Possession of the Ball: Recovering Identity in Ricardo Feierstein’s Mestizo

David Sharp

I’ve paid my dues
Time after time
I’ve done my sentence
But committed no crime
And bad mistakes
I’ve made a few
I’ve had my share of sand
Kicked in my face
But I’ve come through
And we mean to go on and on and on and on  – Freddie Mercury

Argentinean author Ricardo Feierstein recurrently engages with the problem of asserting Jewish identity in Argentina.  In several of his novels, the protagonists examine their unique background and attempt to reconcile their formative experiences within a national or collective context.  They yearn to be accepted as “regular” Argentineans, yet they refuse to compromise or negate their individual histories in order to do so.  As the title suggests, Feierstein’s preoccupation with mestizaje[i] moves to the forefront in his 1994 novel Mestizo.  The narrative follows David Schnaiderman, a sociologist in his forties, as he embarks on the elusive challenge of piecing together fragments from his past with his present life.  Schnaiderman’s disquieting investigation leads him through the ethnic neighborhoods of Buenos Aires, where he attempts to understand his hybridity and to situate his atypical experience as a Jew of Eastern European heritage within an overwhelmingly Latino-Catholic nation.  David’s scrutiny of his own life quickly evolves into a greater quest, as he seeks to forge a Judeo-Hispanic identity in a nation that has historically proven to be inhospitable to such an ethnicity. 

David’s investigation and self-discovery in this context are thus a crucial facet of Mestizo, and accordingly Feierstein emplotted[ii] his novel by selecting a genre that facilitates this exploration.  Mestizo assumes the conventions of a mystery or a detective novel, which readily facilitates David’s deeply personal ontological quest.  Like most mysteries, the problem at hand is quite tangible.  David Schnaiderman is the sole observer to the slaying of an Arab woman in the streets of Buenos Aires, and he is legally obligated to provide an account of the brutal murder.  The police require David’s assistance to apprehend the assassin, but he cannot recall the violent event whatsoever.  Witnessing the traumatic episode has induced profound short and long-term amnesia, and the novel focuses on David’s attempt to recover his own memory and to emerge from his present state of confusion. While the mystery of the murder always lurks within the narrative, the hunt for the murderer frequently becomes incidental to David’s attempt to reconstruct his identity.   David’s shock disassociates him from the defining moments of his life; he cannot recollect his name, age or profession. Furthermore, he does not remember his personal history, his triumphs or failures.  He states:

Do you understand me?  I am still nobody.  When another person looks at me, on a police summons, in line with those looking for work, I am nobody.  In Buenos Aires, words and smiles don’t count: only the facts.  I can’t verify my name, what I have done in my life, what stitches of guilt and innocence embroider the story of my life.[iii]

While the amnesia topos is excessively familiar and thus quite predictable in many novels, Feierstein nonetheless exploits it with innovation and complexity in Mestizo. David Schnaiderman’s loss of memory does not simply arise and later disappear with a mere thud to the head.  Moreover, Feierstein deliberately imbues the concept of amnesia with a more subtle, metaphorical dimension.  David’s lament “I am nobody” hints at his deeply fraught connection with society in general, a perception that extends beyond his immediate memory loss and describes a continual feeling of cultural erasure. He also recognizes his complete disconnect with the experiences of his forbearers whose history he has inherited but has nonetheless forgotten. He knows little about their trials, their experiences, or even their achievements. Thus, David feels he has no place in society; he is perennially lost amidst his surroundings without any anchors to moor him to a past or present:

I don’t have a history.  I don’t remember anything.  I’m tied to reality by this one old family photo that seems to be close and disturbing.  But I can’t reconstruct an identity from something of which I, more than anyone, am doubtful.  Without familiar pictures, papers stamped with India ink and worn by my fingers, bits of parchment that show years of work and study, I myself don’t know who I am. And I need to know who I am.  Overcome the resistance of memory. You can find me again.  I am lost.[iv]

David’s amnesia is thus so comprehensive and fundamental that he has no option but to pursue any and all leads, and to synthesize meaning from these inconclusive clues in hopes of reassembling his fragmented identity.  Ultimately, it requires severe trauma and a pressing legal obligation to propel David to confront what Feierstein suggests have been lifelong and enduring problems.

As David begins to recreate his personal history, he can only begin to understand his own experiences by examining these clues within the contexts of his family and his nation’s history. Feierstein suggests that David’s own identity is entirely conditioned by and is part of these larger narratives.  Consequently, Feierstein’s Mestizo introduces and critiques significant events from Argentina’s history as it reflects on the particular repercussions for Argentina’s Jewish community. By confronting his present state of confusion, loss and emptiness, David rapidly discovers he shares connections with his ancestors that transcend the specific circumstances of space and time. 

Matching David’s own confusion, the interrupted, polyphonic narrative style of Mestizo introduces fragmented and sometimes puzzling accounts related by different narrators representing various generations of the Schnaiderman family.  Each narrator relates a different event or episode, but all recall experiences of marginalization, persecution and intolerance.  Consequently, a subplot unfolds in the work, wherein different branches of the Schnaiderman family are continually victimized.  One learns that pogroms and other acts of anti-Semitic violence in Europe have always constricted them to either defend themselves avidly or be obliterated by blind ignorance and hatred.  In the not-so-distant past, Argentina symbolized promise for these individuals, a possible haven from relentless persecution and a land of renewed opportunities.  Yet the different narratives all demonstrate that the family has not escaped their plight; thousands of miles away from their homeland, the same oppression and persecution frequently looms closely.  While the abuse adopts new rhetoric and rationalizations, “dirty” Jews are still mistreated, distrusted and excluded in David’s era as well.[v]

David’s examination of this history of violence, oppression, and segregation against his forbearers weighs heavily on him.  He, too, recognizes that it has been an ever present facet of his own experience.  Even though he is a native speaker of the Spanish language, familiar with the customs and habits of Buenos Aires and the country itselfin a word, assimilated he is neither accepted nor respected by his society. David therefore feels compelled to assert his mestizo subjectivity into the cultural history of Argentina.

This is the crux of an interpolated episode of the novel titled “Adventures of a Name,” in which David applies for a job.  In an exchange between David Schnaiderman and a clerk, David’s Semitic last name becomes a point of difference and a signal for exclusion from greater Argentinean society. As David states his own last name, the clerk, Hector García, retorts, “It would be better […] if you write it yourself.  I find it difficult to copy foreign names.”[vi]  For David, this remark is emblematic of his experience of exclusion, as it is the “eternal story, experienced since elementary school.”[vii] Clearly a point of extreme contention, frustration and defense, Schnaiderman insists that, born in Buenos Aires to a second-generation Argentine mother, he is as Argentine as anyone else.  Still the clerk continues: “You don’t understand me.  To be Argentine is… I don’t know, the language, to be Latino.  That’s it. Latino.”[viii]

It is at this moment that David, confronted with the small mindedness of the clerk, releases a lifetime’s worth of resentment as he simultaneously defends his own inclusive definition of Argentineity.  He retorts in composed anger:

… I don’t understand you.  Your prejudices define everything that is different as foreign.  I want you to explain to me why the name ‘Schnaiderman’ would be foreign and yours, García, would be Argentine.  All last names here are either ‘mestizos’ or ‘foreign,’ if you wish, because those who came to conquer these lands destroyed without mercy those who were native to the place…There will be, at the most, a question of numerical antiquity—names that possess two or three or five more generations—which, as we know after the last few years, doesn’t mean much: those who sold out the country during the military dictatorship, are, for the most part, irreproachable surnames that date from the Spanish conquest, and that stand to sing the Hymn…In your view, the ‘Argentine’ is not a sum of the diversity, the inevitable pluralism and mixing of a country of immigrants, but only that which is the same as you are.  The ‘others’ are the ‘foreigners.’[ix]

David’s diatribe escalates as the befuddled clerk feebly attempts to explain his deeply ingrained prejudice and chauvinism. He finally reveals a fundamental prejudice, a perceived religious divide, which he claims separates them from one another:

We, the Catholics, are the majority here.  And we constitute one of the pillars of this society, as the declarations of the Church and the Armed Forces state.  This country was born Catholic.  And we have simple surnames, Spanish and Italian.  On the other hand, you the ‘Moishes’— and I beg your pardon, I mean no offense, have some awful names that can’t be pronounced or written.  At least here in Argentina.  Do you understand?[x]

Indeed, this particular exchange with this particular clerk reverberates well beyond the immediate for David.  While claiming to “mean no offense,” the clerk reifies a pervasive ignorance that David has frequently and repeatedly experienced as an Argentine Jew.  However, it is only now during the course of his personal quest for memory that David is compelled to cogently articulate his frustration and defend his very existence. He knows that he has effectively forfeited the position, yet the exchange has nonetheless been entirely cathartic.  David has insisted that the clerk articulate his own biases, while concurrently demanding to be seen on equal and inclusive terms.  At this point, David submits the form with resolve: “Here it is.  Argentine surname, as good as anyone’s.  I don’t feel like a second-class citizen nor do I allow anyone to treat me so…. You are beginning to find yourself…To not keep quiet… It’s your problem.”[xi] 

This act of assertion is a crucial moment of self-discovery for David Schnaiderman; it ultimately demonstrates that he does not want to compromise his unique background or experience in a futile attempt to be accepted by ignorant members of society.  Still David recognizes that the unenlightened compatriots who view him as abnormal are, in fact, the majority and he is the outsider: “You are the Jew, the minority, the marginal one for many.”[xii] Stigmatized for his mixed identity and heritage, David recognizes that others fail to see in him one of the many faces of a possible Argentineity, and will use his origins as an excuse to illegitimate his life experience. Though David ultimately yearns to experience a sense of inclusion, he is aware that the Argentina he knows will also have to grow and rediscover itself before this can ever happen. 

It is significant that during David’s exchange with the petty clerk, David declares that the nation itself has been “sold out” during the military dictatorship.  Indeed, the tyrannical rule of the military junta in Argentina from 1976-1983 is frequently recalled as the backdrop of the novel, as are various encounters with the police, guerrilla groups and other political factions.[xiii] David’s search specifically occurs between February of 1983, shortly after the crushing defeat during the Falklands War weakened the firm grip of the military, and it continues until just before the free elections of Raúl Alfonsín in October of 1983.[xiv]  This historical context is not haphazardly interjected by Feierstein, as he applies it to reinforce that personal and political histories are ineffably intertwined.  David’s search to rescue his fragmented identity also requires confronting the nation’s own unstable identity.  Feierstein suggests that not just the individual but instead the entire nation must embark on a reflective process to begin recovery from trauma and shock. On the cusp of a new era of democracy and opportunity, profound anxiety about the possibility for progress, social equality, and inclusion still abounds.  Like David, the country lacks a blueprint for the future. 

It is during this moment of uncertainty that David unexpectedly experiences prospects for inclusion and an ensuing sense of elation.  David undergoes a definitive psychic metamorphosis from pariah to insider in the presence of his teenage son, Eduardo, while attending a soccer match between the competing San Lorenzo and Tigre teams from Buenos Aires.[xv]  This pivotal event unfolds through a visual narrative that replicates the energy and emotion of a soccer match.  Through a four-page graphic segment of the novel, Feierstein successfully captures the visual dimension of the event, focusing on the palpable energy and excitement of the crowd and the stadium.[xvi]  Here, like David, the reader is struck by a momentary and unexpected shift in perception, and stops to consider the work from a completely different angle.  The images depict athletic club banners, vendors milling through aisles, frenetic and overzealous fans shouting in joy and in anger at the referees, and a series of plays between the teams. These illustrations include short captions and speech bubbles, and both David and Eduardo are enthralled at the fast-paced action of the game.  As San Lorenzo fans, both father and son are keenly aware that there are infinitely more fans supporting their team than the opposing Tigre squad.   They are immediately overwhelmed by a sense of unity and amazement, particularly as San Lorenzo’s victory becomes a moment of triumph which includes them as well.  This is a reality that David has never before experienced, and he is struck by the momentousness, the uniqueness, of the occasion: 

Images overcome David:  Jew, intellectual, sociologist, immigrant in Israel, unemployed, social bastard wherever he might remember, always condemned to be a minority.  Now, for once…  To be one of those who win, of the majority, of those who decide.  For the first time.[xvii]

As a mere fan of the winning team, David perceives himself as included, which in turn causes him to reflect on just how deeply alienated he has always felt.  David’s self-description here as a “social bastard” is particularly poignant, as it succinctly describes his continual feeling of rejection and seclusion.  Yet this frightening sense of isolation connects David with his immigrant ancestors, who have always been viewed as outsiders in every milieu.  Similarly, it hovers closely above future generations, for his son Eduardo expresses a similar ecstasy in being part of a collective.  He, too, describes the rareness of the event, stating “It’s something very strange… To be part of San Lorenzo, here and now…To be in the majority, Dad.  It’s the first time that’s happened to me… The ‘others’ must always feel that way, members of the majority.”[xviii] 

The soccer match is a vital episode of Mestizo, as it affords two generations of the Schnaiderman family a glimpse of inclusion.  Moreover, the game heralds potential for change, progress and participation, and foreshadows a new era of possibilities for the entire nation.  As the narrative progresses, Feierstein deftly extends the personal elation that David and Eduardo experience during San Lorenzo’s victory to a public and collective dimension. The action seamlessly segues from the stadium to a massive march in Buenos Aires.   While the venue is entirely different, the same sense of euphoria and victory courses through the crowd.  This mass, however, has congregated to celebrate the demise of the oppressive dictatorship and the impending restoration of democracy and free elections.   David, his son, and his wife find themselves amidst a crowd of hundreds of thousands of other porteños,[xix] representing various political backgrounds, religious ideologies and socio-economic circumstances.  Yet during this gathering, all differences fade and become momentarily irrelevant, for everyone has united to mutually condemn tyranny.  The reader recognizes during this celebration precisely that the fragmented pieces of David’s identity have stably coalesced, and his confusion has completely abated.  The Schnaiderman family mutually rejoices as they share a palpable sense of inclusion within the majority, together embracing enormous and desperate hopes for a promising future for all of Argentina.  Eduardo, unlike his father, has long perceived his younger generation as one confronting historical possibilities; yet David also sees “historical opportunity”[xx] as imminent. 

Pages from Mestizo by Ricardo Feierstein, artwork by Federico Cueva. Reproduced with the permission of the author.

Together with the intermixed crowd, they discern hints of a democratic future that includes mutual respect and appreciation among the population, and welcomes the contributions of all segments of society.  David reflects: 

For an instant, and possibly for all times, we are brothers, although we may never see each other again…We need unity, life and not death.  We, all the people, all together, we defend ourselves from the tyrannies of urgency… we are the multitude that frightens those who would make a coup, single and multiple identity simultaneously.  With this, “we” orders cannot be given, since the speaker himself is included in the work and characterizes it as “collective,” of all.[xxi] 

Feierstein hereby suggests that a society plagued with social, religious and racial conflict exacts its toll not only on the individuals immediately affected, but on the commonwealth itself.  It is not coincidental that David’s final synthesis and ordering of his own identity coincides with a critical change in the administration of his homeland.  Feierstein clearly believes in a symbiotic relationship between the health and well-being of the individual and the development and stability of a nation.  

Mestizo concludes with overpowering and palpable optimism for both individual and collective progress.  It clamors for an Argentina that willingly incorporates the participation and contributions of the individual in order to enhance the national collective.  It demands that mestizaje, diversity and difference, no longer preclude the possibility of inclusion, but instead be perceived as a nation’s greatest asset. While Feierstein insists that this vision is not yet a reality in Argentina, he espies infinite possibilities for change in the future.  But like David’s own quest for meaning and completeness, this collective pursuit will require candid and agonizing introspection about the inequities of the present and the past.

David Sharp is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His current interests include contemporary Argentinean and Italian fiction.  Working as a professional translator since 2000, he has also published translations and criticism on Spanish and Italian literary works. 


NOTES

[i] In its usual context, the term mestizaje refers to miscegenation and is commonly employed to describe the multiracial element or populace of Latin American nations.  However, the term mestizaje as employed by Feierstein involves different nuances, in that it does not necessarily describe the intermixing of Europeans and Amerindians, but rather signals the liminal position that non-majority ethnic groups (such as Jews) occupy in Argentine society.  When I had the chance to interview Ricardo Feierstein in his Buenos Aires home in May of 2008, he stated that the mestizaje  which is a prominent element in both his fictional and nonfiction works is no longer the same preoccupation it was for his, and presumably for David Schnaiderman’s, generation. 

[ii] In Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism, Hayden White proposes that historical events cannot be absolutely meaningful in their mere existence as facts. They require interpretation as to their relative significance based on the framework that a reader and writer will assign them.  Consequently, historical events must be “emplotted” in a variety of narrative types that will relate to the reader and facilitate the interpretation of such facts.  This very emplotment enables the reader to understand what type of story is being presented, whether it is a romance, a tragedy, a satire, an epic, or a comedy, or in the case of Feierstein’s Mestizo, a mystery. 

[iii] Feierstein, Ricardo. Mestizo. Translated by Stephen Sadow. Introduction by Ilan Stavans. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2000. 8.

[iv] Ibid 8.  

[v] In several episodes recounting David’s youth, he and other adolescents are physically attacked in their neighborhood, and are verbally assaulted with epithets.  The most frequent, but not the only ones, are “Kike,” “Yid,” “stinking Jews,” “dirty Jews” and “stinking Kikes.” They are also called “communists” and “little Russians” and threatened to either be beaten or shout “We are stinking Jews. Long live Hitler, long live Perón.”

[vi] Mestizo 121.

[vii] Ibid 121.

[viii] Ibid 123.

[ix] Ibid 123.

[x] Ibid 124.

[xi] Ibid 125.

[xii] Ibid 125.

[xiii] Throughout the novel, David Schnaiderman encounters enemies as well as friends who are aligned with various political causes or groups. While most are either leftist or right-wing Peronist factions active before the “National Reorganization Process” (Montoneros, ERP [People’s Revolutionary Army], the AAA [Argentine Anticommunist Alliance]), there are also fuerzas de choque (organized Jewish  self-defense groups) and Zionist Youth Movements, as well as various student groups.  Feierstein shows that the Argentine political scene was frayed both before and during the reign of the military dictatorship from 1976 onwards, and that daily life for most was always highly politicized.  Amidst the Falklands War, frequent civilian disappearances, police brutality and public massacres (such as the Ezeiza massacre in 1973), the novel clearly depict endless chaos and terror stemming from the Argentine State.

 Dulfano, Mauricio J. Antisemitism in Argentina: Patterns of Jewish Adaptation. Jewish Social Studies, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Apr., 1969). 122-144.

[xiv] Andersen, Martin Edwin. Dossier Secreto: Argentina’s Desaparecidos and the Myth of the “Dirty War”. Boulder and Oxford: Westview Press, 1993. 304-305.

[xv] Mestizo, 308.

[xvi] Ibid 310-313.

[xvii] Ibid 314.

[xviii] Ibid 313-314

[xix] Porteño is the name given to residents of the port city of Buenos Aires. 

[xx] Mestizo 306.

[xxi] Ibid 331-333.

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