This excerpt is from the novel Tela de Sevoya.
To read an interview with the author, click here.
Do all the grandparents on earth speak with such strange twists and turns?
Esther Benaroya grew up enveloped in that Spanish intermingled with words from other worlds. Judeo-Spanish was not the language of her studies but it was the language she heard from her parents and grandparents. Later she came to speak it far away, adonde arrapan al güerko: Meksiko? Meksiko era para mozotros, en la karta, solo un payis ke de la banda izkyedra le enkolgava una lingua larga kon el nombre de la Basha Kalifornia / at the godforsaken ends of the earth: Mexico? Mexico was for us, on the map, just a country with a long tongue hanging off its left side, called Baja California.
A short time after her arrival, Esther Benaroya, my paternal grandmother, decided to go to Sears Roebuck, the department store blossoming right there before her eyes, agitated by neon lights. She needed to buy hair pins to placate her curls. She went up the escalator with a fear that no one seemed to notice. She headed toward the second floor, and very sure of what she was looking for, she approached a clerk:
—Senyorita, kero merkar unas firketas para los kaveyos / Señorita, I’d like to buy some hair pins for my hair.
—Trokas, firketas / Bobby pins, hair pins.
The employee isn’t able to comprehend.
Some weeks earlier, she had learned the word chingada (fucked up) and then chingadera (fucked up thing, worthless piece of crap), though she preferred the diminutive: chingaderika / worthless little piece of crap. So then, she corrected herself:
—Kero unas chingaderikas, bre / I’d like some worthless little pieces of crap, bre.
The employee blushed and shot off to find the manager. Esther Benaroya left with a cardboard packet filled with hairpins with gummed tips. It made her happy to infuriate people. She’d been told before that the word chingadera is impolite in this country, but she can’t be bothered by that. It’s her way of saying agora avlo vuestro espanyol komo lo avlash vosotros en la Espanya i en Meksiko / now I speak your Spanish like you speak it in Spain and in Mexico. Some people were scandalized, while others ignored her or chuckled at her wackiness.
Before she arrived in Mexico, all she could say was that it was a faraway country where people wore cowboy chapeos and ate excessively spicy foods. Dize el marido miyo ke los mostachos le kedan kemando despues de estas komidas de foegos / My husband says his moustache always burns after he eats these fiery foods.
When she came ashore in these lands, she thought for a moment that all Mexicans had Jewish blood. They all spoke Spanish, that language of the Sephardim from Turkey and Bulgaria. Ama aki lo avlan malo, malo . . . No saven dezir las kozas kon su muzika de orijín / But here they speak it poorly, poorly . . . They don’t know how to say things with the music of their origins.
In the center of the circus, the animal tamer lights a circle of fire so the tiger can pass through the circle in flames and land on the other side without burning itself. Two benches are set out, one higher than the other. As in medieval rituals, the people beat their chests. There are men with monocles, women clad in hats covered with tulle. The tiger dodges the obstacles with a grace that’s apparent to the hundreds of spectators, who beat their chests and scream with pleasure.
The tamer wordlessly announces the final act and places her head between the tiger’s jaws. When that happens, I ask my father to carry me in his arms, I want to feel his arms as my fear swells. After that trick, the tamer lays down on the ground with the tiger on top of her back. The scene continues: the tiger remains on the woman’s back, he is attacking her. Over the loudspeakers, we can hear an agitated voice, gasping: “Ladies and gentlemen, a doctor, we need a doctor urgently. Anyone in the audience, please, anyone.”
A river of blood begins to flow along one side of the woman’s body. The tiger devours her. The crowd churns toward the exit doors, increasingly enraged, increasingly transformed. I don’t know how much time passes, a garbled sensation of fear floats in the air, when suddenly the voice cuts in anew with agitated breathing and a tone of false calm: “Ladies and gentlemen, the danger has been brought under control. The show will go on. Return to your seats. We ask you to return to your places. Your attention, please.”
The tiger, who had already smelled blood, moves away from the body; its reddened snout crashes against the canvas walls. The voice that asked for calm now speaks in Ladino: Senyoras, senyores. No podemos fuyir de muestros destinos, todos estamos moertos, ninyas, ninyos, domadores, fieras. Todos moertos / Ladies, gentlemen. We cannot escape our destinies, we are all dead, girls, boys, tamers, beasts. All dead. I don’t know what else the voice says. I hold onto my father’s legs to leave the circus as soon as possible, I feel like the tiger is coming for me. I raise my face to ask him to carry me, but I suddenly lose him in the crowd. In his place, I see my abuela Victoria practically in front of me, speaking with an extreme sweetness:
—Sentites kualo dijeron? Estamos moertos. Nadien te va a matar, sos moerta i tu / Did you hear what they said? We are dead. No one will kill you, you are dead too.
—Where is my father? I want to go with him.
—Tu padre esta en los ornos, ijika, ande keman a las linguas del avlar / Your father is in the ovens, ijika, where they burn the tongues that speak.
I don’t know what she’s saying to me; from there, I see the tamer’s face down covered in a crimson cloud. No one is left. The tiger, the people, my father, my grandmother, everyone has suddenly disappeared, except for the dead tamer and me. Sos la ultima kreatura / You are the last creature, a voice inside me says.
And then of all the different little girls who make up my self, the fearful one stands up, the one whose voice I hear more than I should. I put my hand on my throat, like the other times, to listen to the voice speak.
The terror speaks inside me with a mutated voice, like the dybbuk, those spirits that are the soul of a dead person stuck in the body of a living person, forcing the person to act like someone “other” and speaking through them with different voices.
The voice whispers to me with a raspy yet sharp tone: “The things you flee from most are the most difficult to evade.”
And then I curl up in a ball next to the dead animal tamer, until I fall asleep.
There are words that only exist in one language because they belong to that vision of the world and no other. Often translators drive themselves crazy attempting to pick apart the meaning of a word that has no equivalent in any other linguistic space. Hindus speak of the blue Krishna. The word wandern in German means to roam, to walk, to move. In the Germanic tradition, there is a series of Wanderlieder, songs for strolling through the woods. The lyrics celebrate nature, but also that way of exploring the world. More than “wandering,” the meaning of the word references “maturing.” “To leave the wandern behind and put down roots.”
Hebrew speakers know that the word adamá (earth) is made out of Adam (the first man) and dam (blood) because the first man was made out of “earth” (adamá) and “blood” (dam).
The Japanese, from an early age, learn about the existence of the tatemae, thoughts that are expressed in public and should never be impolite; and the honne, what is actually thought and which can only be expressed in an environment of trust and intimacy. Language reflects these internal positionings.
For the Babylonians, to use the word Mashu was to speak of gigantic mountains, a sort of pillar holding up the celestial vault, since for them the sky was a space that required supports. Also in their language, karsu literally means “stomach,” as has been explained by Silva Castillo (the magnificent translator of Gilgamesh into Spanish), but by extension it is also used to refer to the interior of the body and even the soul, and in certain contexts, it can be interpreted as “anxiety.” That is something we can all understand, since all of the tensions that produce ulcers and gastritis are held in the stomach, yet only the Babylonians found that word, a perfect fit to reference both an organ and the emotion that batters it.
What’s more, we know that in English saying “I have the blues” means something more than being in a melancholic state. In any case, assigning sadness a color is quite specific to that culture that also uses the term “blues” to reference an entire musical genre. And let’s not forget the magnificent expression “out of the blue,” which in its literal translation, recalls a kind of dream-like association, though in reality it refers to an unexpected reaction, to an incident disconnected from its context. All of a sudden, she said such and such, she said it out of nowhere: “out of the blue.”
In Spanish, we have the difference between ser and estar, impossible to understand for almost all other languages. These marks of the tribe are as unique and unrepeatable as fingerprints.
The French writer Marcel Cohen wrote a memorable letter in Ladino to his friend Antonio Saura. The language carries echoes of the kharjas with it.
Kuando se bozea tu lingua, kuando se deskae, kuando deves serrar los ojos, soliko en tu kamaretika i pensar por oras antes de trucher dos biervezikos a la luz, kuando no ai nada ke meldar en tu lingua, dinguno de tus amigos por avlarla kon ti, kuando el poko ke te keda no lo vas a dechar a dinguno después de ti ( ... ) saves ke la moerte avla por tu boka. La moerte avla por mi boka . . . A vedrá dezir, ya esto moerto yo / But when . . . this language crumbles . . . when, in its death throes, it slowly dilutes . . . and, alone in your room, you have to close your eyes to exhume a few scraps; when there is no longer anything to read in this tongue and no friends to speak it with; when . . . you feel obliged to forget a little more of yourself . . . when, despite all your efforts, you are unable to reveal more than a part of yourself ( ... ) you must admit that death speaks through your mouth. Death speaks through my mouth . . . In fact . . . I’m already dead.
—If it weren’t for Hitler, neither you nor I would be here—I tell my brother.
—Hadn’t you realized that yet? Hitler, you and I . . .
The night of that same day, my mother tells us that in her wardrobe she keeps that yellow star they had to use to identify themselves as Jews in Sofia. She tells us that the German government offers compensation to Jews who still have those stars. When my father dies, perhaps she feels tempted to cash that in, but she never does it. “I don’t want to hear a word about that government.” We, on the other hand, in our own secret rite, light a candle for that mustachioed man, for the opportunity to be in the world. Good thing my mamá doesn’t find out about that, because she would have spit in our play area.
FROM THE TRAVEL JOURNAL
September brings radiant days to Sofia. It rains occasionally; the air is scrubbed clean and, as if in response, there are moments of crystalline light, high skies, and few clouds. Just that sort of day had dawned when I went to see my mother’s childhood home. At the mere thought of it, my adrenaline jumped into action. One develops certain ideas about things. I knew that the only thing left was the lot, since the house was a kindergarten for years and it seems that when it was sold, it was demolished. The address, 33 Iskar, has been engraved in my memory for years. If someone were to rouse me from my sleep to repeat that address, I would do so with no hesitation. But something had been reordered in my head, and the day I went to see it, my stomach in knots, I got confused about the number and I ended up at 46 Iskar without realizing that this was not actually my mother’s house. I took photos of the block, the corner, the neighboring houses, the trees. My photo was also taken, and in fact in one of the photographs, I was caught off guard with a shredded tissue and my face reddened by tears. I felt, I won’t deny it, like those pilgrims who have waited years to finally reach their place of worship.
The next day, I called my brother in Mexico, and it was impossible not to tell him what I’d seen. I was, I told him, at 46 Iskar. “You have no idea, the street, how lush the trees are, the houses around it all made of stone, just ancient, the fluttering light and shadows filtering through the linden trees. . .” But he didn’t allow me to finish the sentence. “You got the number wrong. It’s not 46 Iskar, it’s 33.”
Like someone rewinding the tape in a machine to record another layer over the mistaken recording, I returned to look for the block, the number, the trees, the house. I went back to take pictures and I went back to cry, but this time, indeed, in front of the correct address. Suddenly, I came alive and I could see the scene for what is was. El meoyo del ombre es una tela de sevoya. / The human mind is an onioncloth. Like in a mock-tragic film, my laughter quickly turned once again into tears.
So finally I was able to get close to 33 Iskar. The house transformed into a restaurant. “The house” is not actually the word for it. What is there now is a large lot with a narrow passageway at the entrance. This leads you back to a rectangular patio. At the back, a red awning with the beer name Amstel written on it. A few of the patrons looked askance at me as I took photos of every corner. A waiter corroborated for me that this house was a kindergarten for years. “They demolished it to make this place,” he says, reaffirming what I already knew. At the back, a stone construction peeks out, surely a relic of that era, the time of my mother’s house, her childhood home, the place where my grandmother raised her three children. Here the Victorian lady (every one carries the name they deserve) burnt my mother’s books if she caught her reading at an inappropriate time or if she decided she was reading more than she should. Though the tape in the recorder has been rewound all the way to the beginning, whatever there is to record of this place will come out empty because I’ll never know the complete story of this house. They lost it in the forties, in the same period when the new regime saved them from extermination.
I started to tell bits of this story to the waiter. I gave him more explanations than I think were necessary, since for some absurd reason, at that moment it was important to me that he understand why I was there, pretending not to tremble, with my throat clenched and a camera in my hand. While I blew my nose with a tissue that was already well-used, the young man asked me in English (I’ll never know if he was being polite or offering a strong dose of mockery): “Tell me, Ma’am . . . did you come all the way from Mexico just to see this building?”
He pointed his finger at the awning and at the sign that said PIZZERIA. It was right at that moment, as I furrowed my brow, that I noticed him looking at me, truly, as you might look at a person from another era.
Myriam Moscona is a Mexican writer, and the author of numerous books of poetry including Las visitantes, De par en par, Negro marfil/Ivory black, and, most recently, Ansina. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize for her first narrative work, Tela de Sevoya.
Antena is a language justice and language experimentation collaborative founded in 2010 by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, both of whom are writers, artists, literary translators, bookmakers and activist interpreters. The collaborative does translation, writing and DIY book projects, installations, and performances, among other instigations.