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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

Ilan Stavans*

History might not be a Jewish invention, but memory surely is and so is forgetfulness. To remember is to be selective with the past, to forget what is judged unnecessary. Jews are by nature retellers: their existence is testified by the act of remembrance of events protagonized by God, and that act links Jews to the chain of generations that come before and after. The recollections Jews invoke are beyond history, for History, as Thucydides foresaw centuries ago, ought to be systematic, carefully interwoven—in a word, scientific. But Judaism, in spite of Leopold Zunz’s Wissenschaft des Judentums (“scriptural exegesis and talmudic legalism ought to be treated with rigor,” Zunz once said), is anything but scientific: events are not recalled with precision by using historiographic instruments; neither are they approached as quantifiable data to be placed in a specific space and time. Instead, these events unfold in a mythological sphere, embellished by a multitude of voices past and present that retell them again and again, always adding a twist, an anecdote, a side effect.

If History, with a capital H, is the brainchild of Greek civilization, memory—a memory not only cerebral but emerging from the heart—is a rabbinical creation, the product of what has come to be known as the exilic, post-biblical age. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the homelessness of the Jews has pushed them to turn the matters of memory into a homeland, and they are commanded to cherish them with all their heart. “You shall love thy God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might,” the “Va-a-hafta” announces in the Siddur. Love is thus synonymous with remembrance: “Let these matters, which I commend you today, be upon your heart. Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you retire and when you arise. Bind them as a sign upon your arm and between your eyes. And write them on the doorsteps of your house and upon your gates.”

This maxim—remembrance as a command, remembrance as a homeland—is beautifully conveyed in El libro de los recuerdos (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 1994), a novel by Ana María Shua about anamnesis in Argentina; a nation, it is no secret, where memory in and of itself is a most tarnished institution. Novels are not by definition Jewish or Christian or Muslim; their authors are. But the temptation to call this one “a Jewish book” is too big, if anything because of the way its plot is delivered. At its heart are the Rimetkas, a clan not unlike Shua’s own: Yiddish-speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe whose fortune in the New World, their rebellions, their mental illness, their miscegenation and illicit affairs, their advancement and setbacks present a distopian picture of Argentina. The country, Shua assures us, is not the ethnic monolith we have been taught to recognize, made by descendants of Iberians and Italians living side by side with the “blackened” population (the so-called cabecitas negras), with Catholicism at their core, filled with whores and corrupt politicians. Instead, it is a religiously diverse, racially promiscuous habitat where Jews happen to have arrived accidentally, and accidentally, too, is how they rule their lives.

Grandfather Gedalia, the Rimetka patriarch, an astute money-lender married to La Babuela, is a center of gravity in the Casa Vieja, the family headquarters in Buenos Aires. But for as much as he is loved and repudiated by his entourage, his private life and inner motives remain a mystery to his successors. One by one, his children—Silvestre, Clara, Judith and Pinche2 (his daughter Gloria dies an early death of diphtheria)—abandon Yiddish to embrace Spanish. In doing so, they apparently take root on native Argentine soil, building a genealogy filled with Trotskyites, psychologists, stingy businessmen, and fortune-tellers: Silvestre marries Fortunée, alias “La Turca Bruta”; Clara is wedded to Yaco, Judith to Ramón, and Pinche to Marita . . . and each is blessed and cursed with more descendants. But appearances are mischievous: the roots never solidify and by the end the reader is fully aware of how complex and ambivalent—not to say lightweighted—is the Rimetka’s love for Argentina. Their last name was concocted by an immigration official when Grandfather Gedalia first entered the country (who in fact wanted to settle in the true promised Land: North America), but the memory of the entire clan has a similar pre-fabricated taste: they are baffled and disoriented, navigating without an overall goal.

Such disjointed characters are typical of Jewish fiction in Latin America, but El libro de los recuerdos is unique in the way it pays tribute to a recognizable device in Jewish letters. More specifically, in Yiddish literature: the unfolding of the story while two guys talk. Indeed, novels like Fishke the Lame by Mendele Mokher Sforim and Teyve the Dairyman by Sholem Aleichem, as well as stories like “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner” by Chaim Grade and “The Cafeteria” by Isaac Bashevis Singer, to name only a few, are built by having unlikely interlocutors in dialogue. This device opens all sorts of possibilities: Jewish life is approached as a debate, a clash of opinions, an encounter. Fiction in the Hispanic world seldom takes this route; it is too concerned with exposing the baroque contradictions in the environment, too obsessed by inner monologues of isolated, unstable creatures. Shua’s novel is an exception, though. Its plot unfolds willy-nilly as a couple of anonymous descendants in the clan—granddaughters? distant relatives? perhaps even the Rimetka brothers and sisters themselves?—browse through the old family book known, expectedly, as The Book of Memories.

And what sort of book is this? An ethereal item: malleable, intangible, ghostlike, a reversal of The Book of Memories the reader holds in hand. A book within a book, a tale within a tale. The strategy is surely as ancient as Scheherazade and Don Quixote. (I myself played upon it in my novella Talia in Heaven.) But Shua adapts it so as to reflect on the limitations of History and the power of memory. The anonymous voices whose inquisitiveness allows the plot to unravel are puzzled by how selective “The Book of Memories” is: it never delves into the emotional realm of its characters; nor does it place them in actual history. And sure enough, the whole Rimetka odyssey is mapped out in ahistorical terms. In what year precisely did Grandfather Gedalia arrive in Argentina? When does the rest of the action take place? This is not to say that the novel is free of actual references. Mention is made, for instance, to President Hipólito Yrigoyen, after whom one of Grandfather Rimetka’s scions is partially named; and Juan Domingo Perón, an ubiquitous specter in the country from 1945 to 1984 (the Rimetkas call him, in Spanish, el Diablo Coludo), keeps on resurfacing. In fact, the love and hatred for Perón becomes a family sport of sorts, and thus a leitmotif in their aggregated journey: Grandfather Gedalia’s four children are all anti-Peronists; Aunt Judith and her husband even participate in 1955 in the Revolución Libertadora, a coup d’etat that brings about Perón’s “second coming,” as his return to power is commonly known. In contrast, the next Rimetka generation, in its left-wing pose, not only endorses Peronism but embraces militancy during the época del miedo, that is, the dictatorship of 1976-83. And yet, all these references are camouflaged and any attempt at concreteness is deliberately evaded, as if the Rimetkas were fugitives of history, inhabitants of a time outside Time. The resulting feeling is one of dislocation: the Rimetkas tell us less about the country they are part of than about diasporic Jewish existence: they live in limbo, loving and mating in a place called Anywhere. What we know about them is what the family—collectively—has chosen to remember. And that amounts to pure myth.

Myth . . . a genealogy of myth. Ana María Shua is a veteran in the art of retelling. In her novels, stories, children books, cookbooks, and anthologies of Jewish humor, she is adept at rewriting biblical, talmudic, and folkloric tales. She reappropriates Jewish tradition by recycling it, retelling the tale of the Golem of Prague, Hershel Ostropolier, or the wise men of Chelm in a style of her own. And The Book of Memories, originally published in 1994, is a vintage example in this art of reiterating by reinterpreting. It illustrates that famous epigraph by French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “The Jews are strangers to history. Their world is an abstraction.”

* Ilan Stavans teaches at Amherst College in Massachusetts.  His books include The Hispanic Condition (1995), Art and Anger (1996), The Riddle of Cantinflas (1997), The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories (1998), and Latino U.S.A.: A Cartoon History (2000, with Lalo Alcaraz).  He is editor-in-chief of Hopscotch: A Cultural Review and general editor of the “Jewish Latin America” series of the University of New Mexico Press.  Routledge has brought out The Essential Ilán Stavans. He has been nominated to the National Book Critics Circle Award and is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Latino Literature Prize, among other honors.


1. This essay first appeared as the prologue to the English translation of El libro de los recuerdos: Ilan Stavans, “Introduction.” The Book of Memories, trans. Dick Gerdes (Albuquerque: U New Mexico P, 1998) ix-xiii. It is republished here with some minor changes with the permission of the publisher.

2. The name Pinche appears as Pucho in the English translation.