Oy, Caram­ba!: An Anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish Sto­ries from Latin America

  • Review
By – October 31, 2016

Oy, Caram­ba!: An Anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish Sto­ries from Latin Amer­i­ca is a clev­er­ly titled, hand­some­ly pro­duced vol­ume of Jew­ish sto­ries from Latin Amer­i­ca, edit­ed by the dis­tin­guished crit­ic Ilan Sta­vans. This anthol­o­gy, an expand­ed revi­sion of an ear­li­er an ear­li­er anthol­o­gy, Trop­i­cal Syn­a­gogues: Short Sto­ries by Jew­ish-Latin Amer­i­can Writ­ers, attests to the vital­i­ty of Jew­ish fic­tion in unex­pect­ed places.

Sta­vans’ intro­duc­tion alone, plac­ing each writer in their his­tor­i­cal and geo­graph­i­cal con­text, makes the anthol­o­gy a crit­i­cal source­book. But the sto­ries them­selves demon­strate a range of vital­i­ty and pow­er that is tru­ly eye-open­ing. Sta­vans book­ends Oy, Caram­ba! with selec­tions from Alber­to Ger­chunoff, whom Sta­vans posi­tions as kind of the prog­en­i­tor of Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can fic­tion, and pas­sages from the works Jorge Luis Borges, the non-Jew­ish Latin Amer­i­can writer Sta­vans por­trays as a pas­sion­ate lover of things Jew­ish. Along the way, Sta­vans intro­duces writ­ing from Argenti­na, Colom­bia, Chile, Peru, Mex­i­co, Uruguay, Venezuela, Cuba, Guatemala, and Brazil; some sto­ries are told in con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tives, some employ ele­ments of mag­ic real­ism that the region is known for, and some are com­plete­ly sui gener­is.

Sta­vans posi­tions Ger­chunoff as a kind of Mendele Mokher Sforim to his lit­er­ary descen­dants. His vol­ume The Jew­ish Gau­chos (1910) paved the way for younger writ­ers inter­mix­ing local col­or and Jew­ish themes. This is such a rich anthol­o­gy that I can only high­light sto­ries that seemed par­tic­u­lar­ly accom­plished. Mario Szichman’s Remem­brance of Things Future, with an une­d­u­cat­ed moth­er strug­gling to under­stand her son’s dis­ap­pear­ance is both com­ic and heart­break­ing. Ariel Dorfman’s Asy­lum is a ter­ri­fy­ing sto­ry of revenge for com­plic­i­ty from one gen­er­a­tion to the next.

The bril­liant Isaac Gold­en­berg, author of The Frag­ment­ed Life of Don Jacob Lern­er, is rep­re­sent­ed here with The Con­ver­sion,” a sto­ry about iden­ti­ty and cir­cum­ci­sion that would seem famil­iar to read­ers of Steve Stern and Phillip Roth. Esther Selig­son sus­pends con­ven­tion­al nar­ra­tive in The Invis­i­ble Hour” with an extra­or­di­nary coa­lesc­ing of time mea­sured in dif­fer­ent ways, inter­nal, exter­nal, cal­en­dri­cal and mys­ti­cal — a sto­ry to be stud­ied and savored and not inci­den­tal­ly one of many sto­ries writ­ten by women. In Bot­tles” Alci­na Lubitch Domecq writes a fem­i­nist sur­re­al­ist para­ble of a trapped woman, rem­i­nis­cent of the best of Borges, Calvi­no, and Tomas­so Landolfi.

The sec­tion on Brazil­ian Jew­ish writ­ers is par­tic­u­lar­ly rich. It includes Love,” an aston­ish­ing sto­ry by Clarice Lispec­tor, about a house­wife and moth­er whose world is sud­den­ly shak­en by the sight of blind man on a bus. Sta­vans right­ly com­pares the sto­ry to Vir­ginia Woolf and Sartre. (If there is any com­plaint to be made about Oy Caram­ba!, it can only be expressed as a desire to see Lispec­tor more heav­i­ly fea­tured.) The final sto­ry in the anthol­o­gy, Moa­cyr Scliar’s Inside My Dirty Head­­ — The Holo­caust,” is about a child’s obses­sion and fas­ci­na­tion with the tat­tooed num­bers of a Holo­caust sur­vivor, rem­i­nis­cent of the ear­ly work of Dani­lo Kis in the black humor of the story’s iron­ic reversal.

The anthol­o­gy ends with two sto­ries by Borges. As great a writer as Borges is, it does strike me as odd that the only writer who has two sto­ries is the only non-Jew­ish writer. And while Borges is one of the great writ­ers of the cen­tu­ry, and I accept Sta­vans’ cel­e­bra­tion of his Jew­ish” sen­si­bil­i­ties, I do think this is an arguable choice. But this is a minor quib­ble in an anthol­o­gy that is superbly edit­ed with excel­lent intro­duc­tions and bib­li­og­ra­phy. Read­ing Oy! Caram­ba! cov­er to cov­er is a tru­ly enrich­ing experience.

Relat­ed Content:

Josh Han­ft holds Advanced Degrees in Eng­lish and Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture from Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty and curat­ed the renowned read­ing series, Scrib­blers on the Roof, for over twen­ty years.

Discussion Questions