The Argentinian-born Jewish writer Sergio Chejfec, who was born in Buenos Aires in 1956, is well-known in his home country. The author of more than a dozen novels, “The Planets” is only his second to be translated into English (Open Letter published “My Two Worlds,” translated by Margaret B. Carson, last year). It’s half-surprising, as Chejfec, who now lives and teaches in New York, could easily be described as part of the contemporary Argentinian vanguard, carrying on the modernist banner of Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. On the other hand, Americans are slow to warm to foreign authors, and Chejfec’s writing is only obliquely plot-based. His prose, which veers tantalizingly close to poetry, demands time and attention, even with (or perhaps because of) the lilting translation by Heather Cleary.
In “The Planets,” the narrator’s friend from childhood, called M, was disappeared, almost certainly killed, during the political turmoil of 1970s Buenos Aires. Decades later, the narrator reads about an explosion in the newspaper, and is transported back to his days with M. The narrator wanders elliptically through the city and his past. The city of Buenos Aires is more than a location or even a character; it is the limpid ether of this novel’s universe. To the narrator, “A neurasthenic juxtaposition of cornices, innumerable focal points within fragmented space: that was Buenos Aires.”
Borgesian in its poetic beauty, Chejfec writes with lyrical grace and astuteness. As the narrator circles around the disappearance that is the focal point of the concentric circles he wanders around his past, he curlicues through stories told by M’s father. Like the Argentinian short-story master before him, these parables that teeter on the edge of realism are engrossing, bizarre, jolting. In one, two boys, hoping to play a prank on their parents, head to the other friend’s home at the end of the school day; their parents never notice the switch.
The narrator’s recollections of and musings on M’s disappearance are repetitive and perhaps obsessive. They are also preternaturally wise. He recalls the phone call he received from his friend, who rang to let him know about M’s disappearance. “I remember a parenthesis opening up as I put the phone back on the receiver; something was interrupted, for how long, I don’t know.” The parenthesis has yet to close; the narrator is trapped in an aside. “Since M has been gone,” he expounds later, he has “lived in a dimensionless present uncoupled from reality…” Each attempt to come to terms with M’s death is unsuccessful but worthwhile, hypnotic in its elegance.
But for the astronomers, we rarely know at what moment we will catch a glimpse of Venus, what exact path these planets take and when the planet’s paths will cross with our own. All Chejfec’s narrator can show us, meticulously, elegantly, is that the planets will keep tracking their way between the stars, always returning to where they started. (Ella Christoph)
By Sergio Chejfec
Open Letter, 227 pages, $14