives way more and more often to tedium, short-lived interest, or straightaway to confusion. I walk blocks and blocks, I begin avidly and enthusiastically, that is, I observe everything, not letting the smallest details escape me, but little by little I'm invaded by a sense of lethargy and of surfeit in advance.
Excerpted from MY TWO WORLDS by SERGIO CHEJFEC Copyright © 2008 by Sergio Chejfec. Excerpted by permission of OPEN LETTER. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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