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On Borrowed Words

On Borrowed Words

A Memoir of Language

Ilan Stavans - Author

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ISBN 9780142000946 | 272 pages | 30 Jul 2002 | Penguin | 5.23 x 7.71in | 18 - AND UP
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Yiddish, Spanish, Hebrew, and English-at various points in Ilan Stavans's life, each of these has been his primary language. In this rich memoir, the linguistic chameleon outlines his remarkable cultural heritage from his birth in politically fragile Mexico, through his years as a student activist and young Zionist in Israel, to his present career as a noted and controversial academic and writer.

Along the way, Stavans introduces readers to some of the remarkable members of his family-his brother, a musical wunderkind; his father, a Mexican soap opera star; his grandmother, who arrived in Mexico from Eastern Europe in 1929 and wrote her own autobiography. Masterfully weaving personal reminiscences with a provocative investigation into language acquisition and cultural code switching, On Borrowed Words is a compelling exploration of Stavans's search for his place in the world.

"Stavans's Mexico . . . is a treacherous but vivid world seen through the eyes of a gifted child; his subsequent encounter with America makes the New World seem-astonishingly-new." (James Atlas, author of Bellow: A Biography)

Chapter One


In order to enjoy life, we should not enjoy it too much.
—VLADIMIR NABOKOV


I am packing my library. I reach for the books, browse calmly through their pages, dust off the jackets, and proceed to store them in empty cartons. I will number these boxes from one to sixty. When the books come out again, I will arrange them in an altogether different order. Their overall setting will be different, too. There is a certain sweetness to the whole enterprise in which I am involved, for I realize how much my library and I have changed together this past decade. We began modestly and now we hardly recognize each other. Are all these volumes really mine? What do they say about me? And what can I, their collector, say about them?

    Suddenly, I don't know why but I recall an object from my childhood: la pistola—a small, antiquated pistol, .22-caliber. Books ... No, they hardly played a part in my childhood. I was an outdoor kid, hiking, collecting butterflies. Books symbolized passivity, a reluctance to act, to be part of the universe. I only began to fall for them in my late adolescence, when I realized how exciting the life of the imagination could be—as exciting, for sure, as any real adventure under the open sky. My library was nonexistent when I was seventeen or eighteen. Every volume my parents bought for me was relegated to a shelf I could hardly reach in my bedroom. Ah, but the pistol, la pistola ... Throughout my childhood I was obsessed by it. Why did my father keep it hidden in a safe-deposit box inside his closet? He would open this box on very rare occasions—to take a pair of earrings out, to deposit a gold necklace my mother inherited from my grandmother Bobbe Miriam, to make sure his pile of dollars was intact. While the door was open, I would glance at the pistol furtively, fearfully, from the corner of my eye, imagining all sorts of possible connections. Why on earth was it in my home? What was its real purpose? Who gave it to my father and why? Whenever I asked him, he would say, "I just like to keep it around. No particular reason, nothing to think about, really." But no reason to him was reason enough for a child like me to worry, and so I speculated about it. As a young man, his own father, Zeyde Srulek, I told myself, had used it during a pogrom in Eastern Europe. Or it was the remnant of an obscure, violent period in my father's life he had gone out of his way to conceal from me? That it was simply a defense weapon in case of burglary crossed my mind several times, of course, but I dismissed this explanation as too simple and unconvincing.

    I had recurrent dreams in which la pistola appeared: in the most haunting one, which I had around the age of ten, my father and I were members of an anthropological expedition to Chiapas. After crossing the high, primeval Lacandonian jungle, we came upon a system of caves in the mountains. Here, an Indian tribe had survived from time immemorial. My father talked to a priest, who invited us to a religious ceremony. We were taken to an immense central grotto with a pointed Gothic roof. A set of ancient rites unfolded before us, until the dream reached its climax. Fixed on the wall of the cave was a wooden bust in the shape of an immense head of a divinity; the head opened and closed its mouth; the priest told my father the head wanted me as a sacrifice; my father took the pistol out of a backpack, but instead of firing it, he put it right on the floor and smiled. Then he looked at me. "Don't worry, mi amor," he said. "The pistol will satisfy their god's appetite." "How do you know?" I screamed at him, awfully scared. But before he had a chance to answer, the dream ended.

    Mexico, I still tell myself, is, has always been, an arsenal of the most deadly firearms, a massive ammunition depot capable of exploding any minute. Weapons are ubiquitous even when they are absent. In the photographs by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Maria Izquierdo, and Tina Modotti, for instance, pistols are hardly around, but their presence is invariably felt. Their images are about outrage, injustice, suffering. Is the country about anything else? A particular image, one from home, comes to mind. In 1967, when I was six years old, my father acted in an inflammatory play: Viet Rock, directed by Rafael López Miarnau, which, aside from its denunciation of U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia, contained profane and antipatriotic language. In the middle of a performance, a group of ruffians belonging to MURO, a right-wing faction affiliated with the Catholic Church, jumped onstage during a Sunday-afternoon performance, chains and sticks in hand, and began beating the actors; before the police could stop it, the attackers vanished into the dark. (Would the police have actually stopped them if they could, I wonder?) People were rushed to the hospital with concussions and skull fractures. But other images are equally upsetting: the currency of blood in the films by Emilio "El Indio" Fernández, for instance; or the tacit violence in Malcolm Lowry's Under the Volcano; and the unexplained death of Wilfrid Ewart, the British author of the novel Way of Revelation, by a stray bullet in a downtown hotel. Graham Greene saw turmoil everywhere in Mexico—in the eyes of a drunken priest, in the anger of the anticlericalism of the 1920s. Death—la muerte: it is always around the corner in Mexico, and pistols are its conduit, el mecanismo. The one my father had at home is perfectly visible in my mind as I sit alone, late at night, in my apartment on New York's Upper West Side, ready to leave the city.


TO LEAVE AND return. This has been a decade of enlightenment. I had come to New York with only a handful of books. It was here, I thought, I would either become a writer or vanish into oblivion. At twenty-four, just before my departure from Mexico, I had made a secret pact with myself: if a day after my thirty-third birthday, the age of Jesus Christ on his crucifixion, I had not published a major book, I would acquire una pistola just like my father's and shoot myself in my right temple. Boom, boom, kaboom!!! Literature is a passion that ought not be wasted, I repeated in my heart. The journey, I foresaw, would be twice as difficult, for somewhere along the line I had made the conscious decision to find my voice in a language and habitat not my own. The wandering Jew—how rewarding a pursuit it has been is made clear by how much the books I am packing mean to me.

    Moving out of the city doesn't mean defeat. On the contrary, it is a sign of success. There are already too many books. They need room to breathe. The floor might not be strong enough to sustain their weight. I first arrived with one suitcase and a dozen books, mostly in Spanish. Selecting them had made me feel like a doomed sailor forced to rescue only a handful of items from a shipwreck. They were the books I couldn't do without, the ones I would unequivocally return to time and time again on sleepless nights. They were talismans, a way of survival. They included two collections by Borges, The Aleph and Other Inquisitions. Having them at my side was reassuring. Not only had they convinced me of the relevance of literature, but, most important, they had a mythical quality to them. Years ago I had memorized numerous passages from these collections, and each time I recited them, I realized the world made more sense: it seemed brighter, more intelligible.

    Like me, these two volumes were survivors. When I began to write, Borges had been a decisive influence. His pure, precise, almost mathematical style; his intelligent plots; his abhorrence of verborrea—the overflow of words without end or reason, still a common malady in Spanish literature today. He, more than anyone before (including the modernista poet from Nicaragua, Rubén Darío), had taught a lesson: literature ought to be a conduit for ideas. But his lesson was hard to absorb, if only because Hispanic civilization is so unconcerned with ideas, so irritable about debate, so unconcerned with systematic inquiries. Life is too rough, too unfinished to be wasted on philosophical disquisition. It is not by chance, of course, that Borges was an Argentine. It couldn't have been otherwise, for Argentina perceives itself—or, rather, it used to perceive itself—as a European enclave in the Southern Hemisphere. Buenos Aires, its citizens would tell you in the 1940s, is the capital of the world, with Paris as a provincial second best.

    As soon as I discovered Borges, I realized, much as others have, that I had to own him. I acquired every edition I could put my hands on, not only in Spanish but in their French, British, Italian, German, and Hebrew translations, as well as copies of the Argentine monthly Sur, where his best work was originally featured, and interviews in journals. My collection began to grow as I embarked on my own first experiences with literature: tight descriptions, brief stories, passionless literary essays. Rather quickly the influence he exerted on me became obvious. In consolation, I would paraphrase for myself the famous line from "Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller"—in Spanish its title is infinitely better: "Decálogo del perfecto cuentista"—by Horacio Quiroga, a celebrated if tragic turn-of-the-century Uruguayan author: to be born, a young writer should imitate his beloved masters as much as possible. The maxim, I realize today, is not without dangerous implications; it has encouraged derivativeness and perhaps even plagiarism in Latin American letters. But I was blind to such views. My only hope as a litterateur was not to be like Borges, but to be Borges. How absurd that sounds now!

    Influence turned into anxiety, and anxiety into discomfort. Would I ever have my own voice? One desperate afternoon, incapable of drafting a single line I could call my own, I brought down all the Borges titles I owned, piled them in the garage, poured gasoline over them, and set them on fire. It was a form of revenge, a sacramental act of desperation: the struggle to be born, to own a place of my own, to be like no one else—or, at least, unlike Borges. The flames shot up at first, and eventually, slowly, died down. I saw the volumes, between fifty and seventy in total, turn bright, then brown, then become ash. I smiled, thinking, in embarrassment, of Hitler's Germany, Pinochet's Chile, and Mao's China. I thought of Elias Canetti's Auto da Fé and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. I thought of the scores of prayer books, Talmuds, and other rabbinical literature burnt by the Holy Inquisition in Spain and the New World, in places not far from my home. And I also invoked Borges's own essay, "The Wall and the Books," about Shih Huang Ti, the first emperor of China, a contemporary of Hannibal, whose reign was marked by the construction of the Wall of China, and also by a campaign to burn all history books. Shih Huang Ti saw himself as a new beginning. History needed to start over.

    I am ashamed today. I began to write more freely soon after, but did I need to destroy the volumes physically? Wouldn't a mere symbolic burning have achieved the same thing? I know it couldn't, for I tried repeatedly, and symbolism was only that, a sheer abstraction. I simply wished, as my own oeuvre has grown, to have my original Borges volumes with me. I could place them in my library, proof of the progress I have made. But they are gone. The only survivors were two tiny volumes, The Aleph and Other Inquisitions, in inexpensive Emecé paperback editions, which I had misplaced and discovered after the burning.


ALONG WITH THEM I took novels by writers I lionized: Kafka, Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Joyce, Nabokov, and Mario Vargas Llosa. I have Don Quixote, of course; in Yiddish, I have Tevye and Isaac Bashevis Singer's Satan in Goray; and in Hebrew, I have Shmuel Yosef Agnon's The Bridal Canopy. Their literature was for me a religion. I had come to New York to be a newspaper correspondent and also to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary, located at Broadway and 122nd Street. This institution would become a door for me to medieval philosophy and mysticism as well as to nineteenth-century Yiddish. The fact that it was in New York made it the perfect place. My experience growing up in Mexico had instilled a sense of marginality in me; a move to the city George Steiner described as "the capital of the twentieth century" was a way to overcome that handicap. When I got a letter from the seminary granting me tuition, room, and board, I was overwhelmed. True, I knew next to nothing about the seminary or about New York. Worse, my English was ridiculous, if it was anything at all. I had the skills of a two-year-old: I could babble, hoping to be understood. But so what? I felt like an immigrant dreaming of a new life. I could not wait to experience New York's roughness, its acerbic rhythms. That, I told myself, was in and of itself the best university I could ever hope for.

    The room I first lived in, a block away from the seminary, was no larger than seven square feet. It had a kitchen nearby, and a shared bathroom only a few steps away. Fortunately, it wasn't dark; it did not have a spectacular view, but its mid-size windows allowed me to experience the change of seasons, although the noise from traffic jams below my window was at times offensive. I never complained about how small my room was; most New Yorkers, after all, live in similarly constricted spaces, dismayed by the cacophony of street life. What else was the city about but intensity, neurosis, and speed—attributes I actually found quite stimulating?

    Shortly after my arrival I bought myself a cheap wooden bookshelf at a nearby lumberyard. I needed to have my books out in the open, right in front of me. I unpacked them and stared at the haphazard order I had given them. Were they really as invaluable as I had thought a few days earlier, when I left Mexico? Would I reread them with the regularity I had envisioned?

    The only thing I wanted to do every day was to be out and about, walking the city, reading it, navigating its neighborhoods, deciphering its countless mysteries. I was reminded of my youthful allergy toward books: Why waste time if the universe is so rich in experience? From the first moment I stepped out into New York, it appeared to me like a huge book, a novel-in-progress perhaps, filled with anecdotes, with a multilingual poetry impossible to repress. What an astonishing place it was! I had seen other American cities and felt disappointed in them. My parents took me on a trip to the Southwest when I was in my mid-teens. We entered the United States through Laredo and from there reached San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas. Eventually, our vacation took us to New Mexico and Colorado, and it ended in California, where we visited Disneylandia. (The kitschiness invoked by the word rings louder in Spanish.) I entered these cities with a deep desire to find out how different they were from the noisy, monotonous metropolis of my childhood, Ciudad de México. And indeed they were. No previous knowledge could have prepared me for their ugliness: they were throbbing places, no doubt, but banal and pretentious and without a single hint of mystery. Though Mexico's capital might well have been less livable, it had a charm, an ethos none of these urban centers knew anything about. It was the ethos of ambiguity, of not making up its mind between endorsing the Indian past and the European present, of a colonial history filled with oppressive Christian symbols, that made it so suffocating to me. In my adolescence I used to travel with my father to the Zócalo, wandering around its streets while he took care of his errands: so overcrowded, so inhuman! But fascinating, too. My primary target was the city's heart, giving weight to the whole metropolis: the Catedral de la Vírgen de Guadalupe, opposite the President's Palace. Madrid, which I visited extensively in the early 1980s, in many ways a mirror of modern Mexico, is catedralless, making the place almost weightless. In contrast, the American cities I visited during that same time had a heart but no sense of history, as if a disoriented god had created them while in a depressed mood. The few historic sites I found in San Antonio, most notably the Alamo, seemed to be tourist attractions: they appeared to have been built with an eye on commerce, not by architects but by businessmen.

    In fact, from whatever viewpoint I approached them, these places presented themselves as amusement parks. People moved around with a sense of satisfaction, of professed happiness. Everything was for sale but nothing had enough value to be irreplaceable. I would turn the TV on and immediately a station would begin begging for public money to subsist; I would walk through a downtown square and a gospel preacher would promote a fashionable chamber of heaven, which for a few dollars I could acquire right away; or I would take a bus, and a captivating photo of a nearby zoo would invite me to experience fear and the feeling of adventure. The constant stimulation made these cities move at an incredible speed—but the people seemed like robots, obsessed with reaching a destination that would make them more fulfilled. In Mexico, by comparison, the population allows itself an afternoon siesta to catch its breath, to reconnect with itself, to become human again. But in these cities the absence of movement was equated with death, so nobody stopped to reconsider. In the American city, I came to believe, everyone and everything was on the run and made out of plastic; it was illusory in the way T. S. Eliot described it in The Waste Land: "Unreal City ... I had not thought death had undone so many." In retrospect, Disneyland struck me as the archetype of them all: artificial but without false pretension.

    It took me four or five years more to make it to New York, but once this happened it was clear I had made it to the real thing. This, surely, is the source of sources, a city of fraternal strangers, of cultural sophistication and high civilization, the city of Walt Whitman and Federico García Lorca and Henry Roth, where tongues intermingle to such a degree that a new language seems to be born every other second, where everyone pretends to be a bit more than what he really is, where all nationalities and backgrounds coexist by seeing each other face to face without an alibi. Mixture, impurity, promiscuity, heat. In New York every fake item becomes original. The mercantile frenzy in other American cities is, by contrast, but an innuendo: fortunes are done and undone here at the speed of light, and reputations, too; life is elusive, transitory; people are always exhausted, but they keep themselves going by sheer magic, because today might be the last day of life and one needs to seize it without remorse. Pretensions are so overblown, so beyond imagination, the concept of pretension itself needs to be redefined. In New York, to be pretentious is, simply, to be.

    Most important, nothing is sacred and everything is humorous. The whole city is a pagan temple that worships leisure and easy redemption. Among the first verbal memories I have of the place is an irreverent sign promoting the different religions of the world:


    TAOISM: Shit happens.

    HINDUISM: This shit happened before.

    CONFUCIANISM: Confucius says, "Shit happens."

    BUDDHISM: If shit happens, it isn't really shit.

    ZEN: What is the sound of shit happening?

    ISLAM: If shit happens, it is the Will of Allah.

    JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES: Knock, Knock: "Shit happens."

    ATHEISM: There is no shit.

    AGNOSTICISM: I don't know whether shit happens.

    PROTESTANTISM: Shit won't happen if I work harder.

    CATHOLICISM: If shit happens, I deserve it.

    JUDAISM: Why does shit always happen to us?


    Is there a better advertisement for the eclecticism of the city than this? In the eight years I lived there, I must have walked almost every alley of it. Each block had its own style, its own atmosphere. So much variety, so much electricity. Did I ever come across the same face twice? Of course, quite often. It took me no time to realize the degree to which New Yorkers are concerned with their own identity. Their bodies are their most cherished assets: they live to show their bodies off, to polish them; their cloth, their gestures are a message: "Look at me," they shriek, "I've managed to become myself, to be distinct, unique, unlike you." But this obsession is but a mirage, is it not? Or perhaps it is a fear of blending in without restrictions and losing one's identity, for New Yorkers aren't all alike: each of them walks differently, dresses differently, eats and dreams differently—and, especially, thinks differently.

    What has attracted me the most since the beginning are the complex ways in which the city communicates. This is a milieu where chaos and order are in constant conflict, and the battle emerges most clearly in the way people talk, always invading each other's space, overlapping words, or failing to finish a sentence, as if life is too short and one needs to move quickly to the next stage. When I crossed from one section of the city to another, I would realize the extent to which its citizens live in parallel, disconnected universes. Polyglotism is a common characteristic: New Yorkers know three, four different languages, each useful to transmit a different meaning and to communicate with a different type of person. Each of these tongues strive for their own space.

    And then there's graffiti and the never-ending war against it. In the Mexico of my adolescence, graffiti almost always had political connotations. It was about inequity, about the struggle for a better future: ¡Viva el Ché!, ¡Muerte a los diputados asesinos!, ¡Huelga contra Pinochet! The connections between politics and the Church are unavoidable, as rightwing groups respond with messages about "Cristo Rey" written by "Opus Dei" and dating back to the reaction to the so-called Christian War—La Cristada—of the 1920s. Swastikas and anti-Semitic slurs often appear, too. And the standard love note "Juan Diego ama a Rosita" is as omnipresent as spring rain. Add, also, the anarchic graffiti attached to rock bands imported south of the Rio Grande in the 1980s, which manifested itself on city walls, even on the pavement, the morning after a cataclysmic concert. By and large, however, the general approach has remained the same, and not only there but in cities throughout Latin America. (I recall a discordant, more sapient one I once saw in my own neighborhood, composed in poor Italian: "Mange bene, cague forte, e non temere a la morte.") In New York, on the other hand, the graffiti's meanings, also ideological, have more to do with youthful rebellion, with gangs and turfs. I arrived in the city when a new model of subway car, looking like aluminum-foil tents, had been introduced, to which graffiti would not stick—or at least that was the assumption. The loss, as far as I'm concerned, was tremendous. Yes, anarchy was pushed to the background, segregated once again in ghettos; cleanliness returned, giving civilization the tranquillity it strives for. But this only forced youngsters to find other, less public, more introverted venues to express their angst—an angst, I'm convinced, less manageable when not out in the open. The old subway cars were works of art, weren't they? Still, graffiti didn't disappear; it simply relocated, as it always will, for it is as much a part of the New York landscape as is an advertisement. It happens simply to prove that order cannot exist without chaos looming in the background, threatening to collapse the whole urban structure. Sure, graffiti is portrayed as obnoxious and unpleasant by government bureaucrats. But they fail to see its unparalleled harmony and uncompromising message: that, as much as we strive to eradicate anarchy, it will always live within us.

—Reprinted from On Borrowed Words by Ilan Stavans by permission of penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2002, Ilan Stavans. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

1. México Lindo
2. The Rise and Fall of Yiddish
3. Under the Spotlight
4. On My Brother's Trail
5. Amerika, America
6. The Lettered Man

"A meditation on how language defines not just the words we use but the places we come from." —The New York Times Book Review

"Stavans's Mexico . . . is a treacherous but vivid world seen through the eyes of a gifted child; his subsequent encounter with America makes the New World seem-astonishingly-new." James Atlas, author of Bellow: A Biography


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