My Two Worlds by Sergio Chejfec (translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson)

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

Nada by Carmen Laforet (translated by Edith Grossman)

nada.jpgNada is a strange novel. I’m not completely sure what to make of it. Spanish literature can often have a labyrinthine quality to it, which isn’t surprising when you remember that Spain gave us Gaudi, Dali & Picasso. It’s a theme picked up by contemporary Spanish authors like Zafon; in films like Pan’s Labyrinth; and in Nada, Carmen Laforet’s award winning 1944 novel – translated by Edith Grossman – where the heroine is continuously wandering the hallways, streets and alleyways of Barcelona.  The plot wanders as well.  Repeatedly (and abruptly) leading the reader into dead ends.

Andrea, the narrator and heroine of the story, is an orphan. She is plain and sullen. To her, Barcelona is a glamorous city and she’s come there for all the cliché reasons that young people leave their homes in the country to travel to big cities. On her first morning she tells us, “I was in Barcelona. I had heaped too many dreams onto this concrete fact for that first sound of the city not to seem a miracle”. Her plan is to attend university and live with her dead mother’s family. Illusions are quickly brushed aside, though, and the realities of her new life exposed – squalor, petty melodrama and hunger.

Nada is set after the Spanish Civil War in Franco’s Spain. A chasm divides the rich from the poor and Andrea’s family falls in amongst the latter. They live in filth and are slowly starving to death. But the reader get’s the feeling that their poverty is of their own making. The inhabitants of the small apartment on the Calle de Aribau are actors in a macabre, co-dependent drama. Sadistic and manipulative Uncle Roman is the planet around which the others orbit like an astroid belt, colliding and crashing at his amusement. There is crazed Uncle Juan, Gloria his battered wife, and their baby (always on the verge of dying); pious and hypocritical Aunt Augustias; the grotesque maid, Antonia, slavishly devoted to Roman; Andrea’s vague, sweet grandmother. Nada strives to be a Gothic tale. Unfortunately, it never quite achieves the success of its English, 19th Century, counterparts.

It’s not without some charm, though. Which I suppose is what I mean by strangeness – the plot and the writing feels truncated. Edith Grossman may or may not be to blame. This new translation has garnered a lot of praise, but the sentences are too self-contained for my tastes and do not transition smoothly one into the other. I’d like to believe that is what Laforet intended when she wrote them, but there are other, lyrically descriptive passages in this novel that hold the promise of better writing.

“The night seemed splendid, with its breath as warm and pink as blood in a vein opened gently over the street”.

“When it was almost dawn, a cortege of dark clouds, like extremely long fingers, began to float across the sky. At last, they put out the moon.”

“The ships were enormous, their sides extremely high… From some deck, perhaps, Nordic blue eyes would see me as a tiny brushstroke on a foreign print… I, a Spanish girl with dark hair, standing for a moment on a dock in the port of Barcelona. In a few seconds, life would move on, displacing me to some other point. I’d find myself with my body framed by another print…”

At the same time, this choppiness of the rhythm could be defended by a fan of the book. It adds to the disjointed atmosphere of the novel. During the period in which the events she describes take place, Andrea is starving to death. The story she tells us is limited to what she has been told, what she observes and what she imagines. What she knows, we know – no more and no less. All relayed in a narrative voice that is both feverish and rambling. (There is even a portion in which she admits she was slightly delirious and half asleep – hearing the voices of Gloria and her grandmother as she drifts in and out of consciousness). Maybe the tone of the writing sometimes feels dated, but the descriptions are saturated with the colors of the 1930’s and 40’s. Andrea’s life is messy, so why shouldn’t the prose to reflect that?

Did I like Nada? Yes and no, for all the reasons I listed above. Would I read another book by Carmen Laforet? Definitely. Would I recommend Nada to someone else? Maybe. If a friend wanted to borrow it I wouldn’t try to dissuade them or redirect them to another book. But I wouldn’t worry about them returning it either.

Publisher: New York, The Modern Library (2008)
ISBN: 978 0 8129 7583 3

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine