Translated from the Spanish by Margaret B. Carson
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2011)
Everyone knows that a good walk through the park is an enriching, calming experience perfect for airing some of that figurative dirty laundry. It’s a way to work things out in your head; I find that my most introspective moment is when I’m in the park at sundown, right before the police disturb my old newspaper blanket and make me leave.
The narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s new novel, My Two Worlds, is on just such an afternoon journey. He’s a writer, about to turn fifty, attending a literary conference somewhere in the south of Brazil. The city is unknown to him, and, as is his habit, he takes to finding an interesting park in which to meander and meditate. His latest novel is reviewing poorly, so the park seems like a good place to walk and think things through. He gets some tea in a café afterward. That’s pretty much all the action. Chejfec, however, turns this man’s afternoon walk into a kaleidoscope of imagery and thought. My Two Worlds is the kind of book that makes you wish we had more books in translation, an experiment for letting the mind wander—not in that Finnegans Wake way where you have no idea what’s going on, but through a guided path, like a park. Chejfec takes a literary outlook distinctly South American and pushes it through a new prism of organized wilderness. As the narrator walks, he is both the observer and the absorber. He notices, he calculates, he forms conclusions (often opposing):
Generally, when I walk I look down. The ground is one of the most revealing indicators of the present condition; it is more eloquent in its damages, its deterioration, its unevennesses, and irregularities of all sorts. I’m referring to the urban as well as rural ground of paths, to ground altered by humans in general, because ground in the abstract, the ground of the world, speaks different, near incomprehensible languages.
Part of this is because of the narrator’s disconnect. At the novel’s opening, he can barely find the park, though it’s the largest patch of green available on his map. He sees “impressions,” specter-like images from his memory that flash into his path like old newspapers blowing in the wind. But these are the connectors:
All too frequently…I feel walking lacks a purpose, when I’m confused by my surroundings I forget the reason for my walk, but the ghosts rescue me, they wake me up because in their uncertain presence I’m transported elsewhere to a place, I’m not sure what to call it, where parallel events occur.
It’s anonymity, I think, that drives the narrator to walk; yet anonymity will be the death of his (and any author’s) success. The park is the big green spot in the middle of all the gray, because the gray is demand—you are your persona. Here, in the park, you are required to do nothing, and, like the narrator, possibly aim for a future nothingness. So just sit down and enjoy your tea.
Do you know that moment when you think someone calls out to you, but it’s not you they’re really looking for? My Two Worlds is the novel version of that instant: Something is happening, but I’m not sure what it is. Chejfec pulls off a sense of metaphysical confusion that, turns out, is a master plan of the literary process—a collision of the two worlds of thought and writing. My Two Worlds is a strange, unique little book that is overwhelmingly a delight to read.
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Daniel Reid’s review of My Two Worlds originally appeared in TLR’s Fall/Winter 2011 issue, The Lives of the Saints.