AprPresentation of Claudio Lomnitz’s book “Nuestra América”
On Tuesday, April 2nd of 2019, we gathered at the Heyman Center for the Humanities, Columbia University, to celebrate the publication of Claudio Lomnitz’s new book “Nuestra América: Utopía y Persistencia de una Familia Judía.” This is the text of my presentation.
Good evening, and welcome to this event to celebrate Claudio Lomnitz’s new book, Nuestra América: Utopía y persistencia de una familia judía. When we say Claudio’s new bookwe are already in muddy waters, because you never know whether he published another new book while you were reading this new book. Consider that only in 2018, he published Nuestra América, a yay-thick volume dealing with the fifty years between 1968 and 2018, and premiered a play on the history of Mamá Rosa, La gran familia, ¿quién cuidará los niños?
The correct sentence is not “Claudio wrote a book”. Lots of people write books. In the Middle Ages, to write a book meant that somebody had undergone the tiresome task of copying a book that already existed in some form –paper, parchment, wax tablets, etc. The Latin verb scribes used to refer to those who had actually created the book was “facere”, to make. So, as in some medieval objects or manuscripts, the book could say, in the first person “Claudio me fecit” –Claudio made me. Still, the sentence would be both accurate and not completely satisfactory.
Maybe it would be better if Claudio himself uttered “Liber hoc me fecit” –this book made me. Both could claim the same, and then we would see what this book really is: a conversation between the book and Claudio about who made whom, or about how they made each other.
This mutual making seems important to me when I read the book. Frequently, I realize how present is the voice of the narrator. I enjoy this presence, because this is a perplexed narrator, that is, one who has devised a project only to realize that the web of criss-crossing elements was nothing like the one he expected. Therefore, instead of presenting the conclusions, he is rather sharing his perplexity with the reader: they are at the same time working together to answer the same questions, that the narrator, of course, is able to formulate in a more detailed way, as he has access to an archive that takes shape also in front of oneself, on top of the very pages, just naturally popping up from the interior world of the book.
Having access to the archive is also an inaccurate expression. The pieces that now constitute an archive were before just pieces of paper, letters, memoirs, photographies, or remembrances from experience or from doubt or from uncertainty. Claudio did not even know that many of them existed. He became aware of that while writing the book, as the book asked him to make him out of some of those pieces: now talk to your mother, now talk to your uncle, now talk with the dead not through what they wrote, but through what somebody else wrote about the space they might have shared around the same era; and now, the book said, dig deep into your own memory, Into what you know, the relics of language, body countenance, gestures, from your own past, a past that did not have a presence until you summoned It up for this particular thing that Is me, that Is the book you are writing —the book we are now reading.
Many of those pieces, not even disjecta membra, because there was not a body they belonged to, other than an ideal body of knowledge, maybe; many of those pieces, I was saying, were also conceived and written In some of the languages the maker of the book had forgotten during the last two generations of his family. Then, he tries to catch up with some, miss some, remember words in some of them, or deploy a host of translators to help him understand books, articles, inscriptions, letters in Yiddish, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian… A book that asks a lot from its maker, and a maker that does not shy away when the book asks, but rather enters the contest.
A poet, like the maker of this book, yes, like Claudio himself, a chilean poet, Vicente Huidobro, wrote this when he declared independence from Nature:
Non serviam. No he de ser tu esclavo, madre Natura; seré tu amo. Te servirás de mí; está bien. No quiero y no puedo evitarlo; pero yo también me serviré de ti. Yo tendré mis árboles que no serán como los tuyos, tendré mis montañas, tendré mis ríos y mis mares, tendré mi cielo y mis estrellas.
Replace Nature with History. When History seems to have established its own rules, its own method, its own way of writing books, Claudio says that —non serviam, I will not serve this set of rules because the history I want to write cannot be written with them. This book is also a theory of history: if it puts the family as the center of that theory of history is not just because Claudio is an anthropologist; it is not just because he was invaded by unbearable nostalgia; it is not just because he has suffered the loss of members of his family; it is not just because. It is, as well, because the family as a random dynamic of people linked by consanguinity and affinity —thta is, not as an institution, because institutions are elective, optional structures— is an impossible actor of historical events, they are unpredictable, they wander around intimacy and distance, they cannot judge why being such perfect strangers they are so much alike. And sometimes, they cannot affirm where they belong: Claudio’s mother, Larissa, born in France to Jewish-Romanian parents, did not have a citizenship (p. 148). Citizenship and family, in this history, in this theory of history, are not something anybody can take for granted, they are the product of hard labor, and this is the labor Claudio and the book strive for. Claudio always claims to be a chilengo: a chilango, sure, but born in Chile. Only in 2017, he got to receive Mexican citizenship, less than one year after losing his father, the seismologist Cinna Lomnitz.
The book claims to be the history of Claudio’s maternal family —Misha Adler and Noemi Millstein—, Cinna makes his appearance at the beginning and at the end of the book. But this has always been interesting to me. Because one day, sometime after July 2016, much before Claudio started writing this book, Claudio told me, during one of our breakfasts, that he had found an autobiography of his father, Cinna. He had been reading it and came up with the idea of writing something about it, a book, maybe.
In lieu of that memoir from his father, Claudio gives us a few memories of himself that summarize very well his own task and his theory of history based on search and surprise. Both come at the end of the book. In one of them, Claudio explains how, freshly arrived to Berkeley, Cinna takes them to some place near Walnut Creek, where they can practice a few archeological searches: « We would have been happy if we had found there the fossil os some clam, but we came up with a surprisingly bigger finding: the remnants of a prehistoric horse, a Mesohippus. » They spend hours, days, cleaning it up, and learning about the evolution of the horse. It was unexpected, and, as Claudio remembers, part of a random form of curiosity that accompanied him all his life. The second remembrance is almost at the end of the book. Very similarly, when they arrive to Mexico after their time in Berkeley, the three brothers, Jorge, Claudio, and Alberto, enroll in a class of entomology: « This is how we got to know Tepoztlan, a place we fell in love with. We went across the valley…turning each cow excrement. » They were looking for an egyptian scarab, the faneus. He remembers that with detail, a sublime space « and searching the sublime in shit —a double pleasure for any child. »