The “Found” Fictions of Ilan Stavans


A Novella and Stories
By Ilan Stavans
144 pages. Triquarterly $22.95

It would hardly be an exaggeration to say that Ilan Stavans “owns” Jewish-Hispanic literature, at least if one is thinking of work written in English and published in the United States. He is a man of letters in the old-fashioned sense of the word, equally at home writing collections of cultural essays, books of literary criticism, as well as editing anthologies and producing fiction of his own.

Stavans sports an academic title too long to pronounce in a single breath: he is the Lewis-Sebring Professor in Latin American and Latino Culture and the Five College Fortieth Anniversary Professor at Amherst College (ay caramba!); and in a fronting page from The Disapparance, the list of books “also by Ilan Stavans” runs to more than 30 volumes arranged by category—nonfiction, anthologies, editions, and translations—and in the smallest font possible.

Stavans is, in short, a productive fellow. He is also very smart about Jewish-Hispanic culture (he was born in Mexico and speaks Yiddish as well as Hebrew and a smattering of languages other than Spanish and English) and equally smart about our complicated postmodern world.

Unfortunately, this review is about a collection of Stavans’ fiction—a novella and two very short short stories—and here I find myself giving two cheers (rather than three) to his powers as an imaginative storyteller.

The collection’s introductory remarks tell us that each of the tales had a source—usually in a newspaper—that so intrigued Stavans that he kept the clipping and later tried to turn it into a passable story of his own. To borrow a term used more frequently by poets, Stavans takes “found objects”(for poets these might be a piece of driftwood or an oddly shaped cornstalk) and, as Stavans explains, his job is to “falsify” these objects “until they become sheer fiction.”

The rub, alas, is that far too much of the “source” dominates the fictional substance.

In “The Disapperance,” Stavans’s personal favorite, a Jewish-Belgian actor fakes his ”disappearance,” presumably to make a point about renewed agitation by Neo-Nazis. As is the case with each of the tales, “silence” plays a large part in the “makeup” of Stavans’s protagonist, but as we learn from the middleman who stands between the deeper truth about the actor, Maarten Soetendrop, and the Stavans who will ultimately tell us the full  story, Soetendrop was a guy with  “no talent for silence.”

In unrolling—and embellishing—the tale, Stavans is able to pack lines like the following into the fabric of his fiction.

For centuries Jews kept the prohibition against idolatry. Among other things, this meant that acting was forbidden. To be someone else, even for a short while, is to compete with the Almighty’s creation. The prohibition backfired; at the heart, all Jews are actors.

“The Disappearance” is about “acting” at a number of levels, but explication often swamps the story.

Much the same thing is true for “Xerox Man” (my personal favorite), a story about a man with a theological obsession that leads him to photocopy obscure Jewish texts, and then to remove a single page. As the mysterious copy-cat puts it: “I have a mission…, To serve as a conduit in the production of masterpiece that shall truly reflect the inextricable ways of God’s mind.”

In his introduction, Stavans tells us that “Morirse esta en hebreo,” the collection’s longest story, began as a three-hour lunch at a Holiday Inn with the filmmaker Alejandro Springall, and was later turned into a feature-length film. The story is a thoughtful meditation on continuity and tradition as they relate to Mexican Jews at a time when the country’s dictatorship is falling apart.

Because Stavans writes about subjects largely unfamiliar to Jewish-American readers, and because his grasp of complexity is so good, it is easy to recommend this book, with certain caveats. For example, Stavans does not bother to translate foreign-language phrases—on principle. As he argues, Montaigne, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Robert Burton did not do this, and neither does he. But the bald fact of matter is that Stavans is no Erasmus, much less a Montaigne; furthermore, Jewish-American writers (see Saul Bellow, et. al.) have long ago learned how to wrinkle Yiddish phrases into their fiction without clumsy translation.

The result is a collection in which Savans’s enormous learning is always poking through, and on too many occasions is made to substitute for the imaginative rendering at the heart of successful fiction.