The Jew­ish Son

  • Review
By – June 14, 2023

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.

Discussion Questions