There are those who would argue that a translator should avoid reading the text or author he or she is translating in the target language, to avoid contamination by exposure. I have to confess that I showed no such restraint when my copy of Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds – the first of his novels to be published in English – arrived in my mailbox: I ravenously tore open the package and read the first twenty pages while standing in the doorway, finishing the rest in one sitting, as suits the compact volume. As a fellow translator of Chejfec’s work, I was not only drawn in by the narrative, but was also curious about Margaret B. Carson’s approach to the meandering yet precise reflections that define his style. Beyond the familiar word or turn of phrase that would offer the comfort of continuity (his) or solidarity (mine, with her), I wanted to get to know this other Chejfec, who emerged from the pages of the novel like one of the parallel realities he explores within it, and I’m glad that I did. Not only does he show his dexterity at weaving together observations that seem connected only by chance, My Two Worlds reveals something often overlooked in the discussion of his work: as it turns out, he has quite the sense of humor.
The plot of My Two Worlds is deceptively straightforward: a few days before his birthday, the narrator attends a conference in an unfamiliar Brazilian city; bored by the proceedings and driven by his penchant for walking (his preferred means of enacting “the illusion of autonomy and above all the myth of authenticity”), he decides to go off in search of a large park located nearby. As far as the events of the narrative go, one might add that he receives word of a negative review of his last novel in the form of an anonymous email, that he gets lost and witnesses an injustice on the streets of the city, and that he eventually finds the park and takes part in a series of sometimes uncomfortable encounters with its scattered occupants. If one were to chart this path (that of the physical experiences recounted) through the novel, there would be little more to tell. But while the story, as simple as it appears to be, draws the reader along with surprising tenacity, what makes the novel so extraordinary is the way Chejfec uses the finest of brushes – reflections sparked by what might be called a sequence of mundane events – to sketch the outline of something much larger.
In many ways, it would be a diminishment to name that something; at the risk of sounding coy, the beauty and the power of My Two Worlds is the way in which the narrator’s varied reflections – like the color blocks of Kandinsky’s “Thirteen Rectangles” – hint at the depth of the space in which they interact without ever inscribing its borders. As Enrique Vila-Matas puts it in his introduction to the work, Chejfec is “one of those contemporary writers who have mastered, with utmost skill, both the art of digression and the art of narration”;though his work demands that we immerse ourselves in the deep furrows of his meditations, it rewards our diligence. Carson, for her part, has risen to the challenge of maintaining the internal tensions of the prose, allowing it to teeter on the brink of impenetrability and then dart back into the concrete, as it does in the Spanish, while negotiating the interconnected clauses that evoke the inner workings of the narrator’s mind (this is no small feat, given the grammatical differences between Spanish and English, which is much less conducive to this sort of nesting.
What impressed me most, though, about the translation – the same thing I love about the novel in Spanish – is the carefully calibrated sense of humor that runs throughout. For all the accolades Chejfec’s work has received, few mention the measured wryness that, to a greater or lesser extent, creeps into many of his books and which plays a particularly important role this novel: in many ways, it is the mooring that anchors the abstract to the human. Caught somewhere between pathos and irony, the humor that exists at the point where the commonplace meets the profound emerges at unexpected moments (the feeling of persecution sparked by a paddleboat shaped like a swan, for example) and often point directly to that larger something that, among other things, suggests the delicate balance between one’s inner and outer worlds and – in the simulacra and unbalanced but undeniable symmetries that haunt the narrative – the limits of literary representation. As is the case in many of Chejfec’s novels, underlying the narrative is an attempt to come to terms with the conditions and consequences of narration itself. Balanced deftly between Chejfec’s subtle wit and the suggestion of these larger themes, one of my favorite passages in My Two Worlds describes the receipt of the anonymous email I mentioned earlier. It’s a moment – like so many others in the novel – that resembles those floating rectangles of Kandinsky’s: as part of the foreground, it is a diminutive, self contained unit; as part of the background, a vast field of color that presses through from the depths.
The review was rather negative; it said the book was a failure whichever way you looked at it. I pondered the arguments and judged them weak. Then I responded to the sender in two lines, wrote other emails I had to send, read the news from Argentina for an unnecessarily long time, and went up to my room. In all likelihood the anonymous messenger had sought to mortify me, thinking I’d collapse or would give up literature because I’d published failed novels, or novels that aren’t novels, I don’t remember my exact thoughts. It was strange, because even though I should have been sad that someone wanted to humiliate me and had easily found the tools he believed would be useful for achieving his goal, I was above all comforted by the fact that I’d come across a person evidently worse than me, because that idea would never have occurred to anyone better.
My Two Worlds will be released by Open Letter Books in August.
Heather Cleary Wolfgang is a translator of fiction, criticism and poetry whose work has appeared in journals including Two Lines, Habitus, and New York Tyrant, and in the edited volumes Revealing Mexico and The Film Edge. Her translation of Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets will be published by Open Letter next year. She is currently working toward a PhD with a focus on contemporary Latin American literature at Columbia University and blogs about film and literature in translation here, though not as often as she would like.