The Bride From Odessa: Stories
By Edgardo Cozarinsky Translated by Nick Caistor
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 164 pages, $22.
A descendant of Russian Jews lured to Baron Maurice de Hirsch’s Entre Ríos colony in Argentina, Cozarinsky was born in Buenos Aires in 1937. A resident of Paris for the past 30 years, he nevertheless writes in Spanish, which Nick Caistor renders into spare and seamless English. Like his rootless, solitary characters, the author seems the very model of the modern cosmopolitan.
Cozarinsky is best known, at least in Europe and Argentina, as a filmmaker whose work often straddles the boundary between documentary and fiction. Commenting on one of his films, the 1992 “Boulevards du Crépuscule,” he observed: “Where all possibilities are plausible, perhaps none are true? Around me, private history and public history cross each other without meeting.” Invention and reality, Jew and gentile, past and present, and life and death cross each other in Cozarinsky’s unsettling tales of dislocation and discordance.
In “Émigré Hotel,” which concludes Cozarinsky’s collection, an unnamed narrator wanders through the streets of what he calls this “ghost city,” seeking to solve the mystery of his origins. In 1940, a young man and woman sailed to New York on the last ship out of Lisbon. Anne Hayden Rice, an American, was able to obtain passage for the man, Theo Felder, by marrying him and taking advantage of exit visas reserved for Jews. Though Rice and Felder were each as much in love with a man named Franz Mühle as with each other, they were forced to leave him behind in Lisbon because he lacked the status of refugee Jew. But the narrator learns that Felder and Mühle swapped identities, that the man known as Felder who was let
out of Europe was really Mühle and that the real Felder, a Jew, sacrificed his own safety in order to enable his two best friends to escape to America as man and wife. There are further complications, such as the fact that who made Rice pregnant before she left Lisbon is unknown. These and other revelations suggest that the narrator, whose mother was the fetus that Rice was bearing, might not be as Jewish as he thought he was.
It is a crisis of identity that echoes against the one that occurs in the first story in the volume “The Bride of Odessa,” in which another narrator — like Cozarinsky, an Argentinean Jew living in Paris — learns that his great-grandmother was really an enterprising shiksa who appropriated the name Rifka Bronfman in order to start a new life with Daniel Aisenson in South America. The real Rifka Bronfman was Aisenson’s legal wife and, fearful of dangers she envisioned lurking in Argentina, stayed behind in Kiev, where she probably did not survive the real violence of the Nazis. Because Jewish identity is matrilineal, the narrator suddenly discovers that he is, in a way, an imaginary Jew.
Cozarinsky, who edited a book of essays by Jorge Luis Borges, creates terse ficciones whose conceptual daring and elliptical style suggest the late Argentine maestro. “The Bride From Odessa” and “Émigré Hotel” are the strongest entries in his collection, but they bracket nine other pieces rich in categorical confusions and historical ironies.
“This story has no plot other than that of History itself,” declares the narrator of “Christmas ’54,” a sketch about a famous man of letters who, after returning to Vienna, looks back fondly on a young street hustler he knew in Buenos Aires while in exile from the Nazis. “It is barely more than the impression left by an instant, a spark produced by two very different surfaces rubbing together.” The description applies to most of the other stories, and the annihilation of European Jewry is the historical surface against which most of Cozarinsky’s literary inventions rub. In “Days of 1937,” a melancholy musician who escaped his native Germany and ended up playing piano at a café in Buenos Aires takes passage on a ship bound back to Bremen in 1937. In “Budapest,” an artist who makes his living forging famous paintings returns to the Hungarian capital from which his mother fled in 1938 and dies dancing with a phantom. Like “The Second Time,” in which a man is pursued through the Buenos Aires subway by the dybbuk of a woman he abandoned 20 years earlier, these are ghost stories, haunted by the abrasions of incompatible surfaces.
Cozarinsky’s ghostly demarcations are cryptic dramas of dispossession and spectral repossession. In “Real Estate,” a Jewish man, unsuccessful in persuading his gentile half-brother to sell the family house in rural Argentina he is still living in, concludes by addressing the irreconcilable but indispensable Other — “my brother, the only one, the good son, the Spaniard, the goy, the other half.” Like Baudelaire spurning and saluting “mon semblable, mon frère” Cozarinsky bears ambiguous witness to cosmic incongruity. He is a literary conjurer who bears watching.
Steven G. Kellman is professor of comparative literature at The University of Texas at San Antonio. His biography of Henry Roth will be published by W.W. Norton & Company in 2005.
By Steven G. Kellman
While William Faulkner returned again and again in his work to Yoknapatawpha County — that “little postage stamp of native soil,” as he called it — Argentine author Edgardo Cozarinsky varies his postmarks with almost every envelope. His latest offering, “The Bride From Odessa,” comprises 11 stories and covers almost as many different cities — Odessa, Buenos Aires, Paris, Vienna, Budapest, Geneva and Lisbon: The bride is indeed from Odessa, but the groom she acquires at the Black Sea port’s Potemkin Steps comes from Kiev; the two sail off to Argentina, and it is in Paris that, 110 years later, their great-grandson muses on their unlikely union.