Two titles added to ‘Jewish Latin America’ series

The University of New Mexico Press continued its “Jewish Latin America” series with the recent release of two books: “The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner,” a novel by Isaac Goldemberg, and “Passion, Memory, and Identity,” a collection of essays edited by Marjorie Agosin.

“The Fragmented Life of Don Jacobo Lerner” ($ 18.95 paperback) is set in 1930s Peru. Lerner, from a Ukrainian shtetl (a small Jewish community), roams through various cities and villages of Peru for years, finally coming upon a village as tiny as his hometown. In the meantime, he has lost his roots and his purpose, and realizes that his life is “quickly breaking into small fragments.”

Such a poignant portrait of a displaced person, enhanced by poetic, humorous and hallucinatory prose, is hard to find in Latin American literature. It makes some better-known novels by Peru’s Mario Vargas Llosa seem banal in comparison.

“Passion, Memory, and Identity” ($ 39.95 hardcover, $ 18.95 paperback) is a collection of essays, written by various literary critics, that explore the Jewish woman’s experience in Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela and Cuba.

Agosin, professor of Spanish at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, states that the main theme of the essays is the conflict of identity, as well as “the hybrid condition” of many of the contributors “as Jews in predominantly Catholic countries, an issue that has not, until recently, been addressed with candor.”

University of New Mexico Press started the “Jewish Latin America” series two years ago with “The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas” by Alberto Gerchunoff, first published in Argentina in 1910.

Gerchunoff (1884-1950) was the founding father of Jewish Latin American literature and a master of the Spanish language. Jorge Luis Borges said of Gerchunoff that “he handled with equal ease the oral and written languages” and that his books have “the fluidity of the good ‘conversador”‘ and “an infallible literary precision.”

Gerchunoff’s book, a series of vignettes about shtetl life in the Argentinean Pampas, was followed by “Claper,” Alicia Freilich’s novel about a Jewish peddler trying to make a living in Venezuela in the 1950s; “The Prophet and Other Stories” by Samuel Rawet, pioneer of Brazilian Jewish literature; and “The Book of Memories” by Ana Maria Shua, a very amusing story of an Argentinean Jewish family, as seen through the eyes of three generations of women.

Upcoming books in the series include a volume of short stories by Brazilian writer Moacyr Scliar, and a collection of autobiographical essays by Jewish Latin American writers.

Writer and essayist Ilan Stavans, the series’ editor, says that its purpose is to introduce the English-speaking world to Jewish Latin American literature. He points out that in the United States, “there is an enormous interest both in Jewish and Hispanic cultures.”

Stavans believes the series will have a long run. He intends to add four titles each year, keeping alive the memory of writers with a very special cultural identity.

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