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  • Writing the Absent Face:“Jewishness” and the Limits of Representation in Borges, Piglia, and Chejfec
  • Erin Graff Zivin

"Jew" is one of the most malleable signifiers.

—Max Silverman

¿Qué diríamos hoy que es lo indecible?

El mundo de Auschwitz. Ese mundo está más allá del lenguaje, es la frontera donde están las alambradas del lenguaje.

—Ricardo Piglia

Language permits us to utter, be it by betrayal, this outside of being, this ex-ception to being, as though being's other were an event of being.

—Emmanuel Levinas

Jewish figures and figures of "Jewishness" have populated Latin American literature since its inception. From the ailing eponymous heroine of Jorge Isaacs's "foundational fiction" María (1867), to the stereotypically money-obsessed speculator Filiberto Mackser in Julián Martel's anti-Semitic "classic" La bolsa (1890), to the persecuted New Christian Branca Dias in Dias Gomes's allegorical play O Santo Inquérito (1966), figurative "Jews" participate in the codification of social and ideological preoccupations as varied as race in post-abolition [End Page 350] Colombia, immigration and cosmopolitanism in turn-of-the-century Argentina, and military repression in 1960s Brazil. The fact that the same rhetorical construct—"Jewishness"—can be used to articulate such diverse cultural and political concerns has led me to coin the term "wandering signifier" to describe the uncanny ways in which the figurative "Jew" travels between texts and contexts, acquiring whatever meaning is needed by the work in question. This appropriation of the category "Jew"—which has little to do with historical or "real" Jews—is problematic from the perspective of ethics. In nearly every case, the "Jewish" other appears subordinate to a dominant subject: "Jewishness" is thematized in order to be of service to some other (and, one supposes, more important) ideological or aesthetic "cause." Yet there also exists a number of literary texts that complicate this tendency, opting instead to thematize "Jewishness" as something that subverts, rather than upholds, the representational subject.

In this essay, I would like to consider Jorge Luis Borges's "Deutsches Requiem" (1946), Ricardo Piglia's Respiración artificial (1980), and Sergio Chejfec's Los planetas (1999), three Argentine works in which constructions of "Jewishness" are utilized as part of "postmodern" aesthetic projects that challenge and expose the limits of representation. Each of the three works is written during or in response to totalitarianism—Borges's in the wake of the Holocaust (and in the early years of Peronism), Piglia's under the repressive dictatorships of the 70s and 80s, and Chejfec's reflecting back upon that moment decades later—and ostensibly seeks to "totalize" (difference, "truth," memory, meaning) as little as possible. Yet each work relies on some notion of "Jewishness"—Jewish identity, Jewish history or Jewish space—precisely in order to reveal the bounds of the narrative or textual subject. If we are to take seriously the challenge of ethics and writing, it is vital to consider this apparent paradox within the act of narrating that acknowledges the hither side of representation.

Borges's "Deutsches Requiem," a short story originally published in Sur in 1946 and included in the 1948 collection El Aleph, takes as its historical context the period immediately following the Holocaust. Written just after the Nuremberg Trials, the story is narrated from the perspective of Otto Dietrich zur Linde, the Assistant Director of a concentration camp, and seems, at first glance, to validate the ideology or at the very least to empathize with the experiences of this murderous figure. The choice to narrate in the first person seems odd at best, and the reception to this story has been ambivalent, perhaps in reaction to this ethically-questionable decision. I would [End Page 351] like to propose that Borges creates the possibility of an "other side" of Nazi rhetoric and subjectivity, beginning with the inclusion of a secondary figure, the Jewish poet and camp inmate David Jerusalem. In his attempt to approximate both Nazi protagonist and his Jewish victim, Borges pushes the limits of representation to its extreme. By exploring the various narrative strategies used in this work, I would like to address the aporetic relationship between rhetoric and ethics, between what Emmanuel Levinas...


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