Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Goldemberg has commented that his two persistent themes are the narrowness of village life in Peru and the difficulty for a Jew to find his own indentity in a society where he is perhaps tolerated but always alien. Both themes involve difficult situations which invite flight. Thus, the Wilson girls, bored with their lives, ignore the official warnings about virtue and run off with whatever men appear. Efraín’s grandmother retreats into dreams; Francisca, into religion; Efraín, unable to leave, into madness.

For the Jews, the temptation is always to accept provincial life, to assume the mask of a Peruvian Catholic. Yet thousands of years of tradition are not so easily discarded. León Mitrani cannot forget his heritage, nor can Jacobo, either to become a family man and shopkeeper in Chepén or to become a successful businessman in Lima. Jacobo flees from Chepén. Later, he flees from the small towns where the Jewish peddler is so obviously alien. For a time, with a mistress and a good business, he seems to have found a home in Lima, but still he is pursued by discontent, by the dead León’s fear of pogroms, by a terrifying sense of loss, and by the certainty of his death. In all his life of flight, Jacobo has never found anything that he could capture. Dying, he cannot remember any happiness; living, he had only fragments without an organizing principle. His very predicament testifies to his idealism: Unlike Sara, preoccupied with her position as First Lady of the Peruvian Jewish community, unlike Moisés, satisfied with his own success, Jacobo cannot be content with superficials. Nor can he live in illusions. Where once there was the certainty of the prophets of Israel, now there is only the reality of death in a lonely room; beyond it, only a riddle.