- On the Edge of the Holocaust: The Shoah in Latin American Literature and Culture by Edna Aizenberg
On the Edge of the Holocaust brings us a study of five Latin American writers who were contemporary to the Holocaust and who represented the Shoah both in written and visual culture. Using the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Clarice Lispector, Alberto Gerchunoff, João Guimarães Rosa, and Gabriela Mistral, Edna Aizenberg’s objectives are two-fold: to show how these authors, in dealing with the Shoah, challenged “prevailing truths about Latin American literature from that period” and also to restore these world-class writers to a place among the many others who openly criticized and resisted, in their own ways, Nazi atrocities (x). These authors, Edna Aizenberg explains, wrote at a time when Latin American writers were moving away from traditional realism into fantasy, dream work, and interior monologue. Their challenge, Aizenberg notes, was how to represent the Holocaust “with the tools of unreality” even when situating their works in the Latin American landscape instead of Europe (xi). Aizenberg masterfully surveys the strategies employed by these authors to do just that.
Focusing mostly on “Deutsches Requiem,” a story that appeared in Borges’s collection of stories El Aleph in 1949 and that has only recently received critical attention, Aizenberg claims that Borges “recognized early on that the reality of Auschwitz demanded a poetics of saying and unsaying –on the one hand, mimetic approximation, documentary accumulation; on the other, escape, fantasy, fragmentation, fractured discourse.” (16) He therefore created a main speaker who was a Nazi about to be executed for his participation in the Holocaust but juxtaposed that narrative with the comments of an editor presented in the footnotes. Thus, through these two voices, he exposed his desire to understand “from within” what had brought the Germany he so admired to the brink of its demise, while also hinting at his other deeply felt desire that Nazi Germany be defeated for its atrocious crimes.
Aizenberg reconstructs Clarice Lispector’s travels in Europe (1944–1949) as the wife of a Brazilian diplomat who experienced the impact of the war and the Holocaust closely. Aizenberg reads her correspondence with her family and her fiction—in particular The Besieged City [End Page 303] (1949)—with an eye to the famous writer’s stylistic strategies in placing her story of Lucretia in a fictional Brazilian suburb. Working through the symbolism within the novel (a women’s organization that pursues an ideal that has to be followed blindly; Greek statues; airplanes constantly flying; the threat of food shortages; trains that spell death and pain), and contextualizing them within Lispector’s experiences in a war-ridden Europe, Aizenberg illuminates the author’s attempt at understanding the fall of the West. Aizenberg concludes this chapter by noting that in The Beseiged City “nothing declares the Shoah, yet everything seems to evoke it” (47).
Aizenberg’s chapter on Gerchunoff begins by questioning the image of the writer as the author of the now iconic The Jewish Gauchos, a 1910 collection of short stories that sings the praises of Argentina as a place of refuge for Eastern European Jews during the last years of the nineteenth century. During World War II, Gerchunoff abandoned fiction because he felt there were more pressing matters to attend to. Aizenberg, then, mostly focuses her analysis on the work he published in the antifascist weekly Argentina Libre. She insightfully comments on the cartoons, drawings, and photographs that accompanied the articles and appeared on the cover pages of the weekly. She also explains how the 1936 edition of Gerchunoff’s The Jewish Gauchos, which included two new stories, altered the optimistic tone of the first edition. Aizenberg brings to the readers an unpublished manuscript The Star of David, which was divided into two sections: a first one that includes all the articles that he penned against fascism, and a second one that discusses his work on behalf of the creation of the state of Israel. While...