Sergio Chejfec: The Passenger Is Gone

“I will die in Paris with a rainstorm, / on a day I already remember.” I remembered this often-quoted verse by Vallejo when I received a call telling me Sergio Chejfec had died a few hours before of pancreatic cancer, in a fulminant and brutal way. I was on my way to the movies around Canal Street, where I had been with Chejfec just a couple of weeks before, and I was paralyzed by the news. Shocked by the blow that comes in a moment of distraction.

For some months Sergio and I had been planning a panel discussion about Enrique Lihn’s book, which I had just presented in Santiago in January. He was feeling enthusiastic about the idea of a dialogue on Lihn’s histrionic facet and his performance projects of the eighties. We have invited to the panel David Unger, writer and translator of Lihn; the academic Mónica de la Torre; and the creative writing department of NYU, where Chejfec was a professor.

That time I was bringing him something from Santiago, a rare and precious book from a young publisher who was paying Sergio back for a previous publication. It was cold and a biting wind was blowing, so we took refuge in a café on the Bowery. He unpacked the package and admired the copy with a compliment to the editors of Naranja who dared to publish with adventurous luxury the wanderings of a Patagonian hiker. Then I saw him cough a little and bundle up a lot, more than usual, but he dismissed any concern on my part, mentioned a seasonal cold and went ahead with the plan we had set out.

In those minimal gestures I think I got to know him completely, even though we were just beginning to get to know each other and become closer. More inclined to spontaneous conversation than to programmed publicity, Chejfec gave me to understand very soon that he supported risky adventures, uncomfortable, as he called them, that convey insecurities rather than certainties. As if he was suspicious of the automatism of genres and of fiction in particular. In an interview with Valeria Tentoni for Eterna Cadencia’s blog, he said something that few writers living abroad dare to confess in public or to themselves: the meaning of my work, Chejfec said then, in 2017, can only be understood in a dialogue with what is published and discussed in my country. “I write thinking that this is going to circulate in my own community, which is Argentina. That’s what I write for,” he pointed out almost in response to any attempt to romanticize the craft and his own condition as a foreigner. If there is no linguistic or literary community on the other side of the paper, the literary dislocation of those living abroad loses not only an important referential support, but also the necessary tension that runs through their activity with respect to a belonging that exceeds them. To publish his books in Argentina was to touch land for Chejfec, which did not necessarily mean a concern for the resonance of his work, but rather for the insertion in the linguistic community he was weaving with each publication.

That he did not have enough readers or lacked invitations seemed to matter very little to him, in part because his books are objects of constant reflection on what is represented on the page, a matter that immediately closes the expectation of any casual reader. His plots, if they exist at all, tell nothing that the reader does not already know, and yet Chejfec’s literature demands that you rethink everything. Or at least to consider that part of the whole that borders on the data of reality, and that manifests itself either in the arbitrariness of the essay, in the biographical referentiality (Lenta biografía is the title of his first book, in 1990), or in the narrative fiction of which he disbelieved for himself. That is why his writing also amplifies in detail the manipulations on literary artifice, dismantling its exaggerations and impostures. Perhaps Chefjec’s professional secret consists precisely in dismantling professional secrets, leaving literature in a kind of healing openness to its own traps and deceptions.

Exemplary is, in this regard, the novel 5, a last book published in 2019 where he replicates and answers and dismantles an earlier text entitled Five, from 1996. Based on Chejfec’s writer’s residency in Saint-Lazare, a secluded French port city, the novel reads like a visitor’s diary. To it are added all the enigmas of a Kafkaesque surveillance of the steps of an illustrious guest who is and is not the narrator Sergio Chejfec, who in his stay mimics the existence of all the previous guests who have passed through the place and published an account of their experiences. This game of mirrors that 5 formulates is underlined by an extensive “Note” to the central text that surpasses the narrated story, and that the editors of Jekyll & Jill had the delicacy to print on a slightly different paper than that of the “plot,” if that is the name for this stripping of the story.

Someone could say that these operations are common in contemporary novel writing, where the hybridization of genres is assumed to be the DNA of the end of the great narratives of both social realism and literary tradition. This may be so, but where the deliberate opacity and elegance that Chejfec imprints on his stories becomes miraculous is in the novel Baroni, a Trip, published in 1997. There the referentiality shifts from the real character of Rafaela Baroni and her pictorial work to the popular imagery of saints, virgins, healers and rituals that a community in the Venezuelan foothills performs for their own enchantment. The novel is narrated in the first person by a witness-traveler, an undaunted and neutral visitor who gives an account of this secret world, contained and revealed in the associations he establishes throughout the annotations that shape his writing: “I have in front of me the wooden body of the saint; the wood has cracked down the middle of this doctor who looks forward without seeing anything in particular,” writes the narrator at the beginning of the novel, in what ends up being, without chapters or incidental fragmentations, a most powerful speculation on identity: “Life provided by the gaze of others, a matter made of nothing and yet effective.” This is the phrase I have underlined in my copy of Baroni, a Trip, when the narrator is about to return to Caracas with a description that condenses his condition as a passenger: “I then stayed by the side of the road for a considerable time and then continued on my way.”

Chejfec’s literature is not anthropological, but rather digressive, intimate and at the same time plural, tailored to the borders he crosses in his journey through possible developments. That is why parentheses, footnotes or endnotes, additions and subtractions are his author’s trademark. There is no fear of boredom in Chefjec, because boredom is part of the representation and its desire to escape into a world of lies. Restraint, the aforementioned opacity, and a humor as thin as a needle ready to pierce the skin circulate freely through the paradoxical writing of the eternal passenger that was Chejfec. He had lived for years in Caracas as editor of the magazine Nueva Sociedad before moving to New York, where he liked to travel by bicycle and to have a nibble while visiting the grocery stores in Queens and the Bronx, always with Graciela, his wife and traveling companion. He enjoyed life, writing, reading, and working with his students to expand the possible territories. It was easy to realize, talking to him, that he had all the literature ahead of him to remake with play and parody in the years to come.

“It makes me sad to go into bookstores,” he confessed to me on one occasion, as we were leaving after checking out the new releases with their sophisticated cover designs competing on the shelves. We walked to a café and there he infected me with his enthusiasm for the idea of the presentation of the performative Lihn, which we never did. For my part, I was beginning to think about a long dialogue-interview with Chejfec, whose simplicity and authority moved me among so many pretentious writers. He had just returned from Argentina the last time we met, and now I wonder how much he knew of his own illness during that last meeting that took us to a dreary café in the Bowery. We wanted to be friends so much that when I was told of his death I wanted to die a little too, even though he disliked complaints and unnecessary suffering. Seeking the attention of others on himself, whether in literature or in personal life, was not in his register.

I arrived at the cinema and went in to see a movie of which I remember nothing. But I wanted to lose myself in the darkness for a while, to let myself go in the images, while I wondered when, at what moment, distraction had played a trick on me so I have not even suspected what was happening to his health. Then I began to think that dying in New York, in a rainstorm and on a day like today of which I already have the memory, was what the passenger Sergio Chejfec could well expect from this brief passage on earth.

Roberto Brodsky (b. Santiago de Chile, 1957). Writer, university professor, scriptwriter, critic, and author of op-eds. His novels include The Worst of Heroes [El Peor de los Héroes] (1999), The Art of Being Silent [El Arte de Callar] (2004), Burnt Forest [Bosque Quemado] (2008), Poison [Veneno] (2012), Chilean House [Casa Chilena] (2015), and Last Days [Últimos días] (Rialta Publishing House, 2017). He lived for over a decade in Washington, working as an associate professor at Georgetown University. He has lived for long periods in Buenos Aires, Caracas, Barcelona and Washington DC. In mid-2019 he moved to New York.


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