Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao
“A sense of loyalty to his memory leads me to write,” the narrator of Sergio Chejfec’s novel The Planets confesses, thinking back on the life of his dearest friend. Of the duo, M was the story-teller, the writer-to-be, the absent-minded-professor (“always distracted to the point of appearing indifferent”) with a parable in every pocket, viewing the world askance. M was larger-than-life—until he was gone.
The Planets considers the impact of friendship—and its loss—in cosmic terms. The novel unfolds in Buenos Aires, in the shadow of M’s sudden abduction during the state campaign of terrorism of the 1970s. Chejfec’s narrator—a peculiarly opaque figure who is at once idiosyncratic and exacting—traces his emotional trajectory from the moment a mutual friend calls to let him know about M’s kidnapping (“This friend, named A, sounded like an idiot. How could he say ‘to let me know?’ (Someone, someone else was speaking through him; he could not be saying that.”) he remembers) to his chance encounter, years later, with M’s mother on calle Acevedo. She has been hollowed out from years of grief and they do not have much to say to one another, but their meeting is laden with symbolic significance.
Years before, M’s disappearance in the midst of Argentina’s “Dirty War” had paralyzed his parents; they could respond only with “disorientation, dishevelment and a particular vacillation.” In the end they are unable to organize a search for their son. Because of his parents’ passivity, M’s name—which the reader never learns—is absent from newspaper accounts of the missing, or from flyers or banners rallying relatives of “the disappeared”; the anonymity only deepens the sense of loss.
This is not a story about Argentina’s political history and its human toll, though. Chejfec is interested in loss as something almost entirely private and visceral, largely disconnected from public life.
Gradually, as any trace of M’s existence recedes farther and farther into the past, his memory itself takes on a haunted aspect: If M lives on anywhere at all, it is in the narrator’s mind. Like a ghost, M’s presence visits the narrator in fleeting moments, but rather than inspiring a fear of the supernatural, the visits only deepen his veneration for his friend—and provide something of a spiritual compass. The restrained prose of Heather Cleary’s translation transmits both the clarity of the narrator’s memories, as well as the otherworldliness of his reflections. His bond with M and the rupture of its loss appear to form the basis of an entire, quietly mapped personal philosophy. The narrator’s memories of M’s strange stories—convoluted parables about mysterious wanderers—combined with his own subtle observations about the deeply transformative nature of the most intense friendships present a kind of dreamy Weltanschauung. Questions of how to chart our paths, orbits (and inevitably, our destiny) hover over the book. But the narrator shies away from leaning too heavily on simple metaphor or clear explanations:
I have on occasion wondered whether someone, should someone read this, might think that I am proposing, or hoping to discover, through the image of M, the logic or mystery through which the people have drifted since those years. The truth is that there is little to propose and even less to discover.
Still, this is a book ultimately very much concerned with those forces of “logic and mystery” that propel human lives—“the same mystery that moves the planets also impels people” the narrator notes at one point. Nowhere is this concern more evident than in one of the most vivid episodes of the novel, which finds M, the narrator, and M’s father wandering through the streets of Buenos Aires. M’s father’s car has been stolen. Stubbornly unable to accept the loss (a dark adumbration of his response to his son’s disappearance), he enlists M and the narrator, still high school students, to join him foot on his search for the missing vehicle. The plan of action seems simple at first. He chooses “the perfect epicenter” for their starting point, and then leads the boys in a spiral so massive it ceases to feel circular: “When, after a few hours, we found ourselves forced to walk in a straight line for several blocks before being able to turn, the notion of progress and expansion left us and we were humbled by a sense of linearity.”
From the start, the futility of this particular search is apparent to the narrator—if not to M and his father. But the trio’s commitment to the task is absolute, and though circling city blocks brings them no closer to recovering the car, it does afford the opportunity to stumble across strange scenes of crime and confusion in remote neighborhoods. It also offers long stretches of time to share stories. The car is all but forgotten as the winding journey takes on a gravity of its own: “We wandered like planets, our orbits well outside the sphere of activity.” They are lonely travelers stuck on a path that ceases to hold reason. But in the narrator’s memory, these pointless hours are rich with meaning; they are part of the backbone of his friendship (in his formulation, “an essential element of friendship was tedium: knowing how to share it and how to tolerate it”).
It is not the first time Chejfec has written at length about the emotional implications of wandering by foot. The narrator of My Two Worlds finds himself compelled to walk through the streets of a city in southern Brazil for hours on end:
To walk and nothing but. Not to walk without a destination as modern characters have been pleased to do, attentive to the novelties of chance and the terrain, but instead to distant destinations, nearly unreachable or inaccessible ones, putting maps to the test.
Walking to unreachable destinations—charting a path to inaccessible places, mapping uncharted terrain—these are the challenges that motivate Chejfec in The Planets, too. Grief has a physicality which walking brings into focus. The streets are all-knowing. When the narrator runs into M’s mother, for example, the impact of their meeting resonates across the block: “Waves of stupefaction welled from the cobblestones in the street and the trees along the sidewalk.”
In his wanderings—literal and figurative—Chejfec’s narrator has a tendency to go off on tangents, but in the final chapter of the book, he finally reveals something direct about his core, a secret he’s told no one. After M’s death, for a time he became obsessed with taking M’s name. In trying to do so, he has an affair with the civil official responsible for processing such requests, a clerk named Mirta, a simple woman of “unassuming ugliness” and reserves of emotion. Taking M’s name would preserve his memory, but first, it would require sharing that memory. Suddenly, the full extent of the narrator’s cowardice and narcissism is clear. Mirta holds the power to approve the name change—but, according to law, must be first given a reason for the change. The narrator, however, is unable to tell his lover why he wants a new name. He’s convinced that the “thunderclap” of revelation will turn his private devotion to M into something vulgar. And so, presented with the opportunity to give name to his loss—to share his story and thus, forge a new intimacy, he falters. If he shares his secret, he tells himself, its revelation might become a source of regret. Or could it be simply that speaking the memory would destroy his vision of its absolute singularity—and unravel the inner world he’s constructed, the circular, walled citadel, he’s gradually built to protect himself from any new vulnerability? It’s a possibility never articulated, only faintly hinted at: “It might even be, I thought, that something similar had happened to Mirta.”
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