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letter to my mother

3 may 2017

I've been interested in modern and contemporary Italian writing lately, and since my motto is "read at whim," I've followed one of my favorite practices: start taking books off the library shelf in alphabetical order.

You don't really need an exhaustively-stocked library to pursue this program, and maybe it's better if the shelves are thinner. Italian is not taught at my university, and our acquisitions in modern literature are pretty desultory in any language. As a result, there are only a few texts to take down, almost all in English translation. But that's fine; how many books can I read, anyway?

Most recently I went for Edith Bruck's Letter to My Mother, which appeared in Italy in 1988 and in Brenda Webster's striking translation (with Gabriella Romani) in 2006. The Modern Language Association published the translation and the original (Lettera alla madre) in its Texts and Translations series, but inevitably my university library bought only the "Translation" volume. I'm grateful they bought it, though. It's a stunning reading experience.

Edith Bruck, who turns 85 today, survived Auschwitz; her mother died there. Hungarian by native language, Jewish by birth, she moved first to Israel and then to Italy after her ordeal, and has lived in Italy, writing in Italian, for over 60 years now. In 1988, soon after the death of her friend and fellow survivor Primo Levi, she wrote the first of the two pieces collected here, the "Letter to My Mother" proper, as an address to her long-dead mother. It's a lament, and it isn't. It ends in a Kaddish, but much of it is about the writer's ambivalence about saying that Kaddish.

Much of "Letter to My Mother" is full of grievances against that mother, which seems absurd. But one of Bruck's themes is the absurdity of identity. Her mother, a devout, inflexible Jew, seems to her to have reduced the world into performances of identity.

You seem like the Roman head rabbi who cares only for rituals, whoever performs them is Jewish, feeling Jewish doesn't count. … You're a master in putting me in the wrong. Any sort of Jew is enough to put me in the wrong. (124)
Bruck's identity is complex and contradictory. Her mother's was black and white. In a passage that affected me greatly, Bruck uses her mother's prejudice toward a mentally disturbed woman as a springboard for thinking about how categories efface individual identities:
You never called her by name. For you and the others she was simply the lunatic, just as we Jews were only Jews and the Gypsies were only Gypsies. The oppressed, the minorities, those who are different, quickly lose their names; rather, they don't have names, they are named by group, and naming one, you name them all. The lunatics, the pederasts, the Jews, the blacks, the Gypsies … then you wonder why children grow up racist. (103; ellipsis Bruck's)
If we are to transcend the attitudes that fueled the Holocaust, it seems, we must see people as named individuals primarily, and group labels only incidentally. Bruck's is a deeply humanist, classical-liberal idea. She does not blame her mother for the experience of the camps, or for dying there – except in a deep emotional sense that she realizes is irrational. But she does blame the entire 20th century, Israel not excepted, for a dehumanizing, nationalist, ethnocentric insistence on group identity.

And Bruck cannot herself escape seeing people as groups rather than names; perhaps nobody can. In the second piece in the book, "Traces," she takes a trip to Germany, for the first time since her liberation from the camps. She cannot bear to speak German, scarcely to hear it. She meets a German army veteran on the train, possibly a sympathetic character, certainly scarred by the war himself (he has been to visit a battlefield in Sicily where he lost comrades.) But any comparison of his losses to hers seems ludicrous. The friends that she meets in Munich try to make the trip normal, but it is impossibly traumatic for Bruck, and she flees back to Italy as soon as she can.

There, Bruck embeds a draft of some fiction she's been writing, a story-within that recalls Primo Levi's embedded fictions in the middle of Il sistema periodico, or Art Spiegelman's in Maus (there are thematic connections to Spiegelman, as well). In the end, a gun that's been introduced earlier goes off, in true Chekhovian fashion. Yet the explosion harms nothing but a mirror, and is paradoxically cathartic. It is an absurd but beautifully appropriate ending for a harrowing personal essay.

Bruck, Edith. Letter to My Mother. [Lettera alla madre, 1988.] Translated by Brenda Webster with Gabriella Romani. Introduction by Gabriella Romani. New York: Modern Language Association, 2006. PQ 4862 .R7L4813