Claudio Lomnitz and the Vertigo of Translation

Claudio Lomnitz and the Vertigo of Translation

The Galaxies Within

Claudio Lomnitz’s family history.


Most writers are content to write a book once; others, after publishing a first version, go back and rewrite it over and over again. Sometimes they do so out of aesthetic dissatisfaction. But there is another type of writer (let’s call them “translinguals”) who returns to a book time and again in order to rewrite it in a different language. In a way, translingual writers might be seen as their own translators, although the term doesn’t quite fit because these writers don’t simply render their original work into another language; they rewrite it in a peculiar way, creating another original. Like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they inhabit—or, better, are inhabited by—different iterations of who they are; each version of their book represents a different self.

Claudio Lomnitz, who teaches history and anthropology at Columbia and is interested in the family in Latin America as an economic and political unit as well as a fantasy, is such a writer. Born in Chile, he descends from a rich tapestry of Jewish communists, intellectuals, scientists, educators, and political activists (many of them translingual, like Lomnitz himself), who are the subject of his memoir, Nuestra América.

Published in Mexico in 2018, the Spanish edition was 332 pages and juxtaposed disquisitions on Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement, anti-Semitism in Europe, and the plight of Ashkenazi Jews in Latin America throughout the 20th century with the history of Latin America itself—in particular, the histories of Chile, Peru, Colombia, and Mexico. Since the topic of Jewish culture remains the domain of a small audience in Spanish, the Spanish edition expanded those horizons, often at the expense of Latin American themes. Most readers would have recognized, for example, how Nuestra América’s title was an homage to José Martí’s famous 1891 essay, in which the Cuban thinker and revolutionary martyr sought to unite the Americas under a single, anti-colonialist banner. They likely could also identify many of the Latin American thinkers and radicals Lomnitz’s ancestors rubbed elbows with, such as the influential philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui, the author of Seven Interpretative Essays on Peruvian Reality, a scholar of Indigenous culture, and a philo-Semite who established Perú’s Socialist Party and founded the journal Amauta in the 1920s to discuss socialism and culture.

Though much of the Jewish content remains in the English version of Nuestra América, published by Other Press, the book in many ways dances to a different beat. At 464 pages, it caters to American readers, offering more intricate histories of Latin American politics and culture as well as a far more intimate portrait of Lomnitz’s family. The author’s English-language style also stands in stark contrast to his Spanish one: It has a melodious rhythm, and the sentences are shorter and more focused. This might be because of the US tradition of in-house editing, but it appears that the rewriting also honed and sharpened Lomnitz’s prose.

Other intriguing differences emerge between the two versions, almost like two divergent Rembrandt self-portraits. The cover of the Spanish edition features a stunning black-and-white photo of Lomnitz’s maternal grandfather, Misha Adler, who witnessed firsthand the upheaval of East European Jews, with an Indigenous person who likely witnessed firsthand the upheaval of his own communities at the same time. The message is clear: The book’s theme, as the author himself puts it, is “the relationship between the exaltation of ‘the Indian’ and the destruction of Europe.” The cover of the English version is more intimate: It shows a home photo of Lomnitz with his older brother Jorge, who died in 1993. The US edition, while filling in the potential gaps in the reader’s knowledge of Latin America, also offers a more domestic narrative. That, after all, is what Americans like in memoirs: a fast track to the domestic realm.

Another way to compare the two versions is through their subtitles. The Spanish one is Utopía y Persistencia en Una Familia Judía and emphasizes how Lomnitz’s family, like many other Jewish families in the post-Haskalah stage (the period immediately after the Jewish Enlightenment), embraced radical politics and cosmopolitanism. The English subtitle, My Family in the Vertigo of Translation, foreshadows a different story: One less about a utopianism that supplanted religiosity than about how Lomnitz’s family found itself caught between languages. In the introductory section, Lomnitz talks of the way his polyglot family (he brings up the concept of “panglossia”) collectively spoke about a dozen tongues, some more actively than others, including German, Spanish, Yiddish, Hebrew, English, Russian, Romanian, and French. But he also discusses what he calls “alingualism,” the condition of being left out of a language that others around you speak. His father, the geologist Cinna Lomnitz, a yeque (or German Jew) known for his 1974 book Global Tectonics and Earthquake Risk as well as the so-called Lomnitz law, which is used to understand the viscosity of rocks, didn’t teach his son German. Meanwhile his mother, Larissa Adler, a famous anthropologist in Mexico who was raised in an Ashkenazi family (she was the oldest daughter of Misha and Noemí Adler), never taught her son Yiddish or Hebrew, perhaps because Jewish history made her feel alien, disconnected. For most of his life, Lomnitz writes, he has remained sandwiched between Spanish and English, feeling comfortable to a certain point in either but also insecure in both. “Spanish is my Yiddish, and English is my Esperanto,” he explains, “but I have always lacked the perfect language: the one that names things without distorting them. For there is not, nor can there be, a language of paradise such as those possessed by the truly great writers, who make their home in their language. My mother tongue is a linguistic shipwreck; and it is from there that I write the story of my grandparents.”

“Vertigo” is an exquisitely poetic way to represent language as both an anchor and a trampoline. In Lomnitz’s narrative there are Yiddishists, Hebraists, Esperantists, Hispanicists, Anglicists, and other obsessives. Switching tongues allows them to reinvent themselves in different milieus, but it also confuses them to the point of unsteadiness.

Lomnitz begins his story with his grandparents—and in particular with Misha Adler, the one who appears on the cover of the Spanish edition. Born in 1904 in Bessarabia, which is today part of Moldova and Ukraine, Adler spent his life on a globe-trotting odyssey in search of a satisfying radical politics. Misha’s wife, Noemí Milstein, born in 1911 in Mogilev, a district of Podolia, Ukraine, was a politically committed companion on this odyssey. Another passionate intellectual, she belonged to the left-leaning Zionist youth organization Hashomer Hatzair and was part of the circle of socialists and radicals gathered around José Carlos Mariátegui, who was then forming Peru’s Socialist Party. Lomnitz follows them, separately and together, from Novo Sulitza, near Czernowitz, to cities like Vienna, Paris, Santiago, Cali, Bogotá, Medellín, Caracas, and Haifa.

In Peru during the reign of the dictator Augusto B. Leguía, the couple edited a short-lived magazine under Mariátegui’s mentorship called Repertorio Hebreo, and in Colombia they were connected with another, Nuevo Mundo, which also published a handful of issues. The pair were lofty in their aspirations: Lomnitz talks about Misha’s correspondence with Sigmund Freud and Waldo Frank and Latin American intellectuals like Gabriela Mistral, Manuel Ugarte, and especially Samuel Glusberg, a prominent Argentine Jewish editor who converted to Catholicism (his adopted name was Enrique Espinoza, after Heine and Spinoza) and with whom Misha maintained an incisive dialogue on Jewish–Latin American identity. Being itinerant was for Misha and Noemí a proof of their cosmopolitanism and a way to escape the narrowness of identity, but that did not mean they were reluctant to embrace either their Jewishness or their Latin Americanness. In a 1965 notebook, Misha wrote that “Americanism and Judaica…have ended up harmonizing and fusing into one another in my intimate thoughts and feelings, to such a degree that they have been reduced to one.” The couple’s itinerancy was far from being exclusively political; in fact, it was a matter of necessity. In 1930, four months after Mariátegui’s death, a coup in Peru brought down the country’s liberal president, Augusto Leguía. The new junta was anti-communist and xenophobic. Soon after, Misha’s and Noemí’s applications for citizenship were denied. They were expelled and forced to move once again from one country to the next.

Lomnitz parades a cast of dozens of other relatives, all the way back to great-grandparents like Shloma “Sina” Aronsfrau, who was born in Bukovina in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1859 and murdered in Mannheim, in southwestern Germany, in 1922 by anti-Semitic nationalist terrorists with close connections to the Nazi Party. Lomnitz also looks at Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, an Austrian aristocrat, member of the SS, and a founding figure in Colombian anthropology who was also interested in the “Indian question in South America.” Reichel-Dolmatoff’s writing on Indigenous tribes in the Amazon (his books include Yurupari: Studies of an Amazonian Foundation Myth and Indians of Colombia: Experience and Cognition) was not all that different from Lomnitz’s own communist relatives’ interest in pre-Columbian cosmogonies. While not actually articulating it, Lomnitz’s book poses a probing question to its readers: Were Reichel-Dolmatoff’s fascist views on indigeneity and Lomnitz’s relatives’ utopian ones linked at the core in the way they tried to understand Indigenous culture from the viewpoint of European psychology, religion, and politics?

In a couple of places, Lomnitz states that he wrote his memoir for his two children, Enrique and Elisa. This “domestic” angle gives both the Spanish and English versions a schmaltzy quality, tangible in the assortment of family photographs featured throughout the book. Yet these images also feel organic. After all, Lomnitz is first and foremost a historian who studies the many ways in which people react to their circumstances and how family is often at the center of these reactions. There’s a family tree, a map, and copious bibliographical notes in the book’s back matter. (An index would also have been useful.) That is to say, Lomnitz’s own family—the real and the imagined—has been turned into a subject of scientific research.

Autobiography is a difficult genre to balance. It conceals as much as it reveals. It doesn’t have to be confessional in nature. It must give the impression that the author is in control, although the best memoirs are those in which the reader realizes how precarious and foolish this objective is. Lomnitz is humble in this regard: He constantly recognizes how much he doesn’t know about his family. The best sections of this book, in fact, are those that dramatize Lomnitz’s incapacity to fill in the gaps or that engage with how all autobiography is, in one way or another, a work of fiction. Indeed, if Nuestra América has a failing, it is the way it overwhelms its readers with detail. Lomnitz is punctilious to such an extent that the details about Misha and Noemí’s journey feel numbing. Does every cameo need a full Wikipedia-like detour? The accumulation can be almost encyclopedic at times: Lomnitz reaches out to everyone he can think of for information about minutiae. Even though what he finds is masterfully arranged, the plot (if the volume can be said to have one) keeps on twisting and turning.

There are hardly any droll sections, any quiet transitions. Instead, there is an abundance of tangential figures making an appearance, sometimes only as a reference, at other times in more vigorous ways. Lomnitz speaks of living in Berlin on the same street as Walter Benjamin. His grandmother sings in a concert conducted by Bruno Walter. He discusses the anti-Semitic legacy of Mircea Eliade, quotes Pablo Neruda, and debates Hannah Arendt’s writing. He places his family in celebrated kibbutzim in Israel or connects them to important members of the Knesset, such as Hannah Lamdan and Yitzhak Ben-Aharon. It is all very dizzying. The assassination of Boris Milstein, Lomnitz’s other paternal great-grandfather—a death surrounded in mystery—serves up a dollop of suspense. But the tension in these sections is finally dissipated by the onslaught of data.

On Jewish history, Nuestra América can sometimes feel misguided. Perhaps because of his obsession with the crossroads where politics and daily life meet (the book opens with an epigraph from Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach about discovering “the secret of the holy family,” which “must then itself be destroyed in theory and in practice”), and because Lomnitz isn’t, as he puts it, a specialist in Jewish history, he does not often engage in a meaningful way with questions of Jewish religion. He portrays Jews as creatures “confined, identified, and punished” in the Christian lands they inhabit, “but also protected so that they could carry out the theological role of the condemned witness: always present but never invited to the banquet. Someone is always required to envy whatever is deemed to be normal, because normality can scarcely justify itself on its own.” And he neglects the fact that European and Latin American Jews have a rich religious tradition. At least in part, this is doubtless because Lomnitz’s family didn’t introduce him to any theological realms—which is too bad, since in Peru, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, Jewish religious as well as secular life has flourished, and its exploration would only have deepened his book.

Nuestra América overcomes its limitations, however, by doing something that historians seldom know how to accomplish: turn the scientific eye onto themselves. Lomnitz is serene, steady, and unemotional in his delivery. He makes the reader feel that each of our lives is a galaxy with countless entities. While individuals are obviously important in families, their actions are part of a whole. And it is the whole that matters to Lomnitz: not a self-portrait but a group one. This crucial message comes across especially in his affectionate, indebted depiction of his mother, Larissa Lomnitz. When I was growing up in Copilco, in the southern part of Mexico City, near UNAM, the national university, I knew that the Lomnitz family lived a few blocks away, although I don’t remember spending time with them. Larissa, a French-born Chilean, was admired by my mother as a trailblazing ethnographer. She had earned her bachelor’s degree at Berkeley and her doctorate at Universidad Iberoamericana (where my mother and I taught) and was on the faculty at UNAM. Her interests moved along the lines of Oscar Lewis’s in The Children of Sanchez, a book about the ways a poor Mexican family responded to its environment and the death of its patriarch that I was mesmerized by in my youth. (Claudio Lomnitz wrote an introduction in Spanish to its 50th-anniversary edition.)

Larissa was attracted to similar themes but was far more academic in her tone. I remember reading about her fieldwork in Cerrada del Cóndor, a shantytown of about 200 houses in Mexico City not too far from Copilco. Lomnitz, whose Death and the Idea of Mexico follows closely in his mother’s footsteps, has more global aspirations—first, because he performs his career bilingually, connecting with two distinct, at times heterogeneous readerships, something I don’t believe Larissa succeeded at by comparison. And second, because Lomnitz has devoted his energy to bridging the gap between the academic milieu and the public sphere. He is captivated by the intersection of history, politics, and day-to-day affairs, and he reflects on that intersection not only in scholarly volumes but in the regular columns he writes for the left-leaning newspaper La Jornada.

Composed “in exile” in New York, Lomnitz’s autobiography is an invitation to look at the past and present of Latin American Jewish life with depth and complexity. Talking about columns of a different sort, at one point he refers to what he calls “the column syndrome.” As he looks at his family sub specie aeternitatis, a particular member “props up, buffers, protects, and endures,” allowing others to coalesce as a group. This, he says, is a trait especially visible among Jews, given their propensity to catastrophe. “The role of the column,” Lomnitz adds, “comes with a communicative function—to be a source of practical wisdom, to be sure, but also to temper or soften news so that fear doesn’t spin into vertigo and paralysis, so that depression doesn’t become overwhelming, and blows don’t prove fatal.” By detailing the intricacies of his own, labyrinthine family, Nuestra América, in its two complimentary versions, turns Lomnitz himself into an exemplary column, thanks to whom it is possible to discern patterns in the never-ending, multilingual, transnational trek that is modern Jewish diasporic existence—the ultimate sense of which, it goes without saying, will always be beyond us.



Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect that the philosopher José Carlos Mariátegui was not Indigenous but that he instead wrote on the subject. 

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