Ilan Stavans is Lewis-Sebring Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College. His latest book is On Borrowed Words: A Memoir of Language (Viking; due out in
paperback from Penguin in summer 2002). A selection of his writings is available as The Essential Ilan Stavans (2000, Routledge). His latest books are The Poetry
of Pablo Neruda (Farrar, Straus & Giroux) and Spanglish: The
Making of a New American Language (HarperCollins), forthcoming in
August and September, respectively.
Genealogy rules Latino literature tyrannically.
"Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other," Italo Calvino
announced once, "like no European, nor any Latin American.
In the past two decades, Richard Rodriguez has offered us a gamut of
anecdotes, mostly about himself in action in an environment that is not
always attuned to his own inner life. These anecdotes have taken the
form of a trilogy that started in 1983 with the classic Hunger of
Memory, continued in 1993 with Days of Obligation and concludes now with his new book Brown:
The Last Discovery of America. This isn't a trilogy about history.
It isn't about sociology or politics either, at least in their most
primary senses. Instead, it is a sustained meditation on Latino life in
the United States, filled with labyrinthine reflections on philosophy
Rodriguez embraces subjectivity wholeheartedly. His tool, his
astonishing device, is the essay, and his model, I believe, is
Montaigne, the father of the personal essay and a genius at taking even
an insect tempted by a candle flame as an excuse to meditate on the
meaning of life, death and everything in between. Not that Montaigne is
Rodriguez's only touchstone. In Brown he chants to Alexis de
Tocqueville and James Baldwin as well. And in the previous installments
of his trilogy, particularly owing to his subject matter, he has emerged
as something of a successor to Octavio Paz.
The other trunk of this genealogical tree I'm shaping is V.S. Naipaul,
or at least he appears that to me, a counterpoint, as I reread
Rodriguez's oeuvre. They have much in common: They explore a
culture through its nuances and not, as it were, through its
high-profile iconography; they are meticulous littérateurs,
intelligent, incessantly curious; and, more important, everywhere they
go they retain, to their honor, the position of the outsider looking in.
Rodriguez, in particular, has been a Mexican-American but not a
Chicano--that is, he has rejected the invitation to be a full part of
the community that shaped him. Instead, he uses himself as a looking
glass to reflect, from the outside, on who Mexicans are, in and beyond
politics. This, predictably, has helped fill large reservoirs of
animosity against him. I don't know of any other Latino author who
generates so much anger. Chicanos love to hate him as much as they hate
to love him.
Why this is so isn't difficult to understand: He is customarily critical
of programs and policies that are seen as benefactors to the community,
for example, bilingual education and affirmative action, which, in his
eyes, have only balkanized families, neighborhoods and cities. In
Hunger of Memory he portrayed himself as a Scholarship Boy who
benefited from racial profiling. He reached a succinct conclusion: Not
race but individual talent should be considered in a person's
application for school or work--not one's skin color, last name or
country of origin, only aptitude. Naipaul too can play the devil: His
journeys through India and the Arab world, even through the lands of El
Dorado, are unsettling when one considers his rabid opinions on the
"uncivilized" natives. But Naipaul delivers these opinions with
admirable grace and, through that, makes his readers rethink the
colonial galaxy, revisit old ideas. In that sense, Naipaul and Rodriguez
are authors who force upon us the necessity to sharpen our own ideas. We
read them, we agree and disagree with them, so as to fine-tune our own
conception of who we are. They are of the kind of writer who first
infuriates, then unsettles us. What they never do is leave the reader
unchanged. For that alone, one ought to be grateful.
Apparently, the trilogy came into being after Rodriguez's agent, as the
author himself puts it in "Hispanic," the fifth chapter of Brown,
"encouraged from me a book that answers a simple question: What do
Hispanics mean to the life of America? He asked me that question several
years ago in a French restaurant on East Fifty-seventh Street, as I
watched a waiter approach our table holding before him a shimmering
The image of îles flottantes is a fitting one, I believe,
since the Latino mosaic on this side of the border (Rodriguez often
prefers to use the term "Hispanic" in his pages) might be seen as
nothing if not an archipelago of self-sufficient subcultures: Cuban,
Puerto Rican, Mexican, Salvadoran, Nicaraguan, Dominican... and the
whole Bolivarian range of possibilities. Are these islands of identity
interconnected? How do they relate to one another? To what extent are a
Brazilian in Tallahassee and a Mexicano in Portland, Oregon, kindred
Judging by his answer, Rodriguez might have been asked the wrong
question. Or else, he might have chosen to respond impractically. For
the question that runs through the three installments is, How did
Hispanics become brown? His belief is that brown, as a color, is the
sine qua non of Latinos, and he exercises it as a metaphor of mixture.
"Brown as impurity," he reasons. "I write of a color that is not a
singular color, not a strict recipe, not an expected result, but a color
produced by careless desire, even by accident." It is the color of
mestizaje, i.e., the miscegenation that shaped the Americas from
1492 onward, as they were forced, in spite of themselves, into modern
times. It is the juxtaposition of white European and dark aboriginal, of
Hernán Cortés and his mistress and translator, La
Malinche. And it is also the so-called raza cósmica that
Mexican philosopher José Vasconcelos talked about in the early
twentieth century, a master race that, capitalizing on its own impurity,
would rise to conquer the hemisphere, if not the entire globe.
But have Hispanics really become brown on the Technicolor screen of
America? Rodriguez is mistaken, I'm afraid. The gestation of race in the
Caribbean, from Venezuela to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, has a
different tint, since African slaves were brought in to replace Indians
for the hard labor in mines and fields, and their arrival gave birth to
other racial mixtures, among them those termed "mulattoes" and "zambos."
Argentina, on the other hand, had a minuscule aboriginal population when
the Spanish viceroys and missionaries arrived. The gauchos, a sort of
cowboy, are at the core of its national mythology, as can be seen in the
works of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, José Hernández and
Jorge Luis Borges. "Brown," in Rodriguez's conception, might be the
color of Mexicans in East LA, but surely not of Cubans in Miami. Some
Latinos might have become brown, but not all. And then again, what does
"brown" really mean? Rodriguez embraces it as a metaphor of impurity.
Mestizos are crossbreeds, they are impure, and impurity is beautiful.
But the term "brown" has specific political connotations as well. It is,
to a large extent, a byproduct of the civil rights era, the era of
César Chávez and the Young Lords, coined in reaction to
the black-and-white polarity that played out in Washington policy
corridors and the media: Brown is between white and black, a third
option in the kaleidoscope of race. A preferred term in the Southwest
was La Raza, but "brown" also found its way into manifestoes, political
speeches, legal documents and newspaper reports.
Rodriguez isn't into the Chicano movement, though. My gut instinct is
that he feels little empathy toward the 1960s in general, let alone
toward the Mexican-American upheaval. His views on la
hispanicidad in America are defined by his Mexican ancestry and by
his residence in San Francisco, where he has made his home for years. He
is disconnected from the Caribbean component of Latinos, and, from the
reaction I see in readers on the East Coast, the Caribbean Latinos are
also uninvolved with him.
Furthermore, Rodriguez limits himself to the concept of miscegenation,
but only at the racial level. What about promiscuity in language, for
example? Promiscuity might be a strong word, but it surely carries the
right message. Rodriguez's English is still the Queen's English:
overpolished, uncorrupted, stainless. How is it that he embraces
mestizaje but has little to say about Spanglish, that
disgustingly gorgeous mix of Spanish and English that is neither one nor
the other? Isn't that in-betweenness what America is about today? On the
issue of language, I have a side comment: I find it appalling that
Rodriguez's volumes are not available in Spanish to Mexicans and other
Latinos. Years ago, a small Iberian press, Megazul, released Hambre
de memoria in a stilted, unapologetically Castilian translation.
That, clearly, was the wrong chord to touch, when the author's resonance
is closer to San Antonio than to San Sebastián. How much longer
need Mexicans wait to read the work en español mexicano of
a canonical figure, whose lifelong quest has been to understand Mexicans
beyond the pale? The question brings us back to Paz and his "The Pachuco
and Other Extremes," the first chapter in his masterpiece The
Labyrinth of Solitude, released in 1950. It has angered Chicanos for
decades, and with good reason: This is an essay that distorts Mexican
life north of the border. Paz approached the pachuco--a social type of
Mexican youth in Los Angeles in the 1940s who fashioned a specific
lingo, and idiosyncrasies that Elvis Presley appropriated obliquely--as
a deterioration of the Mexican psyche. In his work, Rodriguez has
established a sort of colloquy with Paz, though not a direct address. He
embraces Paz's cosmopolitanism, his openness, and perceives him as a
Europeanized intellectual invaluable in the quest to freshen up Mexican
elite culture. But he refuses to confront Paz's anti-Chicanismo, and in
general Paz's negative views on Latinos in the United States. Once, for
instance, when asked what he thought about Spanglish, Paz responded that
it was neither good nor bad, "it is simply an aberration." In any case,
reading both authors on US-Mexican relations is an unpredictable,
enlightening catechism, filled with detours. While Mexicans might not
like to hear what Rodriguez has to say about them and about himself (he
has talked of "hating Mexico"), at least they will be acquainted with
All this is to say that Rodriguez's response to "What do Hispanics mean
to the life of America?" is partial at best. The trilogy shows a mind
engaged, but its subject is almost unmovable. Hunger of Memory
was an autobiographical meditation set in the United States as the
country was about to enter the Reagan era. It denounced a stagnant
society, interested in the politics of compassion more than in the
politics of equality, a society with little patience for Mexicans.
Days of Obligation was also about los Estados Unidos as
the first Bush presidency was approaching its end. By then the Reagan
mirage was officially over. We were about to enter another house of
mirrors under the tutelage of Bill Clinton. And this third installment
of the trilogy arrives in bookstores at a time when the melting pot,
la sopa de culturas, is boiling again, with xenophobia against
Arabs at a height, and Latinos, already the largest minority according
to the latest US Census data--35.3 million strong by late 2000, if one
counts only those officially registered--are still on the fringes,
fragmented, compartmentalized, more a sum of parts than a whole.
These changes are visible only through inference in the trilogy;
Rodriguez seldom makes use of political facts. He lives in a dreamlike
zone, a universe of ideas and sensations and paradox. Somewhere in
Brown he announces:
A few weeks ago, in the newspaper (another day in the multicultural
nation), a small item: Riot in a Southern California high school.
Hispanic students protest, then smash windows, because African-American
students get four weeks for Black History month, whereas Hispanics get
one. The more interesting protest would be for Hispanic students to
demand to be included in Black History month. The more interesting
remedy would be for Hispanic History week to include African history.
This sums up Rodriguez's approach: a micromanagement of identity
delivered periodically from the same viewpoint. Or has the viewpoint
changed? It is possible to see a growing maturity by reading the trilogy
chronologically. He started as an antisegregationist, a man interested
in assimilation of Mexicans into the larger landscape of America. His
feelings toward Mexico and toward his homosexuality were tortured at the
time. These became clear, or at least clearer, in the second
installment, in which a picture of a San Francisco desolated by AIDS and
an argument with the author's own mexicanidad as personified by
his father, among other changes, were evident. Assimilation was still a
priority, but by the 1990s Rodriguez had ceased to be interested in such
issues and was more attracted to his own condition as a public gay
Brown is again about assimilation, but from a perspective that
asserts America is a country shaped by so many interbred layers of
ethnicity that nothing is pure anymore. At one point, he describes the
conversation of a couple of girls one afternoon on Fillmore Street. He
renders them and their dialogue thus: "Two girls. Perhaps sixteen.
White. Anglo, whatever. Tottering on their silly shoes. Talking of boys.
The one girl saying to the other: ...His complexion is so cool, this
sort of light--well, not that light." And Rodriguez ends: "I realized my
book will never be equal to the play of the young." This need to capture
what surrounds him is always evident, although it isn't always
successful, because he is an intellectual obsessed with his own stream
of consciousness rather than in catching the pulse of the nation. But
I've managed to explain the continuity of themes in Rodriguez's three
volumes only tangentially.
There is another take, summed up in three catchwords: class, ethnicity
and race. He appears to encourage this reading. The first installment is
about a low-income family whose child moves up in the hierarchy; the
second about the awakening to across-the-border roots; and the third
about "a tragic noun, a synonym for conflict and isolation," race. But
Rodriguez is quick to add:
race is not such a terrible word for me. Maybe because I am skeptical by
nature. Maybe because my nature is already mixed. The word race
encourages me to remember the influence of eroticism on history. For
that is what race memorializes. Within any discussion of race, there
lurks the possibility of romance.
So is this what the trilogy is about, finally? The endeavor strikes me
as rather mercurial. Because Rodriguez works extensively through
metaphor and hyperbole, future generations will read into his books what
they please, depending on the context. I still like Hunger of
Memory the best. Days of Obligation strikes me as a
collection of disparate essays without a true core. And Brown is
a book that is not fully embracing, not least because it refuses to
recognize the complexity of Latinos in the United States. In it
Rodriguez describes his namesake, Richard Nixon, as "the dark father of
Hispanicity." "Surviving Chicanos (one still meets them) scorn the term
Hispanic," Rodriguez argues, "in part because it was Richard Nixon who
drafted the noun and who made the adjective uniform." A similar
reference was invoked in an Op-Ed piece by him in the New York
Times, in which he declared George W. Bush the first Hispanic
President of the United States, the way Bill Clinton was the first black
President. Is this true? The argument developed is not always clear-cut:
It twists and turns, as we have by now come to expect. I've learned to
respect and admire Rodriguez. When I was a newly arrived immigrant in
New York City, I stumbled upon an essay of his and then read his first
book. I was mesmerized by the prose but found myself in strong
disagreement with its tenets, and we have corresponded about that in the
At any rate, where will Rodriguez go from here, now that the trilogy is
finished? Might he finally take a long journey overseas? Is his vision
of America finally complete? Not quite, I say, for the country is
changing rapidly. Mestizaje, he argues, is no longer the domain
of Latinos alone. We are all brown: dirty and impure. "This is not the
same as saying 'the poor shall inherit the earth' but is possibly
related," Rodriguez states. "The poor shall overrun the earth. Or the
brown shall." This is a statement for the history books. In his view,
America is about to become América--everyone in it a Hispanic, if
not physically, at least metaphorically. "American history books I read
as a boy were all about winning and losing," Rodriguez states in
"Peter's Avocado," the last of the nine essays in Brown. And with
a typical twist, continues, "One side won; the other side lost.... [But]
the stories that interested me were stories that seemed to lead off the
page: A South Carolina farmer married one of his slaves. The farmer
died. The ex-slave inherited her husband's chairs, horses, rugs, slaves.
And then what happened? Did it, in fact, happen?"
"When I write, I bid farewell to myself," Jimmy Santiago Baca said in 1992. "I leave most of what I know behind and wander through the landscape of language." This is a memorable quote from a poet whose voice, brutal yet tender, is unique in America. The landscape of language is what redeemed Baca in 1973 when, at 21, illiterate and jailed in a maximum-security prison on charges of selling drugs, he discovered the power of words. And then he let himself loose, reading anything and everything that touched his hands, writing frantically, even magically, a set of autobiographical poems that spoke of injustice and alienation. His characters were young males handcuffed by poverty, with "nothing to do, nowhere to go." Denise Levertov once talked of them as fully formed people with engaged imaginations, of the type that witness brutality and degradation yet retain "an innocent eye--a wild creature's eye--and deep and loving respect for the earth."
Baca made his name in the late 1970s when Immigrants in Our Own Land & Selected Early Poems was published. After that, he steadily developed an oeuvre, endorsed by small presses, about the tortured experience of Chicanos. The reader sensed a poet ready to denounce, and to do so angrily, but careful not to turn poetry into an organ of propaganda: "I Am with Those/Whose blood has spilled on the streets too often,/Surprising bypassers in hushed fear," he wrote in one poem. "I am dangerous. I am a fool to you all./Yes, but I stand as I am,/I am food for the future."
These poems came in the aftermath of the Chicano movement, as the country moved away from such activism. Change had been fought for by César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, and by the Crusade for Justice, but its fruits remained intangible. Baca's anger spoke to the unredeemed and nonaffiliated on the fringes and also to a mainstream audience aware of the social limitations that remained after the civil rights era. He refused to give up denunciation, exposing the tension between whites and Mexicans in the Southwest. But then came an age in which complacency was accentuated and activism was institutionalized. Poetry left the trenches to enter the classroom: It wasn't what you had done, but the expository strategies you had used, that mattered. The Chicano middle class saw this as an occasion to reject outspokenness and endorse consent. Even the term "Chicano" came under fire and was replaced by "Mexican-American."
Around this time, Baca's pathos was acquired by Hollywood. He began to write screenplays, one of which, about gang wars in California's prisons, became Bound by Honor (1993), an epic directed by Taylor Hackford, with Benjamin Bratt, Damián Chapa and Jesse Borrego. On occasion he would surface with a pugnacious reflection, and eventually he assembled these reflections into a volume with a symbolic title: Working in the Dark (1992). But silence impregnated his poetic journey, silence and detachment. That, at least, was the view of his readership. Was Baca the poet still active, or was he going mute?
Black Mesa Poems, published a decade after Immigrants in Our Own Land, showed a shift in Baca's concerns--from the roughness of crime and conflict to depictions of barrio and rustic life. There are some existential poems in that collection, but a significant number of them deal with community--in particular, with his second home in a New Mexico rancho. These poems are about the redemptive power of love, about birth and death, about motherhood--and about rivers and pinyon trees.
The move from the individual to the family, from confrontation to introspection, is apparently what has occupied Baca in all the years since Black Mesa Poems, and his resurfacing comes with a vengeance in the form of two interrelated books: a hefty series of lyrical poems, Healing Earthquakes, billed by the publisher as a love story; and a poignant memoir, A Place to Stand, that is at once brave and heartbreaking. One feels a gravitas in the poet's voice that was absent before. Impetuosity has apparently given way to fortitude. Baca seems more patient, attentive to the passing of seasons, in tune with the smiles of children and the wisdom of elders.
The style of Healing Earthquakes is at times flat, even repetitive, and the book's plot insinuates itself with the accumulation of insights. But overall the work is stunning, the product of a poet in control of his craft, one worth paying attention to. Divided into five solid, asymmetrical sections that range from adulthood to rebirth and back, the series is shaped as a quest--again, semiautobiographical--for balance in an eminently unbalanced universe. But this is no redraft of Pilgrim's Progress, from earth to hell and up to heaven. Instead, it is a downpour of passion, which leads the narrator astray as he lusts for women, tangible and chimerical, and explores myths and archetypes that come from Mesoamerican civilization. He reflects on his imperfections, runs into trouble with others and wonders: where to find dignity? Not in religion, it seems, but in morality. It is through others and through their vision that one might find a sense of self. (This reminds me of the late Pablo Neruda, ready to turn himself into a Boswell of the heart's disasters: burning with life, agitated by the confusion around, yet eager to make poetry into his metronome.)
The poems include an explanation of silence that readers should welcome. The series uses the emphatic "I" that is a sine qua non of minority letters and that is ubiquitous in Baca's poetry, a device employed as an affirmation of the self in spite of all odds. "Here I am," it announces. "You better pay attention to me, because I will not go away." But this older Baca has become philosophical with age, and his "I" is now more contemplative:
I used to party a lot, but now I study landscapes
and wonder a lot,
listen to people and wonder a lot,
take a sip of good wine and wonder more,
until my wondering has filled five or six years
and literary critics and fans
and fellow writers ask
why haven't you written anything in six years?
and I wonder about that--
I don't reveal to them
that I have boxes of unpublished poems
and that I rise at six-thirty each morning
and read books, jot down notes,
compose a poem,
throwing what I've written or wondered on notepads in a stack in a box
in a closet.
To my mind Baca's most concentrated, lucid effort is "Martín," a forty-five-page exploration about a young Chicano abandoned by his parents, whose travels from Santa Fe to Albuquerque and across states force him to confront his own limitations. After "Martín" appeared in 1987, Baca ran into trouble with Chicano critics for his portrait of Mexican adolescence--a portrait that didn't shy away from such negative attributes as alcoholism, violence and narcotic escapes. They accused him of pushing his people down by stressing the ugly and not the beautiful. His reaction, in an essay titled "Q-Vo," collected in Working in the Dark, was a welcome respite in an atmosphere of cheap ethnic pride. (The title is a phonetic redraw of ¿Qué hubo?, "Wassup?")
[In the critics' view] Chicanos never have betrayed each other, we never have fought each other, never sold out; nor have we ever experienced poverty or suffering, wept, made mistakes. I never responded to these absurdities. Such narrowness and stupidity is its own curse.... Because I am a Chicano, it doesn't mean that I am immune from the flaws and the suffering that make us all human.
The incident recalls a comment I once heard from an aspiring Chicano critic, whose teachers reiterated to him that to write a bad review of a fellow Chicano author is to be an Uncle Tom: un traidor. "Why add to the stereotypes?" he was told. Baca responded to such nearsightedness with courage. And it is that type of unremitting courage that colors A Place to Stand, his memoir, subtitled The Making of a Poet. It is, once again, a thunderous artifact. (Readers of "Martín" especially will find it a box of resonances.) It follows a straightforward, chronological pattern with an occasional detour into the realm of the fantastic, in which the author offers dreams and imaginary visions of the past. This fantastic element isn't atypical. For instance, in a chapbook of 1981 that included the poem "Walking Down to Town and Back," about rural New Mexico, a widow lights her adobe house on fire after she believes it has been taken over by snakes, and from the flames emerges the image of the Virgin Mary. The tale is delivered in a voice that once belonged to a child, and makes use of what Freud called "the uncanny": real incidents twisted by memory into supernatural anecdotes. "Miracle, miracle," the townspeople announce. Is it all in the widow's mind?
Figuratively speaking, Baca's memoir only partially takes place in his mind, as he ponders the loss of his father, mother and brother. A few passages push the narration to a more surreal level, but these are far between. Most of the memoir is not about miracles but about the summons of a life on the verge.
I was born [in 1952], and it was about this time that Father's drinking and his absences first became an issue.... The whites looked down on Mexicans. Mother's frustration began to show. La Casita, with its two tar-papered cardboard rooms, one bed where we all slept, woodstove, and cold water spigot, wasn't the white picket-fenced house in the tree-lined city suburb she'd dreamed of.
A Place to Stand begins here, with Baca's Indian father leaving the family and his Chicano mother having a romance with a man who persuades her to leave her children behind, mask her Mexican ancestry and begin a WASP family in California. Baca went to his grandparents first, then to an orphanage. He soon found himself destitute on the street, afraid of the deceitful manners of adults. By then he was already a school dropout. His race, obviously, reinforced his status as pariah--Mexican was synonymous with slime. Perennially harassed by the police, he was adrift, disoriented, a stranger in his own land; eventually, he was incarcerated on murder charges for a crime he did not commit.
Upon his release, Baca sought to find his center, to turn himself into an honorable man. But he stumbled, and in flight he sold drugs, rambling without direction through San Diego and Arizona. The narcos' and the FBI's tête-à-tête in a bullet-infested crash the scene is vividly described in the memoir. Arraigned again, he ended up in solitary confinement, and after defying the system that purportedly sought to reform him ("prison did not rehabilitate me. Love for people did"), he learned to read. From that moment on he read, and read, and read, and then turned ink to paper, at which point he surprised himself a poet--and he surprised others too: His gifts were pristine, unadulterated from the start.
I was often overwhelmed by the sorrow and commiseration conveyed in Baca's memoir. It is a luminous book, honest to a fault. Every so often the author indulges in epiphanies that sound like clichés: for instance, "I didn't know what I'd done to deserve my life, but I'd done the best I could with what I had." But those platitudes are what people less interested in literature and more in the rough-and-tumbleness of life are likely to respond to fully. A Place to Stand is about place in the largest, most flexible sense of the term: as home, but also as the soil of one's roots and as the literary pantheon in which one fits. In that sense the book belongs to the subgenre of prison tales for which the twentieth century was fertile ground. From The Autobiography of Malcolm X to Vaclav Havel's diaries, the central paradigm doesn't change: involuntary confinement as a ticket to enlightenment--and even messianic revelation. In the Americas, this subgenre is obviously substantial, filled with names like Graciliano Ramos and Reinaldo Arenas; north of the Rio Grande, figures like Piri Thomas, Miguel Piñero and Luis J. Rodríguez have also heard the sound of their voice behind bars. Baca too enters jail as a lost soul and leaves it empowered; in the early fragments of the book he is a vato loco, a crazy dude. But after the imprisonment he is an unapologetic, ideologically defined Chicano. "Most people might assume that cons spend their time thinking about what they're going to do when their time is up, fantasizing about the women they're going to fuck and scams they're going to run, or planning how they're going to go straight and everything will be different," Baca writes. "I did think about the future sometimes, but more and more it was the past my mind began to turn to, especially during those first days and nights in solitary." Those nights led Baca to a debacle with his own phantoms, and to the conviction that life has a purpose only when one devises one for it. The epilogue of A Place to Stand is especially moving: In it Baca's mother returns to her Mexican identity, but her second husband stops her short with five bullets in her face from a .45--a mesmerizing image of defeat, which Baca successfully turns around in his telling.
Maturity... For years I've been looking for an accurate definition of the word. What does it really mean? "Fullness or perfection of growth or development," announces, tentatively, the Oxford English Dictionary, but this is an unsatisfactory explication. The purpose of any artist who takes himself seriously is to make the best of his talents fit the condition in which he finds himself. Is maturity the capacity to change and still remain loyal to one's own vision? Earlier in this review I referred to Baca's work as an oeuvre, which isn't the same as work. Oeuvre implies mutation, the desire to change from one mode to another, the willingness to comprehend nature and society from contrasted stands. Baca's poetry is monochromatic, but the same might be said of any poet of stature: A set of motifs and anecdotes reappears under different facades. But every time, the reader reaches a depth unlike the previous one.
Baca's latest books are about anger, but he seems to be less angry than before. Time has allowed him to zoom in on his mission: to travel outward and inward as a Chicano in America, with all the complications that the identity entails; and to use language to bid farewell to his many selves. In Healing Earthquakes he describes his search as
leading me back across the wasteland of my life
to marvel at my own experience and those around me
whose own humbled lives graced me with assurance
that if I stayed on the path of love, of seeking the good in people,
of trying to be an honorable man,
that I too would one day have the love of family and friends
and be part of life as it spun like a star in the dark
radiating light on its journey--.
This search, it is clear now, is a towering legacy.
Rosalino "Chalino" Sánchez isn't someone you are likely to know about. Yet his legendary role as the revitalizer of the corrido--as the Mexican border folk song is known--is unquestionable among the 24 million people who inhabit the territories that unite or separate Mexico and the United States.
Antonio de Herrera, the royal chronicler of Philip II, writing about the conquest of the New World in Historia General, included these lines:
The nations of New Spain preserved the memory of their antiquities. In Yucatán and Honduras there were certain books in which the Indians recorded the events of their times, together with their knowledge of plants, animals and other natural things. In the Province of Mexico, they had libraries of histories and calendars, which they painted in pictures. Whatever had a concrete form was painted in its own image, while if it lacked a form, they represented it by other characters. Thus they set down what they wished.
The image of a lost library, of graphs, codices and, subsequently, alphabetical transcriptions of oral tales, is suitable in the quest to imagine, even partially, the wealth of knowledge and spirituality that the Spaniards sought to dismantle. For what is a library if not a depository of memory? The past was important for the Nahua and Maya people, among other pre-Hispanics. They fathomed the need to record their inner thoughts, to make "history," to reflect on the nature and impact of human existence. That they "set down what they wished" is accounted for in the myriad inventories of colonization left to posterity.
As a teleological arrow, History, of course, is an invention of the nineteenth century. The lost library was a myth in the early stages of the conquest, heavily inflected by a somewhat twisted sense of nostalgia. In Mesoamerica--understood as the stretch of land that includes a large portion of Mexico today as well as Central America, with a population influenced by Olmec culture--the accounts of that loss were colored by a Zeitgeist that was unstoppable and merciless. In particular, the destruction of both the magisterial metropolis Tenochtitlán, by Hernán Cortés, and the Aztec empire were delivered with a sense of inevitability.
The events come to us mainly through Cortés's own correspondence with Charles V and also through Bernal Díaz del Castillo's True History of the Conquest of Mexico. The natives might be portrayed at best as generous and allowable. But the reader is biased toward the mighty Iberian army--only 600 men, who, even if faulty, are seen as fateful in their determinism. It wasn't until Europe began to pay attention to the vanquished that an elaborate cognizance of the epic period emerged. But it took time and a decision to go beyond an easy racial favoritism. To historians like William Hickling Prescott, the choice of heroes in the epic was unquestionable. In his The Conquest of Mexico, it is not Moctezuma, the Mexican leader, but Cortés, the brave, white, adventurous knight, who was the appropriate figure to describe in a view that fit the embrace of the "civilized" by a barbarous, idolatrous empire.
Then came Salvador de Madariaga's Hernán Cortéz. In a tone sensitive to the age of anti-imperialism that swept Europe in the early twentieth century, his biography is decidedly humane, aware of Cortés's self-righteous acts of immolation. The Iberians are still at center-stage, though, and remained thus until after World War II, when other historians, such as Maurice Collis, pondered the deprivation of life and the degradations of memory in a more evenhanded fashion.
How did the Indians preserve their own interpretation of the conquest? Is it possible to unravel the way in which the pre-Columbian mind approached the universe? What were its ethos and pathos? Which obsessions was it overwhelmed with? How did it use language to explore its own condition? These questions were initially asked, albeit obliquely, by Alexander von Humboldt around 1813. Interest awakened in Italy, France, Germany and the United States, inspiring a solid tradition of archeologists, ethnographers and philologists, such as Léon de Rosny, Eduard Seler and Franz Boas, to explore the pre-Columbian condition.
In Mexico per se, influential work to open up the pre-Hispanic mind was done by Manuel Gamio, Pablo González Casanova, Angel María Garibay K. and Fernando Horcasitas Pimentel. This tradition, seeking to give voice to a voiceless people, has at present its most distinguished practitioner in Miguel León-Portilla. Since 1956, when his doctoral dissertation was published as La filosofía náhuatl estudiada en sus fuentes (in English in 1963: Aztec Thought and Culture: A Study of the Ancient Nahuatl Mind), onward to the ever-popular Broken Spears, and up until the Cantares Mexicanos, edited with the help of Librado Silva Galeana and Francisco Morales Baranda, he has produced more than three dozen books that help us decipher the labyrinthine inner and outer paths of Mesoamerica.
The apex of his contribution--and a testament to its depth and entanglement--is In the Language of Kings, the most authoritative and inspiring anthology of pre-Columbian cultures to appear in any language other than Spanish. In browsing through its pages, I had a disconnected thought: León-Portilla resembles GershomScholem, a scholar of Kabbalah and a friend of Walter Benjamin, whose books provided an unexpected door to the hermetic theories of the divine at the heart of Judaism. Like Scholem, León-Portilla has shown that other viewpoints have persisted, beneath the surface of our Eurocentrism, from the time of contact. He too has unearthed documents that were within our reach but that needed a lucid, patient mind to be explained in full. He has made use of a silent, comparatively marginal field of study that, in his hand, acquires unparalleled importance.
The difference between the two is clear: Scholem was a paradoxical figure. How else to explain the lifelong effort of so enlightened a scholar to make every effort to uncover a heritage whose secrets have survived in a sealed form? In contrast, León-Portilla's quest is unambiguous: to delineate, coherently and forcefully, the map to a psyche eclipsed by the accidents of history, not by its own metabolism. Furthermore, the delineation is performed not in Nahuatl, a variety of Mayan, or in Spanish, but in English, the lingua franca of academic debate today and irrefutably the only language that holds the key to ending the eclipse.
To that end he is helped by the educator and writer Earl Shorris, whose work in the former field has won presidential recognition and whose writings include an elegy for the American Indian and a polyphonic history of the Latino population in the United States. This time around his job is to shape the material in lucid, inspiring English. Shorris, in turn, is aided by his wife, Sylvia, whose knowledge of Spanish and Ladino--also known as Judesmo and Spanioli, which is close to medieval Spanish--proved an essential resource in the translation process. (Others responsible for this anthology are Jorge Klor de Alva and Ascensión H. de León-Portilla, and countless interpreters, archivists, folklorists and village memorialists both north and south of the Rio Grande.)
I met León-Portilla some fifteen years ago at a Jewish wedding in Cuernavaca, Morelos, and we had a brief conversation about his quest. He struck me as a subtle person whose great erudition is not paraded ostentatiously. Subtle, too, is how I would describe the perspicacious message of this anthology, delivered patiently, in installments, the way León-Portilla himself has been accomplishing his objective over the years: Pre-Columbian civilization, the book proclaims, is neither dead nor gone, and it ought not to be seen as a museum curio, a set of frozen items on display for curious, uncommitted eyes to observe.
In a section titled "The New Geography of Mesoamerica," León-Portilla and Shorris suggest that after the Spanish invasion, the spread of Nahuatl and other pre-Columbian cultures occurred through mass immigration, across a vast expanse of land. A connection is made here to the Chicano movement, especially with figures like Los Angeles Times journalist Ruben Salazar, whose columns in 1970 on what it means to be a Chicano incorporated aspects of "Indian" pasts. (One of my few minor complaints is that this connection with Mexican-Americans might have been developed further: Other Latino authors, and a handful of Chicano activists in the 1960s--Rudolfo "Corky" González, author of the poem "Yo soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín," comes to mind--also tackled the issue. And then there is Carlos Castañeda, the UCLA-trained anthropologist whose oeuvre, from The Teachings of Don Juan onward, is in desperate need of re-evaluation and rescue from New Age hands.)
In the Language of Kings makes some unpredictable connections between the past and prominent political leaders that spring from, or have found a source in, the pre-Columbian Weltanschauung. The impact is sometimes startling. Perhaps most significant is the emulation of the indigenous revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata. A couple of manifestos of April 27, 1918, are included here. In one, Zapata states that "our great war will not come to an end" until the dictator Venustiano Carranza is defeated and until "Christians [i.e., hacienda owners and caciques], those who have made fun of us, who hate us," allow the Mexican people to reconnect with their ancient roots. The anthology also highlights the endorsement of Zapata by Subcomandante Marcos and other insurgents in Chiapas, as well as the fear that these guerrilla fighters create in the aboriginal population.
A prayer to Kajaval (Lord) by the Chamulas, who are fearful of the Zapatistas for past sins, is excerpted; it shows the religious syncretism that permeates the Indian population:
Have Mercy, Kajaval,
Have Mercy, Jesus.
Make yourself present among us, Kajaval,
Make yourself present in our incense,
Jesus with us, your daughters,
With us, your sons...
What sins have we, Kajaval?
What guilt have we, Jesus?
Anthologies are cut-and-paste artifacts. To survive, they depend on the voices of a handful of luminaries, whose light enables other minor voices to speak out as well-- and even their empty, forgettable spots, as Henry James suggested was true of structure in novels, help establish a sense of continuity. Six-sevenths of this volume's contents are devoted to Nahuatl and Mayan literatures; the remaining seventh covers Mixtec, Otomi, Purepecha and other Mesoamerican languages. I read parts of it with disinterest and others, whose echoes resonate in my mind, excitedly. The section on Nahuatl letters I found especially inspiring: It contains metaphysical poetry, sacred narratives, huehuetlahtolli (discourses of the elders), proverbs, historical narratives, diaries and Christian proselytizing literature. Some of the proverbs, mostly taken from the Florentine Codex by Bernardino de Sahagún, I recall from my school years in Mexico. They brought back to mind the cryptic forms of wisdom Indian friends of mine used in daily language: Among the Nahuatl people, for instance, "a page is sent" is an aphorism used to refer to a person who is asked to deliver a message and fails to return with a response; and the maxim "a word is his meal" describes a person who is wounded easily and immediately starts quarreling with others.
Here and elsewhere one gets the impression that León-Portilla is enamored with the knotty paths of language--paths that ought to be appreciated not only for their literal meanings but also for their conjectural value. More than anything else, he gives us the language of dignity by going beyond the politics of compassion; there is never an attempt to generate pity in us. Pityarises from a slight contempt, and contempt involves a sense of superiority that is thankfully absent here--our technological superiority is only that, after all. This anthology also rejects the naïve suggestion that pre-Columbian civilization was somehow "purer" than ours, as well. The collection's overall effect is breathtaking precisely because it doesn't force judgments about its object of scrutiny. It tells us that the material it contains was conceived in a milieu radically different from ours, and that our awareness of time and space, of life and afterlife, makes us foreigners to it. What León-Portilla provides us with is the set of tools necessary to appreciate--and yes, to understand--this complement reality.
In his general introduction, León-Portilla gives us a quick sketch of the Mesoamerican ethos. The reader is told, for instance, that in the pre-Hispanic pantheon gods came in pairs, such as Tlaloc, the god of rain, and Chalchiuhtlicue, the goddess of the terrestrial waters. Tonalli (or destiny) depended on what the gods chose to concede to a person at the moment of birth. And to live attuned to the rhythms of nature was thought to be of primary importance. The skein of ideas León-Portilla lays out--the way pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica "read" itself, in rich detail, free of the false sense of "primitiveness" forced upon it by Western civilization--allows us to follow the traces of aboriginal thought in Mexico's postcontact intelligentsia. From Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora to José Vasconcelos to Andrés Henestrosa, an embrace of the Indian legacy, from lukewarm to operatic to emphatic, has been unavoidable: The aboriginal face is in the mirror at all times, even after repeated attempts to blur it; it is as ineradicable as its European counterpart, an essential component of the mestizo self.
Many but not all of Nahuatl poets of the past are anonymous, in part because the pre-Columbian civilization wasn't permeated by a sense of individualism. Still, there are recognizable names, like Axayacatl, Nezahualpilli and Cacamatzin. The most talented of them, the one capable of extreme varieties of feeling and thought, is Nezahualcoyotl, king of Tezcoco. This poet alone justifies In the Language of Kings. A product of a mix of Chichimeca and Toltec cultures of the early fifteenth century, he is a proto-existentialist who might remind the modern reader of Kierkegaard--yet at the same time he remains a power-drunk warrior and tortured political leader.
The education of Nezahualcoyotl was that of a prince; he witnessed the assassination of his father at a tender age. His poetry is ingrained with a philosophical inquisitiveness that makes it surprisingly modern. Not that he was a likable person--among other things, he is known to have arranged the death of his loyal follower Cuacuauhtzin in order to marry that friend's wife. But he was also a promoter of the arts and a strategist whose energy was devoted to the construction of a gathering place for artists and intellectuals, as well as an aqueduct that brought spring water to Tenochtitlán. Consider his poem "I Shall Never Disappear":
I Shall Never Disappear
I am intoxicated,
I weep, I grieve,
I think, I speak,
within myself I discover this:
I shall never die,
Let me go to the place
where there is no death,
where death is overcome:
I shall never disappear.
Or "Song of the Flight":
pass life calmly!
I am bent over,
I live with my head bowed
beside the people.
For this I am weeping,
I am wretched!
I have remained alone
beside the people on earth.
How has Your heart decided,
Giver of Life?
Dismiss Your displeasure!
Extend Your compassion,
I am at Your side, You are God.
Perhaps You would bring death to me?
Is it true that we are happy,
that we live on the earth?
The time of Nezahualcoyotl was bloody yet unapocalyptic. After all, he lived before the arrival of Cortés, seen by the Indians as a reincarnation of their god Quetzalcoatl. It is that encounter that changed forever the world of its participants. (Barbara Tuchman has a lucid, unforgettable chapter on it in The March of Folly.) León-Portilla, in the section on historical narrative, includes the visión de los vencidos, a Nahuatl representation of the conquest of Tenochtitlán, that begs to be read against Cortés's correspondence and the chronicle of Bernal Díaz. It is in this section that the reader is fully and unreservedly exposed to the other side of the coin: the arrival of the Iberian knights from the viewpoint of the natives. Descriptions of how Moctezuma sent witches, wizards and sorcerers to face the Spaniards abound, along with a scene in which Moctezuma is found crying, a chronicle of the Tlaxcalan conspirators who helped Cortés, the epidemic of smallpox ("an illness of pustules of which many local people died") that broke out after the Iberians left Tenochtitlán, the use of a catapult at the top of an altar to hurl stones at the population and the surrender of Moctezuma.
Where the focus is on the Maya, León-Portilla and Shorris include the Popol Vuh (an astonishing sixteenth-century work written in Latin script, which records the secrets of Mayan civilization) and Chilam Balam of Chumayel (in which a Mayan priest delivers astrological reckonings). They also collect the drama of war, sacrifice and loyalty known as Rabinal Achi; this work was part of oral tradition "found" in Guatemala by a French priest and first staged to Westerners in 1856. There is also discussion of myths, legends, songs and incantations. Though the translations feel fluid, I was less enchanted with this portion of In the Language of Kings, though perhaps this is because my Mexican upbringing in the capital and my friendships were influenced by Nahuatl folklore, not Maya.
León-Portilla includes a version of the conquest recorded in Chilam Balam of Mani, a Chontal version of the death of the king Cuahtemoc, some songs of Dzitbalche discovered in Merida in 1942 that were drafted in Yucatec Maya, as well as a bunch of kennings (the poetic form called difrasismos by Leon-Portilla). Selections by various contemporary Mayan poets also appear, and one worthy of attention in particular, for his commanding voice, is Humberto Ak'abal. He is a representative of Indians not only linked to the past but to the word processor too. A handful of the authors featured in In the Language of Kings were students of León-Portilla in a seminar on Nahuatl culture. Their inclusion signals a literary revival that is, as much as anything, a manifestation of the way Mexico as a nation is repositioning itself in this millennium. Here is Ak'abal's poem "Learning":
In these "spurts"
the urge to write comes upon me,
not because I know something, but
because doing and undoing
is how I learn this craft,
and in the end
something stays with me.
the old villages
have bewitching secrets
and I wish to extract these
to transfer them
to sheets of paper.
I must treat this beautiful craft
like an avocation although it pains me,
because I cannot give it as much time as I would like.
(I must work at something else in order
My verses are as wet as rain,
or the tears of the evening dew,
and it could not be otherwise,
because they have been taken from the mountain.
On occasion the entries in the anthology seem incomplete, even fractured. The reader, dumbfounded by the sheer abundance of substance, might get lost. But volumes such as these are preambles to further explorations. The ambitious, chimerical aspect of In the Language of Kings makes me think of it as León-Portilla's Book of Creation. It is also a summa of his oeuvre: Through the hundreds of entries we are allowed, magically, a rendezvous with the past and an appreciation of the future. The reader sees the Indians eat, love, fertilize the earth, go to war and dream. That Cortés makes merely a cameo appearance and Moctezuma fares only slightly better is a plus, for the actual protagonists of this odyssey are the aboriginal people as a whole. Indeed, the book's publication--its heft and scope--is a historic occasion that allows for a glimpse of the sunken wealth of pre-Hispanic civilization. It is an invitation to reconsider as a whole the scholarly tradition since Humboldt, and to re-evaluate the modes of history that permeate our worldview. More important, perhaps, it is a declaration that the object of such study, the civilization in focus, should not be looked at as a fait accompli; that the pre-Columbian past lives in the postcolonial future. The lost library was never lost, yet bears revisitations such as this.
V.S. Pritchett, whose essays are an invaluable companion, a sort of Dante's Virgil in the navigation of modern literature, once described Don Quixote as "the novel that killed a country by knocking the heart out of it and extinguishing its belief in itself forever." This is no doubt an incisive statement, and perhaps truthful too. If so, it should be expanded to say that Don Quixote also artfully extirpated Spain from Europe's intellectual conscience. For beyond Cervantes, where are its influential figures to be found in the international sphere? This is not to say that Spain has given up on literature. On the contrary, many thousands of books--nonfiction, poetry and as much fiction as there are mushrooms that spring up in a forest after a rainstorm--are published annually at home. The number of Spanish literary awards has multiplied dramatically in the last couple of decades: Every major publisher has its prize and parades its winners with unrestrained flair. But does anybody abroad really pay attention?
If this diagnosis--that the Spanish novel is in a centuries-old hiatus--sounds improbable, even a bit offensive, I suggest an exercise in improvised criticism. Stop for a moment at your local bookstore and look for, say, a dozen Iberian novels--classics and commercial--on the shelf. I bet the task defeats you. You might stumble upon a title by Camilo José Cela, whose Nobel Prize, like that of his fellow Spaniard, Jacinto Benavente, only accentuated his obscurity; and you will surely come across the "brainy" thrillers of Arturo Pérez-Reverte, probably the most popular español of our time. But beyond these, what? It would be easy to blame the publishing industry for this void, yet most editors, especially at university presses, are far from parochial, and censorship is not a principle they endorse. Furthermore, even in such an atmosphere as ours, fastidiously allergic to foreign cultures, far more literature from France and Germany, even from Italy--not to mention the quick westbound trip of scores of Britons--is released in the United States. Spain simply isn't trendy; its intellectual life is of no global consequence.
The problem, in part, is internal. It is symptomatic that whenever an Iberian's letters are discussed at home, critics recur to similes: "Benito Pérez Galdós was our Dickens," it is said, "and Juan Benet our Faulkner." In all fairness, these comparisons are often to an author's advantage. A handful of essayists, and chiefly poets, fare better: Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, still not fully translated into English, are the owners of pungent, incisive voices unstilted by time that are delightful to read; and Federico García Lorca, along with poets of the Civil War (Machado, Cernuda et al.), are true giants. But a quick survey of the landscape in fiction evidences a kind of wasteland: Miguel Delibes, Carmen Martín Gaite, Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, Alvaro Pombo and younger figures like Almudena Grandes, Juan Luis Cebrián, Antonio Muñóz Molina. Are these recognizable names? Even if he isn't taken at face value, Pritchett, I think, is on to something of significance: The country's literary flame might not have been extinguished altogether with Don Quixote, but it surely burns at a low intensity. Spain appears in a permanent state of eclipse.
Beyond national borders, one of the very few heralded talents of the last decade is Javier Marías. His work has been timidly appearing in US bookstores, praised in literary supplements and review pages. But it remains, not surprisingly, largely ignored by readers. Still, Marías has much to offer; even if his work isn't consistently breathtaking, a push should be made to bring him to the attention of a wider audience. From his 1971 debut novel Los dominios del lobo to collections of essays like Literatura y fantasma, his books have sold in excess of 3.2 million copies, mainly in Europe and Hispanic America. (Sales and quality don't always match, but they do in his case.) He has been translated into some twenty languages. It is time Americans also wake up to this skillful littérateur.
Marías (born in 1951) is a grounded madrileño, the son of a prominent cultural critic. Figuratively, he is one of Borges's grandchildren, although Proust should also be considered a prominent source of inspiration: Marías's themes are circular and metaliterary, his style meditative to the point of cantankerousness. Infatuated by British fiction since an early age, Marías has been, aside from a practitioner of fiction, a translator of high caliber who has made Hardy, Conrad and Yeats sit comfortably in Cervantes's tongue. His rendition of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy is especially noteworthy: It brings the original to life without ever mimicking it. This talent, it ought to be said, is no meager achievement in a culture with a miserable history of translation, one made of uninhibited displays of ineptitude and misinformation.
HarperCollins and Harcourt both tried to publish Marías in the United States in the nineties, with little success. New Directions, the small, estimable New York publisher founded by James Laughlin, has now taken over the effort. It is serving a few of Marías's previously published titles and a novel formerly available only in England as an hors d'oeuvre, along with a main dish comprised of a fresh collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, and Dark Back of Time, a bizarre experiment in fiction--described by the author as a "false novel." The project is laudable: Although I'm sure it won't change the global status of Iberian fiction, it should at least make the exercise of browsing through a shelf for invigorating stories from Spain a bit less frustrating. And it should place the ball in the reader's court: From now on anybody who doesn't read Marías is doomed (as, loosely, Neruda once put it of Cortázar).
I used the word bizarre in reference to Marías. It fits him to the dot, for he enjoys exploring the eerie, mysterious and supernatural--what Cortázar once described as lo neofantástico, a term limited to Hispanic letters, close to the neogothic in English, it indulges in the supernatural without ever inspiring fear--in a way that is reminiscent of Stevenson, Wells and W.W. Jacobs (author of the legendary tale "The Monkey's Paw"). But, to extend the comparison, the figure to whom he can be equated without hesitation is Henry James: Marías's writing has the same syncopated prose and introspective inquisitiveness, and he often uses equally long, tortuous sentences. But, unlike James, he isn't quite a novelist, even though, for lack of a better term, he is invariably portrayed as one. Under close scrutiny, it is clear that Marías's narratives are made of disconnected segments--fragments that are abrupt and constantly interrupted by side effects that seldom add up to a whole--and his train of thought functions as a spiral: One scene leads to another, and then another--ad infinitum. Still, the result is rewarding because he is a literary magician who understands literature as a game of mirrors.
This is not to say, of course, that everything he writes is spun of gold. I've just reread him in the lucid translations by Margaret Jull Costa and Esther Allen: The pedantry and sense of superiority to his readers that I came across the first time around, when I discovered Marías in the original half a decade ago, strike me as more pronounced in re-encounters. He loves the donnish pose, a little as Wilde did. He invites you to his universe, but once you're in it, he shrieks: Look at how divine, how gifted I am! The effect might be off-putting, but the reader should put it aside and persevere in order to enjoy the material in full.
The sermonic tone is explicit in All Souls, based on his two-and-a-half-year experience at Oxford (the institution that has turned "donnishness" into a profession, after all). The novel fits snugly into a tradition of so-called campus fiction that includes recent entries by such figures as David Lodge, Jane Smiley, Francine Prose, A.S. Byatt and Philip Roth.
The narrator of All Souls is a Spanish lecturer who observes the ridiculous pomposity of academics devoted to obscure themes, painfully aware of their overall insignificance--people for whom, as Marías puts it, "simply being is far more important than doing or even acting." The adventures Marías comes up with are sheer fantasy, although his characters, among them faculty and bookstore owners, are not; some of the author's acquaintances have recognized themselves easily in his portrayals. The narrative suffers some from homogeneity: Marías's erudite monologues too frequently sound alike. Perhaps that doesn't matter here, though, for the author doesn't seem to be looking for full-fledged characterizations; instead, his is a tangential disquisition, one about Spain from without, a study of an Iberian intellectual abroad in the spirit of James's Daisy Miller, an American's rendezvous on the Continent. Marías zooms in on the dislocation of one lonesome, perplexed Spanish observer in the land that Dr. Johnson once invoked with the chant: "Ye patriot crowds, who burn for England's fame." He never ponders issues of national identity. And yet, this is a book about a self-imposed "highbrow" traveler, a stranger in a strange place.
My personal favorite among Marías's books is Tomorrow in the Battle Think of Me, originally released in 1994 and the recipient of Venezuela's prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize. It is a complex, centripetal whodunit about the reverberations of a sudden death. The protagonist is a scriptwriter in Madrid who has an affair with a married woman while her husband is in London. As her child goes to bed and she begins to undress, she is taken ill and collapses grimly. The narrator's consciousness is vividly mapped out. The leitmotif is the quest for morality in a dissolute universe. Marías ponders large philosophical themes, like the role of memory and morality in human affairs, by intertwining the individual in a larger picture. A quote:
No one knows anything for sure, not even what they do or decided or see or suffer, each moment sooner or later dissolves, its degree of unreality constantly on the increase, everything travelling towards its own dissolution with the passing of the days and even the seconds that appear to sustain things but, in fact, suppress them: a nurse's dream will vanish along with the student's vain wakefulness, the tentatively inviting footsteps of the whore, who is possibly a sick young man in disguise, will be scorned or go unnoticed, the lover's kisses will be renounced.... And, as if it was just another insignificant, superfluous tie or link, the murder or homicide is simply lumped in with all the crimes--there are so many others--that have been forgotten and of which no record remains and with those currently being planned and of which there will be a record, even though that too will eventually disappear.
This is the book Marías was destined to write by the Emersonian High Spirit and is the introduction to him that readers should have. Its exposition is hypnotizing, and its plot plays tricks on us: It falsifies its routes by pushing to its denouement.
Also of notice is A Heart So White, portions of which take place in Havana and New York, about a 34-year-old husband haunted by the demons of suicides by women close to him (his father's first wife, his mother's sister, his aunt Teresa). It has brought Marías the applause of many, including Francis Ford Coppola and Salman Rushdie, and is considered his best work. It might well be: It is an anti-detective story about genealogy and sin. (The title pays homage to Macbeth: "My hands are of your colour; but I shame/To wear a heart so white.")
In contrast, Marías's collection of stories, When I Was Mortal, is in a minor key. It appeared in 1996 and is made of material published in anthologies, as well as in periodicals like El País and El Correo Español. The short tale constrains him as a form and pushes him to summarize in a way that does him a disservice. His is an elastic vision that fits the longer narrative better. These are all pieces drafted on commission, which Marías states in his foreword didn't "compromise them." He then goes on to craft an ars poetica that again recalls Henry James:
You can write an article or a story on commission (though not, in my case, a whole book); sometimes even the subject matter may be given and I see nothing wrong in that as long as you manage to make the final product yours and you enjoy writing it.... It is perhaps worth reminding those sentimental purists who believe that, in order to sit down in front of the typewriter, you have to experience grandiose feelings such as a creative "need" or "impulse," which are always "spontaneous" or terribly intense, that the majority of the sublime works of art produced over the centuries--especially in painting and music--were the result of commissions or of even more prosaic and servile stimuli.
The best tales in the volume are peopled by victims of mistaken identities, unexpected friends and professional liars. Through "In Uncertain Time," Marías explores the fanaticism surrounding soccer in Spain in particular and Europe in general. In another, "Everything Bad Comes Back," clearly autobiographical in tone, a melancholic translator of Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy ponders his place in the world. And yet another, "On the Honeymoon," reproduces the same subplot of A Heart So White and also several of its paragraphs, thus acknowledging Pierre Menard's lesson: The same page used twice is a different page.
By far the brainiest, most emblematic and abstruse book by Marías, as well as the most demanding, is Dark Back of Time, about, well, everything and nothing. This is what Italo Calvino described as hyperfiction, a kind of narrative that twists and turns of its own volition, that is ever reflecting on its rhythm and style, ultimately giving the reader the sense that it is literature itself, not reality, that the author attempts to capture. I'm inclined to describe the book as a meditative essay. But to pigeonhole it seems preposterous anyway, for its strength lies precisely in its amphibious, if not anarchistic, structure. This, after all, is a nonlinear opera aperta that functions as a circuitous rendezvous through the realms of knowledge and imagination. It mixes autobiography with fiction, truth with lies, so as to show the extent to which an author--Javier Marías himself--is enriched and also cursed by his oeuvre.
Marías's overall journey, with stops in Tristram Shandy and All Souls and explorations of such figures as John Gawsworth and Wilfrid Ewart, accompanied by a long list of cameo appearances by the famous and not-so-famous, as well as maps, news clips, photographs and insignias, parades before our eyes. G.K. Chesterton, in a mini-biography of Stevenson, offered some poignant thoughts on the role of the critic, helpful as advice on how to think of Marías. Chesterton argued (in 1928) that reviewers had been in the business of "depreciating" Stevenson, of "minimizing and finding fault" with his work. He suggested that the matter that mainly interested him, and the one critics should always be on the lookout for, "is not merely [a writer's] pose, but the large landscape or background against which he was posing; which [the writer] himself only partly realised, but which goes to make up a rather important historical picture." That, I think, is the way Marías ought to be perceived: The merit of his books is unquestionable, but the niche he has made for himself in Spain must be understood. He isn't really "a writer's writer," as I've seen him described, but a reader's writer: His corpus invites us to engage a rereading of the Spanish tradition beyond the nation's borders, in an unconstrained, cosmopolitan fashion. Marías's worth is to be found in his disinterest in lo español. Indeed, he might be among the last to try to rescue his country by refurbishing its belief in itself. Of course, that attribute might be precisely the one that makes him such an enthralling Spaniard today.
What ought to be read--and why--are questions that have a unique urgency in a multicultural milieu, where each group fights, legitimately, for its own space and voice. In the past couple of decades, battles over the Western canon have been fought strenuously in intellectual circles--one such flash point was Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and the debates that ensued. These skirmishes have much to do with the fact that America is undergoing radical change. The Eurocentric place once acknowledged as the heart of its culture has ceased to be so. Alternative groups, from different geographies, have brought with them the conviction that public life with a myriad of cores rather than a single one is far more feasible today.
It strikes me as emblematic that the voices most sonorous in the battlefield over the fate of literature are often Jewish, from those of the two Blooms, Allan and Harold, to that of Cynthia Ozick. This is not a coincidence: After all, the Jews are known as "the people of the book." For the Talmudic rabbis, to read is to pray, but so it is, metaphorically, among secular Jews...or, if not to pray, at least to map out God's cosmic tapestry. Among the most deeply felt Jewish expressions of book-loving I know is a letter to the legendary translator Samuel ibn Tibbon, a Spanish Jew of the illustrious translation school of Toledo in the twelfth century, written by his father. In it the elder Tibbon recommends:
Make your books your companions, let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and their myrrh. If your soul be satiate and weary, change from garden to garden, from furrow to furrow, from prospect to prospect. Then will your desire renew itself and your soul be filled with delight.
But to turn Tolstoy's Anna Karenina into a companion, to satiate one's soul with it--ought that to be a Jewish pastime? I'm invariably puzzled at the lack of debate among Jewish intellectuals, especially in the Diaspora, on the formation of a multinational literary canon made solely of Jewish books. Why spend so many sleepless nights mingling in global affairs, reorganizing a shelf that starts in Homer and ends in García Márquez, yet pay no attention whatever to those volumes made by and for Jews?
The idea of a Jewish literary canon isn't new. Among others, Hayyim Nakhman Bialik, the poet of the Hebrew renaissance and a proto-Zionist, pondered it in the early part of the twentieth century. He developed the concept of kinus, the "ingathering" of a literature that was dispersed over centuries of Jewish life. Bialik's mission was to centralize it in a particular place, Israel, and in a single tongue, Hebrew. And a handful of Yiddish and Jewish-American critics, from Shmuel Niger to Irving Howe, have addressed it, although somewhat obliquely. Howe, for instance, in pieces like "Toward an Open Culture" and "The Value of the Canon," discussed the tension in a democratic culture between tradition and innovation, between the blind supporters of the classics and the anti-elitist ideologues. But in spite of editing memorable volumes like A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he refused to see Jewish literature whole.
The undertaking never achieved the momentum it deserves--until now. A number of books have appeared in English in the past few months that suggest the need for a debate around a modern Jewish library. The Translingual Imagination (Nebraska), by Steven Kellman, a professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio, while partially concerned with Jewish literature, addresses one crucial issue: the polyglotism of authors like Sh. Y. Abramovitch, the so-called grandfather of Yiddish letters, whose conscious switch from Hebrew into Yiddish didn't preclude him from translating many of his novels, like The Mare, back into the sacred tongue. The presence of multilingualism in the Jewish canon, of course, is unavoidable, for what distinguishes the tradition is precisely its evaporative nature, for example, the fact that it emerges wherever Jews are to be found, regardless of tongue or geographical location. This complicates any attempt at defining it in concrete ways: What, after all, are the links between, say, Bruno Schulz, the Polish fabulist and illustrator responsible for The Street of Crocodiles, and Albert Cohen, the French-language author of the masterpiece Belle du Seigneur?
Also recently released is a book by Robert Alter, author of the influential The Art of Biblical Narrative and translator of Genesis. It is titled Canon and Creativity (Yale) and attempts to link modern letters to the biblical canon to stress issues of authority. Alter is attracted to the debate of "canonicity" as it is played out in academia and intellectual circles today, but he isn't concerned, not here at least, with purveying the discernible edges of Jewish literature historically. Far more concerned--obsessed, perhaps--with the continuity between Jewish authors from the Emancipation to the present is Ruth Wisse, a professor of Yiddish at Harvard, whose volume The Modern Jewish Canon will legitimize the debate by bringing it to unforeseen heights. For purposes of mitigated objectivity, I must acknowledge up front that together with Alter and Wisse and four other international Jewish critics, I am part of a monthslong project at the Yiddish Book Center to compose a list of the hundred most "important" (the word cannot fail to tickle me) Jewish literary books since the Enlightenment. So I too have a personal stake in the game. But sitting together with other candid readers in a room is one thing. It is another altogether to respond to the pages--at once incisive and polemical--of one of them whose views have helped to form my own.
Wisse is a conservative commentator of the Jewish-American and Israeli scenes and, most significant to me, an intelligent reader of strong opinions whose work, especially her study of Itzjak Leib Peretz and her monograph The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, I have long enjoyed. In her latest work she ventures into a different territory: From specialist to generalist, she fashions herself as a Virgil of sorts, thanks to whom we are able to navigate the chaotic waters of Jewish culture.
Probably the most estimable quality of The Modern Jewish Canon is simply that it exists at all. It insinuates connections to document the fact that Jews have produced a literature that transcends national borders. Albert Memmi's Pillar of Salt and Philip Roth's Operation Shylock might appear to be worlds apart, but Wisse suggests that there is an invisible thread that unites them, a singular sensibility--a proclamation of Jewishness that is clear even when it isn't patently obvious.
This is a crucial assertion, given that Jewish communities worldwide often seem imprisoned in their insularity: Language and context serve to isolate them from their counterparts in other countries and continents. For example, American Jews, for the most part, are miserably monolingual. (I doubt Jews have been so limited linguistically at any time in the past.) They insist on approaching their own history as starting in the biblical period but then jump haphazardly to the Holocaust, and thereon to the formation of the State of Israel in 1948. The Spanish period, so exhilarating in its poetic invocations, is all but ignored, and so is the importance of Jewish communities beyond those of Eastern Europe. Why are the echoes from the Tibbon family to Shmuel Hanagid, Shlomo ibn Gabirol, Moses ibn Ezra and medieval Spanish letters in general so faint? The power of these poets, the fashion in which they intertwined the divine and the earthly, politics and the individual, the struggles of the body and the soul, left a deep imprint in Jewish liturgy and shaped a significant portion of the Jewish people through the vicissitudes of the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. Even the Dreyfus Affair is little known or regarded, as is the plight of the Jews in Argentina from 1910 to the bombing of their main cultural building in Buenos Aires in early 1994. And where the verbal isolation is not a problem, the insular perspective still applies: For instance, only now is Israel overcoming its negation of Diaspora life, which has deformed Israeli society and resulted in an institutionalized racism against those co-religionists whose roots are not traced to Yiddishland.
Wisse displays genuine esteem for high-quality literary art. She trusts her instincts as a savvy reader and writes about what she likes; no affirmative action criteria seem to apply in her choices--and for hewing to her own perspective, she ought to be commended. The common traits she invariably ascribes to what is a varied corpus of Jewish literature always point to Russia and Europe. Her encyclopedism is commendable in that it surveys a vast intellectual landscape, but it has clear limitations. She is well versed in English, Hebrew and Yiddish letters. But what about Sephardic culture? Ought she to exclude all that she is unfamiliar with?
The study is divided into ten chapters of around thirty pages each, ordered chronologically according to the birth dates of authors. She starts in the right place--with Sholem Aleichem, the author of the most beloved of all Jewish novels and my personal favorite, Tevye the Dairyman. And she ends with Israeli literature. In the interim, she mixes excerpts, critical commentary and historical perspective in exploring the work of Kafka, S.Y. Agnon, Isaac Babel, Isaac Bashevis Singer and scores of other luminaries, some of questionable value in my eyes (Jerzy Kosinski, for instance) and others often overpraised (here I would include Ozick). The contributions of critics such as Dan Miron, Chone Shmeruk, Lionel Trilling and Howe are acknowledged by Wisse in these pages, their perspectives still fresh and inviting.
It may be ungenerous to accuse Wisse of a certain nearsightedness; after all, to capture the essence of a literature written in a plethora of tongues and cultures, a literature that is by definition "undefinable," any potential cataloguer would need to be versed in each and every one of them. But The Modern Jewish Canon suffers another serious shortcoming, entirely within control: It is too dry a read. For a treatise that aspires to connect the various Jewish Weltanschauungen and juxtapose a rainbow of imaginations, each responding to different stimuli, from the eighteenth century to this day, Wisse offers little by way of narrative enchantment. She is a scholar and writes as such. Scarce effort is made to turn words into metaphors, to twist and turn ideas and allow them to wander into unexplored regions. The reader finds himself lost in a sea of "objective impersonality." Too bad, for shouldn't a book about the beauties of a polyphonic literature aspire to that on its own?
Wisse herself announces: "Modern Jewish literature...promises no happy merger into universalism at the end of the day." And yet some form of universalism is what she is attempting to describe, extending connective tissue between literary works where, at least superficially, there seemed none before. In that sense the achievement is impressive. Immediately after finishing the book, I took up pencil and paper to shape a list of what would be my own choice of books. In one of her last pages Wisse, who concentrates on novelists, includes a list of almost fifty titles, "meant to serve as a reference guide." Included are Yaakov Shabtai's Past Continuous, Piotr Rawicz's Blood From the Sky, Pinhas Kahanovitch's The Family Mashber, and Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl. But I found myself asking, Where are Marcel Proust, Elias Canetti and Moacyr Scliar? And that, precisely, is one thing a book of this sort should do: force readers to compose a response to the invisible questionnaire the author has quietly set before our eyes.
Future generations will find The Modern Jewish Canon proto-Ashkenazic and hyper-American, a sort of correlative to the Eurocentrism that once dominated American letters. They will kvetch, wondering why the Iberian and Levantine influence on today's Jewish books--from the poetry of the crypto-Jew João Pinto Delgado, to the inquisitorial autobiography of Luis de Carvajal the Younger, to even the Sephardic poetry that came out of the Holocaust--was so minimized in the English-language realm. Kvetch is of course a Yiddish word--or, as Leo Rosten would have it, a "Yinglish" one--but fretting and quarreling are Jewish characteristics regardless of place, and they inhabit the restless act of reading as well. The idea of a Jewish canon, modern and also of antiquity, hides behind it an invaluable fact: that Jews are at once outsiders and insiders, keepers of the universal library but also of their own private ones. Books have always served as their--our--companions for renewal and delight. The content of that private library might be up for grabs, but not its endurance.
The attempt to see Jewish literature whole, as expressing a singular sensibility, has never had the momentum it deserves--until now.