Teresa Porzecanski: on her fiction (by Gloria Salbarrey)
Teresa Porzecanski: on her fiction.
Porzecanski´s research and academic pursuits have produced several essays on systems of beliefs and minority identities. In addition she has participated in collective books, whose edition she has sometimes coordinated herself. Very prestigious newspapers have published her articles about culture and social issues. However her most interesting facet is developed in her fiction writing which has been widely rewarded.
In her novels Porzecanski repeatedly deals with several subjects, situations and types of characters that appear to be concluded in each book but have no final shape in the mind of the novelist. Some texts of her previous narrative reemerge in the titles of some of her later works, as examples of intertextuality.
The writer wants to describe ordinary people in their own background: boarding houses, second rate hotels, rooms for rent, dark dirty attics and any place where life seems to deal with violence, misery and death. She chooses to explore these backgrounds and everything that may be hidden behind their mere appearance in the search of a unique piece of greatness. Without any self-awareness, nearly all of her unimportant characters are trying to recover or even build their identity.
Porzecanski is not interested in close psychological descriptions and prefers fragmented characters, full of gaps capable to seize the reader´s imagination. The narrative in the novels, just like fragmented time and space, is interwoven in overlapping and alternating scenes, as it happens in the very "reality" we live in, whose meaning we are constantly building.
The so called "reality" and fantasy dimension are not distinct and disconnected worlds in her narrative. Nor is the case of the objective and the subjective or the rational and the illogical. There is a vague space in-between where characters move from one dimension to other, driven by obsessions, madness, fears, dreams or beliefs. These are the type of characters that are always found in Teresa´s narrative: the ordinary middle age woman, the person with unusual habits, the idiots and their special wisdom, the utopist or the Messiahs seeking the future.
The most recurrent characters are the researcher of old documents and oral traditions, or the interpreters of religious signs. Sometimes they belong to a minority system of belief such as Umbanda, Kabbala and gypsy culture. These traditions are very open and heterodox, and represent a wide background of the main identity : Jewish genealogy, and specially female genealogy. The writer represents her ancestors going back to the first human being and she always includes an old wise character who is in charge of transmitting the ancient secrets.
Sensual scenes blended with descriptions of meals, ways of cooking and eating, they all build up symbols of female desire, pleasure and myths. A detailed attention to women´s body contributes a great deal to the complexity of the author´s conception of femininity.
Fernando Ainsa says "Reversing the well known Cartesian axiom “I think, therefore I exist”- Teresa Porzecanski ´s characters may tell themselves: "I, that is my body, my veins throbbing, the demoniac rhythm of life". The awareness of the complex richness of body fluids and physiological functions tailored to a clockwork mechanism, which only makes more evident the fragile balance, prone to disarticulation and disarray".
Porzecanski doesn´t adhere to feminist theories although she has read the
founding French writers on the subject. She has not explored lesbian feelings and other sexual diversities. The scenes about sisterhood are restricted to some biological sisters or a couple of persons who share dreams, fun and quarrels.
Teresa´s writings are very near Clarice Lispector´s novels. The Ukrainian-Brazilian writer has explored her Jewish and female identity and built a space in feminine literature that the Uruguayan author has developed in her own style.
1. First Writings
Early creative works of TP, poems and short stories published in the sixties received promising comments, which focus on a new voice announcing feminine outlooks and exercising non- rational and non referential composition. Angel Rama, one important Uruguayan critic, defined the concept of "los raros" (meaning, "the strange") a way of writing close to Porzecanski´s, whose fantastic elements are a means for exploring the world. He proposed a category, that of "imaginative literature" in reference to a style which abandons the laws of causality and tends to explore the amazing and the dream world. This critical recognition of reality implies a very deep and complex personal experience. Although she discusses these terms, Porzecanski sometimes speaks of her "realism of imagination".
As a social scientist and anthropologist, P finally breaks up with the traditional way of explaining the world. Emotions then lead to an exploration of ancestral roots as well as legends, myths and dreams. During the Uruguayan dictatorship (1973-1985) this style of writing becomes a way of expressing the obligation of silence and eluding the censorship. At the same time, it opens a personal approach to innovation and self-exploration that persists in her recent literary productions .
The books written under that political situation -Constructions, An erotic novel and Messiahs in Montevideo -are called “the triad of the dictatorship” by the expert Estela Valverde . The first one is a collection of non-realistic short stories, whose humorous glance, added to the philosophic and cosmic implications, hides or emphasizes political criticism and protest.
Described by a character of the book like “a whirlwind of fragmentary, chaotic and incoherent visions”, the text of An erotic novel includes the thoughts of a woman who is writing a radio drama, several pages of the script itself and her discussions about life and literature with her boss. There are no characters, no anecdote but a lot of questions about the fact of being woman, the meaning of the world and even literature. Very often emotions are revealed in a new abstract way, which she calls "erotic language", needed after discovering the silence of useless words. This eroticism would consist in laying a hand on something impossible to grasp, looking for the past in the eyes and bodies of women, and all forms of rebuilding her genealogy. Although Porzecanski was very young, in this book she stated the interrogations that continued later on in all her works.
The following novels of the triad introduce the topic of the Messiah and also women´s questions like pregnancy and abortion, about which nobody had written in the seventies.
2. Perfumes of Cartaghe
The story told in this book takes place in Montevideo among Jews and other minority groups. This cultural periphery, their visions and fantasies appear in a more realistic way. The author herself has explained that in the last version of Perfumes of Cartaghe she avoided adjectives and adverbs, and preferred shorter sentences , with punctuation marks that make the text easier to read. This style and also the visual images, tastes and smells show “the power of sensorial cues to trigger memories and visions” .(Michael J. Mazza).
Perfumes of Cartaghe displays the saga of the Mualdeb, a Jewish family from Aleppo (Syria) whose patriarch died in the very moment their ship was entering Montevideo. His wife and his four daughters arrive by themselves and have to make a living as poor female immigrants in that “integrated” Uruguay of the first decades of the twentieth century . The social picture has a double historical support (the Jewish diaspora and the brief Uruguayan revolution against the dictator G. Terra). As Debora Cordeiro-Sipin concludes:
“For the remaining members of the family there is no space for an existential crisis of any sort, and as a result they do not struggle with questions of identity. Instead, these immigrant women immediately accept Montevideo as their new home and proceed with their everyday lives as they work inside and outside the home to protect the family’s continuity”.(
Inside the home they live according to their traditional customs and beliefs: they cook the ancestral meals; remember the stories of “those reverie lands” and enjoy a funny sisterhood. In the outside they suffer the oppression of the marginal, as foreign non-educated poor women that believe in a minority religion in a patriarchal country, with a catholic majority and a secular state that allows religious freedom.
The novel alternates the heroines´ encounter with prostitution, arranged marriages, abusing and betrayal husbands and the submission that stimulates secret rebellion. The women portraits show the female body as stereotyped sexual objects, according to the desire of men, and at the same time, the female body connected to women pleasure, and through it, to cosmic powers.
Along a very colorful plot the physical, psychological and social portraits of men are associated with phallic symbols like the snakes, while the female identity is represented by the act of cooking and eating food.
Angela, the African descendant who takes care of the dying mother of the family, and Camilla, a mentally disabled childish woman, carry on their own monstrous and miraculous conceptions giving birth to babies that would be impossible in real life. In an interview Porzecanski has commented on “ the unlimited possibilities of literature, which transform the psychology and reactions of characters in unexpected ways. Literature has the freedom and power to make things happen in a way that the reader can accept. Everything is possible”. All characters, regardless of gender, need or have a connection with mysterious forces- the bomb which explodes in a cloud of perfumes, the voice of God that never answers, the spirit of Carlos Gardel visiting Angela, Peralta ´s serpents living in the underground.
3.The Skin of Soul
Liropeya and Faride are the leading characters of the novel that, besides the detective story and the social satire, displays a wide net of beliefs, and several open and heterodox conceptions of the cosmic and supernatural powers.
There are two parallel stories, one that takes place in Montevideo in the nineteen fifties and the other in Toledo in the fifteenth century. The dressmaker Liropeya is found dead in the boarding house where she lives. Faride Azulay suffers the Inquisition persecution as a Jew . These different and distant worlds converge because of a fantastic trick: the ghost of Faride visits Liropeya and her neighbors. One of them, Turcatti, is writing the tragedy of the beautiful medieval girl, while he peeps at the room of the fat and vulgar middle-aged woman. Both female characters are opposite in beauty, age, occupation, religion and personality. The young girl enjoys and suffers her pregnancy and the absence of her lover. On the other hand, Liropeya discovers her body and the feeling of pleasure during a loveless affair. Love, death, sex and the the five are subjects that express femininity in two different patriarchal contexts. Uruguayan customs and culture, medieval Spain, the Kabala ideas, the gypsy legends are all represented in the style that the author herself calls "narrative of imagination".
Some male characters are also touched by this magic, for instance, those listening to the Football World Cup held in Montevideo in 1950, and those who dream about Faride’s tragic fate.
The dead remain among the living and the past comes up to the present pointing to the beginning of humanity and the Jewish traditions. Pregnancy and other repeated events exemplify the cyclic time, in addition to linear plots, simultaneous scenes and flash backs, which suggest either eternity or the fast passing of time.
These stories of women living in the same building in Montevideo are told by Celeste, who was a child- Celestita - in the middle of the twentieth century, when the events take place. Overlapped and interwoven fragments of biographies are examples of different situations: the black washerwoman Palmira, the sisters Clelia and Zulma, Violeta, the disenchanted wife. Nearly nothing happens to them but the lonely housework and the often forgotten husband´s absence.
The only loving man is Celestita´s father, but he disappears without any explanation, leaving his small daughter with Palmira, his occasional partner. The child´s memory idealizes his mysterious figure as a singer who wants to travel and be successful. Inspired by a magic understanding of female sensitivity, he shares with his daughter the first fleeting happy moments of imagining and enjoying all five senses. At the same time he is a Jewish vendor with a past of European persecution that represents the history of the race.
The novel depicts female loneliness and their acceptance of their opportunity to be themselves. For instance, the sisters find action and fantastic adventure reading geography books. For Violeta water is a space to make her home becoming a sea creature.
Palmira actually dwells in the real world, protecting and teaching African philosophy to Celestita. Her reality includes her Umbanda beliefs and practice: the visit to the medium Mai Ruth de Oxala , the altar to worship the orixas. According to Johnny Payne, Porzecanski proves to be the "anthropologist of imagination" using details and gaps to allow an open interpretation to her readers.
5.Her Brief Eternity
Her mother´s evocation is very hard for Teresa in this novel written in the first person, and which hesitates between autobiographical memories and fiction. It begins with a letter addressed to a rabbi in which Matilde blames herself for having murdered her mother whom she has taken care of for a long time. Just by chance sex plays an extraordinary role in the lonely funeral. The ambivalent feelings of love and hate for the demanding and grumpy old woman persist along this novel , which represents the presence of the dead among the living.
The memories of those who never end their death interrupt both the flowing of time and thoughts. They appear in places modified by feelings and imagination, for example, some symbolic objects in the house, like the family porcelain cups, or the odor of closed rooms. Matilde looks for a break from those obsessive worlds by visiting different waiting rooms, one after the other, just because there she can be alone among unknown people, and feel her empty mind ready to discover and construct new moments without the passing of time, a kind of hidden “brief eternity".
In this case Porzecanski draws attention to societies where matriarchy and patriarchy can coexist, oppressing women in different ways. Except for the character of the rabbi in the first scenes, there are not traces of the Jewish culture in this work, which is very dear to the author.
6.Leave and Wander About
Like in most of her work, this novel is inspired by Porzecanski´s memory and is part of the "I scripture" corpus. However, in this text the young Teresa becomes more present because the language, although rich and refined, is easier to read.
Recurrent subjects prove the continuity of her production. The feeling of the cosmic femininity and the liquid essence open this youth memory of the summer holidays. The account of the first menstruation, which did not use to be well received by readers, now meets a new readership that is not embarrassed by such details.
Besides the arrival of household appliances and other shows of material progress, the beauty pageant at La Tumbera - the imaginary typical town of Uruguayan coast- is the great event for the girls because it enlightens Pelusita, the narrator, about the opposition between her inner feelings and stereotyped definition of pretty women.
On holidays teenagers run other adventures, biking and walking on the sandy beach, meeting strange people and travelling with their imagination beyond the knowledge of books. Don Silvestre tells them folk stories of their country and Bensusan explains to them the cosmic ideas of the Kabala. This friendly and informal teacher is an homage to a real man, buried in Uruguay but the character is based on the traditional figure of the wandering Jew on which the anti-Semitic discrimination and the representation of the Diaspora converge
A gipsy camp is another source of old wisdom, which Pelusita visits on her own, listening to the origin of life in the words of Multani, the old woman who recalls the wandering of her ancestors from Asia Minor to Indian lands. In this sort of bildungsroman one´s roots are constructed exploring the inside and the outside and learning they are everywhere, so one can follow the voices of birds, the stars, the myths in pursuit of the spiritual powers. Leaving one´s birth land and going away is one unavoidable aspect of personal growth.
Liquid word (2006) selects some of her earlier poems from That red apple and Intact heart as well as several non published compositions, all of which demonstrate a self demanding and rational poet, always in control of her emotions. The title is a symbol of the feminine being, the fluids of the female body and the fluids of earth and sea. In words by Estela Valverde it suggests a woman who goes from the periphery of the cosmos to the center where she is "guardian of traditions and procreation". This sentence is commented by Gloria Salbarrey : the exploration of the cosmic love with which a woman is linked to the vital rhythm of her own biology. This conceptions are just alluded in some recurrent metaphors -odalisque, sorceress, undergrounded, subterranean being-, and in a number of philosophic, anthropologic or religious poems that have created a very different voice from that of the novelist, the anthropology, the social researcher.
A group of poems deals with the feministic claims of the stereotyped house wife against the repeated nonsense of her task. Very seldom in these youthful poems does Porzecanski express the emotion of the sexual events.
First love affairs depict failures of misunderstanding, fugacity, the searching of herself and the disappointments. In opposition there are the poems about the dearly-loved Príncipe azul (the Spanish version of the "charming knight"). This part of the book is addressed to the father about whom she even asks the ironic question about the oedipal attraction. These poems introduce some subjects displayed with Biblical inflection in the eighth part of the book (Small chat with God): Jewish requirement, genealogy, birth and death.
In words of Salbarrey the poems allow an intimate reading to listen the verse speaking luxurious words to one´s ear to the transparent, colloquial and intimate dialogs either with herself or with the sacred or human other. Porzecanski has left behind the philosophic, psychologic or hermetic theories to construct this thoughtful and austere female voice which sings fugacity, vital cycles, wisdoms symbols and millennium interrogations arising from the depth of her body and ancestral roots.
8. Selected works
A) Non fiction
Historias de vida de inmigrantes judíos al Uruguay. 1986, 1988.-
Curanderos y caníbales. Ensayos antropológicos sobre guaraníes, charrúas, bororos, terenas y adivinos. 1989,1993.-
Rituales. Ensayos antropológicos sobre Umbanda, mitologías y Ciencias Sociales. 1991.-
El universo cultural del Idisch: inmigrantes judíos de Europa Oriental en el Uruguay (1890-1941). 1992.-
Historias de vida: negros en el Uruguay. (1994)
La vida empezó acá”. Inmigrantes judíos al Uruguay. (2005)
Historias de exclusión: afrodescendientes en el Uruguay. (2006)
El cuerpo y sus espejos: estudios antropológico-culturales. (2008)
B) Chapters in collective books
Ficción y fricción de la narrativa de imaginación escrita dentro de fronteras. In Represión, exilio y democracia: la cultura uruguaya. (1987)
Uruguay a fines del Siglo XX: mitologías de ausencia y de presencia in Caetano, G. Identidad Uruguaya:¿mito, crisis o afirmación?. (1992)
Entre la honra y el desorden (1780-1870) in Barrán, J.P; Caetano, G; Porzecanski, T, Historias de la vida privada en el Uruguay: Tomo I. (1996)
Vida privada y construcción de la identidad: inmigrantes judíos al Uruguay. In Barran, J. P, Caetano, G. y Porzecanski, T, Historias de la vida privada en el Uruguay. Tomo II. (1996)
La nueva intimidad. En Barran, J.P. Caetano, G. y Porzecanski, T. Historias de la vida privada en el Uruguay. Tomo III. (1998)
A story in episodes. In Taking Root. Narratives of Jewish Women in Latin America, (edited by Marjorie Agosin) 2002.
Palabra liquida (2006)
Gloria Salbarrey, June 23, 2018