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.