My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec
Margaret Carson, tr. Rochester, New York. Open Letter. 2011. ISBN 9781934824283
Although he has published a dozen books, including novels and collections of verse and essays, and has been translated into several languages, the novel My Two Worlds is the first of Sergio Chejfec’s longer works to appear in English. The author is surely one of the most intelligent and precise of contemporary writers, and Open Letter has made an important artistic choice in introducing him to a new audience. (Two more titles from his catalog are forthcoming from the publishing house.) Originally from Argentina, Chejfec lived for many years in Caracas, Venezuela, where he edited the journal Nueva Sociedad; he now lives and teaches in New York City.
First released in 2008, My Two Worlds is filled with coruscating ideas on memory, its narrative arc describing a man taking a long walk on his fiftieth birthday through a city in southern Brazil with which he is unfamiliar, addressing the reader and reflecting on his perceptions of himself, his life, and the world around him as he does so. One of the novel’s strengths is the painterly quality with which Chejfec percipiently arranges this minimal plot sequence in lines of prose: as colorful literary scores delineate the narrator’s exploration of various paths within the city, the story line takes on symbolic value as an analysis of the neurological pathways and collective concepts of memory with which human society defines itself. “I began,” the narrator says, “searching through urban landscapes for traces of the past[.] These cities . . . raise the curtain on a fortunate, bountiful present as an extension of a so-called living past—a past thus revealed as benign.”
Indeed, it is as though the narrator is traveling through a landscape of memory, of what is both remembered and, more importantly, what cannot be remembered—what exists outside of the purview of our limited capacity for memory and can only be found, tragically, in remnants of a lost past fleetingly glimpsed within the present: “I was visiting myself,” the narrator says at another step in relating his story, “from one extreme of the wide band called the present, to a still broader recess, vaguer and, as I put it before, more meandering, called the past.”
In a similar tenor, the narrator notes, “Walking is, in part, a kind of superficial archaeology, which I find greatly instructive and somehow moving, because it considers evidence that’s humble, irrelevant, even random—the exact opposite of a scientific investigation.” The meaning here is again profound; Chejfec seems to suggest that an exploration of the way in which society collectively posits its own existence takes place through a high-wire act of codified inquiry: if we can believe in an archaeological record, for example—a concrete, logical excavation of the past—we can then believe as a society that we have a knowledge, grasp, and mastery of and over that past and of society’s origins, and thus gain a delusional sense of equanimity facing an abyss that looms behind us like a shadow.
A corollary of this idea, as Chejfec shows, is that to look to where such inquiry is at its greatest depth of quixotry—as when humankind attempts to mythologize (and thus use for its own ends) cultural history—and to contrast this mythologization against our immediate experience of the past and its overwhelmingly transient nature (even through the simple remembrance of a city street of which we were the sole observer, and thus the only interpreter of a given moment within time), is to regain, if only briefly, the immediacy of our own perceptions.
IAmerican young-adult novelist Virginia Euwer Wolff, winner of the 2011 NSK Neustadt Prize for Children's Literature, headlines the January 2012 issue of WLT.
Table of Contents
NSK Neustadt Prize Laureate
Virginia Euwer Wolff
- ACCEPTANCE SPEECH: [Excerpt] "A Case of Time-Release Insight: The 2011 NSK Prize Lecture," Virginia Euwer Wolff
- ESSAY:"The Courage to Be Compassionate: A Tribute to Virginia Euwer Wolff," Suzanne Fisher Staples
- READING LIST: "Children's Literature Favorites" by featured authors from the January issue of WLT
- "Poetic Journeys: A Conversation with Nathalie Handal," Kaitlin Bankston
- "A Brief Conversation with Laleh Khadivi"
- "Eva Stachniak," Ania Spyra
- "Post-3/11 Literature: Two Writers from Fukushima" Takeshi Kimoto
- "The Single, Shared Text? Translation and World Literature," Valerie Henitiuk
- "Burmese Poetry: Tectonic Shifts," James Byrne
- "The State of Zapotec Poetry: Can Poetry Save an Endangered Culture?," Clare Sullivan
- "Poetry Is Liberty: The Macondo Writers’ Workshop in Mexico," Wendy Call
- "In the Palace of the Dragon King," Hiromi Kawakami
- "Past-Bitterness-Recalling and Present-Sweetness-Realizing Meal," Qiu Xiaolong
- Four Poems, Nathalie Handal
- Seven Poems, Feliciano Sánchez Chan
- Zapotec Poetry: Bilingual recordings and an artists' gallery
- "Zodiac 9," Moikom Zeqo
- Six Burmese Poets
IN EVERY ISSUE
- LETTERS/EDITOR'S CHOICE
- WHAT TO READ NOW: Sri Lanka
- CITY PROFILE: Hargeisa, Somalia
- INTERNATIONAL CRIME & MYSTERY: "He Do the Police in Different Voices: The Rise of the Police Procedural"
by J. Madison Davis
- OUTPOST: Kesennuma, Japan