Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory (review)
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Reviewed by
Bella Brodzki. Can These Bones Live? Translation, Survival, and Cultural Memory. Palo Alto: Stanford UP, 2007. 250 pp. ISBN 978-0-804-75542-9, $21.95.

In this pioneering study, translation is a matter of life and death. Bella Brodzki engages Walter Benjamin’s metaphysical and materialist model of translation, and its elaboration by Jacques Derrida, focusing on the survival of bodies, texts, narratives, images, and memories through cross-cultural and inter generational transmission that is both transcending death and life-giving, linked to an “afterlife” and to “living on.” She offers a compelling examination of the combined genealogical and generative—or commemorative and animating—functions of translation viewed as instrumental to all processes of continuity and change in literature, culture, and history.

In Brodzki’s hands, such a broad view of translation proves extremely productive in the service of hermeneutics, applied to a range of American, European, and African texts, fictional and autobiographical, whose historical frames coincide with late modernity and postmodernity. Her selections are marked by or reverberate with echoes of catastrophic events, including slavery, colonialism, war, and the Holocaust, as well as different forms of epistemic violence. Translation appears under many guises as a trope, a theme, a structural device, a metafictional concern, or a textual strategy. It becomes an indispensable concept to explore issues of diasporic literacy, authorship and reading, gender performativity and sexual agency, resistant subjectivities and genres, postcoloniality, trauma, and historical memory. While Brodzki’s theorizing of translation is influenced by deconstruction, psychoanalysis, gender studies, and postcolonial studies, her approach never fails to recognize that texts operate in the material world shaped by the commercial and political demands of a global literary marketplace.

Of particular interest to scholars of auto/biography and life writing are those chapters that deal with contemporary fictional adaptations of the genre of the American slave narrative as well as with Holocaust survivor narratives. Brodzki interprets three novels by Charles Johnson, Buchi Emecheta, and André Schwartz-Bart as translations that extend and rejuvenate generic definitions by shifting from a national to a transnational understanding of the experience of slavery. On the other hand, her analysis of autobiographical texts by Claude Morhange-Begue and Jorge Semprun allows her to articulate [End Page 838] autobiography’s relation to mourning and its “testimonial and testamentary” agenda of memorializing trauma and loss, the two terms that she refuses to conflate. Semprun is an especially important case study highlighting Brodzki’s own position and providing a bridge to the Epilogue, which is more of a climax than a coda to the book. In the Epilogue, she includes her own story: a second-generation Holocaust narrative that stages a “scene of inheritance” of her parents’ survivorship. I would argue that the Epilogue recasts the entire book as a testimonial project, and that her text, like Semprun’s writing, is the result of the recuperative work of mourning and translating the past. Indirectly, via her readings, she testifies to those catastrophic moments in history mediated by literature that continue to haunt us in the present and that cannot be forgotten. Hence, in her praxis, literary criticism is called upon to become an act of bearing witness and memorializing, the functions it shares with autobiography.

The centrality of her discussion of Semprun is visible in the reflexive mirroring between the subject and the method of her analysis. She registers the moment when Derrida died while she was writing her chapter—echoing Semprun’s recollection of the radio announcement of Primo Levi’s death. Her text thus evolves into a new hybrid genre: the choice of authors and the framework of trauma and memory bring us closer and closer to the writing subject, the signatory of this book, who translates literary criticism into a form of life writing. Similar to Semprun’s, her own project is informed by a profound relationship with death. However, they both reject redemptive or triumphalist notions of literature as offering mastery through language; rather, the meaning of survival lies in a repeated recurrence of death and loss. Brodzki’s writing is derived from the need to understand history and memory not as closed archives, but as living, evolving...