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Ilan StavansIlán Stavans

The Disappearance: A Novella and Stories.
By Ilán Stavans, the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and Five College 40th Anniversary Professor. New York: Triquarterly, 2006. 144 pp. $22.95 hardcover.

“When I am working on a narrative,” Ilán Stavans once confessed, “I feel as if I am being tormented by a dybbuk.” For the Mexican-born professor, invoking a malicious spirit from Hebrew folklore might seem surprising. But in fact, Stavans grew up in an insular upper-middle-class Jewish world in Mexico City, attending Yiddish school in what amounted to a Latino shtetl. Hailed recently by The New York Times as “one of the most influential figures in Latino literature in the United States,” Stavans is a fiction writer, anthologist and editor, a literary critic, cultural commentator, translator, biographer and memoirist. He has published a 6,000-word dictionary of Spanglish and is host of a syndicated PBS show. This is the remarkably protean output of a writer who exemplifies today’s global, multitasking, border-crossing intellectual, writing in a world in which nationality is being replaced, in Stavans’s witty coinage, by “translationality.”

Stavans’s new book of stories, The Disappearance, offers an enjoyable introduction to his work. Its three narratives tell of identities negotiated across boundaries of culture, geography and language. “Neither of us was fully comfortable in Hebrew,” one of his narrators says, speaking of an old friend; “his Spanish was a path filled with puddles, and I could make myself understood in Dutch with the help of a heymish Yiddish, but only after a couple of beers.” Stavans’s pages present a polyglot smorgasbord, piled high with French, German, Hebrew, Dutch, Spanish and Yiddish. For my part, I was able to digest the French sentences lifted from the Belgian constitution, and got down the German, too; for the Hebrew prayers I might need a couple of more beers.

These stories bear their erudition lightly, even slyly, and evoke an attractive mix of the provincial and the cosmopolitan. The longest, “Morirse está en hebreo,” takes up the shiva following the death of Moishe Tartakovsky, a stalwart member of the Mexico City Jewish community. Stavans lets the reader pleasurably eavesdrop as family and friends engage in rambling commentary, some highly irreverent, on the deceased. Cultural juxtapositions occasion wry humor, as when Moishe’s oafish son, Berele, informed that his father should be wrapped in his talit, but unsure whether his father even owned a prayer shawl, suggests, “Why not use a ranchero sarape?” Mourners feast on gefilte fish with mole. A mariachi band shows up and proudly offers to sing—in Yiddish. “The shiva would make for an extraordinary movie,” one character observes —a winking bit of dialogue, since Stavans conceived the story as a treatment for the Mexican director Alejandro Springall, who subsequently filmed it.

The title story, “The Disappearance,” is based on the celebrated 1988 case of a Jewish Dutch actor, Jules Croiset, who faked his own kidnapping at the hands of an alleged Fascist youth group in order to whip up popular sentiment against the staging of a Fassbinder play widely considered anti-Semitic. Stavans recasts Croiset as Maarten Soëtendrop, an actor “with a voracious appetite for beef, Chilean wine and attention,” and filters the tale through the reflections of a European friend, Yosee, who functions as a kind of interpretive antagonist. Was it madness that drove Soëtendrop to his desperate action? Political overzealousness? A belated outburst against agonized family history? Or the runaway histrionic impulse of an actor seeking “a performance in the biggest theater imaginable”?

Such questions display a critic’s preoccupation with interpretation, and these fictions do not let events speak for themselves. Instead they rely on narrators who repeatedly tangle and untangle their meanings. In places they sound a coyly Old World note, an anachronistic formality that seems more 1890 than 1990. Stavans endows his narrators with a bourgeois mildness that heightens their attraction to the transgressing, the grandiose, the eccentric and the insane, and lends these stories their paradoxical signature quality of mild obsessiveness. “Xerox Man” investigates a mysterious culprit who is stealing and vandalizing rare theological texts. Stumbling across evidence of this bibliomania in a corner copy shop, the narrator sets off after the book thief, following him around Manhattan and eventually confronting him in a subway station, where the man discloses a cryptic and grandiose intention. As with “The Disappearance,” a reader can enjoy this tale by staying on its comfortable, comic surface, or peer into it more deeply, searching for the large ideas that swim in its depths.

Stavans’s prose suggests a range of affinities marked off by Borges and Nabokov on one side and Bellow and I.B. Singer on the other. Though simply constructed, these are highly literary stories, replete with references to other writers and texts, and with characters whose own actions and motives are themselves explicitly literary. The Xerox Man, it turns out, has been tearing out pages from great works of theology and reassembling them into what he calls “a masterpiece that would truly reflect the inextricable ways of God’s mind—a random book, arbitrarily made of pages of other books.”

And how does Stavans’s narrator react in the presence of such a learned madman? “What I do remember,” the narrator recalls, “is feeling a sudden, absolute torrent of ideas descending on me without mercy.”

Like being tormented by a dybbuk, perhaps.

—Rand Richards Cooper ’80
Cooper is the author of two works of fiction. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times Book Review and a contributing editor at Bon Appétit.

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Photo: Samuel Masinter '04