by Margo Glantz
Mexico, 1981 & 1997
Mi fuerte nunca ha sido la geografía, siempre confundo los ríos del norte con los del sur y sobre todo los que se salen de cauce americano y eso que mi madre se llama Elizabeth Mijáilovna Shapiro y mi padre Jacob Osherovich Glantz, en privado, y para sus amigos Lucia y Nucia o Yánkl y Lúcinka, a veces Yasha o Luci y en Rusia, él, Ben Osher, y mamá, Liza. Esta constatación (y la pronunciación adecuada de los nombres, cosa que casi nunca ocurre) me hacen sentir personaje de Dostoievski y entender algo de mis contradicciones, por aquello del alma rusa encimada al alma mexicana.
[Geography has never been my strong suit. I always confuse the rivers in the north with those in the south and above all those originating in American waters and this even though my mother's name is Elizabeth Mijáilovna Shapiro and my father's name is Jacob Osherovich Glantz--in private--and Lucia and Nucia or Yánkl and Lúcinka or sometimes Yasha or Luci to their friends and, in Russia, he's Ben Osher and mom's Liza. This state of affairs (and the appropriate pronunciation of names, something which almost never happens) makes me feel like a Dostoyevsky character and understand something of my contradictions as far as the Russian soul heaped on top of the Mexican soul goes.]
(Las genealogías, 61)
What was it like for Russian and Ukrainian Jews to emigrate to Catholic Mexico midway through the 1920s? Closer to home, what was it like for their Mexican-born children to grow up nostalgic for a land they never knew except as filtered through secondhand memories in faraway Mexico City? These are just two of the questions at the heart of Margo Glantz's charming, vignette-driven Las genealogías, a book I read as autobiography/family history but a book translated into English as The Family Tree: An Illustrated Novel (novel?!?) and a book fellow Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue has hailed as "a major influence on Mexican literature during the second half of the 20th century": the proof of which is that "its violent mixing of narrative genres--autobiography, chronicle, novel, short story--became a common literary form" due to Glantz's innovations. Alleged Pitol-like genre mashing notwithstanding, one of the things I enjoyed most about Glantz's, ahem, nonfiction novel is the warm authorial voice that emerges from out of the shadows of all the family histories. Whether recounting the hate crime that almost saw her Trotsky-lookalike father stoned to death by an antisemitic mob in 1939--"No llores, judío, vengo a salvarte" ["Don't cry, Jew, I'm here to save you"], blandly said the fire chief who came to his rescue (115)--or meditating on the massive box office appeal of Yiddish theater in relation to the smallish size of Mexico City's Jewish community circa 1925-1960--"¿Qué mueve a los judíos del exilio a ver y cultivar esas obras de teatro? ¿No será una nostalgia de un territorio que nunca les ha pertenicido, pero que sin embargo en algo fue suyo?" ["What drives Jews of the diaspora to watch and cultivate these works of theater? Might it not be a longing for a land which has never belonged to them but which was nonetheless theirs in some part?"] (125)-- or paying tribute to her poet father, a one-time drinking buddy of Isaac Babel's in pre-Red Cavalry Odessa, who versified in Ukrainian, in Russian, in Yiddish and in Spanish--"Todo emigrante que viene a América se siente Colón y si viene a México quiere ser Cortés. Mi padre prefirió a Colón y, como Carpentier, escribió un poema épico lírico sobre el navegante genovés" ["Every emigrant who comes to America feels like Columbus and if he comes to Mexico wants to be Cortés. My father preferred Columbus and, like Carpentier, wrote a lyrical epic poem about the Genoese navigator"] (130)--Glantz is delightful company for this flip through her family photo album (literal and otherwise, this "novel" is chock full of pix of the Glantz familia through the ages). A total treat.