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Inside a theater of words with Ilan Stavans.


The narrative and critical writings of Ilan Stavans are unusual not only because he is a young man but also because of his versatile and thoughtful approach, as a Mexican writer in Spanish and English who translates his own material, as a Hispanic in the United States, and as a Latin American Jew teaching at Amherst College, in Massachusetts.

Stavans is unquestionably one of the most prolific writers in Latin America and perhaps in the United States. He combines cultural dialogue with reviews and essays that appear in The Nation and on the editorial pages of the Boston Globe and Washington Post. He is also a fine anthologist and creator of original texts.

Stavans says that his decision to become a writer was based on two fears: of his father's profession as an actor and an incalculable horror of death. He had grown up in the shadow of his father, he says, spotlighted against a theatrical backdrop. Yet he believes that "theater is the most human of artistic expressions but also the most ethereal and ephemeral: like a rite of initiation, it is born and dies within the space of a performance. In literature contact with the public is tangential, indirect: Your reader is rarely with you in the present, existing instead in the future."

Currently Stavans is writing a nontraditional novel about his father. Its central theme is the invisible frontier between theater and life, truth and lies, hope and despair. This is connected with his fear of death:

"I've been preoccupied with death ever since I was a child," he says, "not as a moment of unbearable grief or the instant when we're suddenly hurled into the abyss but as the total obliteration of being. To cease to exist, to know that every undertaking, every desire of mine will come to nothing is overwhelming. The only way to contend with death is through literature," he continues, "by making sure that what I do will leave a mark, that it will have meaning for someone else."

For Stavans, writing is synonymous with salvation. Although it is random salvation, a game of chance, it eases his anguish nonetheless. And he is a prolific writer because, frankly, he has so far found no better way of employing his time and calming his fears.

Stavans has written a novella, Talia en el cielo, and a major collection of stories, La pianista manca, both of which were published in English as one volume entitled The One-Handed Pianist and Other Stories (University of New Mexico, 1996). In this book he discusses his bicultural status, which enables him to "be" different persons at the same time because of his ability to write in two languages and to acquire authentic identities in both. Stavans describes this collection as short "stories and novellas I wrote before the age of thirty. It is hard for me to discern a connecting thread, though others have done so. One of the stories, "The Invention of Memory," emerged all of a piece in a night or two after I had read a couple of books by the Russian neurologist A. R. Luria. One was about a soldier who loses his memory in an accident and the other about a professional mnemonist.

His aim in writing these stories, he says, had been, again, to pay tribute to the theater as art and as a mirror of the mind. Stavans believes that the first attempts to explain the mechanisms whereby we remember or forget facts and experience date to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, when people like Giulo Camillo Delminio visualized memory as a theater, with proscenium, antechambers, balconies, and scenery.

The prevailing mood of The One-Handed Pianist is ambiguity, with magic and dread as its themes. The protagonists challenge the concept of God and of ambiguity itself. Religion and doubt are the bases for Stavans's continuing leitmotif. Yet, although God and religion had concerned him for some time, he did not know how to answer a question about why God was his chosen topic. Though he is a Jew, Stavans's religion is skepticism, a difficult one to profess. "Pascal resolved the dilemma of faith by suggesting it was better to believe in God because if he did exist then we were right, and if he didn't, then we had nothing to lose," he says. "Sometimes I believe in God and sometimes I think I believe but I'm not sure."

Stavans said he was deeply envious of two groups: idiots and devout believers. Both inhabit a universe where everything is simpler and answers are easier. He feels that to doubt the existence of God is the highest form of delusion, yet he cannot completely rid himself of uncertainty. For him, literature is both a religious exercise and an exploration of identity. He would give anything to be sure that Truth with a capital T is not a fiction.

The title of the The One-Handed Pianist is significant in itself. I asked Stavans about the oxymoron of a one-handed pianist and he replied, as always, slowly, as if each word were a meditation reflexively mirroring his obsessions.

"My brother Darian stuttered from the time he was a child. I remember that my parents took him to an endless round of specialists hoping to find a cure. But stuttering is a condition not a disease. So the point was to learn to live with the stutter rather than to run away from it. My brother learned through music. When he spoke, words collided with each other chaotically while his frantic gestures disoriented listeners. Finally he realized that, though his voice betrayed him, music could redeem him."

The One-Handed Pianist developed from a personal need to unite the quest for religion with the failings of the body, the loss of a member, the persistence of forgetfulness. The title had been the first phrase that popped into his mind unexpectedly one morning when he awoke, with two strong impressions: "A pervasive odor of decay and at the same time, for some inexplicable reason, the certainty that God was in the kitchen."

Stavans's first literary exercise written in English is about the mystery of Christopher Columbus, his voyages, and possible Jewish ancestry. The origin of the book is revealing in itself. Stavans says that Liz Fowler, a good friend who worked for Twayne Publishers in New York in the early 1990s, invited him to a social gathering. During a pleasant conversation that ranged from the work of Walt Whitman to that of Ruben Dario and William Carlos Williams, they fantasized that the Genoese, after his fourth and final crossing, might have made one more.

"That last voyage began with his death in 1506 and continues to occur ad infinitum," says Stavans. "It is a journey through the human imagination, stopping at different linguistic latitudes, in different civilizations, a journey in which Columbus assumes the personality of each writer, depicting or reinterpreting him."

The conversation with Fowler concluded by recollecting key works of the Western canon in which Columbus appears as protagonist, ranging from James Fenimore Cooper to Gustavo Adolfo Becquer, unfortunately now almost completely forgotten, and from Nikos Kazantzakis to Salman Rushdie, whom the West has in fact transformed into another misunderstood Columbus. Sometime later Fowler suggested the idea of the book to Stavans.

Imagining Columbus (Twayne, 1993) can be read rapidly like a novel in which the history of the discovery of America is interwoven with the historical facts and infinite hallucination of the voyage by this man who changed the course of American history. It is also, according to Stavans, a journey through the imagination.

The subsequent book of essays by Stavans, The Hispanic Condition (HarperCollins, 1995), explores more eruditely and philosophically the dilemma of identity for the Hispanic minority north of the Rio Grande. On that subject, Stavans says:

Hispanics are not just one but many minorities, as many as the nationalities they represent. The challenge they pose is that for the first time in history, the long-standing tension between the Anglo-Saxon and Hispanic civilizations has been personified and acquired new urgency. The Americas were baptized in 1492 but almost immediately shattered into dozens of fragments. Since then, the several pieces have formed two halves separated by an open wound. The wound, not just geographic but verbal as well, is caused by apparently incompatible world views. If God exists, the fact that he made the United States and the Hispanic world neighbors means he is either a complete sadist or a superb comedian. The problem is that today more than ever before Latin America does not stop at Ciudad Juarez or Piedras Negras. We are witnessing a Hispanic invasion of the Colossus of the North, a reconquest, which people in Mexico call "the revenge of Montezuma. "From that combination or hybridization, part Anglo-Saxon, part Hispanic, or rather "wholly" Anglo-Saxon and "wholly" Hispanic, a new being is emerging. Less than a century ago, Jose Vasconcelos coined the term "the bronze race." Today we would have to speak of "the green race," green like the dollar, the color that neutralizes and confounds. It is no longer valid to describe the Hispanic condition as immutable: like the chameleon, we live in constant metamorphosis, transforming our past, adapting Spanish to new latitudes, learning new behavioral patterns, dreaming unknown dreams.

The "hybrid" status of the Hispanic, living in a nation at once divided and united by multiculturalism is an obsessive component of Stavans's writing. But one must also include in this discussion the presence of the Hispanic Jew in Latin America. Unquestionably, Stavans is the intellectual who has done the most to establish a dialogue, in both Latin America and the United States, designed to rescue the Latin American Jew from oblivion. For him, the role of the Jew is comparable to that of the Hispanic in the United States. It seems that through his involvement with U.S. Hispanic culture, he has become interested in the Jewish experience. On this subject, Stavans considers that "to survive, the Jew must become an acrobat, constantly walking a tightrope that joins two universes: behind, an eternal pilgrimage, reaccommodation to an endless series of habitats, an infinite chain of expulsions and invitations, embraces, rejections and empty promises; ahead, the hope of a stable situation enduring over several generations. To be able to take his place in society the Jew must act like everyone else. But he betrays his own self, if he forgets that he is different, that his proper place is the frontier, the journey, the launching and landing platform."

Tropical Synagogues (Holmes & Meier, 1994), which Stavans edited, is the first anthology published in English that brings together the best known and the newest voices in Latin American Jewish literature. Clarice Lispector, Alicia Steimberg, and Jorge Luis Borges emerge in those pages to constitute what it means to be and think as a Jewish writer in Latin America.

Stavans's preoccupation with Jewish literature began at the end of the 1980s. His aim, the author states, was to take his place as a link in the chain, to form part of a tradition. He began to disinter pioneers and to seek bearings. Soon he was reading Lispector, the prominent Argentine man of letters Alberto Gerchunoff, and emulating the prolific Brazilian doctor and writer Moacyr Scliar - Latin America's Sholem Aleichem, the great turn-of-the-century humorist and major figure of Yiddish literature - and engaging in dialogues with Francisco de Quevedo, Fernando de Rojas, and Carlos Fuentes.

The next step was an easy one: He compiled an anthology. We live at a time when anthologies are both positive and negative. For although they open new doors, in doing so, in calling attention to a tradition, they demonstrate their own weakness: that they are only a collection of samples, no more than a display case. Stavans sought to include the best and most typical of those countries where the Jew not only lives a fiction but also cultivates it: Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Peru, and Guatemala, among others.

Tropical Synagogues was not an easy sell. The concept was applauded, but no publisher dared take a chance on it. The introduction alone is undoubtedly one of the most significant documents of Jewish experience in Latin America. What inspired it? According to Stavans, this opening essay is the perfect space for reflecting, for tying up loose ends and reinventing interpretations, the space where the anthology reveals its secrets. Its contents decide how the reader will understand the text. For example, both "Luvina," by Juan Rulfo, and "La puerta condenada," by Julio Cortazar, could be read as ghost stories or as socio-economic and psychological panoramas. It all depends on the editorial focus, which Stavans presents in the introduction.

Stavans is also a skilled translator and even translates his own work. Curious about what he thought connected the two languages, English and Spanish, I asked what he specifically writes or does not write in Spanish. To live in two languages, he answers, is, to some extent, to practice an acceptable, civil form of polygamy: two lovers, two homes. Spanish is his native land; English, the theater where he reinvents himself. Until recently, an essay or a story cried out for one language or the other. But most of what he now writes has a purpose even before it is set down on paper and that purpose determines its language. "I love both languages, that of Cervantes and that of Henry Roth, although I feel that their closeness to each other has contaminated them and compromised their purity." This is certainly a favorite topic that he would willingly discuss at length. With regard to translation, Stavans views it as a direct complement to the work of criticism. The critic serves as a bridge between the text and its context. When the text lacks context, the first step is to translate it and make it accessible. But translation is not just the transposition of a text into a language other than its own. To translate is to discover, to unlock gates, to reflect, to expound. "The best reader is the translator," says Stavans, "and second best, the critic."

To translate one's own writing implies a different outcome and bewildering confusion; bewildering but enjoyable. In translation the original text is completely transformed and becomes another original. Recently Stavans spoke to Chilean writer Ariel Dorfman about how translating one's own work means reinventing oneself. The English and Spanish versions of Dorfman's story "The Death of Yankos," for example, are diametrically opposed. It could even be said that they are two narrations with only a handful of symbols in common.

Interested in discovering what happened during Stavans's sleeping and waking hours, his inhabited spaces, I asked him what language he dreams in. "My dreams are visual, like everyone else's perhaps," he answers. "They seldom include conversations or comments, but when they do, they are unintelligible." He still counts in Spanish and finds it hard to follow the rapid spelling of a word in English. He expresses rage or anger in Spanish, and he continues to believe that declarations of love sound better in that language. "English is methodical, precise," he states. "It lacks warmth and spontaneity." But, of course, such spontaneity has its dangers: It made Cervantes one of our best fabulists and one of our worst prose writers.

Stavans's writing contains echoes of several universal authors, Borges, especially, with some influence as well from Israeli literature, including Amos Oz, Yehuda Amichai, and A. B. Yehoshua. When I asked Stavans about that influence, he responded enthusiastically, noting that it was the first time he had been asked the question. He has taken a keen interest in Israeli literature since he was a young man and for some time, during and after his stay in Israel in the late 1970s, read it in the original Hebrew. But although he is an admirer of Yehoshua (his novel Mr. Munni, for example), and of Oz's early novels, his real enthusiasm is reserved for Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a master in whose books religion and the modern world coexist in a state of continual tension. Awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966, Agnon is unfortunately not well known in Latin America. Both the first and the last sections of Stavans's Talia en el cielo [Talia in Heaven] were influenced by a classic Agnon story.

The multifaceted Stavans is a Jewish writer, a Mexican, a writer in English, a professor at a prestigious university, author of a book on Christopher Columbus, devoted reader of Kafka and Agnon, and, above all, an observer of two civilizations, north and south of the Rio Grande. To the question, then - who is Ilan Stavans? - he answers: "Let's say that depends on the calendar: on even days, except Saturday and Sunday, I'm one person; odd days and weekends, I'm another. But in months with thirty-one days and leap years, it's exactly the opposite. As you can see, I suffer from the same symptoms as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

For Stavans, literature is merely a catalogue of the infinite diversions of a mirror. He closes his eyes and it disappears, he opens them and is immediately assailed by doubts. "God amuses himself by confounding me," he says. "Only a few paragraphs will reach my reader of the future. The challenge is to live without knowing which ones they will be, as if each moment, each text must include all others, before and after."

Marjorie Agosin is a Chilean-born poet who has published numerous anthologies, short stories, and critical essays. Her latest book, Noche estrellada, won the 1995 Letras de Oro Award, and her collection of essays on human rights, Ashes of Revolt, is scheduled for publication in July. She is currently a professor of Spanish literature at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Valdir Cruz is a freelance photographer based in New York City and a previous contributor to Americas.
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Title Annotation:Mexican-born writer and translator
Author:Agosin, Marjorie
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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