Simple Language, Name

Sergio Chejfec

Illustration by Cody Cobb

Though they may use lengthy sentences, and may have a weakness for complex thoughts or stylistic displays, privately all writers dream of wielding a simple language. Not always to put it into practice, that is, to write in it and show it off, but instead as an ideal of verbal expression that encloses a more elemental or compressed truth, a transparency, linked to each one's past, even when it is difficult to represent. That rhetorical heritage at times approaches a tautological mechanism devised by memory, as if each object or idea carried into writing were nothing more than its isolated name. A writer knows that what is written is meant to be understood, but also that it contains a facet of intimate correspondence with his or her past, which is often uncontrollable.

Some years ago I had the idea of asking several writer friends if they wouldn't care to reflect on their own surname. I envisioned it as a special literary exercise, because rather than combining different or very disparate elements, it would consist of differentiating what is close, what is similar, what is often juxtaposed without calling attention to itself, and above all else what is redundant. It was a matter of using one's surname as an excuse to speak of oneself: of one's origin and descent, one's childhood and upbringing, its meaning and resonance, and of course, of literature itself and the constitution of the name as an emblem of a certain literary content.

Among the answers I got, several were enthusiastic, the majority wavering. One, an elegant turndown, expressed great interest in writing about surnames . . . as long as they belonged to somebody else. I still hadn't finished my inquiries, but seeing from the outset that the reactions were mostly tepid, I dropped the idea once and for all. It was a surrender before the start; I could blame it on the cautious answers or on the ones late in arriving, but the truth is I had lacked the enthusiasm to insist on the idea. And as that is quite frequently the case with me, I didn't really care, and for a long time I forgot about it.

This task—to speak about one's surname and to portray oneself through it—contains, I think, a touch of transcendence that brings us closer to death. We insert a mark—which is our emblem, i.e. the commentary—into an undefined series of fairly indistinct moments which is characterized precisely by the absence of marks. I'm referring to the continuity of generations and the unique coin binding us to them, a worthless and featureless coin, as if spent, that is the fleeting identity our surname provides. Because the perception we may have of our place in the family succession is always irrelevant compared with the long chain of generations, it reaches at the most four or five links.

That common coin which is our surname, received at times like a baton, needs us so as to take on substance and, as it were, identity. Because like the photographic portraits that say nothing to us if we don't know the sitter in some way (Barthes), a surname is mute unless it's assigned to an individual (just as an individual is indistinct without a name). In reality, it makes no difference to anyone what one's neighbor is called; what everyone agrees on, however, is that a permanent and unambiguous relationship exists between surname and individual.

As far as I recall, leaving to the side Sarmiento—who knew how to make the most of his surname—two Argentine authors turned the topic into a veritable theme in describing their enigmatic relationship to their surname and how additionally that link constituted them as individuals and writers. These are among the most eloquent autobiographical narratives in our literature. I'm referring to La rueda de Virgilio (Virgil's Wheel) by Luis Gusman and to the brief text by Roberto Arlt "Qué hay en un nombre" ("What's in a Name"), given a meticulous reading in recent years by Alan Pauls. Gusman and Arlt discover in their surnames an unusual mark that, like an unexpected and obligatory piece of clothing, bestows exceptionality, peculiarity. They read their names as an etymology of misunderstandings and rejections. That discovery of an imperfect surname is precocious but definitive, like the surname itself, fateful and voluntary at once, its effects don't wear off, but instead, as time goes on, and especially as the work itself goes on, become ever more complex and overlaid until they devise a personal equivalence. And they demonstrate that not every autobiography needs to start off from a name, but any story about one's own name is autobiographical. This, perhaps obvious, is good to emphasize in light of what I'm about to explain.

Some seven months after my first novel was published, in 1990, my father died. He had landed in the country as an adult, and from other languages and with a preparation inadequate for what his life was going to be, he spoke, and especially he read, with difficulty. That novel was wholly inspired by my father, it was a way to tell fictitious tales about some personal and familiar questions that he left unanswered. In that seven-month period I saw him on very few occasions, but I always found him with the book in front of him. He'd tell me he had asked someone to read him a part. Nonetheless, since he never made any comments or asked me any questions about the book, I have the impression that he died without really knowing it, and of course without knowing what meaning it could have. My father had always said, no doubt as a way of concealing his European vicissitudes, that with his personal history he could write a whole book. It was a sort of leitmotif, he meant that the misfortunes of his past had been so numerous that it could prove edifying (in the sense of instructive) to learn of them in detail. Of that history he would hardly ever speak, when he did it was to repeat the familiar generalities; he would imply that he didn't want to talk about the horrors—meaning, I now suppose, that what he took from his past was only the horrors.

For some time now I've also thought that with that book I gave my father's life a concrete form. A form he didn't expect, wasn't acquainted with, probably wouldn't have understood, and with which in any case he wouldn't have agreed, but, I also think, a form he tolerated with wise indifference. That pattern of words represented in the book meant assigning him a name, making it visible and simultaneously crystallizing it. In all likelihood I'd written about him because, let's say, I didn't want to write about my surname, which would have meant writing about me. I had rescued an anonymous being, borrowed his life to write about, and in doing so I gave life to myself. So I wonder if that book didn't partly cause his death, by flash forwarding to when he would be a memory, making him say (him and his memory both) things that didn't befit him. For I had given him a new surname, making him captive to my ruse. Instead of writing about my name, I wrote about him as if it weren't his own; in doing so I saddled him with one that was neither his nor mine, but rather a different one discovered by the book.

I said already that my father spoke poorly, that is, he had difficulties with Spanish. It's also true that he hardly ever spoke. The simple, limited and ill-pronounced language distanced him from his family, because having the position of authority, but expressing himself poorly, always reflected a dire inadequacy, since at the same time he showed himself to have a more authentic, more native, language. Those obstacles, along with his lack of education (or rather, his strictly practical education, for he had acquired everything he knew on his own), diminished his capacity to do a great number of things. And so, being poor, his only means of redemption, or self-improvement, say, revolved around money and the well-being it could provide. It was the revenge he was in a position to ask of life. But since in order to achieve it aptitudes that he lacked were also necessary, his advancement always turned out to be difficult, bumpy and strewn with threats and setbacks. He thus exerted a fairly relative authority; it was force, shouting, work, but he almost had no voice.

One of the main stumbling blocks of my surname is the j, which divides it in two and encumbers a word that is at first glance difficult. This letter confounds spelling and makes for repeated problems in pronunciation; j and f are enunciated too far apart to be said together. Nonetheless, that was always the pronunciation adopted at home and considered correct (that is, "chayh-fek"), the pronunciation arising from the sound of the letters in Spanish. My father, meanwhile, pronounced the surname in his own way, as owner of the name he didn't care how his children said it; just as we, believing ourselves superior to him in so many aspects, trusted in the existence of one single right way to say it, which was that of the school, that of the street: the correct, though laborious, pronunciation.

My father pronounced it "chay-fek." And when it came to saying his true surname—no longer reflected on official documents because with the change of continents the sound of that word had changed—when it came to saying his true surname, he said "hay-fetz." We accepted this Jeifetz surname; for a Jew nothing is easier than to accept different names for the same things; every Jewish boy has a legal name and a separate family name, a religious one, which is given to him at his circumcision, and which will always accompany him like a secret ID, his name before God. We accepted that Jeifetz, it was the Yiddish surname for our Yiddish first names; that my father said "chay-fek," however, was for us one more of his unfortunate errors in pronunciation.

Many years went by before I stood corrected. It was when arguments proving him right persuaded me, now almost an adult and my ignorance somewhat dispelled, that if Jeifetz was correct, saying "chay-fek" was not only the opportune concession to a laborious Spanish pronunciation, but also the sound of that j said as a y would maintain the surname's ancestral identity. So it was that for far too long I rejected the fatherly version of my surname, and first acknowledged it as valid, and afterward adopted it, only when another type of norm, a certain idea of language, or a less literal way of seeing things, showed me the soundness of the argument and the relevance of "chay-fek."

It isn't strange that it happened like that, in a way it was entirely predictable, and there's no paradox hidden inside it, either. Just around when I adopt my father's version, I throw myself into writing; it's a belated decision, and now I think it was precisely that—recognizing and adopting his name, I mean saying it as he said it, as if it were a foreign surname—which gave me permission. But at the same time the price that had to be paid was betrayal (or to put it less dramatically, a trick). Because by means of the surname I recovered the most eccentric emblem my father had (foreign in his civilian life, mistaken in his private life) in order to adopt it and make it my own.

I remember his signature. A nervous signature, in a rushed and awkward hand, but which presented itself as resolutely personal (so much so that it seemed to belong to another person). The antithesis of that of my mother, who, with her rounded, regular and properly slanted letters, has all the schoolbook qualities of a good Uruguayan woman. I've never seen a letter J drawn as extraordinarily as my father's in his signature. If I say it was like a fish-hook, no one will think it strange, but it was a reverse fish-hook, slanted a bit and squashed to the right. A J that sets out to be grand, with every possible ornamental intention, but has hardly begun before it gives up, or thinks better of it, and bewilderedly sketches a downward and imprecise curve. This J was the first letter of his first name (José), while the j of his surname was an uncertain line, a little oblique, paralleling, almost attached to, and the same size as the f beside it.

I've come to realize that at times, when I print my name, not sign it, the figure of my surname bears an astonishing resemblance to my father's signature. Despite being so personal, his signature proved very easy to imitate, at least for me; perhaps I share with him that sensation that any pen or pencil is too weighty, or too light for a weighty and awkward wrist to be able to control, and for that reason we have a similar way of dashing off our strokes.

I should also say that his signature was practically the only thing he could write without going wrong; not making mistakes was foreign to him, and the little he wrote was for the most part phonetic and consisted of everyday texts such as brief messages, reminders or addresses. Nevertheless, when he wrote in Yiddish his hand flew, tracing stylized letters whose graceful strokes kept their balance and their proportion; a penmanship slanted so naturally and fittingly that it seemed to be a form of exactitude, in a hand that seemed to have lasted forever.

The first story I ever wrote, apart from some failed student compositions, was text for a postcard, which I wanted to send to my mother as though it had been mailed in Paraguay. That postcard would be sent by a hitherto unknown sister, who was revealing herself after having led a hidden life because of a secret family history; the moment had arrived to meet my mother, she wanted to tell her the truth about certain unmentionable issues, etc. I failed at my task, I yielded to the first obstacle too, which was not knowing where to get hold of Paraguayan postcards. But I recall the name assigned to my mother's new sister, she was going to be Isabel Palau (she'd had to acquire another surname). I don't know why Isabel, maybe because in those years there was a lot of talk of Isabelita Perón, or covertly of the sex symbol Isabel Sarli; I do know the reason for Palau, which was that it seemed to me a perfect surname, one that epitomized an image of good taste, simplicity and personality at once. It seemed, shall we say, high-sounding and very Argentine. It was the type of surname that when I heard it at school seemed complete to me, of uncontested personality.

Many years later, I discovered it was also the preferred type of surname, in some way neutral, of a considerable segment of fifties and early-sixties Argentine literature; ideal—I think—according to the author, for reflecting characters who were insular but cosmopolitan, Argentine but exceptional, cultured but anonymous, frustrated but sensitive, average. It was as if the middle class were searching for a cognominal identity separate from the massive transatlantic immigration, from the uncontrollable arrival of settlers from the interior, and from the inbred patrician oligarchy. In any event, there was something like an imaginary canon that was representing a cultural ideal. And I suppose that during my childhood it could have reached even me through the screen names of actors, or characters on TV, which always feed off literature. That canon of names has antecedents, like that of Julio Narciso Dilon, hero of Arturo Cancela's 1922 story "Una semana de holgorio" ("A Week of Revelry"), with a surname so suspiciously neutral he could belong to the aristocratic Acción Patriótica Party and those nationalist groups. Perhaps because in the story he will go into drag as Nicolás Dilonoff, the notorious Bolshevik of the 1919 Tragic Week riots in Buenos Aires. In a certain way, I wanted to sound like Dilon and not take on the difficulties of Dilonoff.

As is obvious by this point, at a certain moment I decided to move away from what my father's writing and speech foreshadowed, from that strange language, his very own and incorrect, so as to adapt myself to another that I considered more viable. Indeed, there was no other option. But that fatherly way of speaking was also my own, just like that writing and that lack of confidence. The result was an artificial language that I forced myself to adopt. I flung myself into writing in an obsessively cerebral way, as if by means of obstacles and lengthy passages, with minutest variations, I wanted not only to display some complexity and literary preference (this was what was most explicit, as well as most obvious and most naive), but also to construct a baroque and laborious form that would be everything my father's limited, but genuine, language wasn't. A similar construction, though the antithesis in its means and instruments. And the result was a form of writing I don't find easy to leave behind.

That's why I have the impression from time to time of writing a language that belongs to me only intermittently, that has come at a price of persistence and misunderstandings, and in the face of which, when I write, I must step back in order to take a running start, as a way of determining what it is I mean to say. But there's the opposite feeling, too, that it's a relative endeavor, and that, in essence, writing is something natural, irrespective of the results, when it is strange or imperfect in itself. Argentine literature turns out to be ideal for this; it is porous in almost every respect, with various oeuvres admitted, it has harbored different languages, it has no imposed norms or hegemonic institutions to dictate taste. It is a literature of writers who construct their own selves.

That sense of being a resident alien, of perceiving my own writing as a foreign form that writes itself on its own, in the face of which my task consists of assigning ideas, is for me a constant. A situation that has found its counterpart in practical terms: when I left Argentina, I thought, as happens to nearly everyone, that it would be for only a few years. Now it's something that doesn't worry me in the same way, because I noticed that from any place at all within that great space known as "abroad" the image that's retained of the country becomes more clear-cut, and it's when one is in Argentina that the image is diluted and frequently belied. It is then that one's writing begins to be infused with tones of nostalgia, beyond the material that one may desire to represent.

Language gets mixed up with the past, but writing is not remembering; on the contrary, it is circumscribing what cannot be recovered. That tendency toward the impossible reconstruction of a language designs, I believe, the form that the writing adopts, and it is thanks to this circumstance that meaning takes on an ambiguously particular nature, continually alternating between the excuse for making a language be spoken and the thought itself that needs to be expressed. Which explains why the result is at times so entirely indiscriminate that we imagine our name unfurled throughout the stories, when in practice it is undone. And that comforts us, because the same personal language that gives us a name and that we assume as an emblem, makes us anonymous.

translated from the Spanish by Margaret Carson