Reviewed by Peter Hegarty
Baroni: A Journey (2017) concerns Venezuela, where Argentinian writer Sergio Chejfec lived from 1990 to 2005 and where he published Nueva Sociedad, a journal of politics, culture and the social sciences. Gathered in the book, published after he left Venezuela, are his memories of the country, the people and landscapes he encountered. Chejfec scants on plot, preferring to rest his story on observation, recollection and reflection. He is given to digression and circularity. Baroni: A Journey is structured as a series of passages, the pauses between them acting as invitations to the reader to reflect on what he has just read. A particular passage may or may not develop one that went before.
As he recalls time spent with the celebrated popular artist Rafaela Baroni, Chejfec explores the creative process, asking fascinating questions. For instance when he commissions her to create a figure for his table in Caracas is he also, in a sense, creating it as a writer? Or are commissioning and creating separate things? To what extent is artistic creation a solitary activity?
Time and again Chejfec tells his reader that he has elided something, that what is before him is incomplete, not the full story, and that what he has written requires further clarification. Will he provide it? He often says that he likely will, as he does here after describing the place that is home to Baroni:
In the region where Baroni lives, the backs of houses abut an open space; the impression is that the mountain ends there and each inhabitant can decide how to arrange that border according to whim or need. As you arrive, you notice instantly that Baroni’s house is at the epicenter of an ever-expanding area, as I just said, where different notions of a garden nevertheless exist. I’ll probably describe this later on… (14-15)
Such studied vagueness imbues his novel – I’ll call it a novel although I could also call it a memoir or even a work of ethnography – with mystery and uncertainty, even if the characters and places it describes are real enough. Like an anthropologist, he tells us only so much about his discoveries, in order to whet our appetites for more, challenging our imaginations.
Chejfec vividly recalls his travels around the western state of Trujillo, which rises from the tropical littoral of Lake Maracaibo to the “desolation of the high plains” and further, beyond the clouds, to forgotten villages on an Andean spur, where people must take care not to slip on the ice (27). Geography “confronts” people in Trujillo, while nature, “bright, gravid and raucous” enjoys a “constant pre-eminence.” Nature and geography in fact assault the senses:
Even today there are movements in that land, which never finishes settling, and occasionally more than once a day. And as to the severity of the weather the outlook has, of course, always been the same. There is no witness or chronicler who has failed to understand the capricious nature of the temperature, which goes from cold to hot, and vice versa, in the shortest of distances, often independently of changes in altitude. (119)
The people of Trujillo are polite, phlegmatic, reticent. Their artists carve the wooden figures Chejfec commissions and collects. “Eloquent and mute” the figures jostle on a table in his apartment in Caracas, virgins rubbing shoulders with patron saints, rural characters, Simon Bolivar, and President Hugo Chavez, “of protracted tenure,” decked out in the strip of his favorite baseball team:
I look on them as mute figures that display only their simple presence. It’s a kind of straightforward melancholy. I don’t know how to put it. The sadness of being observable. The object put in place to be contemplated at first produces nostalgia and secondly, owing to its installation amid the multiple gazes, conveys helplessness. (137)
Some of these figures are Baroni’s work. Chejfec visits her house set in a garden saturated with the fragrance of rotting mangoes and inhabited by wooden figures carved from the tree roots and odds and ends of wood lying around everywhere. The old woman lives on the edge of the mountain town of Betijoque in Trujillo with her taciturn protector Rogelio who, many years ago, had offered her shelter when she was at her lowest ebb, living in a cemetery in the town of Boconó, after having abandoned her children. The anguished young woman had been suffering “attacks of desperation” after being forced into a marriage. She had left her children in the care of her mother and sister “for fear of doing them harm, nor did she rule out being capable of killing them, so awful were the attacks of despair that made her weep without end or consolation” (26).
We also learn that as a young woman Rafaela had been prone to cataleptic episodes. My dictionary defines catalepsy as “a state in which one is more or less completely incapacitated, with bodily rigidity, as in hypnotic trances.” During those episodes Rafaela was aware of what was happening around her, but unable to communicate. On one occasion, in 1968, she came to after seventy-two hours, just as she was about to be buried. She is a sculptor but also a midwife, a healer, and a seer. Are her healing gifts and artistic talents expressions of mental resilience, Chejfec wonders, when he describes her as “the image of her most dauntless figure, the woman on the cross (…) that simple woman of wood, attached forever to her destiny and attributes, emerged as the symbol of wise and muted resistance” (34).
Rafaela is revered in Trujillo, as was the “saintly doctor,” a healer who lived in these parts at the end of the nineteenth century. She has sculpted many representations of him, giving him her features, as she gives her features to all of her figures, as if she were seeking to establish continuity between him and her.
The translator, Margaret Carson, is familiar with Chejfec’s work, having translated his My Two Worlds (2011). In Baroni: A Journey, Carson could have explored meanings and nuances in more depth. For instance in her translation of Chefjec’s description of his visit to the silent, seemingly deserted town of Jajó, she renders “vecinos” as “neighbors” when other translations such as “locals” or “local people” would have been more appropriate. To give another example, “tumba” can mean “tomb” or “grave.” Carson goes for the first but wouldn’t you be more likely to find the second in a Venezuelan country cemetery? Similarly, at one point she writes “voyage” for “viaje,” when “journey” would have sufficed. Nonetheless, the translation reads well. Carson excels at description.
Baroni: A Journey recalls Venezuela in good, or at least in better times. One of the artist’s figures represents a mischievous-looking lad. On his yellow T-shirt are the words Viva el Conac, Baroni’s expression of gratitude to the state body charged with subsidizing artists. As the economy continues to shrivel we can surmise that Conac now has little or nothing to give. People who are skipping meals to save money probably no longer have the means to collect the wooden figures sculpted by the artists of Trujillo, who are also having to contend with cheap imports from China. I do hope that these assumptions of mine are off the mark.
The reader wonders about the courses the lives of the characters have taken. The country is chronically dependent on the export of oil, always a fickle, and now or soon a sunset commodity, as the world moves towards renewables. Oil prices are low and they will likely stay low while the Venezuelan economy is suffering with no prospect of relief. The educated young have gone and are washing car windscreens in Brazil and Colombia. I espy Venezuelan flags in the windows of flats as I amble around Dublin. Economic diversification is long overdue. It might usefully involve a drive to attract more visitors to this land of exuberant nature, and crazy geography that Chejfec describes so memorably in a distinctive, agreeably-translated book.
Chejfec, Sergio. Baroni: A Journey. Tr. Margaret Carson. Almost Island Press, 2017.