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Collection: INTERAMER
Number: 70
Year: 2001
Author: Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, Editora
Title: El río de los sueños: Aproximaciones críticas a la obra de Ana María Shua

David William Foster*

The bibliography of cultural production relative to Jewish migration in Argentina is vast, indeed, and representations of diverse aspects such as the difficulties Jews experienced in establishing themselves in the New World, conflicts over religions, language, and the social customs (including legal institutions), the drama of preserving cultural and religious identity versus assimilation, Jewish agricultural settlements and urban ghettos, anti-Semitism (including the particularly problematic status of Jews under recent neofascist military dictatorships), and the pertinence of certain themes of Jewish identity to shifting social issues in Argentina can all be found to have been treated with some detail in the cultural record.

The Jewish community in Argentina at the end of the twentieth century has attained a considerable level of acceptance and, for many, notable prosperity. Despite the abidingly horrendous face of anti-Semitism as evidenced in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and of the AMIA (mutual aid society) in 1994, Jews have played prominent roles in government and allied institutions in the process of redemocratization since the return to constitutionality in 1983, and it is safe to say that the general climate of personal freedoms, the respect for individual differences, and the criterion of privacy that have emerged in the last decade have all contributed to significant advances for the Jewish community as a whole.

As a consequence of the social mobility and distributed institutional presence of Jews in contemporary Argentina (which, as always, means predominantly in contemporary Buenos Aires), the one theme of Jewish writers that must necessarily have prominence is that of assimilation, not just of the importance of the participation of Jews in Argentine society as a whole—few would have reasonable reservations about this—or the difficulty of maintaining difference in a society that has been historically homogeneous and in which neoliberalism has imposed an overlay of consumerist uniformity. Rather, what is of concern is the inevitability of the loss of important dimensions of Jewishness, whether it be the nostalgic icon of Yiddish or the crucial defining component of religious observance. Yiddish has no more chance of survival in Argentina than it does in the United States, especially as both countries share enormous ties with an Israel for which Hebrew is the language of Jewishness and Yiddish the linguistic correlative of the shame of the Diaspora.  And as for a religion, if American Jews have the option of Reform Judaism, the lack of strong Reformist tradition in Argentina has meant, for most Jews, that the turn away from the orthodox Judaism leaves only a secular, nonobservant, “cultural” Jewishness.

It is this context into which Ana María Shua’s El libro de los recuerdos (The Book of Memories, Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1994) may be inserted. Shua is not principally a Jewish writer in the sense of making Jewishness a problematic central issue in her works. The bulk of her fiction is characterized by an urbane sophistication concerning the day-to-day difficulties of surviving as a human being, the profound vagaries of interpersonal relationships, and the general ineptness of individuals to negotiate the murky waters of social and institutional life (Arango-Keeth). But in El libro de los recuerdos, a book whose narrative fluidity and comfortable implied first-person narration may permit one an untroubled assumption that it is essentially autobiographical (or where whether it is strictly autobiographical or not does not really matter), the conventional format of a mosaic of the various generations of personalities of an immigrant family allows for the really very witty exploration of the signs of cultural conflict.

The organizing axis of Shua’s novel, as the title directly states, is memory, and “book” is used here first of all in the metaphorical sense of collective memory as constituting a log of shifting entries: material is lost in the transmission from one generation to another or from one member of a generation to another, while new material is added as events take place and history becomes more pertinent. Not everything that gets remembered is momentous, and not everything that happens gets recorded in that shifting log, and part of the interest in an analysis of the book of memory is a determination of what the bases of inclusion and exclusion might be.

Concomitantly, “book” here refers to the novel itself as a narrative less of particular events than of memory itself as a process of human identity and subjectivity. As is widely accepted, life moves forth on the basis of narrative. Not only do we understand the social text and our interactions with it in terms of narrative, but the majority of our interactions with others is on the basis of narratives we tell each other, no matter how fragmentary and incoherent our telling, and interpreting, practices may be. Fiction is only a socioculturally privileged form of narrative, in which the author maximizes both the centrality of narratives in human life and the resources we have evolved for engaging in narrative constructions.

The way in which Shua’s text is not a bildungsroman, not a family saga, is important not only to the way in which her writing means to convey the spirit of everyday narratives (rather than the novel as a privileged art form) but also to her interest in modeling the very partial way in which individual/family/collective/societal memory is maintained and communicated. Indeed, El libro de los recuerdos is not a novel in the sense of availing itself of the sort of controlling character-based semiotic structure that we associate with a text that tells a particular story in depth and in detail. Such novels have been written about Jewish life in Argentina by José Rabinovich, Bernardo Verbitsky, David Viñas, Gerardo Mario Goloboff, Mario Szichman, and Ricardo Feierstein, for example, and Shua is not interested in duplicating their efforts.

Rather, her work focuses on what one might call metonymic aspects of Jewish life in Argentina that, in somewhat of a fuguelike way, are elaborated around often grotesque individuals and outrageous incidents that are strikingly singular in delineating aspects of Jewish life and identity. The novel centers on the four Rimetka siblings and their respective families. Narrative events concern the usual struggles for survival and for dominance and influence within the group. But what is particularly striking about Shua’s handling of this material is how she relates it to sociohistoric events. This is done no longer in the Lukácsian sense of making novelistic characters the embodiments of historical processes but rather in describing the system of impingements whereby personal stories exercise an antiphonic relationship with the swirling social events in which they are immersed. For example, one section deals with how one of the uncles, impressively overweight and lamentably impotent, begins to take diet pills prescribed by a dietician named Dr. Gdansk. Described as “bombs,” these pills provoke in him a case of amnesia, and he disappears. The pills may have been a pretext for some time out from the family and the pressures of his business activities, or it really may have been a medical reaction. Whatever the real cause, this disappearance provokes a family crisis, which in turn brings to the fore a whole range of conflicts of existence. However, Shua moves this event outside the direct realm of high-tension interfamily conflict by adding in a footnote (hardly a conventional novelistic device) that at a later date, in the Época del Miedo, the period of fear (i.e. the so-called Dirty War, ca. 1976-1979, waged by the military dictatorship against armed subversion), the verb desaparecer, to disappear, will assume a completely different meaning—indeed, as Shua does note, it will cease to be strictly an intransitive verb and become a transitive one whose subject is an obligatory agent of state terror.

Language is a recruiting motif of El libro de los recuerdos, as well it should be, since our interpersonal communication and the records of our lives are inscribed in language.  Language conflict is an abiding feature of the immigrant experience, and it is often an eloquent marker of the difficulties of accommodation, the nature of assimilation, and the negotiation undertaken between different cultural establishments. The family is presided over by Babuela, a clever melding of the respective words for grandmother in Spanish and Yiddish, abuela and bobe. The narrator attributes to Babuela the rhetorical question “¿Pero acaso se pueden decir cosas de verdad en este idioma?” (But can you say real things in this language? [165]), which implies that, of course, you cannot. The proposition that Spanish is not a “real language,” at least from one individual’s perspective, is an outrageous proposition in terms of the society that the individual inhabits, and this is even more apparent because Shua is relating the grandmother’s attitude toward the Spanish language in text written in Spanish: “Castellano, bah: qué clase de idioma es ése?” (Spanish, phooey: what kind of language is that? [165]).

To be sure, what is at issue here is the way in which anyone has difficulty relating to a foreign language. Nevertheless, the question for Shua is not strictly a psycholinguistic one, but rather it relates to the relationship to language and cultural politics. Yiddish has an undeniable subaltern relationship to Spanish in Argentina. In addition to being a language that is structurally very different from Spanish, unlike the Italian of the other major immigrant groups in Argentina, with virtually no incidence of cognate words, Yiddish is primarily a spoken language and a medium of domestic communication. While Yiddish does, of course, have a rich literary and oral cultural tradition, it is only minimally a written language among immigrants, and those who speak it are enveloped by the overwhelming presence of Spanish as, in addition to its spoken representations, a written language as it appears in all the trappings of modern urban existence, completely the opposite of Yiddish as a premodern language of the isolated ghetto and rural shtetl life. But the Yiddish-Spanish divide also marks the boundaries of assimilation, and the fact that Babuela cannot envision real life taking place within the structures of Spanish also refers to the impossibility of meaningful life existing in the full domain of Spanish in which cultural and religious oblivion, the unlearning of the native tongue and the native culture, has taken place. In this way, language is underscored as the quintessential locus of memory.

* David William Foster (Ph.D., University of Washington, 1964) is Chair of the Department of Languages and Literatures and Regents’ Professor of Spanish, Humanities and Women’s Studies at Arizona State University. His research interests focus on urban culture in Latin America, with emphasis on issues of gender construction and sexual identity, as well as Jewish culture. He has written extensively on Argentine narrative and theater, and has held Fulbright teaching appointments in Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay. His most recent publications include Violence in Argentine Literature; Cultural Responses to Tyranny (U of Missouri P, 1995); Cultural Diversity in Latin American Literature (U of New Mexico P, 1995); Contemporary Argentine Cinema (U of Missouri P, 1992); and Gay and Lesbian Themes in Latin American Writing (U of Texas P, 1991). He is also the editor of a number of books and has translated novels by Enrique Medina, Aristeo Brito, Miguel Méndez-M., and Ana María Shua.   In 1989, Foster was named the Graduate College’s Outstanding Graduate Mentor, and in 1994 he was named the Researcher of the Year by the Alumni Association.


1. This essay first appeared in print as: David William Foster, “Ana María Shua,” Pasión, identidad y memoria, ed. Marjorie Agosín (Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1999) 40-45. It is republished here with some minor changes with the permission of the publisher.

Arango-Keeth, Fanny. “Ana María Shua.” Jewish Writers of Latin America: A Dictionary. Ed. Darrell B. Lockhart. New York: Garland, 1997. 483-89.

Shua, Ana María. El libro de los recuerdos. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1994.