Over three freezing days in December, 20-odd writers, readers and critics assembled in a conference room at the India International Centre in New Delhi to talk about fiction and poetry. The occasion was the Almost Island Dialogues, an annual event organized by the online journal Almost Island for the past decade. Last year, for its 10th edition, too, Almost Island brought together a constellation of literary figures from across the world to share ideas, read out from their work, and interact with a small, select audience. With everyone seated around a table, without a dais setting a hierarchical distance between speakers and listeners, it felt like no other literary event I have ever been to—intimate, empowering, and not a little humbling.
Among this august gathering—including scholar-poet-translator-critic Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, poet Joy Goswami, novelist Irwin Allan Sealy, and Chinese-American poet Bei Dao, among others—I met Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec, currently living in New York City. I have known of Chejfec’s work since 2016, when I saw an installation by him at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale entitled Dissemination Of A Novel, which, I learnt, was drawn from the text of his novel, Baroni: A Journey (2007). But it would be another year before I would read him properly after writer Sharmistha Mohanty, who is also the founder-editor of Almost Island, sent me a copy of Chejfec’s novel, The Dark (2000), translated from the Spanish by Heather Cleary in 2013. Some months later, Mohanty also sent me Baroni, which I hadn’t ceased thinking about since I had glimpsed it at the biennale. Translated by Margaret Carson into English in 2017, the novel is recently out in India courtesy Almost Island Books, the publishing imprint of the literary journal.
In its inaugural editorial in 2007, the journal had set out its agenda in no uncertain terms: “Almost Island would like to be concerned with writing which does not have a purpose outside itself," the editors wrote. “In times where information is seen as revelation, Almost Island would like to publish work which is in no way sociological, or a travel guide to a foreign culture, or a substitute for historical or anthropological knowledge... Almost Island will seek work which is philosophical, internal, individual. It will seek work which either threatens, confronts or bypasses the marketplace by its depth and seriousness and form." Chejfec’s writing, especially his fiction, fits into this mould seamlessly. Not only is he an iconoclast, dismantling the conventions of time, place and unity in his odd, often intransigent, writing, but his relationship with the publishing market is as disruptive.
Unqualifiedly experimental in his affinities, Chejfec is a manipulator of forms. Like the great German stylist of the modern novel W.G. Sebald, he dwells in fragments, essays, and ambiguities, in deep, philosophical reflections. Reading him is no walk in the park. His elliptical prose—Baroni is a classic example of it—demands an island of attention from readers, a mental discipline that is difficult to haul up, surrounded as we all are by the ceaseless distractions of the internet. Its labyrinthine plot, if it can be called that, is hard to piece together into a quick summary—it doesn’t tick any boxes of race, gender or other, overtly ideological agenda. From start to finish, Chejfec’s investment is in craft and aesthetics, in exhuming truths from thick descriptions of the landscape his narrator travels through.
At its most basic, Baroni is the story of the life and work of Rafaela Baroni, a Venezuelan artist, who is a real-life legend living in the village of Betijoque, but barely known outside it. On another level, as the subtitle points out, Baroni is “a journey"—describing the artist’s intellectual and spiritual peregrinations and the flâneur-narrator’s reckoning with them. In spite of admiring and collecting her work for a long time, the unnamed narrator grapples with what Baroni’s art signifies. As he notes, the wooden statues of the Virgin on the cross that she makes, modelled after her own face, are “meaningful and mute at once, eloquent and inexpressive". Baroni’s own “situation", the narrator adds, is as “delicate": “planted between nature and art, on the one hand, and between permanence and transience on the other".
Into this shifting terrain, where life and death, the past and the present, are inextricably tangled, the reader is left, without many clues to navigate their way, but ambushed by surprises at every turn. Baroni’s bizarre artistic projects, for instance, add to her mystique: the regular performances of being “dead" (having come back from a few catalectic trances, Baroni is more qualified to play dead than any other living person) or the ritual of wedding she enacts periodically. Playful as these expressions are, Chejfec is a master at unpacking their metaphorical richness.
Reading Baroni not only stretched my attention but also alerted my senses to the nuances of Chejfec’s visually rich idiom. In The Dark, a more conventionally structured work than Baroni, the narrative traces the conflict between the protagonist and his beloved, a working-class girl he abandons after impregnating. Even in such a charged setting, Chejfec closely attends to mimetic details—the description of a skirt the girl borrows from a friend, the texture of darkness that spills into the derelict shack they meet in, the stench of garbage, and human exhaustion, that rises like a fug as they take a stroll.
Baroni, in contrast, is resonant with the description of art, as Chejfec forces the reader to look into the nook and cranny of every statue, the chipped edges of wood carvings, or the imperceptible life force that ripples among the flora and fauna in Baroni’s garden. Resplendent as these details are, Baroni is also much more than the sum of these exquisite parts. Like a cubist painting that begins to come together as the eye contemplates it from a distance, the novel yields its tragic, human truths incrementally, long after the reader has turned the last page.
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