Excerpt from Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Monkey Boy

by Francisco Goldman

Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman X
Monkey Boy by Francisco Goldman
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  • Published:
    May 2021, 336 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Naomi Benaron
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On another, earlier occasion I was in that same place, Elaine's, waiting at the crowded bar because I was supposed to meet Teresa there, and an attractive woman stepped up to me, lifted her fingers up into the tangle of curls on my head, and said with alcohol-fueled merriment: Oh you black Irish mick you, you're a boxer, aren't you? So, not always whatever people most hated. Remembering her, whoever she was, I smile down into my nearly finished Spaceman IPA.

Have been subject to my share of anti-Semitism too. In Europe, my God, though usually as a sort of bystander, starting with that firstever trip to the UK, white Brits mistaking me for Pakistani or whatever, letting it rip on the Yids. This one is my favorite, if you can call it that. At my hotel in Havana, while I lounged on a recliner trying to read by the swimming pool, a quartet of hairy male sex tourists from Spain were in the water splashing each other like children while loudly declaiming in their baritone Castilian voices, Muere, perro judio. Every "die Jewish dog" sent angry waves of adrenaline through me. The lifeguard, afrocubano, about eighteen, lean, dark, honey skinned, went to the edge of the pool and told them: Racismo no está permitido en la piscina. If they kept it up, he calmly told them, they'd have to leave. That lifeguard and his words, so beautiful. No racism permitted in the pool.

The waitress delivers my sandwich. Of course, Natalia Ginzburg came from a loving, noisy academic and literary family, everyone a talker except for little Natalia, the youngest, a watcher and listener. Under Italian Fascist anti-Jewish rule, her father lost his university job and had to go into exile, and her brothers were imprisoned, as were many from their circle of family friends and colleagues. Natalia's Jewish husband, Leone, a hero of the anti-Fascist Resistance, was born in Odessa, in the Ukraine, the same part of the world where, incredibly, Bert Goldberg was born one year later. Leone was beaten and tortured to death in a Roman prison by Nazi SS officers. In the autobiographical Léxico familiar, Ginzburg hardly mentions Leone's death, the event that most marked and transformed her life, and yet you so feel her love and heartbreak that it seems somehow spread like living spiritual matter into the very ink her words are printed in. Ginzburg grew up in a secular family without any relationship to Jewish culture, much less religion. It was after Leone's death, she explained, that she began to identify persecution with Jewishness. I was rereading Natalia Ginzburg because I was curious about half-Jewish writers. I could only find a few; there must be many more. Muriel Spark was another. Both Ginzburg and Spark converted to Catholicism. Well, like my friend's lover, Sister Goldberg, too, whose Catholic mother had never had her baptized. Spark, too, as a girl growing up in Edinburgh, felt oppressed by the loneliness of not belonging. She had a working-class Jewish father; her mother was born a Protestant, and with her brother they were a happy, close-knit little family, a secular one, like Ginzburg's. Spark later described herself as a Gentile Jewess. In her fiction, Gentile Jewesses personify characters who are perpetual outsiders, who choose who and where they want to be, "diasporic personalities" as I recall one critic put it; they're opposed in her fiction by characters like Miss Jean Brodie who belong to one place and one identity, with fixed, even monomaniacal certainties. In her thirties, Spark went about her conversion to Catholicism in the most diligent way, holing up in her bedsit to read through thirteen volumes of Cardinal Newman's writings in preparation for her transfiguration. Almost nightly she joined her literary friends in boardinghouse sitting rooms, gardens, and pubs to discuss like apostles gathered together every aspect of Catholicism. Years later Spark's son from her first marriage claimed to have discovered a Jewish wedding certificate demonstrating that his mother's mother had been Jewish, too, not just her father; after deciding as a result that he was 100 percent Jewish himself, he so vindictively and publicly harassed his own mother for allegedly denying her own Jewishness that Spark ended up cutting him out of her will. But if I were going to convert to Catholicism, holing up to read thirteen volumes of Cardinal Newman wouldn't be my way. The only time I've experienced what I believe were strong genuinely religious feelings was at the Catholic "widows' Mass" in a sacred Maya town in the Central Highlands during the war. Possibly it was a syncretic Catholic Maya Mass; the young priest was Maya and gave the Mass in K'iche'. But it would have been suicide to publicly announce such a Mass right under the noses of an army still waging its scorched-earth war against the peasant Maya of Quiché and that, for symbolic effect as much as out of convenience, liked to appropriate local churches and convents and turn them into interrogation and torture centers. That priest was in fact murdered soon after. But word of the Mass must have been whispered and passed along all the surrounding mountain and forest paths because that day people came streaming in from far-flung villages and hamlets, hundreds upon hundreds of widows of men murdered in war, with their children and other relatives in their mostly worn, tattered native clothing. They packed the church shoulder to shoulder, the banner-strung air thick with the smoke of burning incense, pine boughs, candle wax, dirt, smell of sweat, bad breath, unwashed hair; with prayers, singing, voluble exclamations of strong emotions in those strenuous and eloquent K'iche' pronunciations that seem so suited for expressing sorrow, as some would say Hebrew is, spontaneous wails, sobbing, quiet tears. In suffering you are joined to Christ in His suffering upon the Cross. Together join your suffering to Christ's and you are strengthened together. I felt it in every part of me; if I had been the kind of person truly open to that, it would have been a lastingly transfiguring moment. The image of Christ, a persecuted Jew nailed to the Cross, was often invoked by Natalia Ginzburg to explain her conversion. Also, her second husband was a Catholic. Natalia said that it was as a Jew that she felt a militant solidarity with all persecuted peoples; to her that was what it meant to be a Jew, even while she was also a Christian. You could be both at the same time. Perhaps not always coherently at the same time, maybe visibly one while invisibly the other and vice versa. Natalia used to say, I am fully Catholic but also fully Jewish; my father was Jewish and so was my husband. None of this half-and-half pie slicing. Just as Jesus Christ was both fully a man and fully God, rather than the Son of God dressed up as a young Jew or anything like that. Fully one, fully the other, at the same time. E pluribus unum implies a mestizo unity, neither a melting together or an Ann Hunt library of white and a pushed-off-to-the-side infinity of separately shelved selves.

Excerpted from Monkey Boy © 2021 by Francisco Goldman. Reprinted with the permission of the publisher, Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

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