Sun Inventions and Perfumes of Carthage: Two NovellasTeresa Porzecanski
University of New Mexico Press ($17.95)

by Jay Miskowiec

Uruguayan writer Teresa Porzecanski embodies a lesser-known facet of the Latin American experience: the Jewish immigrant living amidst the continent's staunch Catholicism and Indo-African cultures. Raised in Montevideo the daughter of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim parents, she grew up in a polyglot world of Spanish, Yiddish, Arabic and German.

A teacher in Sun Inventions (1982) struggles to get her students to ask, "What elements are necessary to elaborate the interior structure of a thing?" But the author's own unsure strategies for pursuing this investigation leave the text uneven. The story meanders from straightforward prose to magic realism, where objects have a life or essence of their own, to a Sollers-like style of long run-on sentences:

. . . always be concise clear and simple, clear simple and concise, that is, never any ambiguous answers don't admit contradictions or opposition the third caveat is the key to locking up the Universe and shutting up yourself inside of that which you know with all assurance of begin able to explain the elements by the simple movement of shifting your position inside the established scheme of things very important don't forget schemes never be vague reduce the complex to the simple . . .

The next sentence after this muddle says "everything else is word play." And that's the weakness here. As Henry James might say, Porzecanski tells us, she doesn't show us, in her words "the symbol of other worlds fallen from an ancestral and already exiled paradise."

Perfumes of Carthage (1994) relates the lives of the Mualdebs, a Sephardim family living in Uruguay during the 1930s, and that of their servant Angela Tejara, a descendent of African slaves. Characters live between reality and myth, but always in the diaspora. Traveling back and forth over time, the matriarch Nazira sees herself in ancient Ur walking through "forbidden gardens . . . laid to waste by the expulsion of all humanity." One of her daughters will envision the voyage to the Americas over the seas that seemed "the waters of an ancient flood, still-turbulent waters bearing memories of the first global destruction."

Porzecanski illustrates well here how this sense of exile is central to both Jewish and Afro-American identity. Angela is also transported back to her ancestral homeland; she sees images, hears voices, feels the presence of wild animals. The din grows louder until she is caught up in the whirl of dancers who invoke the tribe's spirits, "attempting to reincarnate them, bring them back to life."

This story comes closer to finding that "place where everything had already been said."

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Winter 2000/2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2000