In his famous “Letter to His Father” (1919), Kafka imagines his boorish, overbearing father Hermann as “the ultimate authority,” a figure who loomed so large over the narrator’s imagination that he felt his presence everywhere. “Sometimes,” he confesses, “I imagine the map of the world spread out and you stretched diagonally across it. And I feel as if I could consider living in only those regions that either are not covered by you or are not within your reach.” Kafka never did send the letter — he gave it to his mother instead. But “Letter to His Father” remains the most famous account of accumulated filial grievances, a testament to generational wounding.
In his deeply moving The Jewish Son, a work of autofiction, Argentinian writer Daniel Guebel finds inspiration in Kafka’s letter, a “handbook,” in Guebel’s view, “of self-disparagement and reproach.” Guebel’s narrator is the sensitive yet strong-willed Jewish son of an equally strong-willed political revolutionary. His father, we learn, was shaped by a fervent “political mysticism” forged in the crucible of late twentieth-century Latin America — a deformed political landscape enforced by repressive military juntas.
Guebel depicts this father as unable to fathom young Daniel’s habit of emotionally acting out in school. “I tried everything to win my father’s affection,” Daniel confesses; but his father only returns an “icy gaze.” His childhood behavior triggers acts of extreme paternal violence, apparently on a daily basis. This ritual of violence continues to haunt Daniel throughout the book, affecting how he sees and feels the world.
Guebel’s narrator seeks a way to survive beyond the emotional regions inhabited by his father. “What to do to survive,” Daniel reflects, “was therefore equated for me, at that time, with a self-interrogation about how to read my father’s mind, to discover a valve that could shut off the tap of violence … I wanted to find, within hell, the place where there was no hell, and help it grow, make a home there.” Daniel ultimately finds a home in the salving realm of imagination.
Rather than, say, describing a son’s long-nourished revenge, or championing self-recrimination in the Kafkaesque mode, the most moving sections of The Jewish Son reveal how a son truly cares for his father. Guebel’s Daniel is always schlepping his father to various specialists, waiting for the results of countless tests and observing the endless physical indignities of old age.
In the end, Daniel’s obligation to his father dislodges filial memories. In a key exchange, the two revisit scenes from Daniel’s childhood. Recalling what he read to him at night, his father admits, “I knew your favorites were terror, the infinite adventure of mental suffering embroidered in fantasies and words … I’d give up my remaining years of life to go back to those times.” With a revised appreciation for the depths of his father’s affection, Daniel responds, “Thank you Dad, for awakening my love of literature.”
Ultimately, Daniel comes to recognize what he calls his father’s habit of using “circuitous words”; he also begins to understand the meaning of his father’s strange behaviors, like his giving away Daniel’s unsold books, which the narrator learns to interpret as an act of love. Replacing severe Kafkaesque (self-)judgment with a moving reference to Roman mythology, Daniel imagines himself as a latter-day Aeneas carrying his wounded father Anchises. He sees it as the son’s obligation “to haul the burden of the past.”
The book concludes not with the chanting of kaddish but with a deep recognition of tormented filial ambivalence mixed with alloyed affection. In the end, Daniel understands his story as “an unveiling and shroud, so that you survive in some way.” In The Jewish Son, the ultimate testament of love resides in such gestures of memory and recuperation.
Donald Weber writes about Jewish American literature and popular culture. He divides his time between Brooklyn and Mohegan Lake, NY.