What’s in a Home?
The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories By Ilan Stavans TriQuarterly, 144 pages, $22.95.
Many of our contemporary Jewish writers use comfort to provide tension, creating characters who are often crippled, and sometimes haunted, by the relative ease of their lives. They live under the shadow of comfort’s flipside — apathy — and grapple almost exclusively with creating significance from their easygoing existences.
Not so with Ilan Stavans, whose experience as a Mexican Jew and longtime resident of the United States provides a perspective seldom found in modern Jewish writing. In his new book, “The Disappearance,” Stavans — Lewis Sebring professor in Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College and a contributor to the Forward — pushes through the comfort, the ennui, even through the guilt. For Stavans’s characters, the challenges of the Diaspora have yet to recede; a sense of belonging still defies them, a sense of obligation still befuddles.
The book, a novella sandwiched by two short stories, replaces the troubling stasis with a constant disequilibrium. Stavans’s characters, spread around the world, all try to stretch the circumstances of the past to fit the present. But, as they all slowly discover, their lives are only so elastic. They can pull only so far before something — something they struggle to understand — holds them back.
The first story, “The Disappearance,” tells the tale of renowned Belgian actor Maarten Soëtendrop, who feigned his own kidnapping by the Flemish Fascist Youth Front. The stunt, pieced together by the narrator with letters from an old friend, was pulled to bring attention to rising neo-Nazism in Belgium. According to the letters, Soëtendrop, ultimately a tragic figure, was responding to a feeling of homelessness he could never overcome. His only tool was acting: “[A]t heart all Jews are actors. The art of impostures is encoded in our DNA. How else could we exist with the contradictions that inhabit us?”
In “Xerox Man,” the other short story, a character nicknamed Xerox Man creates a stir by stealing antiquarian Jewish texts and destroying them — though not before creating a photocopy. When the narrator discovers that he and the thief use the same copy shop, he is driven by curiosity. So, he orchestrates a run-in with the man on the subway platform. Although reticent, the thief dispels his theories on the lack of authenticity in the diasporic world. To him, the destruction of originals, along with one page of each photocopied text, mirrors the layers of replication and randomness of modern Jewish communities.
In both stories, Stavans writes as a reader. Their power lies not in the events retold but in the narrator’s attempts to make sense of them. As both a literature professor in real life and the narrator in these tales, Stavans uses his keen observational skills to provide the pulse. Soëtendrop and Xerox Man may have tangled the web, but it is the attempt to untangle it, theoretically and free of judgment, that makes these stories a good read.
The book’s centerpiece, “Morirse está en hebreo” (“Dying Is in Hebrew”), is constructed differently than the short stories but is similar in theme. The title, explained in the main story, plays on the use of the Spanish phrase “Está en chino” (“It Is in Chinese”) to describe something that is confusing. One of the characters finds Jewish death rituals puzzling, and offers this twist on the saying as a response.
The 87-page novella recounts the shiva of Moishe Tartakovsky in Mexico City. During this time, the family members’ opinions about Moishe, and each other, collide. In this collision, the tension they feel as Mexican Jews is brought to the surface. Each one tries or has tried to negotiate his or her identity, though none is able to figure it out.
As these characters attempt to understand what being Mexican means, Mexico itself is trying to figure out the same thing right outside the window. The story takes place in 2000, when Vicente Fox ascended to the presidency, ending a 71-year run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Stavans works the macrocosm of the election against the microcosm of the shiva, to explore these national identities in flux.
The writing, done by a third-person omniscient narrator, is intensely cinematic. (In fact, the story was conceived as a film and is currently in production, with Stavans’s father in the cast.) This fly-on-the-wall narration works quite well for this particular story, in which continuity is at stake. Stavans moves easily from one character to another, as each one figures out the exact significance of the grandfather’s death.
“Do we love this country to death?” one of the shiva’s attendees asks. “Only as long as it allows us to live in the margins of time, unswept by historical currents. Yes, generations come and go, yet not much changes among us? Or does it?”
At 144 pages, “The Disappearance” is slight, but it’s filled with more original observances than many books twice its size. While some Jews may feel very comfortable, several generations down the road there will be those who have yet to establish a sense of home. For the Jews like Moishe, like Maarten, and many others living outside the United States and Israel, home is still a tenuous concept. A schism between who they are and where they are remains; the hyphenated identity has yet to ossify.
Elissa Strauss is a writer and film producer.