Ilan Sta­vans: Eight Conversations

Neal Sokol
  • Review
By – June 27, 2014

As a for­mer Senior Researcher at Steven Spielberg’s Sur­vivors of the Shoah Visu­al Foun­da­tion, Neal Sokol has been involved in the explo­ration of Jew­ish life both in Amer­i­ca and abroad. His research led him to Ilan Sta­vans, a Latin Amer­i­can Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al, writer and crit­ic whose rad­i­cal, unpre­dictable, enlight­en­ing views fas­ci­nat­ed Sokol and led to pro­longed con­ver­sa­tions between them. This book is a com­pi­la­tion of record­ed and tran­scribed ques­tions and answers which are at times stiff, con­trived and eso­teric, but at oth­er times pro­vide strong, authen­tic, well-rea­soned opinions. 

Sokol divides the book into eight themes: (1) The Self and the World; (2) The Uses of Cat­a­stro­phe; (3) The Task of the Intel­lec­tu­al; (4) Trans­la­tion and Its Dis­con­tents; (5) Onto la His­panidad; (6) Lex­i­co­ma­nia; (7) ABi­og­ra­ph­er in Macon­do and (8) Of Rab­bis, Books and Mir­rors. In the first sec­tion we learn that Ilan Sta­vans’ biog­ra­phy pro­vides much of the back­ground for his provoca­tive out­looks. His fam­i­ly came to Mex­i­co from Poland where he always felt like a guest in a rental house, one I can nev­er own.” As a young adult he made his way to New York to attend the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary. Imbued with a desire to make aliyah, he tried to live in Israel but felt out­side at home” because he had got­ten used to, and more­over enjoyed, being in the minor­i­ty. So he moved back to New York to resume his life as a Latin Amer­i­can Jew liv­ing in the U.S. Here, he has branched out of acad­e­mia as a T.V. talk show host and as edi­tor of a quar­ter­ly mag­a­zine, Hop­scotch, whose pur­pose is to present His­pan­ic cul­ture from a cos­mopoli­tan perspective. 

Much of this book is devot­ed to explor­ing the dif­fer­ences between Latin and Amer­i­can cul­ture and lit­er­a­ture. In the sec­ond sec­tion Sta­vans laments that the Holo­caust has become insti­tu­tion­al­ized in Amer­i­ca. The Shoah busi­ness” is much more of an indus­try in Amer­i­ca and Europe — with the pro­lif­er­a­tion of memo­ri­als, lit­er­a­ture and muse­ums— than in Latin Amer­i­ca, where there is a gen­er­al lack of inter­est in the subject.

In the third sec­tion, Sta­vans dis­cuss­es how south of the bor­der, lit­er­a­ture is viewed as an elit­ist endeav­or that has, how­ev­er, moved from mag­i­cal real­ism to express urban real­ism in the process of becom­ing more Amer­i­can­ized. Sta­vans sees this shift neg­a­tive­ly, as he views Amer­i­ca as being anti-idea, where suc­cess is mea­sured in the bot­tom line, strict­ly in terms of how many books are sold. He also laments how glob­al­iza­tion, the inter­net and mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism have pro­duced pub­lic intel­lec­tu­als.” In Amer­i­ca every­one is obsessed with eras­ing bound­aries between the per­son­al and com­mu­nal, hence the rash of tell-all books. In Mex­i­co hog­ar (home) is guard­ed with pride and there is a strong sep­a­ra­tion between the two realms. 

The book is splashed with an impres­sive array of lit­er­ary, philo­soph­i­cal, bib­li­cal, polit­i­cal and pop­u­lar ref­er­ences, from Buber, Kaf­ka and Edmund Wil­son to Richard Rodriguez, Mario Var­gas Llosa and Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­ques, to Isaac Bashe­vis Singer and Philip Roth. Sta­vans’ takes on Spang­lish,” trans­la­tion, and anti-Semi­tism in lit­er­a­ture are con­tro­ver­sial. Con­trary to most aca­d­e­mics, he is fine with Spang­lish” as a hybrid of Eng­lish and Span­ish that has become pop­u­lar­ized. He views trans­la­tion of books from their native tongue as a good thing for it allows for expla­na­tion, adop­tion or improve­ment.” And he does not abhor anti-Semit­ic stereo­types in lit­er­a­ture for he feels they reveal the sen­ti­ment of place and time. 

Sta­vans says that the Tal­mud sug­gests books, like teach­ers, should choose their pupils and not the oth­er way around. Thus for those inter­est­ed in the evo­lu­tion of Latin Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture or immi­grant Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture, wrought with a Jew­ish per­spec­tive from a self-con­fessed intel­lec­tu­al who doesn’t want to ever feel at home and lose his edge, this book has cho­sen you.

Relat­ed Content 

Karen J. Hauser received a B.A. in art his­to­ry from Stan­ford. She has worked at var­i­ous muse­ums and at Sothe­by’s and cur­rent­ly does com­mu­nal vol­un­teer work.

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