The critic David Sylvester once wrote that Cézanne’s portraits achieved the “most precise and complete sensation of a human presence, of the way someone in reality appears in space.” Sylvester commented that the painter was capable of such effects because he most accurately recreated the density or the weight of his subjects as they truly appeared. When one observes Cézanne’s figures, one immediately senses their weight—they appear to be both provisional and permanent because they are vibrating very slightly about strong centers of gravity. The Argentinian experimental novelist Sergio Chejfec’s most recent novel, Baroni: A Journey, concerns itself with such spiritual effects of art. The novel’s narrator is possessed so completely by what Sylvester called the human presence of an artistic work that he is compelled to undertake a journey into comprehending its existence.
Chejfec has written a number of erudite, highly idiosyncratic, and densely philosophical works, either in the form of novels or novel-based visual art, that follow peripatetic narrators in their meditations on artistic creation, memory, and landscape. Baroni: A Journey, his most recent book translated into English, is a modern interpretation of the flâneur novel. The result is a stylistic tour de force, a rigorous exploration of the border between art and life, and an intimate chronicle of a man’s intellectual and spiritual engagement with an artist and her work.
The plot is fractal-like: minimal but deliberate in design. An enigmatic narrator, an obsessive art collector and critic, wanders between various rural Venezuelan villages. He loosely defines his purpose as seeking out the revered performance artist, sculptor, and mystic, Rafaela Baroni. His first encounter with the artist and her works is revelatory. In the wake of the meeting, the narrator becomes absorbed with the desire to purchase one of Baroni’s artistic creations, a virgin on a cross, whose simplistic yet lifelike features he finds mysteriously irresistible. He meets Baroni to acquire the first figure, requests a second in the form of a doctor, a significant historical figure, who has become something of a saint for the local townspeople. The narrator travels desultorily and witnesses events in ghostly towns that recall to him Baroni’s performances. This bare-bones description simply underscores the book’s constant switch between micro and macro scales: It is analogous, really, to a character discovering a circular path, which leads into a slightly smaller circle within the former one, then another, until he is circling within infinitely smaller circles, with no certain end in sight.
And so any attempt to describe the plot of this meandering novel can only ever be an oversimplification. Nevertheless, the sequence of events is significant because, in Chejfec’s hands, each incident often illuminates the significance of previous incidents. Because the narrator tends to grasp the importance of things after the fact, readers are put in the position of constantly experiencing delayed understanding. This plays out most explicitly as the narrator describes the effect of Baroni’s crucified virgin: “But the impact of the woman had been belated, or rather, delayed and nocturnal, and it presented at first in the guise of nostalgia, I don’t know how to say it, the memory of the figure as a simple and poignant entity, on the one hand, but convoluted and enigmatic as well.” The narrator often observes that he is visited by these presentiments, or intuitions about the future, and similarly the past starts to insinuate itself until the narrator becomes overpowered by waves of reminiscence: “Here to rescue me from these bitter sensations was, first, the memory of Baroni and second, the image of her most dauntless figure, the woman on the cross. Amid the dismal thoughts of the journey, that simple woman of wood, attached forever to her destiny and her attributes, emerged as the symbol of wise and muted resistance.” It is a chronological slight of hand that Chejfec has performed in his earlier books in translation—most notably in My Two Worlds—but here he seems to take it to its extreme, dissolving the definitive borders between past, present, and future.
As a reader, one is always suspicious of where the present lies. For instance, when the narrator is pondering one of Baroni’s idiosyncrasies in their first encounter, he is visited by a scene from a time in the future:
I was also struck by a sort of eagerness or pressing need on Baroni’s part to seek in her interlocutor some confirmation regarding what she said or did. This became more conspicuous to me when I saw much later, in a museum screening room, a documentary filmed in her house, where she needed to confirm the good or bad tenor of her answers in the interviewer’s reactions… As I observed her gestures in the film I relived several things I’d noticed on my visit, and it made me reflect that perhaps the pleasantness or dependency on her interlocutor’s mood came from the dramatic circumstances of her past, on the one hand, and from being an artist of humble origins on the other.
In this passage, the narrator moves with remarkable ease between present and future. He looks forward in time with the same ease as conventional narrators might look back in their memories—a rhetorical flourish reminiscent of the narrative leaps in time performed by writers like Gabriel García Márquez. In Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the narrative of Macondo turns out to have been prophesied by the gypsy Melqiuiades, thereby leaving readers in that ambiguous uncertainty as to whether or not the novel we have been reading is the gypsy’s prophecy itself. Chejfec’s treatment of time is less tidy because his leaps in time don’t really resemble leaps at all. He describes all the book’s events, despite their occurring at different points in time, with such equal solidity, immediacy, and clarity, that on the page they all seem to be recurring concurrently. It is as if, in the narrator’s mind, events are not finite points in a linear river of time so much as parallel streams variably joining and breaking off from each other.
In effect, Baroni becomes such a distinctive reading experience because, in it, events and people of the past have an unusual continuity with those of the present and the future. Incidents are never simply witnessed and forgotten. Instead, they haunt the present, so much so that the present is often straining to recover something glimpsed in the past. When the narrator visits the village of Hoyo de la Puerta to purchase Baroni’s virgin on the cross, he describes the land’s desire to reclaim its history: “In several respects Hoyo de la Puerta is a thematic territory of Caracas, which recalls its small-town roots, on the one hand, and the preexisting wilderness in the valley where it was founded. Something of what this city was in the past, whether it inspires nostalgia or regret, wants to be recovered in Hoyo de la Puerta (or reencountered, discovered, or outright invented).” The implication of Chejfec’s parenthetical is that the town’s past or history might somehow not exist at all, and the village must invent its own past from nothingness or fragments of knowledge. In this novel, everything wavers between existence and nonexistence, fiction and reality, and dream and real life. To confer a past onto a place or an object is to edge it toward the realm of the real. After the narrator’s first encounter with Baroni, he starts to feel the woman on the cross as a ghostly presence and to imagine its past:
I had a foreboding of her inert body at my back, indeed a good many kilometers ago and a number of geographical obstacles far behind, and quite the opposite of any abstract or esthetic presence, I felt her as a figure who soaked up experience, sublimated it; I felt that, whatever happened, she would understand everything … I imagined the past of the woman on the cross, a childhood given to dreaming in the heart of the countryside, a brief and troubled youth, a disastrous and premature adulthood; it was myself, to be exact, incapable of describing myself under any circumstances with some guarantee of reliability.
One of the novel’s overarching themes is the permeability of the boundary between art and life. In the narrator’s mind, the work of art is often in the process of transcending its limitations and becoming a human presence. In the actual features of the figure itself and the way the narrator seeks guidance from the figure in his state of despondency, such a passage highly resembles a prayer to a religious icon. The Venezuelan regions through which the narrator roams are populated by the devout, and Baroni herself is often commissioned for religions occasions. But curiously, the narrator minimizes the role of any personal religious beliefs in regard to his profound feeling for the virgin on the cross. He emphasizes that the virgin, unlike much of Baroni’s otherwise religious work, is a laical and worldly being. Much of the novel is spent on framing and reframing the central question of how one genuinely engages with art. And the narrator seeks to answer that difficult question in as secular a manner as possible. In a remarkably poignant and poetic passage, the narrator suggests both the creator and receiver of the art confer provisional life onto the work: “The borrowed life would have a double component, I thought. On one side is the person who created or made the figure, in this case Baroni, and on the other side should be someone who believes in some spiritual component, no matter how minimal, of the piece.” The art’s brief life flickers into existence only for the observer who recognizes some sort of vitality conferred by the artist. Essentially, the artist and receiver animate the object with a soul.
Rilke wrote of a similar spiritual transformation when he described the doll-soul, the soul that accumulates in dolls when children enliven them with their imaginations. Rilke was haunted by a sense of loss because the doll became something like a mute lover, an interlocutor who would never speak. When Chejfec’s narrator apprehends the life of the woman on the cross or another of Baroni’s creations, he experiences a sense of awe, a modern religious epiphany, one unmediated by any higher power. In his despondency, the narrator aspires to the condition of one of Baroni’s objects, a figure of a saintly doctor. He describes the doctor as existing in constant contemplation, with a weak but immortal life, and in unity with the space around him. Whereas Rilke’s doll intensely sought after human life, Chejfec’s narrator actually desires a wooden, doll-like existence. He is attracted to the pensiveness and the permanence of the figure’s life. In these moments, the border between art and life becomes the most permeable.
In the novel, the human is always aspiring toward the condition of art. A few times every year, Baroni herself performs her own funeral, lies in a casket as a corpse and in effect, becomes an object of art. Her reincarnation is a re-enactment of her “returns from death,” when on a number of occasions, she miraculously awakened from long periods of time in a catatonic state. Baroni copies her own face for those of the virgin on the cross and the saintly doctor. Another revered regional painter, Armando Reveron, transforms his life into a modus vivendi, so that every object in his house and the house itself function as artistic creations. He fabricates his own mirror out of small pieces of tinfoil and recruits girls to sit for his paintings and act in dramatic scenes orchestrated for friends and visitors. For Baroni and Reveron, the life itself literally becomes the sort of marble or wood from which a sculptor might manipulate into a creative work. They have achieved what the narrator desired—they have transformed themselves into works of art. Perhaps a reader could be forgiven for presuming that Chejfec, in writing Baroni, is proposing the same possibility to his readers: to abandon their everyday lives, to transfigure themselves into art.
In the fashion of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the novel is essentially a form of extended art criticism, in which the “text” being scrutinized is not so much a poem or a text in the literal sense but a series of local artistic representations in the forms of sculpture and performance. But the narrator’s criticism tends to obfuscate rather than clarify. It probes with uncertainty rather than declares with conviction. The book is a sea of descriptions but those descriptions ultimately fail to truly identify what they are after. The result is that everything becomes magnified into blurriness. The narrator suggests that we cannot know where the past ends and the present begins. We cannot know what truly constitutes art and what truly constitutes life. And we may even simulate our death hundreds of times, but we are no closer to describing the infinite and the unknowable.
Darren Huang is a writer of fiction and criticism based in Manhattan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Harvard Review, Kenyon Review, Bookforum, and other publications.