There is no lack of great literature (and art, film, etc.) that reflects on the dictatorship in Argentina (among those of other countries) from a later time, even to the extent that it has become one of the tributaries of Latin American literature that steadily streams through the narrow channels of translators. Probably there are some people out there already getting a little tired of it and are ready to move on. But Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (trans. Heather Cleary, 2012) more than rewards anyone who takes it up. It is simply a great novel of the lasting personal effects of a political disaster.
The narrator spends the novel remembering his youth with his friend, M, before M disappeared without warning during the dictatorship--a victim by accident rather than a real political target, as far as anyone can tell. Most of these memories involve the two walking the city’s streets together talking and telling stories. The reflections are prompted by a completely arbitrary event, an explosion that the narrator spontaneously intuits must have killed his friend. This belief is, in its way, every bit as irrational as some of those I found uncompelling in When We Were Orphans, but here the leap in imagination is much easier to make. It is easy to understand the narrator’s belief as simply a desire for closure to a mystery, a product of mental anguish seeking its end (but not, perhaps, entirely succeeding).
Chejfec’s biggest success is in the distinction of the different narrative modes of the novel, which slips between the narrator’s first-person reminiscence, third-person stories told by M and M’s father while they walk the city (some of the best passages in the book), and third-person passages describing M and the narrator, which come across to me as if the narrator were discussing himself from a position of complete alienation.
The first-person narration in the first half of the novel poses the biggest difficulties for reading, partially because it reflects the narrator’s confusion and partially because it reflects a dense, poststructuralist thinking of the world. How much were the narrator and his friend different people, and how much the same person? How is anyone really different from one another, while at the same time having endless distinctions? In their own wanderings and their stories about other people traveling, space offers endless variations but the landscape remains the same, an endless disappointment in the traveler’s desire for difference. The narrator obsesses over similarity and difference, and you could say that one thing the novel does is confuse us over the difference between similarity and difference. A comic version of this appears in a story M’s father tells about a Jewish wedding, where an endless series of men in the story have names that run together, where their roles are distinct and yet they seem like a blur on the page as they build up. Their names are the signs both of their likeness and difference at the same time.
What pervades the novel, though, is a deeply personal grief, born out of specific circumstances and yet deeply recognizable beyond that circumstance—similarity and difference again out of the same signs. It is a grief that turns at times towards terror, paranoia, boredom, and humor, but always on the way back to itself.