the dramatic experience

by Heather Cleary

Sergio Chejfec’s had a busy year. In the States, he’s been traveling from coast to coast for My Two Worlds (trans. M. Carson), which was nominated for a Best Translated Book Award back in February, and teaching with NYU’s Creative Writing in Spanish MFA program. And then there’s the latest novel, La experiencia dramática, which just came out in Buenos Aires to a flurry of attention in the press.

As was the case with My Two Worlds, the premise of La experiencia dramática can be summarized in a few sentences, though there’s obviously much more to it than that. Felix and Rose are old friends with a standing coffee date; the novel ostensibly takes place during the hour or two their meetings tend to last, though it could just as easily span several such encounters–its temporal structure, as Chejfec pointed out in a recent interview with Ñ, is somewhat elastic. On his way to their regular café, Felix reflects on the ancillary (bird’s-eye) perspective he’s developed from seeing his route plotted out on Google Maps, and wonders whether the objects he encounters along his way are, ultimately, “concrete examples of that which the maps simply take for granted.”

This tension between the real and its representation, this distillation of lived experience, is at the center of the novel. Its title, in fact, comes from an exercise assigned by Rose’s acting coach, who wants his students to prepare a scene based on the most dramatic experience they’ve had; the question of how to define this moment–and how to represent it, translating the immediate and often unassimilable into a symbolic register–bears significant weight in the narrative (and, of course, reflects back on its own composition).

Rose and Felix wander the streets of her neighborhood, which becomes something of a stage itself as they converse in a mix of (internal) monologue and (reported) dialogue. The two are deeply aware of performing their conversation as they watch and are watched by others, and consciously enact the physical and verbal gestures of an engaged interlocutor. One of the most remarkable things about this encounter between friends is the way in which Chejfec balances the synchrony produced by their familiarity with an interiority that borders on alienation; most of their exchanges, which range from reminiscences of Rose’s wedding and the death of her brother-in-law to the possibility of switching to a 30-hour day (and how many extra meals that would entail), reach the reader only after being filtered through the inner world of one or the other. The exchange itself happens offstage.

If the act of walking the city pressed the narrator’s gaze outward in My Two Worlds, focusing it on passers-by, petty crime, the intersection of art and politics, and so on, the same act drives the focus of La experiencia dramática inward, toward the personal histories of its central characters and the nuances of the relationships between them. In this sense, Chejfec’s latest is at once his most accessible and his most impenetrable: the emotional resonance of the scenes it presents can be seductive, and there are fewer signposts here to direct the reader toward the deeper reaches of the work. But tucked into the shadows just beyond the spotlight is a powerful meditation on the notion of writing as performance, human connections and their limitations, and the self-reflexive examination of what it means to hold life up to the lens of art.

If you’re in the San Francisco area, Chejfec will be participating in the Center for the Art of Translation’s “Lit and Lunch” series on May 8, 2012. In the meantime, I’ll be putting up a few choice quotations from that Ñ interview over the next few days, so check back in.

Photo credit: Paco González, from the blog of Antonio Jiménez Morato.

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