From The Incompletes
Sergio Chejfec's The Incompletes, translated by Heather Cleary, is forthcoming from Open Letter Books. We are proud to feature an exclusive preview of the novel in Latin American Literature Today.
“Now I am going to tell the story of something that happened one night years ago, and the events of the morning and afternoon that followed.”
The Incompletes begins with this simple promise. But to try to get at the complete meaning of the day’s events, the narrator must first take us on an international tour—from the docks of Buenos Aires, to Barcelona, until we check in at the gloomy Hotel Salgado with the narrator’s transient friend Felix in Moscow. From scraps of information left behind on postcards and hotel stationery, the narrator hopes to reconstruct Felix’s stay there. With flights of imagination, he conjures up the hotel’s labyrinthine hallways, Masha, the captive hotel manager, and the city’s public markets, filled with piles of broken televisions.
Each character carries within them a secret that they don’t quite understand—a stash of foreign money hidden in the pages of a book, a wasteland at the edge of the city, a mysterious shaft of light in the sky. The Incompletes is a novel disturbed by this half-knowledge, haunted by the fact that any complete version of events is always just outside our reach.
The chase was simultaneously obvious and real; to put it in terms appropriate to these two beings, it was also incomplete. For Felix, the experience of following someone made the streets seem narrower and more winding. Things were no better along the avenues and thoroughfares, many of outlandish proportions, a backdrop for an unsettling abyssal beauty that contrasted with the diminutive zeal of the side streets, since the sudden amplitude toppled Felix into a state of disorientation and withdrawal. And then there were the people, who filled the space in irregular quantities and flows, each one similar to the next, which made them seem more numerous. As for Masha, he lost sight of her every few moments, always as a result of his own distraction; after he’d gone a while without thinking of her, he’d locate her again, insignificant in the cold and the crowd, arduously cutting a path for herself like the solitary and almost imperceptible exertion of a little battleship. She seemed barely able to manage her heavy layers, but neither the effort, nor her exhaustion, could divert her from her purpose. After losing sight of her and finding her again for the fifth or sixth time, Felix wondered if Masha herself might not be the architect of these spontaneous and missed encounters; he was increasingly certain that she materialized at will, whenever she wanted.
Moscow isn’t so big, after all, Felix thought as he watched her cross a vast avenue covered in ice; Masha appears and disappears as if the city were a plaything. More than her image, a black spot crossing the immense white, leaning forward a bit like one of those eternal walkers painted by Lowry, it was her name (simple, two syllables, as immemorial as the scene itself) that stayed in his mind for a while. It was not that he found it hard to connect the name to the person, but rather that he wondered if there might be a way for it to seem less artificial. Then he thought about the kind of effect a place like that one had on the spirit of its inhabitants. He studied the signs for a few businesses, but what surprised him most was how small the shops were, with their narrow display windows and doors. As he approached the main avenues he began seeing bigger stores; they were all practically empty, displaying assorted pieces of timeworn merchandise as only a modest, neglected museum could. Felix found scraps of pale fabric, kitchen utensils stained by eternities of disuse, discolored ribbons and buttons, decorations for the home that never made good on the happiness they promised. The objects were at a considerable distance from one another, creating lacunae on the tables and shelves that revealed the general uselessness of the display cases, an empty promise of which only the formula remained. For a moment, he thought that this merchandise, by all appearances unimportant, or dead, silent and unsalvageable, expelled from the world of objects before completing the cycle expected of them, was, nonetheless, the proof of how much was happening there. He is not sure why, but for some time now things have seemed more eloquent to him than people, or in any case, of a more lasting eloquence; he prefers to see the marks on the objects, the traces left by people, which are always material. Because, in the end, every individual is an entelechy; who knows what skill or truth they carry with them, to say nothing of emotions or thoughts.
There are streets that are more congested and the corners are as dense as a hive. As sometimes happens, Felix can’t imagine where all these people came from, that is, where each of them lives, or how they coordinated themselves into what appears to be a collective performance. He thinks of enormous residential complexes, identical buildings and undifferentiated windows. He is unfamiliar with this part of the city, where no one is excluded as long as they know the right way to walk. Many approach him, trying surreptitiously to touch him as if they wanted to confirm his humanity, or his foreignness, or his material existence, which had suddenly been called into question. Felix felt trapped in a private and individual time. As happened to H when she suddenly thought she was living in a different country, Felix experiences the age-old sensation of seeing everything (even the façades of the houses which seem to tremble with the heavy footfall and rumbling of the crowd) as a theatrical set. Every person in the street has a specific destination, they all know where they are going and he, Felix, is the exception: not a temporary exception, but rather a permanent stipulation. The pavement is like a conveyor belt under his feet; he feels as if he’s being transported. Immersed in this mass of pedestrians, he can barely see the little cafés from the middle of the street; all he can make out are the adornments at the tops of the buildings on either side, as if he were being pulled along by a current. For a moment, Felix’s attention settles on the packages wrapped in light-colored paper that many carry under their arms, on the shopping bags made of rough fabric in indeterminate hues, which are doubtless full of food, and on the worn, indistinct purses and briefcases. Everyone is carrying something, as if their fear of the catastrophe they are all waiting for had turned into panic at the mere thought of facing that ordeal empty-handed.
Felix remembers old documentary sequences, though he can’t remember when he saw them, of people moving deftly around obstacles, like brand-new automata trained to obey the commands of velocity; he remembers them because the opposite seems to happen in Moscow: people move very slowly, and each step forward is a feat of restraint designed to fulfill the only collective requirement, that is, to not violate the general slowness. The faces he exchanges glances with want to communicate something—alarm, innocence, hostility, pride—but a fraction of a second later, when he tries to fix in his mind the gesture or expression he just saw, he discovers that he has recorded the image as a sculpture, a motionless face turned into a mask, holding the same expression forever. He wonders then if perhaps they are figurines, simple pieces of boxwood masquerading in human form, whose true character is revealed only once they vanish from his sight.
He is intermittently pleased at the thought that he has adapted, having realized that the easiest thing is to give in, to lean against the crowd and move forward as if he were being carried, or, better still, as if its density were keeping him afloat. Each individual—Masha, for example—advanced like a small, mobile fortress covered in wool or furs, determined in the face of obstacles. Their clothes were mostly gray, black and brown, which, coupled with the indistinct dark color of the houses and the leaden sky, gave the whole ensemble the melancholy air of a forced march or collective privation. Felix felt surrounded by these waters, as if he were effortlessly swimming. It occurred to him that this was an easy way to belong to a country; it was a simple requirement and, in that part of the city, a daily custom. At some point in the morning, the crowd began to stir and headed out; then at the appointed hour of the afternoon it withdrew, dissolving at the street corners and disappearing until the next morning.
As such, he now considers it perfectly natural to lose sight of Masha: as a local, she is always getting mixed up with others like her; conversely, it seems strange to him that he keeps finding her again without trying to. Perhaps these signs should have made Felix question his assumptions. (Like most, he was just a person at the mercy of his beliefs and preconceptions, which often contradicted one another, and almost always came from somewhere else.) But it did not occur to him to do so, and if it did, he didn’t draw any lasting conclusions from the exercise. Instead, he thought that there was really nothing unique about Masha outside the hotel, she faded into the crowd like an indistinguishable anybody. Many of those making their way through that sea of people could take Masha’s place: it would only require a few details in the person’s clothing, like the layers of socks pulled up to different heights over her calves, a few involuntary gestures, carefully studied, and they would be ready to adopt the role of Masha. Even if it was impossible, he imagined her lost in that big city; as such, those moments when he found her again after losing her would have to be when she, no doubt afraid, regained her orientation and her confidence. Then he thought that, just as happened to H on her way home, for Masha, shopping was not just the unavoidable work of a good administrator, but also the outer edge of herself, which she was regularly made to occupy. This is why Felix felt a combination of disappointment and peace as he watched her enter the market: Masha was not lost, she would go on being herself—her obligations had, once more, won out over her indistinguishability.
The market where Masha did her shopping was as big as a stadium. It faced an equally immense plaza adorned only, aside from the cobblestones that covered its surface, by sparse rows of trees arranged off to the sides, most likely meant to mark off a space that otherwise would have seemed even larger. Felix tried to retain what he saw, subjecting each element to an exercise in repetition as if he were dealing with a badly projected film, its images skittering endlessly. The result was more or less exotic, grim, and probably exaggerated. He thought that the building must have been constructed for another use, possibly bureaucratic or military. The fantastic magnitude of its surface contradicted the modest, uniform height it had reached; this combination of immensity and incompletion, though it was hard to tell if anything was actually missing, generated a contradictory impression in anyone seeing the structure for the first time, provoking first curiosity and then disinterest. The people would withdraw into themselves, abandon their vigilance, and stand there as if they were hypnotized. Meanwhile, the lack of proportion spilled out onto its surroundings.
Past the building, Felix saw two women gathering stones from the sidewalk. He turned his eyes back to the plaza (a typical “market plaza,” he thought, though in this case its scale made it decidedly atypical), and suddenly noticed that it was crisscrossed by long lines coming out of—or, rather, going into—the market after curving around, thinning out, or growing thick, depending on the conditions in that area. The four entrances that faced the plaza were also excessively large and gave the impression, due to the total lack of ornamentation on the building’s façade, that they were holes created by a single violent act, probably of unexpected force, that had breached the heavy bricks previously occupying those spaces. This led him to imagine a building, at once unfinished and in the process of being rebuilt, with accidental doors and makeshift roofing, which remains standing only by virtue of time while people use it without even remembering its more or less benevolent existence. The long lines reached almost to the far end of the plaza; there, people were jumbled together and bumped into one another, reacting each time with a defensive gesture that resembled repulsion, as if they were hurrying away from a threat. That was when Felix realized that the plaza was the market’s antechamber: the shoppers needed to form lines that were like tentacles attached to a hidden nucleus inside the building. Yet Masha had entered directly, as if there were no line at all. This fact, which would have caught his attention under different circumstances and he would have thought about it incessantly until he had an answer, was now registered by Felix as just one more of the strange but natural things that a foreigner might witness. He remembered that he didn’t know where he was, which happened to him a lot in Moscow, and that he had no way of finding out: there were no street signs, no maps, no way of identifying one line of public transportation from another, and not even the subway stations were marked. The name of the market wasn’t written anywhere, either, and he discovered that even the local businesses and artisanal shops that he had seen were, despite their garish signs adorned with simple allegories, entirely generic and lacked any distinguishing designations.
Another thing Felix observed in the market plaza was the women’s passivity, or rather, their patience: the group standing in silence, absolutely still; the general absence of movement, despite the cold. The minor displacements (changing position, taking a few steps forward), the slow approach of the recently arrived, and the places they took in the end could not ultimately be considered real actions because, given the similarity in their attire, form, and body language in general, the group behaved like a collective blotch in which the movements of each element responded to a mechanism operating beyond the will of any single individual. The exception to this was the vapor each woman exhaled as proof of having a life of her own. These elements—vapor, silence, cold, stillness—seemed to Felix like an eloquent display of what could be found in that city. On the other hand, if one thing characterized Moscow, it was the number of people; the city presented itself as very busy, with a constant coming and going of people who have, Felix thought he had observed, a certain tendency to congregate around large buildings.
Because then there were the open spaces, places that at first appeared useless, where desolation reigned and only a few people ever went, walking with uncertain steps and a distracted air. The Hotel Salgado was practically on the edge of such a place, as common in Moscow as any other kind, and Felix wondered what kind of event or destiny had guided him there, or if by some coincidence he might have avoided it. He knew that he had wandered around the city for hours that first night, without the information he needed to orient himself; aside from a few general details, he can’t remember anything—which is why he thinks about all that as if it had happened to someone else. He barely retained the image of the dark, interrupted every so often by a streetlight on the verge of flickering out, which had struck him as dense, like the cold, and immeasurable; then there was the glistening of the snow, its intermittent glimmer seeming to offer proof of an organism hidden within. But that initial memory quickly lost importance, as night after night Felix was struck by the very same impressions. (When he had already been walking around blindly for a while, he had asked himself if the dark might not come from something more powerful and vast than the night, perhaps even something that preceded it and pushed it into being, that imposed its rules and modes of regulation. This question had remained with him since then, and returned in moments of despondency and reflection, like this one.) That force driving the night, Felix realized in the market plaza, is the air of the steppes, which is carried by the breeze into the city during the dark and settles into the deserted streets.
He didn’t know how long her shopping might take, but Felix believed it would be a while before Masha came back out. Meanwhile, a few of the lines had advanced and new women gradually joined them. He stopped to watch and was reminded of his idea about prologue situations. As he saw it, that was what lines were. This was enough to make him feel a connection to, sense of solidarity with, those women, exposed to the elements, waiting idly for their place in line to move forward. They seemed introspective, lost in thoughts of their work or their families, prepared to wait and already knowing how long the line would take. Felix had another thought: prologue situations foreshadowed themselves. For example, the path created by a line anticipated the route each woman would travel before reaching her goal. There was a similar kind of anticipation to public transportation, with its well-defined and inalterable routes; its usefulness depended on this. The queue didn’t transport anyone anywhere, but Felix had observed that many of the women decided where to stand after asking in a murmur if a given line would get them to this or that market stand, as if they were making their choice based on the destination.
The most natural thing at that point was for Felix to remember the crowded streets, the slow and disciplined walking that happens in throngs, roads thick with people like oversized lines; he also noticed the opposite, that inside the Hotel Salgado he was never certain of the route to anywhere or how to go about finding it. Predictably, the women in the plaza looked just as alike as always, which, thought Felix, was going to make recognizing Masha even harder, not to mention the fact that many of the women left the market completely transfigured, hidden behind shopping bags, boxes, or baskets somehow attached to their bodies. Masha will be hidden beneath her load, he thought, and it will be useless to try to recognize her; he also imagined that, in such a case, she was bound to head straight back to the hotel and, therefore, following her would be of little interest, as he would already know her destination.
Under fur hats and wrapped in thick clothing, the women leaving the market passed between the lines in which they had recently spent hours, ready for the next leg of their journey and alert, as if someone were watching them. Felix watched them walk away from the market with their matronly gait, alone in the immensity of the plaza and unconcerned by the raw weather. Their purchases could be seen in their purses and bulging bags, certainly a few onions and pieces of fish for dinner. Sometimes they passed right by Felix, and whenever one of them noticed he was a foreigner, she would shoot him an eloquent look, between covetous and distrustful. At one point, as he is trying to distinguish Masha among a tightly packed group moving away from him in silence, a still-young woman approaches him and, after a brief introduction, asks him for a television or a radio; afterward, she adds, they can go to her friend’s house. Felix looks away and sees another woman watching them curiously from a slight distance.
For a moment, he imagines the space in the plaza occupied by the three of them as a two-room apartment brimming with furniture and fixtures. He is haggling with the one while the other tries to quiet the baby crying in her arms. Through the smallish window, he watches the flat landscape of the city shrink, as if the window were on a one-way flight and the four of them were only there to take in the new view. So much so, that when the baby stops crying the women fall silent and, in astonishing synchronicity, the four of them turn their heads toward the window, through which they see the motionless scene, slightly blurred because of the distance, of a city sunk into the cold. The woman with the child speaks quickly, perhaps so Felix won’t understand her, but he imagines hearing that Boris would arrive at any moment. A few seconds go by and he hears a door: someone has entered through the other room. The strange thing is that Felix knows he is in the plaza, but on a surface that has been mysteriously selected for conversion to a small living space within an enormous residential compound. The woman standing a few meters away is the one with the baby, the “friend,” and the woman right in front of him, the one with both feet planted on the flagstone opposite his, is the one who made the request, the one who is “still young.” The one who appears in the doorway is, indeed, Boris, a young boy who runs to hug the mother with the baby and look at Felix from there. The two of you have been standing here talking a long time, the friend complains in her local dialect. Felix eventually gives in and agrees to buy the other one a television.
Meanwhile, just as before, there are women bent over on one of the side streets dropping stones into their bags, no more than two or three each. The mother hands the baby to Boris and goes with Felix and her friend to buy the television. Boris will remain seated on a tattered sofa with the baby in his arms, the two of them covered almost completely by a mountain of clothing and scraps of fabric in different colors. Felix and the two women walk along the empty, humid, snow-dirty streets with piles of debris on every corner. Now the space of the plaza is organized another way, to represent a small business cluttered with outdated artifacts; Felix can’t determine the function of many of these, much less their usefulness. On the far wall and nearly hidden in the shadows, a stack of televisions that seems like it might topple presides over the community of appliances as if over a kingdom of silent, motionless beings. Felix and the two women wait, facing a few wooden crates with holes in their sides; the women are anxious and speak to each other in a half whisper that Felix hears intermittently, when the street goes quiet. They talk about their husbands, what jobs they have and what time they get home, where they go after they wrap up for the day, when they leave every morning, their plans for the future, accidents on the job. The wall of televisions reflects the activity on the street with a slight delay and some disobedience: a passing vehicle is a shapeless blotch slowly crossing the screens; a pedestrian is just a vertical shadow, thin and dark, that looks like it might break into pieces as it goes by. Even the three of them, standing in the space reflected by the appliances, have become a cloud of darkness floating in the middle of the screens, motionless despite their movements.
A long time goes by and they continue to wait. People sometimes come in from the street and exchange a few words with the two women, saying they’ve come for “small appliances” (then quickly discover they have a common acquaintance and the conversation turns to that person), but then get tired of waiting and decide to leave. Felix doesn’t understand what it all means, in large part because everything there is so big it would require at least two people to move. Eventually, a shape different from the previous ones is consolidated in the main column of televisions. Unfazed, Felix and the two women watch the salesman materialize; he emerges slowly from the screens and stands in front of them. He tugs at his clothing a bit, as if he’s just come from a long journey or wants to add a theatrical flourish to his appearance, and walks toward them as if they were old acquaintances. All the appliances appear to be broken, but try to hide their uselessness behind their excessive size, weight, and accessories. A radio, at least, insists the woman facing Felix, and the salesman immediately points to a pyramid of oversized wooden casings. The televisions are expensive, and Felix knows that buying one will mean the end of his time in Moscow. He is also fairly certain that none of them work, though this is not something he can say to his expectant friends. He imagines the three of them going back the way they came, struggling to carry the television through those empty streets, taking shortcuts, doubled over the whole time. Something tells him he should avoid this at all cost.
Meanwhile, the plaza goes on with its lines for the market and passive rhythm of waiting. The small space assigned to the appliance shop has filled a bit more with the arrival of the salesman, whose presence draws even more attention than Felix’s. First, he imagines the wall of televisions, then he sees it; the same thing happens with the wall of radios off to the side. The young woman and her friend have come in close, he could kiss them both just by leaning forward a little. It occurs to him that, seen from the outside, by the salesman or one of the ladies in line, for example, the three of them seem to be talking about some important private matter. They are communicating, however, in a language of half words and undeveloped ideas composed of desires and reluctance. Another obstacle no one had considered is the fifteen flights of stairs they would have to climb with the television set. They stand there, thinking: the two women try to find a solution, one of them thinks about Boris and the baby, the salesman intuits where all this is headed, and Felix remembers Masha and wonders if she is done with her shopping.
In any case, noon had passed and soon it would be night. Unleashed from the north, a persistent icy breeze was beginning to blow; it collided with the cobblestones in the plaza and gathered force, catching the women still patiently waiting outside the market by surprise. Trailing Masha produced no concrete result; at the end of the day, Felix was left with a series of inconsistencies, taking stock of which demanded real effort on his part. Nonetheless, he trailed her on several occasions, each of which was similar to the others, down to its smallest and most frustrating details. The setting was certainly always the same, given Masha’s invariable route, consisting of the streets between the hotel and the market, just like Felix’s idle periods, the encounters followed by missed encounters, the long waits, and even the vacuous reflections constantly popping up. It was like the invented lives of artificial beings that crumble into a facsimile of apparent vitality and are ultimately conquered by weariness.
There was a secret that Felix felt compelled to uncover, but what he received instead from Masha was merely a series of actions determined by habit and devoid of any obvious content, and which were, upon closer inspection, only the appearance of activity. On the other hand, in the city (he could speak about the parts he visited), there was that copious, mechanical life that organized its habits into a chain of ephemera. I have sometimes wondered what led Felix to assume the existence of secrets that were worth uncovering, when in reality he would have had a hard time finding anything more predictable if he’d tried. Felix was convinced that one’s life held, let’s say, little psychological value; according to him, it was trivial, useless, and almost entirely without interiority. For this reason, one needed to complete it, or at least try to, by borrowing equally insubstantial elements from an ostensibly similar life. Hence, in part, his desire to travel. Destiny or intuition had turned that part of Moscow, the Hotel Salgado, and Masha into the network of elements that Felix needed to focus on in order to construct an image of simulated life, a being there and not; that strange presence the environment begins to see as familiar at some point, opening itself up, but never accepts as part of itself. Ultimately, this is the nature of the guest or the foreigner’s life. Still, Felix did not realize that things were not determined solely by his will, which was, incidentally, pretty vague, or that the plot he wished to be a part of already included him more than he knew.
Translated by Heather Cleary
Sergio Chejfec was born in Buenos Aires in 1956. He is an author of fiction and essays. Between 1990 and 2005, he lived in Caracas; since then he has resided in New York, where he teaches courses in the Master's Program of Creative Writing in Spanish at New York University. Among his published works are Últimas noticias de la escritura, La experiencia dramática, Mis dos mundos, and Los incompletos.
Heather Cleary’s translations include Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre, which was longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature, César Rendueles’s Sociophobia, Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets and The Dark, and a selection of Oliverio Girondo’s poetry for New Directions.
In the eleventh issue of Latin American Literature Today, we highlight one of the essential voices of Mexican letters, Elena Poniatowska, and we pay homage to the towering literary figure of Chilean poet Enrique Lihn. We also highlight literary journalism from Venezuela and Mexico, indigenous literature in the Maya languages of Guatemala, poems by renowned Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst, and exclusive previews of upcoming books in translation from Silvina Ocampo, Johanny Vázquez Paz, and Sergio Chejfec.