The Planets by Sergio Chejfec (Los planetas, 1999) translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary (2012) Open Letter Books (2012) 227 pp
One of my favorites for the Best Translated Book Award was Sergio Chejfec’s My Two Worlds (click here for my review). Since finishing it last year, it has continued to build in my memory, particularly the way Chejfec used city geography to delve into the narrator’s state of mind. Upset that it was the only book by Chejfec available in English, I nevertheless waited patiently for Open Letter to publish his The Planets. It was worth the wait (and now begins another wait; Open Letter will publish Chejfec’s The Dark next year).
The Planets has a fascinating premise: one day the narrator reads about an explosion in the countryside and immediately he thinks of his lost childhood friend, M, abducted during Argentina’s dirty war. Though he has no idea what happened to M, the narrator convinces himself that M died in this explosion. He admits the faulty logic: “I should say that I lacked then, as I do now, any proof that M was in that explosion.” Nevertheless, the narrator has a need to believe this is the case; after all of the years, he’s trying to imagine an end.
Since we all know that good may be limitless, perhaps within the sphere of evil the need to bring stories to their conclusion becomes urgent. Maybe this is why I thought of M’s abduction when I read the news of the explosion. The time between those two events was an exercise in panic during which I imagined the cruelties he suffered, prior to the moment of that equalizing blast, which ended both life and horror.
This event and the narrator’s ruminations are placed very early in The Planets. What follows is a series of vignettes that explore the loss and the narrator’s mourning in uncertainty. He thinks back to stories M told him (one particularly lovely one about two boys who decided to switch places for an evening, teasing their parents; their parents didn’t catch on). Many are about their wanderings around the city and countryside, with one particularly memorable because the narrator found an eye by the railroad tracks. Just an eye:
An eye silently calls out for its complements: the lid, the lashes, eyebrows, even the rest of the face (a face, in turn, would demand a head, and the head a body, the body a life, et cetera; something is always missing, in that moment).
I admit I was thrilled that, as in My Two Worlds, many of the vignettes used geography — of the city, of the country, whether walking straight or in curves — to underline the narrator’s emotional state, whether they are simply wandering, searching for a car, or searching for the missing M. In fact, The Planets goes even further and plays with space and time (“time took on intolerable, immeasurable dimensions”) and their relationship, and all of this ties nicely — and uniquely, I think — to people, their influence, attraction, trajectory.
Underlying all of this is the cause of M’s disappearance: the dirty war of the 1970s that left thousands dead made unknown thousands disappear: “It seemed that there were more dead than living and more corpses than dead.”
More so that the tightly structured My Two Worlds, The Planets can feel a bit meandering, and not, in my mind, because the characters themselves are meandering. There’s definitely a sense that Chejfec himself is showing his own struggle to pin down his points, which is admirable, but while I like it when an author shows he’s struggling with something, wrestling words to get out ideas, it sometimes feels very loose here. Still, my complaints there are almost beside the point; this is a brave work, personal and filled with a refreshing intellect. Bring on The Dark!