The Bride from Odessa

by Edgardo Cozarinsky
ISBN: 1843430517

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A Review of: The Bridge from Odessa
by Jerry White

Jorge Luis Borges is alive and well, and living in, well, in Argentina. Sort of. That doesn't sound right at all, does it? Well, that's because I'm having a hard time articulating the way in which a Borgesian world-view is still part of contemporary literature, even though it may seem that much of world culture has assimilated and rendered indistinct his insights about the slipperiness of perception, the meaning of odds and ends, and the possibilities of finding the infinite in the imaginary.
That Borgesian tradition survives most clearly in two writers from Argentina, both of whom now make their home in France: Edgardo Cozarinsky and Albert Manguel. And beyond their common link with Argentina and France, Cozarinksy and Manguel are connected to each other, and also to Borges, in several important ways. They are both fascinated by the bits and pieces of everyday life, and they're both comfortable with the ways that history and imagination intertwine and become inseparable. While Borges's restlessness was intense but mostly confined to the winding corridors of his mind, both Manguel and Cozarinsky are more literal nomads, wandering freely all over the earth as a matter of course, because that's just the way that engaged people live. That's the way the characters in their new works live, anyway, and Manguel's novella Stevenson Under the Palm Trees and Cozarinksy's short-story collection La Fiance d'Odessa are both very good introductions indeed to the works of these two children of JLB.
Originally written in Spanish, La Fiance d'Odessa is newly available in an English translation from Harvill Press. I discovered it in a French version in Quebec City's Librairie Pantoute, published by Paris' Actes Sud in a series called "Le Cabinet de Lecture", a series edited by none other than Alberto Manguel. It may seem absurd for a native speaker of English to review a French translation of a book written in Spanish, but this mess of languages is entirely consistent with how Cozarinsky orients himself in his writing life. After all, his last book, Urban Voodoo, a somewhat more-connected series of short vignettes, was originally written in his "tourist English" and translated into Spanish much later. And it may seem absurd to read too much into the fact that La Fiance d'Odessa is edited by Manguel, except that Cozarinsky has done meaningful editorial work too, namely his 1980 book Borges en/y/sobre cine (published in 1988 as Borges in/and/on Film)-mostly a collection of movie reviews by JLB, in addition to notes on and reviews of films based on his work. As well, Cozarinsky edited a collection of literary criticism called La Casa de la Ficcion in 1977. It's not a coincidence that Cozarinsky focused on this relatively unknown element of Borges's literary output, for the younger man is actually better known as a filmmaker. Those who marvelled at the historical and cultural sprawl of his cinematic masterpiece, Rothschild's Violin (shown at several film festivals in North America but hard to see otherwise, like most of his films), will surely recognise that same spirit in the stories of La Fiance d'Odessa.
The book's eponymous opening story contains the vanished world that Cozarinksy is trying to evoke throughout: the multicultural and resolutely polyglot Central and Eastern Europe that began to disappear after the First World War and now exists largely in the annals of intimate memory and imagination. Indeed, it rarely exists even in the realm of history, so forgotten is this experience (in his postface to the collection, Manguel quotes Cozarinksly as saying that "L'histoire est mon ennemie"). This is the way we come to know the fiance of Odessa elle-mme: "Quant elle dont nous ne saurons jamais le nom, c'tait en revanche une fille d'Odessa, o Grecs, Armniens, Turcs et Juifs taient aussi rpandus que les Russes. Elle ne parlait pas l'ukrainien mais un russe lmentaire, auquel s'taient accrochs quelques mots de yiddish : elle n'tait pas juive, mais vivait et travaillait parmi des Juifs." (As for the woman whose name we never know, she was avenging a daughter of Odessa, where Greeks, Armenians, Turks and Jews were as widespread as Russians. She didn't speak Ukrainian, but an elementary Russian, in addition to having picked up some words of Yiddish: she wasn't Jewish, but she lived with and worked for, primarily, Jews.[translated by Jerry White])
Ethnic identity is not exactly irrelevant here, but it's far from the only determinant of selfhood. And what we are peering into is not exactly the world of the shtetl, but a world that is formed by that period's idealism. Indeed, the emptying of the shtetl is not seen here as the simple explanation for the collapse of polyglot Europe, for a few paragraphs earlier we read that "Daniel tait n dans un stetl ; quand il avait eu cinq ans, ses parents s'taient installs dans un faubourg de la ville, sainte entre les saintes, de Kiev, dont il ne connaissait gure que le march dit de Bessarabie [now Moldavia], et dans celui-ci le commerce de passementerie de sa famille. Bien souvent, adolescent, il s'tait arrt admirer les ors et les volutes de la cathdrale Sainte-Sophie, les cinq coupoles resplendissantes de la collgiale Saint-Andr et, plus haut encore, le clocher du monastre de Petchersk."(Daniel was born in a shtetl; when he was five years old, his parents were moved to a neighbourhood in Kiev that was holy in a holy place, though he was the only one who knew it as the market named for Bessarabie {now Moldavia}, location of his family's furniture business. Soon enough, as an adolescent, he stopped to admire the gold and curls of the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, the five resplendent domes of Saint Andrei chapel, and, higher still, the clock of Petchersk monastery.[translated by Jerry White]) A vibrant urban life with strong links to the world of international commerce, and Russian Orthodoxy and an isolated, culturally intact Jewish community, are seen here not as a contradiction but as inevitable results of one another, basically parts of the same process.
Perhaps one of the other reasons that Cozarinsky considers history his enemy is because of the way that it has lost not only its interest in counter-intuitive cultural and linguistic details (goy speaking some Yiddish, former shtetl dwellers living an iconographically rich life), but also in the ways people imagined the world evolving. "La Fiance d'Odessa" is also concerned with the attempts to build a Jewish homeland in Argentina (an idea that Theodor Herzl, father of Zionism, was entirely open to). This is the dreamy way that it unfolds: "Cela faisait un an que Daniel avait commenc jouer avec l'ide d'migrer. La dlgation de l'Argentine pour la Colonisation juive, de passage Kiev, avait organis des runions vesprales l'Association mutuelle isralite, o un confrencier plein d'loquence, l'aide d'une lanterne magique et d'une douzaine de plaques de verre, leur avait montr les champs fertiles, interminable, qui les attendaient en Argentine." (It had been a year since Daniel had started to play with the idea of emigrating. The Argentinean delegation for Jewish Colonisation, passing through Kiev, had organised some prayer meetings at the Israelite society, where a very eloquent presenter, with the aid of a magic lantern and a dozen glass plates, had shown them the endless fertile fields that awaited them in Argentina.[translated by Jerry White])
It's no mere piece of historical trivia that this presentation is realised with the aide of magic-lantern slides made from delicate, luminous glass; the sense of fantastic other-world-ness is palatable here. It's a sense that defines the book, and indeed defines all of Cozarinsky's work, in literature, criticism, editing, and cinema.
The dreaminess speaks to a certain disconnection that results from restless internationalism. . .What's any of this got to do with Borges? Well, perhaps the relationship is more spiritual than literal, more about what Roland Barthes might call the grain of the voice than any shared subject matter. God knows this grain is tough to get at when one is working through the lens of translation, and these problems are compounded here: I approach Cozarinsky through a French translation of Spanish texts, Borges is known to most of Books in Canada's readers through English translations of his Spanish texts, and while Manguel is writing in English, Stevenson Under the Palm Trees first appeared as Stevenson sous les palmiers, published again by Paris' Actes Sud ["traduit de l'anglais (Canada) par Christian Le Boeuf"]. And yet, in the opening line of Borges's ficcion "Tln, Uqbar Orbis" we read: "I owe the discovery of Uqbar to the conjunction of a mirror and an encyclopedia" ("Debo a la conjuncin de un espejo y de una enciclopedia el descubrimiento de Uqbar"). That conjunction, phrased in terms of discovery, echoes throughout both Cozarinsky and Manguel. But in a way, these wondrously adventurous and internationalist writers constitute a redemption of Borges's-charming, don't get me wrong-dustiness. The 1967 edition of Borges's Book of Imaginary Beings (co-written with Margarita Guerro), an obvious influence on Manguel's 1987 Dictionary of Imaginary Places (co-written with Gianni Guadalupi) opens with the following: "As we all know, there is a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition." I can see the kind of intellectual languor that Borges is evoking there, and it has its value. But Manguel and Cozarinsky have brought this sort of out-of-the-way erudition well out of the realm of the lazy. For them, this sort of pleasure it the most basic stuff of life.

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