Sergio Chejfec: My Two Worlds

“Approaching his fiftieth birthday, the narrator in My Two Worlds is wandering in an unfamiliar Brazilian city, in search of a park.”  When I read that on the back of this book, I really couldn’t pass it up.  A few of my favorite books have just such a wandering motif: Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room (my review here) and W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (my review here) come first to mind.  I’ve also wandered my share of Brazilian cities and have loved that country’s parks.  So it was with great anticipation that I sat down to read My Two Worlds (Mis dos mundos, 2008; tr. from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson, 2011).

Review copy courtesy of Open Letter Books.

This is a short but slow book.  I mean “slow” in a good way, though I certainly wasn’t expecting to take as much time to read it as I did.  It begins as our narrator is about to turn fifty and is going to deal with it, in part, with a book:

Only a few days are left before another birthday, and if I’ve decided to begin this way it’s because two friends, through their books, made me see that these days can be a cause to reflect, to make excuses, or to justify the years lived.

He is in Brazil to attend a literary conference following the publication of his most recent book.  However, he has just received an anonymous email that his book has been getting bad reviews.  He’s going to deal with this by doing what he has always done: go for a walk to the park.  That will offer just the right mood:

For me parks are good when first of all, they’re not impeccable, and when solitude has appropriated them in such a way that solitude itself becomes an emblem, a defining trait for walkers, sporadic at best, who in my opinion should be irrevocably lost or absorbed in thought, and a bit confused, too, as when one walks through space that’s at once alien and familiar.  I don’t know if I should call them abandoned placed; what I mean is relegated areas, where surroundings are suspended for the moment and one can imagine being in any park, anywhere, even at the antipodes.  A place that’s cast off, indistinct, or better yet, a place where a person, moved by who knows what kind of distractions, withdraws, turns into a nobody, and ends up being vague.

But initially his plans to walk to the park are frustrated.  His map shows the roads and paths but doesn’t take into account hills, barriers, retaining walls, etc.  Just when the thinks he’s closing in, he finds he’s directed another way.  It’s an intriguing set up to a book that will take place almost exclusively in the park and in the narrator’s head as he sorts through a variety of thoughts, many taking him in the opposite direction.  This process of switching back begins early on.  The narrator loves walking, or, at least, the narrators walks; it had “become one of those addictions that can mean either ruin or salvation.”  We expect him to build on this some kind of nostalgia for a heightened state of being, particularly when he comments on the pace: “it was optimal for observation and thought.”  However, we may be surprised when he speaks personally and says that “for some time now walking has been losing its meaning.”

This walk in the park, then, becomes almost the exact opposite of what we’re lead to believe (and what walking often represents in literature and life).

I allowed myself to be carried away by clichés of living ruins and well-preserved artifacts, and the experience must have left me with the kind of sensibility that is conditioned, I suppose, to search wherever I’m walking for traces of forgotten days, even when finding them is rarely worth the effort.

Our narrator, rather than searching for some heightened state of being, seems to be longing for the opposite.  Throughout the book, he frequently undercuts what he’s saying with noncommittal phrasings, like a teenager saying “or whatever.”  He’s no great success with people, as is particularly noticeable with women who always have and continue to ignore him: “Something about the way I speak must cause this; it’s probable that my lack of conviction in saying even the most obvious things, or the things I most believe in, works against me at times.”  Walking is a way out of himself; interestingly, he says walking has also protected him from “the danger of not being myself.”  This does make sense as it explains him even as it shows him trying to get away from the past.  This attempt to become “vague” or get away from the past comes up often, and the narrator explains what he thinks he’s getting at when he goes for a walk:

I now think I went on walks to experience a specific type of anxiety, one that I’ll call nostalgic anxiety, or empty nostalgia.  Nostalgic anxiety would be a state of deprivation in which one has no chance for genuine nostalgia.

He then begins to list his faults (a long list) and sums it up this way:

[I]n short, given such failings, I had no other choice but to walk, which most resembled the vacant and available mind.

To walk and nothing but.

The book and the narrator become “gloomier and more fatalistic” as it goes on, but there’s much else to it, a sense of presence and of discovery.  The narrator finally finds the park, and as he wanders, considering the nature of his wandering, he’s also commenting on what he’s seeing around him (though he mostly likes to look at the ground, which give a great sense of the present).  Some of my favorite parts of the book are his descriptions of the Brazilian park and what’s going on around it.  In particular, when he described the men playing their multiple games — and, therefore, endless game — of dominoes, I was taken to the place and realized just how much the narrator’s ring true.

I must say that when I finished the book (it’s been a little over a month now), I wasn’t sure how I felt about it.  It’s meandering (obviously), sometimes feels pointless (deliberately), and takes longer than one would expect to go a such a short distance (which works perfectly with the book’s plot), and sometimes while reading the narrator discuss the Internet or his convoluted thought process I found myself drifting away from the book.  But, as time has passed and I’ve had a chance to think about it more and to reread quite a bit of it, I find its power growing.  This is Chejfec’s first book to be published in English.  He seems to be well known in respected circles of Spanish-speaking writers, and I say let there be more!  I’ll read whatever comes right when I get my hands on it — it’s that kind of slow-building power I’ve found here.

9 thoughts on “Sergio Chejfec: My Two Worlds

  1. 1streading says:

    This book was very near the top of my ‘buy next’ list. While your (very honest) review is not what you would call ‘glowing’, it has definitely made me more determined to get hold of it. I recently read Quim Monzo’s Guadalajara, also published by Open Letter, and realised they are a publisher to keep an eye on.

  2. Trevor says:

    They certainly are!

    I wouldn’t call my review of My Two Worlds glowing, either. In fact, just after I posted my review, I went to Twitter and saw two reviewers saying they were disappointed in it:

    Steven Mitchelmore: “I was very disappointed in Sergio Chejfec My Two Worlds; found it smug and not a little boring. That said, Vila-Matas’ intro is beautiful.”

    MAOrthofer: “Underwhelmed, too — haven’t been able to bring myself to put up review of it”

    I don’t fully agree with them here — Mitchelmore responded to me by saying: “Galgut’s book you mention has an edge, a compulsion to keep moving; Chejfec’s is too neat, enclosed & untroubled.” But I can understand their view. I found quite a lot to it (and never felt it was smug or lacked an edge) even while reading it, though in particular in retrospect. In the end, I enjoyed it to the point I’m anxious to read more Chejfec.

  3. Wow, tough crowd! :-) I absolutely loved My Two Worlds. I didn’t find it smug… though I do agree completely with Mitchelmore that Chejfec’s writing style is neat, enclosed & untroubled (I’m very much skirting his true meaning, I’m sure) which is why I admire it so much. While it wouldn’t work for every book, I think wrapping this short novel in a neat, tight package in terms of writing was a good idea. As was the vagueness of the narrator. If Chejfec had gotten too specific you’d end up with a narrator (and novel) like Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World – all regrets, denial and misdirection. I loved that book, too, but I don’t think that was what Chejfec was going for.

    I took the intention behind My Two Worlds as less of a story and more of an experience. Which would explain the vagueness and the heavy emphasis on the description of the park. I realize there is a symbolic message as well – but I think it’s a pretty simple one to understand and not particularly eye-opening. The beauty of the novel, for me, came from how it was written rather than its meaning.

    And as a quick aside, 1streading, I read Guadalajara too and like it very much. I agree – Open Letter is turning out some wonderful books. Next on my wishlist is The Cyclist Conspiracy by Svetislav Basara, mainly for the Sherlock Holmes connection.

  4. Fascinating, both the review and the replies.

    Firstly, on a total aside, An Artist of the Floating World is my favourite Ishiguro.

    Secondly though and on point, I’m left a little undecided on this. The quotes didn’t wholly persuade me. A perhaps, certainly behind Sebald and Galgut for me.

  5. Trevor says:

    I think some of my enjoyment of this book was its placement in Brazil. That said, I certainly put it behind Sebald and possibly behind Galgut (possibly not, so they’re close). This one does things a bit different in that it shows how physical space and movement actually affect our perspective of the physical world, something I believe in a great deal having moved from New York City to the mountains of Utah recently.

  6. The interaction of physical space and mental does make this more interesting, good point. Close to Galgut too I note which is high praise.

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