Yesterday, P. T. Smith’s insightful review of Chejfec’s new novel The Dark was published on BOMB’s website:
Much of the response to Sergio Chejfec’s English-language debut, My Two Worlds, published in 2011 by Open Letter, placed him squarely in a Sebaldian camp. The narrator is on a walk, reminiscing both on his past and the historical past of the landscape around him, and it is a novel of a consciousness, of the interior of a single “I.” Although a grounding comparison for that novel, it does a reader little kindness for his most recent book, The Dark. As I read, I did think of Sebald and other authors, other types of novels, and tried to find that grounding—a language, a basic reading to build off. Each comparison got me lost. Any attempt to use them puts us on a stray path. The text demands we abandon those comparisons and learn how to read this specific novel. That alone is a rarity and, for me, a reading experience worth the effort.
This is a novel entirely of the interior—a solipsistic narrator, isolated and writing alone in a room, recounting his relationship with a past love. We have access only to his thoughts and, more particularly, his perception, which we are trapped in. This in itself is nothing new; the recognition of constant subjectivity is old hat, but the absolute consistency of it is the challenge here. “The dark” of the title is everything he does not care to concern himself with, and nearly the only way it expands is through an object of love, Delia. No other character in the novel receives a name, and of the other ones we meet, their stories are always connected with Delia, allowing the nameless narrator to expound further on her existence, the meaning of it.
In his opening lines, Chejfec’s narrator tells us that “It has always unsettled me that geography does not change with time, with the changes that take place within it, within us.” With one stroke, we have the strange tone that will permeate the book. He is an unsettled man, only at ease in the carefully crafted idyllic memories of his past with Delia, and even those are darkly shadowed by the events—the full truth of which is hidden for most of the novel—that lead to his abandonment of her. Even as she is his only way outside of himself, that way is narrow. And we have his confusion: immediately after denying that geography does not change with time, he perceives changes within it as indiscernible from the interior of himself.
This narrator is one of those infamous unreliable ones, but not as a game where you strive to perceive the truth of events—here it can be hauntingly obvious—nor is he not a cleverly withholding narrator confident in his ability to outsmart the reader.
Be sure and click here to read the full piece, and then read the book. It’s one of Chejfec’s best. (Which is saying a lot.)
I’ve been a bit checked out the past few weeks with event upon event, travels to London and L.A. and New York (twice), final papers to grade, illnesses to overcome, soccer to geek out about, etc., etc. But now that it’s summertime (I only have one grade left to enter), it’s about time to get back into talking up interesting books (HOLY SHIT DO I LOVE TRAVELER OF THE CENTURY), commenting on the book publishing industry (like the fact that I’m so glad the number of publishers’ branded readers communities is about to explode . . . and inevitably implode, since most publishers make dumb things), and ranting about stuff, like, I don’t know, particular agents who have recently pissed me off.
We’re going to have a ton of interns again this summer, which should free up a bit of time to let loose on this blog, which I plan to do in grand style . . . But before getting into those fun and games, I thought it would be best to ease back into the Three Percent world by highlighting some exciting new ventures, starting with The Buenos Aires Review, brought to you by one of Open Letter’s favorite translators, Heather Cleary.1
The BAR launched last week to great acclaim (including mentions by Bookforum, Granta, New Directions, and the like), and for good reason. This bilingual internet magazine “presents the best and latest work by emerging and established writers from the Americas, in both Spanish and English. We value translation and conversation. We publish poetry, fiction, essays, criticism, visual art, and interviews.”
And the inaugural issue is, to slang it up a bit, pretty baller.
Javier Calvo: The other day I saw a book by Alejandro Zambra on a list of the most anticipated books of 2013 in the United States, and I wanted to ask you this: what do you think of this phenomenon, which to me is one of the most important things that have happened in American publishing in a long time? I’m talking about the attention Spanish-language fiction has been getting since Bolaño. How have you experienced this change as a translator, reader, scout, etc?
Mara Faye Lethem: Do you see it as so distinct from the Boom? Because I don’t.
Javier Calvo: I do see significant differences from the Boom. To begin with, I think the boom was much more a strategy, and as such it had a center. And when I say strategy, I say it almost in the sense of the British Invasion: we’re going to take over North America. Here, I don’t see too much strategy, and as a matter of fact I don’t see how an editor could hope to get rich on the books of Aira or Zambra. Secondly, the Boom in America was a much more asymmetrical phenomenon, the rich neighbor’s consumption of a series of consumer elements related to exoticism and magic.
Look, for example, at the resounding failure as strategies of all the “commercial brands” of exportation of Latin American literature: McOndo, the Crack Movement . . .
In the current case it’s true that Bolaño has been sanctioned by the American world of culture as the “Chosen One” to replace GGM [Gabriel García Márquez] as the Great Novelist in Spanish, but I also see differences: it seems to me that the acceptance of the new literature in Spanish already lacks that aspect of consumption of the poor, the exotic, and the distinct. I believe that now, strangely, it already has a certain aspect of normalcy, acceptance of the two-directional cultural tides that exist between Spanish and English. Although this may perhaps be overly optimistic.
Mara Faye Lethem: Well, when they talk about Aira as the new Bolaño, yes, that implies a certain strategy of marketing. I think that the case of Bolaño has been an astounding example of the unpredictability of the editorial world, and the strategy of buying books in other people’s styles is ridiculous, but shows no signs of waning. I suppose people’s lack of vision, as well as their fear, just get bigger and bigger than their risk-taking . . .
There’s an interview with Junot Diaz featuring the intriguing pull-quote, “We exist in a constant state of translation. We just don’t like it.”
There’s fiction by Giovanna Rivero:
The pointless memories are the most beautiful ones. I must have been, what, eight years old when this guy with a bird’s name, Piri, came to my grandparents’ house. He’d come to help my grandmother with the little sausage and bakery business she’d set up in her third courtyard. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but the house really did have three courtyards and in the third, as I said, my grandmother had set up a real life steam-powered manufacturing line for chorizo and bread. If you showed up very early in the morning, you could imagine the smoke belched out by the grinders, ovens, crushers, fillers and pots being, logically, the smog that rose in a frenzy from the First World’s last generation of machines.
There’s a piece by Mariano López Seoane on Evita that opens by name-checking JLo and “Jenny from the Block.”
And there is more.
Overall, this is a solid opening issue, and one I’m sure we’ll be featuring time and again. (Oh, and while I’m plugging things that make me happy, Heather’s translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Dark is at the printer now. So all your Chejfec/Cleary fans have something fantastic to look forward to reading this fall.
1 Actually, we love all the editors of Buenos Aires Review. Jennifer Croft, Pola Oloixarac, and Maxine Swann all deserve special shout-outs as well.
As in years past, we will be highlighting all 25 titles on the BTBA Fiction Longlist, one by one, building up to the announcement of the 10 finalists on April 10th. A variety of judges, booksellers, and readers will write these, all under the rubric of “Why This Book Should Win. You can find the whole series by clicking here. And if you’re interested in writing any of these, just get in touch.
The Planets by Sergio Chejfec, translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary and published by Open Letter Books
This piece is by Korean translator Deborah Smith. You can follow her on Twitter at @londonkoreanist.
Among the spate of excellent writing coming out of Argentina in recent years, Sergio Chejfec stands out. My Two Worlds, the first of his full-length works to be published in English translation (Open Letter), gave us a masterful match-up of digressive style with peripatetic narrator/flâneur which seemed a fitting heir to the Sebaldian tradition. The Planets, also published by Open Letter, and translated by Heather Cleary, whose sensitivity to the specific effects which Chejfec is hoping to achieve through his singular style is happily matched by her skill at rendering this in English, is in many ways a continuation of this aesthetic. In other words, it’s another slim yet weighty work straddling the border between the novel and memoir, all with a healthy dose of philosophical mediation.
Yet there is nothing dry or sterile about The Planets, shot through as it is with both the narrator’s understated grief over the “disappearance” of his childhood friend M in early 1970s Buenos Aires, and the dark undercurrents of tension and uncertainty which define that period of Argentine history. Written from the point of view of the narrator looking back on his childhood with M after he believes that the latter has been killed in an explosion, his attempts to bring the past (and thus his friend) back to life are held in check by the distancing effects of time on the intimacy of friendship.
The narrator’s many meditative digressions are in fact such an integral component to the movement of the narrative that to call them digressions seems a disservice, though this movement is more akin to the orbits of the titular planets than to the traditional forward march of a more plot-driven book. And the centre of gravity is M, an emotional centre from which the narrator’s mind jumps off into the philosophical, but to which these passages always swing back before becoming esoteric:
The real illusion that is space, or, more accurately, the confined, familiar city in which our reciprocal identity manifested itself, disappeared in M’s absence. There was no sense trying to recapture it through intermittent, inevitably anonymous, and more or less melancholy visits to his neighbourhood or the places we used to go because, unlike objects—which, like photos, can at any moment become talismans or relics—space has its own ephemeral hierarchy.
For me, it is precisely this abstract quality which somewhat paradoxically serves to strengthen the emotional force of the narrator’s childhold memories, whilst at the same time ensuring that these never descend into sentimental nostalgia. Reading the final few pages, I actually got pretty emotional. Without a doubt, The Planets would be a worthy winner—and I can’t wait to see what Chejfec will do next.
Following on the earlier post about Quarterly Conversation, here are excerpts from two interviews with translators that appear in the new issue, starting with Heather Cleary, the translator of two Open Letter books—The Planets and The Dark by Sergio Chejfec. This interview was conducted by Stephen Sparks, one of the members of this year’s BTBA Fiction Panel.
SS: You’ve written elsewhere that Chejfec’s prose “both deflects and draws the reader in,” which I’ve found to be a very apt characterization of his work. That indeterminacy or wavering—as if Chejfec is inviting the reader in while keeping his foot against the door—is one of the more compelling (if occasionally frustrating) aspects of his writing. How, then, do you as a translator find your way into the text?
HC: Yes, and I think this is particularly true of The Planets. Sergio wrote a beautiful essay a few years ago called “Simple Language, Name,” in which he talks about his development as a writer and the way his father’s difficulty learning Spanish late in life affected his own use of the language, driving him toward a certain stylistic opacity that he was only able to move away from over time. Then there’s the fact that so much of what’s going on in The Planets has to do with navigating the space between oneself and another, particularly when that other person exists in an entirely internalized form, that is, only as a memory. This is explored in the prose itself, which often gives the language an air of being borrowed, somehow unnatural. That said, The Planets is a beautiful book, as thorny as it can occasionally be, and an important one in that it approaches the themes of friendship, loss, and memory in an innovative, even startling way.
So, it was never really a question of whether I would try to make my way in . . . the how of it, I suppose, was through certain passages I found particularly moving, and which offered insight into the more abstract sections. For example, during one of the disjointed conversations M and the narrator have as boys, the narrator repeats something M has said as though it were his own thought, though he doesn’t even fully believe it. It’s such a simple moment, but that detail seemed so true and really crystallized the dynamic between the two boys for me; it also anticipates what comes later, as the narrator struggles to preserve M’s memory by keeping his voice alive, in some very surprising ways. There are many moments like this—the image of the narrator running around an entire city block so that he can have a second chance to acknowledge M’s mother when their paths unexpectedly cross; the guilt he feels at not having fully invoked M’s memory in conversation with a mutual friend. Those anchored the story for me, and lent depth and immediacy to the more abstract passages. [. . .]
SS: What is your translation process like? Do you have a particular passage that proved tricky, etc. that you’d like to discuss? I’m interested in some of the nitty-gritty of the act of translation here. How many dictionaries do you consult? How many drafts do you go through?
HC: It’s a little different with each project. I usually start with a period of pre-reading—going through the text to be translated once or twice, as well as other works by the writer, interviews when possible, sometimes criticism. Whatever might help me find my way into the narrative voice. Then there’s the actual translation part. I use the RAE (dictionary of the Real Academia Española) and the OED, and often ask search engines or kindly friends about how a word is used colloquially. This has been key with Sergio’s work, since he tends to slip in phrases that are just a shade off from typical constructions. I end up with a chaotic draft full of notes, and then revise. And revise, and revise. There’s generally a lot of snacking involved at this stage.
I can’t recall any one passage that proved particularly tricky (they all were, each in its own way), but I had to pay very close attention throughout to the tension between the narrator’s philosophical reflections and his reminiscences about his lost friend. It felt to me that there was something underneath that first kind of rumination; while obviously thematically relevant, they also felt like a means of withdrawing from the experience of remembering M and feeling that memory fade. The challenge was to get this across, balancing the concrete and the abstract within a single narrative voice in a way that suggested a deeper connection between the two, without letting them bleed together or pull the narrative apart at the seams (any more or less than they do in the Spanish, that is). It was a similar process with the other voices at work in the novel—in addition to the first-person narrative, M and his father intervene to tell a series of elliptical, grotesque stories about nomads and eyeballs and a wedding gone awry, and then there’s the meta-commentary that appears in italics, contesting the first-person narrative at times, corroborating it at others—though these were more clearly delineated.
Finally, there’s also an interview with Georges Szirtes conducted by Bethany Pope:
Bethany W. Pope: Which is more important to you, the literal word-for-word translation of the text or reconstructing the atmosphere of the piece?
George Szirtes: There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.
B.W.P: In your translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad I noticed that the atmosphere of the piece—that slightly humorous melancholy—had a lot in common with the tone and atmosphere of your own work, most recently found in your tweets about the ageless crustacean doctor and his lobsteresque paramour. How much influence does translation have on your own work?
G.S: Sindbad was a pleasure to translate because I felt I understood Krudy’s world as soon as I entered it. There may be a difference between the person who is primarily a translator and the one who is primarily a writer who translates. The two may overlap, and there are translators who become writers in the act of translating. For me it was a writerly recognition. Krudy’s Hungary was not my Hungary, not by a long chalk, but it was a real world, particularly in the minds of close friends. The humorous melancholy in Krudy is, as I discovered, an aspect of my own imagination, one that working on Sindbad brought to light. It is possible to hope that any engagement in translation will bring out some latent possibility in the writer-translator.
The Adventures of Sindbad was the second work of fiction I translated (the first was Anna Édes by Kosztolanyi) but by that time I had translated a good many poems and the verse-tragedy. Sindbad came along at the right time. I think my imagination was ready for it, ready, that is, to render it into English but also to feel it as a voice that might be adapted to my own. Most of my translations have been a kind of enrichment of voice. I have learned a great deal from them.
I should add that the longer poems I wrote as a result of my first 1984 visit, that constituted the backbone of the resulting book, The Photographer in Winter (1986) are not at all Sindbad like. They are darker, heavier, more cavernous things.
Remember, you can read the whole issue of Quarterly Conversation by clicking here.
Holding the reader at arm’s length from the medium of its telling (the early image of the narrator attempting to read a newspaper and seeing only splotches of ink comes to mind), The Planets is therefore marked by a certain—productive—dissonance. That is, it strikes a minor note. For this reason, among others, translating the novel was not so much a matter of pulling a text or pushing a reader, but rather one of situating the work at a remove from colloquial English that was comparable to its relation to colloquial Spanish. Because from this vantage point just beyond the familiar we can observe, through the narrator’s dance with the shadow of his lost friend, the fundamental unnaturalness of the natural.
It seems like almost everyone I talk to is a big fan of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (translated by Margaret Carson). It got a ton of press when it came out last fall, and was even longlisted for the Best Translated Book Awards.
Well, this summer (June to be exact), we’re going to be bringing out The Planets (translated by Heather Cleary), one of his earlier books that focuses on the Dirty War period in Argentina’s history. Although, seeing that this is a Chejfec book, it’s kind of more about the telling of the telling of a story of a friend of the author who disappeared and may have died in an explosion. It’s as masterful as My Two Worlds, and maybe even a bit more expansive.
Here’s the official jacket copy:
When he reads about a mysterious explosion in the distant countryside, the narrator’s thoughts turn to his disappeared childhood friend, M, who was abducted from his home years ago, during a spasm of political violence in Buenos Aires in the early 1970s. He convinces himself that M must have died in this explosion, and he begins to tell the story of their friendship through a series interconnected vignettes, hoping in this way to reanimate his friend and relive the time they spent together wandering the streets of Buenos Aires.
Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets is an affecting and innovative exploration of mourning, remembrance, and friendship by one of Argentina’s modern masters.
Anyway, if you want an advanced copy, click below and you could win one through the GoodReads Giveaway program. This contest closes on Monday, so enter right away . . .
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