Like the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel My Two Worlds, I am an inveterate walker. Never to be confused with a hiker, city walkers are an entirely separate category who delight in the organized, the man-made, the carefully choreographed. We choose “To walk and nothing but. Not to walk without a destination, as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.” While I have explored most of the major U.S. cities on foot – New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, etc., my international resume is limited. I have never been to Brazil, yet Sergio Chejfec so thoroughly captures the essential place-ness of the park through which his narrator travels that I feel I could add it (my guess is Parque Farroupilha/A Redenção in Porto Alegre?) to my Top 10 list of best walks. Ev-er.
Because reading My Two Worlds is the literary equivalent to taking a leisurely, meandering and companionable walk with a new friend. He talks while you enjoy the scenery. Quickly you learn that our anonymous narrator is male, an author and a few days away from turning fifty. He is shy. He is in the habit of greeting people he does not know and who do not return his greeting. He’s also a bit paranoid. We learn few specifics about his background such as that he has friends, but no children and is not currently in a romantic relationship. He talks about a niece and two nephews of whom he seems vaguely fond of (or is he just fond the idea that he is fond of them? Like some people are in love with the idea of being in love?). He tells you that his last novel is not being reviewed well, but can only cite his own dissatisfaction with his writing and a malicious email containing a link to a bad review as evidence of this.
This new friend is in the city attending a literary conference. As is his habit when traveling, he has obtained a map from the hotel front desk and carefully planned his walk the night before. He carries his writing supplies with him in a backpack. Other than his compulsion to walk he’s not particularly quirky or strange (as far as narrator’s go he’s amazingly tame). While his thoughts trend towards the philosophical and the introspective at no point did I detect self-pity. Just an underlying dissatisfaction. I do not want to give the impression that My Two Worlds is depressing – it’s not at all! Probably due to the narrator’s dry sense of humor – which pops up frequently and unexpectedly. And also because the narrator/companion/stranger is easy to like. He’s oddly endearing. Someone I find myself wanting to spend more time with than the 103 page book allows for.
As the author moves us from one section of the park to another we listen to the narrator’s opinions of himself and his surroundings. It’s a fine park – the star of the novel. It has an aviary, a fountain, a labyrinth, a lake filled with aquatic life (fish, turtles, frogs), paddle boats for rent and a little cafe with a lovely view. The writing shines in the descriptions of these landscapes. Somehow Chejfec has struck just the right note: providing enough detail to place his reader on the path beside his narrator, but avoids becoming bogged down by minutia. He beautifully recreates the sense of discovery that occurs while wandering through a well designed park – the wonder of turning a corner and stepping in front of a carefully planned perspective. The narrator is constantly projecting his emotional state onto these environments. (As we all do to a greater or lesser extent). Chejfec uses this interaction between man and terrain to explore how the interior and exterior worlds reflect each other. The narrator seems to feel he must be, or is, constantly choosing between them. What he does not realize is that they are one in the same.
As had happened several times earlier on this outing, before long I spotted a light area toward the end of the path; and when I drew closer, some ten minutes later, I glimpsed a tableau that at first disturbed me, I don’t know why: over there a good-sized, tranquil lake lay hidden, and from where I was approaching I could make out some unexpected, gigantic swans, stock-still and arrayed as if in regimental formation. As I drew nearer to the water and the scene grew better lit, I felt a mixture of wariness and wonder. Wariness owing to something quite primal, for which I realized I wasn’t prepared: simply the size of those pedal boats in the shape of swans, which one associated more with some monstrous scale than with any idea of a replica or an amusement; and wonder because of the illusion of standing before an inanimate army, but one that seemed subject to a latent vitality, ready to awaken or be activated at any moment.
Whether you approach it at a symbolic level, or go with a more superficial interpretation, My Two Worlds is a deeply satisfying read. It is easily my favorite novel of 2011. Wonderful, charming and intelligent – I believe Sergio Chejfec is a master. What I love most about this book is probably what many reviewers have found frustrating: how atypical it is of the majority of what is published by the larger houses. It is less a story than it is an experience. Because of that, and the high quality of the writing, I am impatient for more of this author’s work to be translated into English. (Note: I vaguely remember hearing at BEA that Open Letter Books, the publisher of the English translation of My Two Worlds, is planning to release a second book by Sergio Chejfec. I still need to confirm that information).
Publisher: Open Letter Books, New York (2011)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 28 3
4 thoughts on “My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)”
This sounds fascinating!
Have you ever tried H V Morton’s books about London? He walked London immediately after the war, making his way through the bomb-damaged streets, never knowing as he turned a corner if a church or building that he was especially fond of had survived the Blitz. He had the same knack of bringing the place alive through the sheer power of his words.
Lisa, not yet, but I will add it to my wishlist. In terms of World Wars, I tend to stick with books about the first. But the idea of coming back to London after the Blitz to see what’s left and what’s not sounds brilliant.
Glad to hear you were such a fan of this! You’re right, I would likely be a “most reader” you mention and find some of it frustrating, but it sounds fascinating and I’m tempted to try it anyway!
Amy – I get the feeling you enjoy more character-driven books? Am I right? If so then this probably isn’t the book for you. The narrator is very fuzzy around the edges. Trevor over at The Mookse and the Gripes focused more on that aspect of the novel… so you may want to follow the link to his review to see what I mean.