Sunday, August 28, 2011

Chejfec’s Narrated Thoughts in My Two Worlds

Thank goodness for introductions! After reading Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds, in Margaret B. Carson’s translation from the original Spanish Mis dos mundos, I wondered how to describe the book. My Two Worlds is a 103-page work that doesn’t quite feel like a novel or novella: a writer on the cusp of his fiftieth birthday takes a walk in a Brazilian park, remembers, sits, observes, watches a menacing swan paddle boat, and even has a cup of coffee. Filled with minutiae and meta-material but short on what’s typically known as plot, My Two Worlds is dense reading best taken at a very leisurely pace. It’s an unusual walk in the park.

I didn’t read Enrique Vila-Matas’s introduction, also translated by Carson, until I sat down to write… I was happy to find this very apt description of Chejfec:

“But if I really think about it, Chejfec is someone intelligent for whom the word novelist is a poor fit, because he creates artifacts, narrations, books, narrated thoughts rather than novels.”

And there it was, a perfect description of the book’s genre, handily italicized, as if for me: narrated thoughts. Readers who enjoy micron-level meditations on life, often prompted by observations in the present that, in turn, prompt memory, will love Chejfec’s narrated thoughts.

Narrated thoughts isn’t one of my preferred genres—I tend to think of their narrators, including this one, as nudniks who want to tell me too much that I’ve already thought or read about before—but I have to admit that My Two Worlds contains some very, very satisfying passages and themes. And thoughts. A few rather random examples that play on my own memories, thoughts, and parallel realities but don’t begin to get to the complexity of the book:

Geography and Finding One’s Place: Our narrator mentions operating using “territorial intuition” but has difficulty finding the way to the park. I like the geographical metaphor for finding one’s place in life, particularly within the context of Chejfec’s overlapping worlds.

The Eternal Walker: The narrator refers to himself as “an eternal walker,” saying “to walk is to enact the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity.” He walks for hours, finding tedium but…

He Also Finds the Past and an Alternate Dimension: The narrator thinks about his own life and history and the world’s history, presenting the reader with bits of both that feel to me like a hybrid of concentric circles and Venn diagrams. (Of course, I love Venn diagrams.)

The Impact of the Internet: I particularly enjoyed the thought that “The places or circumstances that have drawn my attention take the form of Internet links… On a walk an image will lead me into a memory or into several…” This makes me wonder about hypertext as a digital form of madeleines. (And reminds me that I really should read all of In Search of Lost Time... The shame!) I, too, find my off-line thought processes ever more influenced by digital habits. On a very prosaic level: I’m sure I’m not the only person who wonders what happened to autocorrect when she writes with a pen.

That Menacing Swan Boat: That damn swan boat, ridden by a girl and her father, stuck with me more than anything, impinging on the narrator’s space and privacy, as if following, spying. Neatest of all about the swan boat is that Chejfec links this imitation swan to real, live swans that the narrator remembers, earlier in the book: those swans are “so unpleasant that I had to retreat to a path several dozen meters away that led to an avenue that encircled the lake.”

Disclaimers: A big thanks to Chad Post of Open Letter (with whom I’ve discussed translated fiction) for providing a review copy of the book. Open Letter has signed two more Chejfec books.

Image Credit: SeanJC, via

Up Next: Patrick Hamilton’s The Slaves of Solitude.

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