Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A Portrait of the Present: Sergio Chejfec's Photographic Realism

Academic journal article Hispanic Review

A Portrait of the Present: Sergio Chejfec's Photographic Realism

Article excerpt

Juro que este Hvro é fato serti palavras. É urna fotografia muda. Este livro é um silencio.

- Clarice Lispector

... e/ relato es algo que requiere ser visto y después leído.

. . . quizá no postule el futuro sino bajo la forma como se verá nuestro presente cuando le toque ser pasado.

- Sergio Chejfec

The demand to represent the present has been one of the central problems of realism since the nineteenth century. The dictum "Il faut être de son temps" was the motto of the group that formed around Courbet, and it was quickly adapted to the literary field to characterize this aesthetic current. In recent years, in the Latin American context, the realist ambition to represent contemporary life has returned with considerable force. After a certain impasse in the avant-garde movements, caused in part by a sensation of monotony generated through the repetition of experimental techniques, recent decades offer a plethora of texts that build verisimilar worlds, and present clear, legible prose and classic realist themes. In general, these themes could be described as a new type of misérabilisme, to borrow the term the French applied during the rise of naturalism, that is, a narrative marked by the presence of certain low and dark aspects of humanity and society, aspects that foreground a kind of bestiality or savageness.

In fact, the concept of "New Realisms" has been circulating in the field for some decades. From special issues of academic journals dedicated to new realisms, to pieces in mass circulation newspapers and literary magazines, to the publication of articles that analyze cultural manifestations in particular national contexts, a new trend of reflection has eliminated a certain demodé air that realism had acquired from the 1960s on; realism has returned to scholarly and cultural agendas.1 In the particular case of Argentinean literature, since the 1990s, as the social crisis has become more pronounced, a series of texts have appeared that adopt a realist aesthetic in the effort to expose a growing marginality and to show the city as a degraded, dirty, and ruined space.2

With this development, not only is realism renewed, but so are the discussions and polemics that have accompanied it since the nineteenth century. While some discussion has been centered in moral arguments or in the artistic quality of the works, other criticism has put into question the way in which marginal subjectivities are treated in a work of art: Do we see a stereotypical, exotic, or costumbrista construction? Are we talking about a pedagogical or moral literature? Or is this a literature that presents "other" ways of treating political themes?3

It is within the context of such a return to a realist aesthetic that this essay is situated. However, I focus on a particular return to realism that incorporates avant-garde techniques within a narrative that displays elements of traditional realist narrative. Of course, it is always difficult to talk about aesthetic innovation, and, especially, a "return" to an aesthetic current such as realism, since there have always been examples of this aesthetic in the history of literature (and of Latin American literature).4 In fact, one reason why realism has changed throughout history is related to the push to be contemporary. A double exigency operates in the idea of making a "portrait of the present": it has to say something about the present, to have contemporary topics, but it also needs to be a mode of representation that is adequate for the present moment. If we consider that each epoch has its own modes of representation, many of the characteristics of realism as it was understood from the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth would have to be modified today.5 The narrative practice of the Argentinean writer Sergio Chejfec presents an ideal case for thinking about these problems. His writing displays a clear interest in classic realist themes while also incorporating avant-garde techniques. …

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