The Planets by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary)

Is there a place where our trajectories can speak for us, without our intervention?  The other did not respond.  If it does exist, we don’t know where it is; if it doesn’t, we should invent it.

Click on the cover image to read an excerpt of The Planets (available on the Open Letter website).

I won’t pretend to completely understand everything that is going on in The Planets.  Despite that, I can appreciate that with its publication by Open Letter Books, Sergio Chejfec has presented English readers with a gentle novel on friendship, grief and loss.  It is, ostensibly, a collection of memories told to us by the narrator about his childhood friend, M.  M was abducted during Argentina’s Dirty War.  He disappeared, his fate unknown, leaving his friends and family in a kind of limbo.  (Sergio Chejfec has stated that the book is in part based on a real life friend who did disappear in the 1970’s).  Some years later the narrator reads in the newspaper about an explosion outside of Buenos Aires.  He believes, for no good reason and without evidence as far as I can see, that M was killed in it.  What he has come to see as confirmation of M’s death unleashes the flood of memories which make up The Planets.  Eventually leading him to some kind of closure.

Memories are not bound by the law of causality, linear space or time.  And so we are forced to follow the disorganized train of the narrator’s thoughts.  Interspersed between the memories of M are other, related, memories – an encounter the narrator has with his and M’s mutual friend, meeting M’s mother after the abduction, stories told to him by M and M’s father. It becomes tricky keeping track.  This meandering stream-of-conscious style was also present in My Two Worlds, but the geography of the park in which that narrator walked provided a structure.  Structure which I badly missed in The Planets…. at least in the early chapters.  Coming to terms with the lack of a lineal storytelling is a hurdle that has to be overcome in order to appreciate this novel.

Like The Catcher in the Rye, The Planets is obliquely about grief.  Like Salinger, Chejfec plays this information close to the chest.  He engulfs you in his narrator’s subconscious, leaving you to experience first hand the strange distance combined with an eery connection that exists between the person lost and the other left.  Holden Caulfield mentions his dead brother briefly in passing, but his loneliness informs every line of the novel.  The narrator of The Planets has assembled a montage of memories, yet his connection to M (he eventually acknowledges) is stretching and becoming tenuous.  To confuse matters, his memories of M are mixed with fictional stories he’s come to associate with the friendship.  Some of those stories are split into parts, appearing at random intervals through the course of the book. It’s often difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction, but the experience of the narrator attempting to hold on to his grief and, through the emotion of grief his friend, is recognizable and feels real in its very ambiguity.  Heather Cleary, the translator, has done a remarkable job of capturing what she refers to as a “certain – productive – dissonance” in the text.*

A highlight of The Planets, which is foremost a novel of ideas, is the narrator’s explanation of how the static existence (or non-existence) of M, created by his disappearance and the mystery of his fate, has changed the orbits the two young men once traveled in relation to each other.  Chejfec continuously references space, gravity, stars and the planets.  The ongoing metaphor that he’s created is startling because it is so beautiful.

The constellations that M and I believed we formed throughout the day as we connected our individual trajectories needed the space of the city to be understood as such, as the orbits of planets whose course is influenced by the relative effects of mass, force, gravity, and things like that, which define the breath and depth of their impact as complex equations and reciprocal equilibrium; in the same way, the two of us seemed to bear the weight of the city on the transparent lines that connected our bodies in movement.

Sergio Chejfec seems to have an attachment to the cosmos, as demonstrated by his choice of titles.  My Two Worlds, The Planets, and the upcoming The Dark, seem too pointed to be coincidental. As more of his books are translated into English, perhaps the significance (if one exists) will come to light.  Which segues nicely into why I find Chejfec’s writing interesting and exciting.  There’s so much there to explore.  These aren’t books to be quickly consumed and, just as quickly, forgotten.  The Planets will linger, frustrate and engage – demanding you return to it to fully understood and appreciate its many layers (for example, I haven’t even touched on the political aspect of the wartime setting).  This is what I like best about Sergio Chejfec’s novels – like the great classics of literature they live and grow with the reader.  As such, they are never finished.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012).
ISBN:  978 1 934824 39 9

*This link leads to an excerpt of a longer post (which can be read in its entirety here) from Heather Cleary’s blog Lost in the Stacks.

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