Although the subtitle of Ilan Stavans’s book promises a linguistic theme, much of the early emphasis falls rather on his family and his travels. A Mexican-born professor of Latin American culture, he is also a writer who has discovered that he is most at home in New York City (to which New England, in his mind, serves as a sort of extended suburb) and most creative in the English language. To arrive at this geographic and linguistic destination, Stavans had to come to terms not only with his Jewish heritage but with the four languages which his ethnicity, his homeland, and his present nation imposed upon him. The ingredients of this book include a candid analysis of three family members, a description of several years of nomadic drifting in early adulthood, and an account of his happy assimilation into the cultural life of New York.
The attention he gives to family might lead the reader to expect an early encounter with an archetypal Jewish mother. Stavans has a Jewish mother, but she is an educated woman, a psychology professor whose significance for him, it must be said, does not equal that of three other family members. He was gifted with an especially influential Jewish grandmother, Bela Stavchansky—Bobbe Bela to her grandchildren. Born in 1909 in a Warsaw suburb, she emigrated to Mexico in 1929 and married a Ukrainian immigrant. In the New World she relinquished both Russian and Polish, in which she was fluent, in favor of the Spanish of her adopted nation and Yiddish, always her language of everyday need. Nevertheless, she wrote and consigned to her grandson Ilan a thirty-seven-page memoir of her life composed in imperfect Spanish, thus raising two puzzles of great importance to him.
One has to do with memory and with the form of autobiography that relies on it most heavily. A memoir, Stavans wryly observes, is “driven by our desire to improve our prospects in human memory,” and he found Bobbe Bela’s diario, as she called it, no exception. Her memory having warred unsuccessfully with her desire to leave the family a flattering account of herself, her children and grandchildren easily enough recognized her fabrications. She consigned the memoir to Ilan, he judges, to inspire him to write his own life. In this book he has striven for an authenticity which Bobbe Bela’s effort lacked.
Stavans’s attitude toward memory is an ambivalent one. Despite the tricks memory can play, and despite the temptation to bend it in the service of the self that one wants to project, it is the faculty that rescues past experience from oblivion. The author has good reason to dread oblivion. Several of his relatives failed to escape the Holocaust, and one great-uncle, who had emigrated to Argentina from Poland, returned to Warsaw as a widower with his children in time to perish with them at Auschwitz. Another great-uncle lost his memory, was institutionalized, and the family ultimately lost track of him. Better an imperfect record of a life than its erasure. Stavans is struck by the title his friend Richard Rodriguez gave to one of his own books: Hunger of Memory. Obviously, for Stavans also, memory is food for the soul.
Stavans’s own memory, he says, is capacious. Certainly his telling use of detail in his remembrances of times past and his facility at quoting from “somewhere” in this or that writer lends support to his claim. (Nevertheless, he manages to include at least one amusing instance of misremembering in asserting that his Mexican passport lists his height as 1.58 meters and his weight as 170 kilograms. These figures convert to five feet, two inches and 375 pounds, dimensions easily belied by the photograph on the dust jacket of On Borrowed Words.) More important than the capacity of Stavans’s memory or its lapses, however, is his conviction that memory is a creative faculty capable of conferring significance on “disjointed” and “incongruous” scraps of apparently meaningless life experience.
The other puzzle which his grandmother’s memoir posed for him is a problem for polyglots only: to what language should one’s most heartfelt experiences be committed? Stavans’s choice of language for his most personal writing (he also produces criticism and other essays in Spanish), while less surprising than his grandmother’s, is one earned through a process of seemingly aimless drifting about most of the continents of the world and reflecting on the merits of the available tongues.
For a third-generation Mexican from a family interested in maintaining its Jewish traditions, the process actually began much earlier. Unlike most of...
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