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Jewish Issues in Argentine Literature from Gerchunoff to Szichman.

In The Old Patagonian Express, the celebrated travel writer, Paul Theroux, calls Buenos Aires the city of melancholy and nostalgia. One need only listen to the music of Carlos Gardel, the town's most legendary singer of tangos, to know that it is true. His ballads tell of men betrayed by their voluptuous lovers, of fathers whose eight-year-old sons suddenly die, of exiled artists longing for their Argentina from the remoteness of Paris. A few hours after arriving in town, the spirit of sadness and wistfulness abruptly overtakes the visitor. One can smell it in the air, see it on people's faces, on the front pages of newspapers, in the urban architecture. And it is even more vivid in the nation's literature. And, like Leonard Zelig, Woody Allen's 1983 film character who, in the 20s and 30s supposedly intertwines himself with Adolf Hitler and Pope Pius XI at the Vatican, the Argentinian Jews, like chameleons, embody their culture. The melancholic character and the nostalgic facade are visible when one opens a book by Alberto Gerchunoff, the grandfather of Argentine Jewish letters, or a collection of verses by Israel Zeitlin, one of the most important Jewish ethnic poets. Just as Phillip Roth or Saul Bellow are thermometers of life in the United States, these writers are candid examples of the Argentinian idiosyncrasy.

Even after some academic efforts, most people abroad know next to nothing about the Jewish community of Buenos Aires.' And, whatever they do know, they surely learned it from Jacobo Timerman's 1981 autobiographical account of the military repression of the 70s, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number. Or, perhaps, they know it from some old Yiddish stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer or Sholom Aleichem, about female characters who flee to Argentina and become prostitutes. With some luck, perhaps, a few curious readers could have read a sample of the extraordinary narrations by the great Jorge Luis Borges, the author of Ficciones and some remarkable quasi-essays on Miguel de Cervantes, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Gustav Flaubert. A few have Hebraic symbols. One of them is "Emma Zunz," a description of a theodicy where a young Jewish woman takes revenge against the perpetrator of her father's death. And another, "The Secret Miracle," loosely based on the life of Franz Kafka, tells about the final moments of one Jaromir Hladik, a Prague dramatist and translator, who is about to be executed by a Nazi firing squad. But, of course, these texts give only a partial view.

Nowadays, Moacyr Scliar, the award-winning Brazillan fabulist, author of The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes, has received most of the attention that the United States and Europe seem capable of offering to the literature created by Jews in this region of the southern hemisphere. Yet, it is only a grain of sand in a vast desert. Much of what has been written there has emerged mainly from Argentina, the country with the biggest Jewish population (almost half a million). One or two titles, most notably Timerman's book and Alberto Gerchunoff's The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas,(2) a collection of vignettes written in 1910 to celebrate the nation's centennial, have circulated in translation. But, for the most part, the texts remain unknown beyond the national border. Quite sad, I should add, knowing that the library which these writers have so painfully built hides not only a handful of unforgettable volumes and metaphors, but an important facet of modern Jewish history.

That is why Naomi Lindstrom's comprehensive and detailed study, Jewish Issues in Argentine Literature, is most welcome. It is devoted to the analysis of eight of these writers, in a time range which reaches back to the late nineteenth century. During the 1980s, a couple of panoramic volumes on the subject were made available in Spanish. One, by Leonardo Senkman, centered on the life and art of Gerchunoff, and elaborated a kind of Reseptionsgeschichte, detailing how his audience and his successors assimilated his craft, enthusiasm and ideology. The other, by Saul Sosnowski, discussed the oeuvre of three writers, all born in or after 1936: German Rozenmacher, Gerardo Mario Goloboff, and Mario Szichman.(3) But, before these two titles, only scattered essays and reviews had appeared. Hence, Lindstrom's achievement is to have published her critical analysis in a language where the ignorance on the topic is overwhelming.(4)

The first Jewish immigrants to arrive at what is now known as Argentina were Sephardic, most of them conversos persecuted by the Inquisition and expelled from Spain in 1492. The Catholic regime, during the Colonial period, took care to force most of these individuals to assimilate. The Ashkenazic waves began in the late 1860s and, not until two decades later can the foundation of their communal institutions and Kehila be traced. Beginning in 1881, with danger and anti-Semitism growing rapidly in Russia, Poland and some other regions of Eastern Europe, the dreams of building a Promised Land in Buenos Aires and its provinces were shared by many, among them Baron Maurice de Hirsch (1831-1896), who put millions into transporting poor shtetl Jews to the area near Patagonia. Immigration quotas were opened, and the government was issuing invitations for settlement in unpopulated regions.

Some 160,000 Jews arrived between 1889 and 1914. In the imagination of these immigrants, the distant, semi-barbaric, almost fantastic territory at which they arrived was a source of anxiety. They did not know Spanish, nor did they understand the local manners and folklore. Yet, they hoped, as immigrants always do, that the country would eventually become a healthy, progressive environment in which to build a new existence, and perhaps even lead to a new Jewish homeland. That hope was temporarily shared by members of the World Zionist Congress, including Theodor Herzl.

But, somewhere along the line, optimism went sour. Gerchunoff, the first Argentinian Jew to achieve prominence as an homme de lettres, paradigmatically traveled from one extreme to the next, from hope to despair. His odyssey was not unlike that of many others. A Russian-born worker, he manifested a feverish desire to learn Cervantes' idiom, and that, along with his early glorification of the democratic life in Argentina, made Gerchunoff a popular leader and a much-read journalist and writer. All through his early adult life, he was active in the national debate regarding religious freedom, civil rights and assimilation. In total, he wrote almost twenty books. He also befriended prominent intellectuals and artists, among them Borges and his mentor, Leopoldo Lugones,(5) an important Modernist poet who, at the end of his life, was also disenchanted with politics Argentine-style, which had turned into Fascism. At first, Gerchunoff believed that Argentina would become the perfect habitat for his coreligionists. The Jewish Gauchos, published originally as a series in the prestigious Buenos Aires daily, La Nacion, where he was part of the staff since 1908, was written with such euphoric sentiments. But anti-Semitism set in. There were pogroms like the one of the so-called semana tragica or Tragic Week (January 7th through 12th, 1919), which broke out at the Vasena metal-working plant, and in which the government blamed the Russian immigrants for their communist and anarchist activities. Gerchunoff's hopes were dashed. Slowly, he turned his face away from public life, and consciously forced himself into seclusion. His later artistic period is characterized by abstract literary subjects, and by a profound disenchantment with his milieu.(6) He died in 1950, aged sixty six, sad and ashamed. Those after him learned to be less naive about intolerance.

The key-word here is intolerance. A deeply-rooted feeling at the heart of Argentine life, it is the product of centuries of the narrowmindedness generated by the Catholic Church. It can be traced to the feudal metabolism that prevailed in sixteenth-century Spain, when the knights-turned-into conquerors, inspired by Machiavelli, got ready for their journey into the newly-discovered colonies, destroying everything they saw, and repressing the pre-Columbian religions. Such a hostile atmosphere is not unique to Gerchunoff's country; it exists as well all over Hispanic America, coloring the way people perceive themselves, and how they see history.

By the time that Juan Domingo Peron and his wife, Evita, with their populist facade, came to power in 1946, the entire panorama had changed. Upward mobility, individual achievement, and the mere idea of democracy, were now not only in question, but were heavily attacked. Since its emergence as a nation, Argentina, especially under the Juan Manuel de Rosas dictatorship (1829-1832, 1835-1852), has always nurtured a singular national self-image. Although it considers itself part of the South American hemisphere, it looks to the Old Continent for companionship because it is mainly composed of Italian, British and other European immigrants. Compared to other countries in the region, it had a small Indian population when the Spaniards arrived, and - unlike what took place in Mexico or Peru - little if any ethnic mixture occurred. This makes the population at large mainly Caucasian. And the intellectuals, politicians and artists, feeling a sense of sophistication and superiority, believe that their true ancestors belong to Europe, not to the pre-Conquest past. Because of its high anti-Communist ingredient, when the Peronist movement took over, it targeted Jews (los rusos) for attack. They were seen as traitors, as Russian spies. Although this anti-Semitic stereotype dates back to the semana tragica of 1919, in the late 40s and 50s it acquired a new breadth. Actually, anti-Semitism, one of the many "issues" examined in Lindstrom's study - the others are Jewish identity, self-hatred, and exile - is rooted in the double-faceted attitude with which Jews were welcomed. They had been invited, and there were policies to place them and help them start up a new existence. Yet, an antagonistic feeling about their undesirability was always in the atmosphere. Putting aside the pogroms and riots, since 1891, when Julian Martel wrote La Bolsa (The Stock Market), a text that blamed Jews for their involvement in capitalistic, unmerciful enterprises, numerous anti-Semitic titles have appeared, including El Kahal and Oro, two infamous novels published in 1938 by Hugo Wast.(7) And the Protocols of the Elders of Zion sells very well in Argentina, as it does in Hispanic America at large. This craze has even involved some distinguished, tolerant, non-Jews (Borges, among them) who sooner or later have also become targets of the collective animosity. Through the years, there have been three different reactions to the Jews' divided reception: one, assimilation; the second, after 1948 and during the 60s, emigration to the State of Israel; the third, ostracism. In one way or another, all of the writers after Gerchunoff have been forced to chose one of these three alternatives.

The book under review begins with an introduction that places the reader in the historical background, from the first immigration waves until the 1970s, during the so-called guerra sucia or dirty war. The postface goes even further. It discusses the literature written by Argentinian exiles, all of Jewish origin, in Madrid, Paris, New York, and Mexico City. Yet, Lindstrom's intelligence and critical eye are most effective when dealing with eight individual writers. She starts with Gerchunoff, whose Gauchos(8) were bucolic creatures living in Entre Rios, a kind of shtel in La Pampa. Immediately afterwards, she moves to Israel Zeitlin, thanks to whom Jewish literature in the country acquired a metropolitan setting. An essayist and poet whose lyrics fought racism and intolerance, Zeitlin followed the tradition of Sephardic and Yiddish literature by using pseudonyms. Under the name Cesar Tiempo, he wrote most of his work, including Sabation argentino (Great Argentine Sabbath, 1933), one of his most famous collections of verses. Yet, a few years earlier, in 1926, he came out with Versos de una ... (Verses of a ...), under the penname of Clara Beter, convincing many readers and colleagues that the female author was actually a prostitute who had suddenly emerged with a magnificent, harmonious ear and a strong, poetic voice. The hoax lasted for five editions, and when the truth was discovered, it created a huge controversy. Several years later, Zeitlin, who was also a playwright, wrote two controversial dramas: El teatro soy yo (I am The Theater, 1933), about a black playwright and his Jewish enemy, and Pan criollo (Creole Bread, 1938),(9) about Jewish assimilationist trends.

Although all of the books commented on in Lindstrom's study were originally written in Spanish, one of the interesting features in her analysis is the legacy of Yiddish and Hebrew in Argentina. She talks about Di Yiddishe Tsaitung (1914-1974). She concentrates on the empathy between Gerchunoff and Saul Tchernihovsky, and discusses Zeitlin's odes to Haim Najman Bialik. Yet, she could have also added a few lines about his tributes to Sholom Aleichem and Itzjok Leibush Peretz, included in a 1943 volume on his journalism and interviews. But, for the most part, her comparative views are illuminating.

Next are the novels by Bernardo Verbitsky, especially his 1941 Es di-ficil empezar a vivir (It's Hard To Start Living), a realistic account of a Jewish medical student who is also a writer and a voracious reader, always ready to understand his religious and cultural identity, and to explore the answers given by secular Hebraic writings. Because Zeitlin's lyricism did not go far enough in questioning Argentinian social arrangements, the trend set by Gerchunoff to praise Argentina as a possible homeland, according to Lindstrom, was still unquestioned when Verbitsky began writing. And it was he, at age 34, who acquired prominence by bringing the uncomfortable Jewish feelings toward the nation to a more critical, open discussion. He did so by opening new questions for those children of immigrants ready to examine their role in the oppressive environment. Lindstrom also shows how, after Zeitlin and with Verbitsky, Argentinian Jewish literature chose, as its traditional setting, Buenos Aires, with all of its urban pathos.

But answers have not come easily. Dissatisfaction and increasing depression have overwhelmed the community. Other authors analyzed by Lindstrom are David Vinas, who, in 1966, published a novel about the semana tragica pogrom, and, four years before, Dar la cara (Making a Stand), a book claiming that Jews are essentially and eternally outcasts, and that their responsibility is not to integrate into the mainstream but consciously to assure their dissident role. After Vinas comes Jose Rabinovich, the poet who died in 1978, and the author of El violinista bajo el tejado (Fiddler Under the Roof), an uncomplicated book that attempted to find an unsentimental vision of Jewish history. And another subject of study is Mario Szichman, the author of At 8:25, Evita Became Immortal,(10) who bases his style on the great family saga popularized by Russian and Yiddish literature (the brothers Singer, Leo Tolstoi, Der Nister, et al.), and famous in Hispanic America in the pen of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His style, nevertheless, is not akin to magical-realism. On the contrary, he takes realism and naturalism to an extreme, and uses irony to comment on the Jewish angst in Buenos Aires.

The final author studied by Lindstrom is Marcos Ricardo Barnatan, who is still exiled in Spain and who, heavily influenced by the kabbalistic themes in Borges and the scholarship of Gershom Scholem, has written a handful of novels dealing with secret word messages and crossword puzzles. Instead of him, I believe, a more comprehensive examination of Gerardo Mario Goloboff should have been included. He is a remarkable narrator whose trilogy, consisting of Criador de palomas (Pigeon Ralser), La luna que cae (The Falling Moon), and El sonador de Smith (The Dreamer of Smith),(11) swings between an urban and a rural setting, between Gerchunoff and Zeitlin, between the naive perception of a child and that of adults. It may well be the most admirable, harmonious prose ever written by a Jew from Buenos Aires.

Often, Argentinian Jewish essays are permeated by trendy philosophical terminology, borrowing from Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Freud. They are too discoursive, too analytical. They are a vivid expression of a deeply-rooted drive to intellectualize everything, to explain scientifically the collective melancholia as well as the mysterious forces that impede people's happiness. One of the decisive influences on the genre, as cultivated by this ethnic literature, has been Albert Memmi, a Tunisian essayist who belonged to the French existentialist group of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. He wrote Portrait d'un juif (Portrait of a Jew) in 1962, and his outstanding achievement was to place the Jewish question in a broader social context, and to discuss freedom and dependency. In Argentina, his views were both illuminating and a form of liberation. Beginning with Leon Rozitchner, a well-known psychoanalyst who adapted Memmi's ideas to his surroundings in Ser judio (To be A Jew, 1967), many writers, some with Leftist inclinations, thought that, to understand their chameleon-like existence, they had to apply the Tunisian's Weltanschauung.

As a whole, the melancholy and tension of Jewish writing in Argentina, exhuberant and rich, contrasts with the exoticism used by Jewish authors in other countries of the region.(12) And that is precisely the national trademark. The books of Gerchunoff, Zeitlin, Verbitsky, Szichman, and the others, belong to this unique group only because they deal with the nostalgia and depression of modern urban life, and with the need to cope with hopes that are smashed irreparably. (In Mexico and Brazil, to use two other nations as examples, the expectations of Jewish immigrants were more fulfilled.)

A few internationally acclaimed South American novelists, all Gentiles, have taken upon themselves the challenge to create Jewish characters. Among them is Mario Vargas Liosa, the Peruvian writer and diplomat, whose book, The Story-Teller, describe the adventures of an anthropology student of Hebraic heritage who decides to give up contemporary urban life and join the Machiguenga Indians in the Amazon forest.(13) Carlos Fuentes has also written three novels, which deal with the Holocaust (A Change of Skin, 1967), the Palestinian-Israeli conflict (The Hydra's Head, 1975), and the Sephardic expulsion (Terra Nostra, 1975).(14) What Lindstrom does not try to do is to examine the Hebraic elements in the texts written by Gentiles in Argentina, from Borges to Cortazar, writer of Hopscotch. In the case of Borges, author of The Garden of Forking Paths, the reason is clear. Many have already done the job, including Edna Aizenberg, whose doctoral dissertation, The Aleph Weaver,(15) analyzes the life and art of this most extraordinary writer, who, together with Vladimir Nabokov, can be considered the fathers of post-Modernism. But about Cortazar's work, including his story, "Press Clips" (We Loved Glenda So Much, and Other Stories), in which he uses a Jewish widow as an allegory for the victimization of the guerra sucia, nothing compelling has been written. Nor has anything compelling been written on other Gentile Argentine writers, such as the novelist and essayist, Ernesto Sabato (The Tunnel), who wrote on Albert Einstein and Kafka. Clearly, that critical job has been left by Lindstrom for some other time, or for somebody else. But with or without this topic, Jewish Issues in Argentine Literature is an ambitious, clear and fascinating volume, one which will open new doors for further research.

In retrospect, it seems that the continent discovered by Columbus in 1492 has always been the subject of fantastic distortion. The admiral began the first of his four voyages not in search of a new land but looking for Cipango, a fabulous island that Marco Polo described in his diaries. The Spanish conquerors who came to the Americas in 1524 were anxious to find El Dorado, a territory full of gold. Then came the French, the Portuguese, the Dutch. Everybody tried to find in this much-abused geographical area something that was never there. And, of course, one needs also to include the Jews on this list. While in Eastern Europe, their imaginary portrait of Argentina was that of a place of liberty, progress and mutual respect. Obviously, they didn't find that, but it took them several generations to realize that they had been misled. Because art is the only ticket to redemption for secular Judaism, the testimony of their ordeal, of their ups and downs, and of the misadventures of their collective spirit, is the library which they have so carefully constructed. It is a library of nostalgic books describing their desire to find a forbidden happiness, and their need to enter a non-existent Paradise.

(1.) Judith Elkin, Jews of the Latin American Republics (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980). (2.) The book was translated into English by Prudencio de Pereda (New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1955). (3.) Leonardo Senkman, La identidad judia en la literatura argentina (Buenos Aires: Editorial Pardes, 1983); Saul Sosnowki, La orilla inminente. Escritores judios argentinos (Buenos Aires: Editorial Legasa-Omnibus, 1987). (4.) In Spanish, "America Latina y su pluma judia," my review of this book, together with that of Robert F. DiAntonio, Brazilian Fiction: Aspects and Evolution of the Contemporary Narrative (University of Arkansas Press, 1989), appeard in Revista Hispanica Moderna, vol. XLIII, num. 1, June 1990: 114-117. (5.) Lugones, a colleague of Ruben Dario, is the author of Centennial Odes (1910), as well as of many collections of stories, poems and essays. (6.) There is plenty written about him. See Alberto Gerchunoff: Vida y obra (New York: Columbia University/Hispanic Institute, 1957); Lazaro Liacho's Alberto Gerchunoff (Buenos Aires: Colombo, 1975); and my review-essay, "Alberto Gerchunoff and the Jewish Writer in Argentina," Prooftexts vol. 9, no. 2, May 1981): 184-194. In it I discuss the above-mentioned works of Senkman and Sosnowski, and examine Gerchunoff's passion for the Spanish language, as well as for his most beloved novel, Cervantes' Don Quixote of La Mancha. (7.) This was the penname of Gustavo Martinez Zuviria. (8.) The Gauchos, needless to say, were not a product of Gerchunioff's imagination. There is a rich, long-lasting tradition of Gaucho literature in Argentina, which includes Jose Hernandez's El gaucho Martin Fierro, as well as works by Hilario Ascasubi, Ventura R. Lynch, and Estanislao del Campo. In fact, long after The Jewish Gauchos was published in book form, Borges complained that Jews were businessmen and entrepreneurs, not rural cowboys. (9.) This second title won the National Theater Prize. (10.) Translated into English by Roberto Picchiotto (New Hampshire: Ediciones del Norte, 1983). (11.) Published in Barcelona by Muchnik (1990, 1991). (12.) Two other writers of interest are Isaac Goldemberg, Peruvian, whose first novel, The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner (Pocket Books, 1978), deals with an inter-marriage, half-Jewish, half-Quechua; and Victor Perera, whose collection of vignettes, Rites: A Guatemalan Childhood (Harcourt, Brace & Jovanovich, 1986), originally Written in English, describes the author's growing up Jewish in Guatemala. But with time and patience, the curious reader should also find great pleasure in the oeuvres of Clarise Lispector, German Rozenmacher, Alcina Lubitch Domecq, and Luis Reznik. 13. Translated by Helen Lane (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1989). See my article "(Mis)fortunes of a Novelist," The World & I, December 1989: 440-446. (14.) See my "Perfil del judio en La cabeza de la hidra de Carlos Fuentes," La historia de la literatura iberoamericana, edited by Rachel Chang-Rodriguez and Graciella de Baer (New Hampshire: Ediciones del Norte, 1989), pp. 235-242. (15.) Maryland: Scripta Humanistica, 1984. See my review-essay, "Borges and the Jews," Prooftexts vol. 7, num. 1, January 1989: 96-105. Also, Jaime Alazraki's volume, Borges and the Kabbalah, and Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1988), as well as Myrna Solotorevsky's essay, "The Model of Midrash and Borges' Interpretive Tales and Essays," Midrash and Literature, edited by Geoffrey H. Hartman and Sanford Budick (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), pp. 253-264. I have contributed to the theme with "Emma Zunz: The Jewish Theodicy of Jorge Luis Borges," Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 32, num. 3, Autumn 1986: 469-475.
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Author:Stavans, Ilan
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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