ON BORROWED WORDS by Ilan Stavans

ON BORROWED WORDS

A Memoir of Language

KIRKUS REVIEW

An often sophisticated, more frequently discursive memoir on transnational and translingual migration from Mexican-born critic and scholar Stavans (Latino U.S.A., 2000, etc.).

A product of the Jewish Diaspora (his grandmother emigrated from Poland in the early 1930s), Stavans grew up in the 1960s and ’70s amid a family that found artistic release in language. His father, one of the first Jewish actors in Mexico, became a soap-opera star. His brother Darian, a stutterer who experienced mental illness, overcame his difficulties enough to become a singer and musician. But Stavans’s Yiddish-speaking community, fearful of anti-Semitic outbreaks incited by the corrupt national regime, left him with a “feeling of marginality.” His restless utopian yearnings took him to Spain, Israel, and finally the US. Adding Spanish, Hebrew, and English to his linguistic skills provided him with a host of literary models to whom he pays eloquent tribute, including Kafka, Borges, Conrad, Nabokov, Richard Rodriguez, and especially Irving Howe. Most important, literature provided this self-described chameleon a means to forming his own identity and creating his own internal homeland. (Even his Whitmanesque ode to encountering New York for the first time evokes literature, as he compares the city to “a huge book, a novel-in-progress perhaps, filled with anecdotes, with a multilingual poetry impossible to repress.”) His meditations on the paradoxes of language are incisive (“Curiously, in the United States, to be a member of the upper class and a polyglot is a ticket to success. But multilingualism among the poor is unacceptable and, thus, immediately condemned”), and he uses his considerable erudition sparingly, always to illustrate points rather than merely to dazzle. Unfortunately, Stavans has not integrated the story of his family into the narrative enough to create a compelling story arc. Moreover, and perhaps more fatally for an intellectual memoir, his reflections are not focused or energized by either major figures he has known nor by an opposing ideology that can rouse him to combat.

A penetrating analysis of the displacement and internal divisions created by linguistic adaptation, but undermined by a rickety narrative structure.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2001
ISBN: 0-670-87763-8
Page count: 300pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2001




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