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ADA SAVIN The Burden and the Treasure: Victor Perera's Sephardic Family Chronicle SINCE CONFESSIONS ARE the very stuff of autobiographical writing, let me start out with one. A couple of years ago, while browsing through Latino and Jewish-American autobiographies at the Brown University bookstore, my eyes fell on the startling opening lines of Victor Perera's Rifes: A Guatemalan Boyhood: "I was not quite six when I was circumcised for the second time because the first job, performed by a Gentile doctor, was pronounced unclean by our new rabbi."1 In retrospect, I like to think it was chance (in the Austerian sense) that made me discover the kind of writer I was vaguely hoping to find: a U.S. Latino Jewish author of Sephardic descent whose life story and writings unmistakably bear the mark of his Judeo-Spanish legacy. Victor Perera is one of the few Sephardic writers in the United States whose works are beginning to gain visibility on the American literary scene.2 If Latino writers have expanded the cultural space of U.S. literature by opening it up to Hispanic America, authors like Victor Perera and André Aciman are treading new ground by tapping into the rich reservoir of Sephardic Jewish lore. Their colorful re-creations of the vanishing communities of Guatemala City and Alexandria have virtually no precedent in American literature. Mutatis mutandis, their literary kin would, rather, be such French Sephardic authors as Edgar Morin or Albert Cohen.3 Even if Perera—the man and the writer—ostensibly stands aloof from the multiculturalist debate in the U.S., his emergence on the literary scene is certainly linked with the heightened interest in the diversity of this country's ethnic groups. However, the world Perera writes about lies PROOFTEXTS 18 (1998): 225-237 0 1998 by The Johns Hopkins University Press 226ADA SAVTN outside the confines of American literature, Jewish or not. Even though the author moved to the United States at the age of twelve, most of his autobiographical work is set in remote locations. Rifes: A Guatemalan Boyhood (1986), a slightly fictionalized account of his childhood in Guatemala City, was followed by The Cross and the Pear Tree: A Sephardic Journey (1995), where the author's relentless genealogical investigation takes the reader back to the Old World—from Israel to Spain, from Portugal to the Netherlands.4 Both figuratively and thematically, the reader is miles away from the narrative pattern and ideological thrust of twentieth-century American immigrant autobiographies. As this essay attempts to demonstrate, Perera 's autobiographical writings are rooted in an entirely different tradition . Even as the author is concerned with the Mr-theme of American literature—the identity question5—his Weltanschauung transcends many of the oppositions that underlie most immigrant narratives.6 As William Boelhower noted, the essential paradigmatic features of the genre are circumscribed between two poles of tension: the OW (Old World) and the NW (New World). The immigrant narrative typically unfolds through three major moments: expectation (project, dream); contact (experience, trials, contrasts); and resolution (assimilation, hyphenation, alienation).7 I would argue that Perera's autobiographical work reverses this pattern. Rather than retrace his progression from the Old World to the New World, Perera's chronology works the other way around. For one thing, the writer was born in the New World; on that account, his immediate background is akin to that of other U.S. Latino authors.8 However, the similarity ends there, for Perera's heavy and rich cultural baggage pulls him back into yet another place and time. His is a search for the loci of Sephardic memory much more than for a place in American society. In a sense, then, Perera is not an immigrant. What I mean is that his autobiographical writings are but obliquely concerned with immigrant themes. The one notable exception is "The IQ and I: My Adventures Near the Bottom of the Bell Curve," an essay that ironically retraces his schooldays in Bensonhurst, marked by his poor performance on the Stanford-Binet IQ tests.9 But unlike other immigrant writers, Perera is not gauging the losses and the gains inherent in the process of assimilation; at least, not...


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