Online Edition: Winter 2006/2007

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The Disappearance

The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories

Ilan Stavans

Triquarterly ($22.95)

by Katie Harger

Ilan Stavans, a well-known cultural critic and Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Studies at Amherst College, offers an uncommon look into the merger of Latin American and Jewish culture in his new collection of fiction, The Disappearance. Describing in the book’s preface his intent to examine “silence—both earthly and divine,” he sketches in two short stories and one novella the struggle of Jewish characters who attempt to find stability in a world where their identity is as unfixed as their diasporic locations.

“The Disappearance” is the first short story in the collection, and tells the tale of Belgian-Jewish actor Maarten Soëtendrop, who stages his own kidnapping by the Flemish Facist Youth Front in 1987. Soëtendrop’s acting moves beyond the stage as he takes on the performative role of a person who has never felt at home, “staged in a theater as big as the entire world.” Stavans relates Soëtendrop’s experiment to the power of silence, finally explaining that his disappearance was a wordless escape from the world in which “all Jews are actors.” Maarten Soëtendrop’s true motives, however, are never completely explained; Stavans, who describes himself as “allergic to verbal excess,” clearly believes that silence is as important in literature as in life.

The novella “Morirse está in Hebreo” is framed around the death of Moishe Tartakovsky, a Mexican Jew whose sudden passing leaves his family with a legacy of mysterious silences. His mourners inhabit the microcosm of his weeklong shivah against the noisy backdrop of the 2000 Mexican presidential election, showing the ability of individual circumstance to mute supposedly larger issues. The title of the novella draws on the Spanish phrase “estar en chino,” which means that something is in Chinese, or figuratively unintelligible. “To die is in Hebrew,” then, denotes both the contrast of death to the life it supplants and the unsuccessful translation of that life into a set of cohesive memories and events. Moishe’s relatives must interpret the secrets of his life and form a picture of the person they have lost—a person about whose life, as president-elect Vicente Fox proclaims in the street outside his family’s window, “the age of innocence is over.”

The final and most thought-provoking short story in Stavans’s collection, “Xerox Man,” recounts the story of an Orthodox man in New York who steals, photocopies, and then burns valuable and historical Judaic texts owned by non-Orthodox institutions. The man, after his arrest, claims the value of his work lies in the fact that “everything is a copy of a copy”—God, he believes, has no plan of order for the world of chaos he has created. Stavans pits the silences of God against those of the realm of authenticity, and concludes that the Xerox man’s mission to fill those silences was “not about replicating but about creating.”

Although Stavans’s attempts to link the content of his stories and novella don’t fully succeed, what his text does not say is as important as what it does. The simple, factual descriptions he offers often lack the speculative analysis that would open them to metaphor, but depict a world realistic for its multiplicity of meaning. In this spirit, Stavans unapologetically includes untranslated phrases in his book. “The multilayered nature of speech in a fractured universe like ours,” he believes, requires the same diligence of observation as its unpredictable social context. For his characters, the silences to be found in the world are as telling as the noises, and help to fashion a cultural identity that relies as much on its empty spaces as its filled ones.

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