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Contemporary Jewish Writing in Brazil: An Anthology, edited and translated by Nelson H. Vieira. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010. 287 pp. $60.00.
Contemporary Jewish Writing in Brazil, a volume in Nebraska’s series Jewish Writing in the Contemporary World, consists of a very substantial critical introduction by Nelson H. Vieira, a lengthy interview with Moacyr Scliar, the most prominent living Jewish writer from Brazil, and samples of writing by Scliar and twenty other Brazilian Jewish writers. Vieira, a longtime scholar of Brazilian Jewish writing and the author of the 1995 Jewish Voices in Brazilian Literature: A Prophetic Discourse of Alterity, conducted the interview with Scliar and selected and translated all the anthologized texts in what was evidently quite a labor of love.
In his critical introduction to the volume, Vieira addresses himself to an English-speaking readership who may be only vaguely (if at all) acquainted with the Brazilian Jewish community, filling in basic historical and demographic information. In the more specialized portions of the introduction, he draws upon both his extensive knowledge of Brazilian Jewish writers and their work and his readings in Jewish cultural studies, especially Daniel and Jonathan Boyarin, and a wide variety of recent essays on ethnicity, cultural identity, and diasporic communities.
All of the selections in the anthology are in prose and have some type of narrative structure. Many are short stories and excerpts from novels, but the volume also features some more factual material, such as memoirs, semiautobiographical fiction, and writing that fuses research and literary creation. The best example of the latter is Esther Largman’s Polish Girls, excerpted here, about Eastern European Jewish girls who were lured into sex slavery by Jewish criminals in Brazil.
Vieira explains which texts he considered eligible for inclusion: “narratives by authors who are Jewish or of Jewish descent” (p. xvii). This rule is followed most of the time, although Vieira bends it enough to include Paulo Jacob, who may not be personally Jewish but certainly qualifies as a knowledgeable student of Jewish life. Manifestly Jewish thematic material was not strictly required, although it is present in most of the selections. In the case of other texts included in the anthology, Vieira has perceived “a covert, almost crypto-Jewish focus in their perspectives” (p. xvii).
Many discussions of Brazilian Jewish writing—though by no means all—feature some consideration of the work of Clarice Lispector (1920–1977), who among twentieth-century Brazilian writers earned the greatest international recognition. The Ukrainian-born, Brazilian-raised Lispector was from a Jewish family, but whether her novels and short stories thematize or otherwise reveal her Jewishness has been a topic of an intense debate in which Vieira has been one of the most prominent participants. Vieira’s position is that Jewish traits do appear in Lispector’s writing in ways ranging from the subtle (a playful approach to language, mysticism, a sharpened sense of social ethics) to the overtly thematic (the link that Vieira identifies between the name of Lispector’s character Macabea and the Maccabees). In the introduction to his anthology, Vieira summarizes his findings as a researcher of Lispector’s Jewish origins and presents his views on the ways in which her background influenced her writing. He then introduces the two stories that he has selected. These two, “Passage” and “Me and Jimmy,” are not the usually-anthologized selections from the Lispector oeuvre, but rather posthumous finds that were only published in Brazil in 2005. Whatever the reason for these choices, the unexpected inclusion of these still-fresh discoveries increases the value of the Lispector section.
While not all of Vieira’s choices are surprising, some represent relatively rare or hard-to-find categories of writing, such as the excerpts from one of the few Holocaust memoirs written in Brazil, Clouded Memories by Sônia Rosenblatt. Also unexpected are texts by Brazilian writers who, while Jewish, only occasionally utilize Jewish thematic material. In this latter category, a standout is “Mrs. Büchern in Lebenswald” by Judith Grossman, the distinguished poet, prose writer, and professor of literature. The enigmatic Mrs. Büchern, who mystifies the inhabitants of Lebenswald with her lack of identity or past, comes to town “on a pilgrimage to atone for her sins” (85). By the time Mrs. Büchern has completed her mission in Lebenswald, numerous large and small clues have associated her with the trauma and guilt experienced by Holocaust survivors.
Vieira earlier edited and translated a collection of short stories by the mid twentieth-century author Samuel Rawet (The Prophet and Other Stories, 1998). Here he adds two stories by Rawet, featuring the displaced, alienated, ill-at-ease characters and uncomfortable situations that are a hallmark of this author’s work.
The final selections represent the still-developing current wave of Brazilian Jewish writers, beginning with an excerpt from the novel Goldstein & Camargo by Bernardo Ajzenberg and including Roney Cytrynowicz, Samuel Reibscheid, and Jaime Lerner as well as the internationally established Scliar and the currently up-and-coming Cíntia Moscovich. Cytrynowicz, born in São Paulo in 1964, is a relatively young historian and writer; in both his scholarly work and his imaginative writing, which often features fantastic elements, he grapples with the legacy of the Holocaust. The final short story is by Moscovich, whose 2006 novel Por que sou gorda, Mamãe? (Why Am I Fat, Mother?) has been attracting considerable attention among followers of Brazilian Jewish writing.
The volume would have benefited from more attentive proof reading to catch, for example, the startling assertion that “[t]he other [temple was] destroyed by Titus in 770 A.D.” (p. 167) and the occasional misspelling.
Jewish Writing in Brazil is well designed to introduce English-language readers, including those with little knowledge of Brazil, to Brazilian Jewish writing. It includes immigrant and post-immigrant writers, the internationally known Lispector and Scliar and authors little known outside Brazil, realist writers and those of a more fantastic or allegorical bent. Vieira has taken care, both in his introduction and in his selections, not to overlook women writers. The result is an all-around worthy introduction to a body of writing that may be new to many members of the Anglophone reading public.\
Naomi Lindstrom University of Texas at Austin