Sergio Chejfec: Los incompletos (The Incompletes)
The book has an ominous start – 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 and this sets the tone for the rest of the book. However, if you think, as I did, that some key event of the story will take place on one night, you will be somewhat mistaken.
The book is narrated by an unnamed narrator, who plays relatively little part in the story, apart from his reflections on that opening one night and on what Felix. Felix is his friend. He has decided that he no longer wants to live in Argentina and plans to travel the world. Even when Felix departs, we see the sense of insecurity and wariness that permeates this novel.
Our narrator arrives at the empty port. (A port empty with a ship about to leave? I have been to Buenos Aires port and it was a hive of activity.) Felix is not there, so he stands back in the shadows. Felix pulls up in a taxi and proceeds to get a huge amount of luggage out of the taxi. Still our narrator, who, as we shall see, is as strange as Felix, stays back in the shadows, watching Felix. Indeed, it is Felix who sees him.
Felix sets off and, as far as we can tell, the pair never meet again, at least not during the course of this book. Felix sends regular postcards. They are often cryptic, in the sense that the postcards are not of the obvious tourist scenes but, rather, of decidedly odd scenes.
Why Felix is travelling is not clear. He does not seem to visit any of the obvious tourist sights and stays in decidedly odd and out-of-the-way hotels. He does not do much while there. The narrator is scathing about Felix’s life – a life on loan, pawned life, fabricated life.
We actually see him visiting only two hotels. The first is the Samich Guesthouse in Barcelona. Like the other hotel he will later visit, it does not look like a hotel and, indeed, he is not sure that it is but ventures in anyway. It is run by a strange Dominican woman(I assume Dominican means. Dominican Republic, rather than Dominica). Soon after his arrival, the electricity goes off in his room. He reports it and is told it will be fixed. It never is and he survives in the dark,
His next stop, where the bulk of the novel takes place, is Moscow. Once again, he finds a decidedly odd and out-of-the-way hotel. It doesn’t look like a hotel but it is. It is called the Salgado Hotel which, as he states, is an odd name for a Russian hotel (salgado is the Portuguese for salted). It turns out that it was founded and owned by a Mr Salgado who may or may not be still alive.
The Salgado is one of those buildings that has a life of its own. It has numerous mysterious passageways, in which you can easily get lost, strange guests that appear and disappear in the corridors, odd noises and so on. While not quite the House of Leaves, though almost, it is perhaps halfway between that house and the Majestic Hotel of J G Farrell‘s Troubles.
The hotel was an enormous aerated structure held up by some unknown law of physics: not only were the columns and the top half of all the walls missing, each level also lacked a ceiling, yet somehow everything remained in place.
Felix had admitted that every time he arrived at a hotel he’d always think it was closed or had no vacancies, or that they would deny him lodging for some other reason but, at this hotel, there was a logo of a door partially open and he took that as a sign that he was welcome.
It is the narrator that suggest that things might not be entirely straightforward, stating there is a the implicit warning that under certain conditions their [i.e. the guests of the hotel] haven might become a living hell. Indeed At first glance, the room seems to be an arbitrary mix of prison cell and bedroom.
The receptionist is called Masha and she becomes the second key character of the book. They have what can only be described as an odd relationship. Indeed, apart from a few words exchanged, they have no relationship. Nevertheless their relationship is key to the book.
Masha may – like everything else in this book, it is not one hundred percent certain – be the daughter of Mr Salgado. Whatever the case, she seems to spend her entire life there (she has a room in the basement), except when she goes out to the local and nearby market.
She is not happy there. Masha did not know how much longer she would go on wasting her life in the gloomy Hotel Salgado. Nothing tormented her more than those long, shallow steps that were impossible to take two at a time and, later, She hated her life, especially the day she’d just had; she hated the cold, which never left her in peace; she hated her clothes, and she hated the hotel. Despite this, she was to become one with the building, to be its watchful soul. Much of her time is spent wandering round the many rooms, checking that everything is in place.
As for Felix, he seems to merge into the hotel. He often felt he was moving through endless expanses impossible to contain in thought, which only reinforced his conviction that he was living in an abstract space that the Hotel Salgado produced.
The area in which the hotel is located was a place where tourists and travellers rarely set foot, where residents forgot all about the city in which they lived because it could be any city, a suburb indifferent to its surroundings. As a result, he stays in the hotel. For his part, faced with the prospect of endlessly wandering through the unfamiliar city, Felix decided to stay in the hotel.. This, however will change.
He finds a letter in his room, which reads My wise friends say travelling by boat causes seasickness, but could not agree whether this is true for everyone. He does not take it at face value but endlessly interprets its possible meaning, sharing it also in a letter to the narrator. Felix always looking for meaning in things that do not necessarily have meaning, the narrator comments.
He spies on Masha, watching her go off to the market. He will later even follow her. Why? For no apparent purpose. She is aware that he is spying on her.
Two key events happen. One day, while poking around in a room, she looks into a wardrobe. It is large and deep. She feels around in the wardrobe and finds a package, which contains a large amount of money. It is in a strange currency, with a script she does not recognise but she can see the figures. She hides it, first back in the wardrobe and then in a book (which itself takes on a special life for her). Despite her desire to get out, she makes no attempt to cash it or do anything but keep it and look at it.
There is a mysterious guest who is occasionally seen in shadowy form around the hotel, who, we later learn, leaves large sums of money lying around. One day a maid called only H (there is no letter H in Russian) finds two separate lots of money. She keeps them but when she gets home, she puts the money on the table, which is ignored by her husband and son.
Felix starts exploring the neighbourhood and comes across a giant crater. Felix, who had always felt he came in last (not in the sense of taking last place, but rather of arriving last), now has the intolerable suspicion that he is the very first witness to this vastness.
So what is going on in this book? It really is not very clear, deliberately so. The title gives something of a clue as does an explanation by the narrator: I have occasionally thought of Felix as a two-dimensional person without psychology, contradictions, or even subjectivity. The same could be said of Masha. An imprecise being with the mutable consistency of a dense fog and, later,
It seemed to me that both had invented themselves from the crudest, most trivial materials possible, each hoping the other might see them as an equal in their shared meagreness, and that this might, at the same time, be a way of inhabiting their own existence.
In other words, Masha and Felix are incomplete people but, at the same time, they are perhaps two sides of the same coin and their presumably relatively brief coming together gives them a certain sense of completeness.
However, that is far from satisfactory as an explanation. In an interview (in Spanish), he stated La literatura, si sirve para algo, es para complejizar lo existente [If literature serves any purpose, it is to make what exists more complex]. While I do not think that I can entirely agree with his assessment, I can see how it applies to this novel. We have two people (three people if you count the narrator – Chefjec himself?), who essentially have no relationship but who are both unhappy and unsure of their lot and whose non-relationship complements the other’s existence.
Whatever the case, I very much enjoyed this book. In one respect, I do agree with Chefjec. Literature should not be too simple. It should give you something to think about and this book certainly does that but don’t expect to come out of the book being too much wiser as to what has happened.
First published by Alfaguara in 2004
First English translation by Open Letter in 2019
Translated by Heather Cleary