The Search for a Great Latin-American Jewish Author

May 26, 2003 |

Question: Is there such thing as a Great Latin-American Jewish Author (GLAJA)?

To qualify, the author we’re seeking must be: (a) known for fiction (b) identifiably Latin-American both in real life and in fiction (c) explicitly Jewish in fictional focus though not necessarily in personal practice and (d) able to blow our minds with unique, masterful writing. Plus one more requirement, for the sake of this admittedly arbitrary exercise: At least a couple of the author’s major works must be available in English—otherwise I wouldn’t be able to read them.

Right off the bat, we can eliminate several authors whose work does not concern itself with Jewish themes. Take Clarice Lispector, for instance. Regarded as perhaps the most important female Brazilian writer of the 20th century, she was born Jewish in the Ukraine and raised in rural Brazil. Too bad that in her oblique philosophical novels, such as The Hour of the Star and The Apprenticeship or the Book of Delights, the most Jewish reference you are likely to find is Jesus Christ. She might be great—especially if you like depressing, sometimes wacky existentialism and tons of authorial interjections—and she might be Latin American, but she’s not our GLAJA.

Francisco Goldman is a younger example of a not-Jewish-enough-for-our-purposes writer. His acclaimed debut novel, The Long Night of the White Chickens, features a semi-autobiographical, Guatemalan-Jewish-American protagonist investigating the unsolved murder of his adopted sister amidst military and political corruption. Unfortunately, Goldman never explores the nexus between Jews and Latin America, focusing instead on the confusions of Guatemalan-American bi-nationalism and including the word “vos” (Guatemalan slang for “dude”) twice in every sentence.

Ariel Dorfman forgoes Jewish themes in favor of more pressing political concerns. Though I read one short story by him about Hanukkah, he does not seem to have written about Chilean Jewish society. Exiled from Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship, Dorfman exhibits an understandable obsession with themes of torture and government-sponsored civilian disappearances in Widows (a novel) and My House is on Fire (a collection of short stories), but in neither is Judaism even mentioned. Dorfman is a brave Latin-American writer, certainly, but not quite a Jewish one.

Several candidates, though perhaps prolific in their native Spanish, cannot claim the GLAJA title because their work is scarce in English translation. The grandfather of Latin American Jewish fiction, Alberto Gerchunoff, falls into this category. He pioneered the entire genre with his optimistic, occasionally near-pornographic collection of vignettes, The Jewish Guachos of the Pampas, published originally in 1910. The book presents the daily life of Eastern European settlers who traveled from Poland and Russia to make their new homes in rural Argentina, from milking cows and greeting new immigrants to cattle rustling and divorce disputes. Though this book’s content is undeniably appropriate for a GLAJA—exploring, as it does, the bizarre but strangely workable convergence of Ashkenazi and Argentine culture—its 149 pages represent the grand total of Gerchunoff’s fiction that has been translated into English. Sorry, Alberto—that’s not enough.

Other candidates who likewise don’t have enough published, translated work to be considered here include Peruvian Isaac Goldemberg, Brazilian Samuel Rawet, Uruguayan Teresa Porzecanski, Venezuelan Alicia Freilich, and Mexican Ilan Stavans. Stavans, who teaches Spanish and literature at Amherst College, is a critical exponent of Latin American Jewish letters—all of the authors mentioned in the previous sentence (including Stavans himself) have published their work through the University of New Mexico Press under Stavans’ editorial guidance. Despite his efforts, none of these authors has caught on with American readers. Perhaps something has been lost in translation.

Our last great hope, then, is Moacyr Scliar. When he made headlines this year (in a mini-controversy over the degree to which his novella Max and the Cats inspired the Booker prize-winning Life of Pi by Yann Martel) I wasn’t the only reader wondering, “Who is this guy and how the heck am I supposed to pronounce his name?” Scliar, it turns out, is the most famous author of fiction on Jewish themes to write in Portugese, and you pronounce it MWA-SEER SKLEE-AR. A physician and lifelong resident of the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, Scliar tackles contemporary Brazilian society and Jewish tradition in equal measures.

Scliar’s novel, The Strange Nation of Rafael Mendes, fuses jumbled stories into a fictional history of the Mendes clan. The book bursts with plot: an investment company collapses, a modern medical mystery unfolds, the prophet Jonah meets a group of disobedient seers in the belly of the whale, Maimonides unwillingly serves as personal physician to the sultan of Egypt, and the crypto-Jews forced into hiding by the Inquisition flee into Brazilian jungles and tangle with slave-traders. Through these various strands, Scliar recreates the history of Brazilian Jewry, whom he describes finally as a “strange nation…that includes rebellious prophets as well as blind bandeirantes, flag-bearing pioneers; illustrious physicians as well as senile Indians; great financiers as well as swindlers.”

At least a half dozen of Scliar’s novels and story collections have been translated into English, though to find most of these you’d need an excellent library rather than a bookstore. Conveniently, this April the University of Wisconsin Press will release a new paperback of Scliar’s Centaur in the Garden, which was included on the National Yiddish Book Center’s list of the “100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature.” The book’s magical hero—half-Jewish, half-Brazilian, and half-man, half-horse—struggles, like Scliar himself, to reconcile the multifarious influences that constitute a Latin American Jewish identity. Case closed. We’ve found our GLAJA.

[Originally published in New Voices.]