Books in Brief: Fiction

The Book of Memories
By Ana Maria Shua.
University of New Mexico,
cloth, $32.50; paper, $16.95.

The notion of memory as “not only cerebral but emerging from the heart” is “a rabbinical creation,” writes Ilan Stavans, editor of New Mexico’s Jewish Latin America series, in the introduction to its latest volume. Ana Maria Shua’s eccentric comic novel concerns a family of Polish Jews who emigrate to Argentina during World War I. As translated by Dick Gerdes, “The Book of Memories” gives a fictionalized account of Shua’s own family’s life in Buenos Aires, drawing on the recollections of its many members. Yet it is Grandfather Gedalia who takes center stage through most of the narrative, whether we’re hearing his own views or merely hearing about him. In this, the novel draws on a classic Yiddish convention, which Stavans describes as “the unfolding of a story while two guys talk.” Here the voices belong to two anonymous descendants who contradict each other about virtually everything. “I’ve . . . heard that one Sunday afternoon he took Silvester on the trolley and then bought him a ham sandwich,” one reports of the patriarch. To which the other replies, “Grandfather Gedalia never ate pig’s meat because it was against his religion.” Back and forth the conversation flies: “Grandfather Gedalia never ate pig’s meat in public.” “Grandfather Gedalia was a pig.” At times, though, Shua tries too hard to justify such contradictory viewpoints, putting a strain on her lively characterizations. Paula Friedman

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