Writing on the shoah in Brazil

Márcio Seligmann-Silva, David Foster

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

3 Scopus citations


The presence of the Shoah in Brazilian literature is, one must make clear from the start, extremely marginal. Despite direct Brazilian participation on the front in the battles of World War II against Nazi forces, one cannot perceive in Brazilian culture any strong trace of this fact. Even now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with the importance given by cultural studies to the study of the narratives of survivors and persecuted minorities, this panorama has not changed, at least as far as the Shoah is concerned. The survivors who for a series of reasons ended up being a part of Brazil have not found there a welcoming public for their testimonials. And by the same token, the Brazilian writer who eventually has turned to this theme has not been responding to a cultural issue that is seen as important. Despite the disappointing panorama, there is a small, yet not unimportant, literature on the Shoah written in Brazil. We can, in general terms, differentiate within it between the fiction written by those who are not survivors and the narrative of a strong testimonial nature by European immigrants. Within this latter category, we nevertheless find a palette of variations that extend from the narrative that aspires toward an objectivity and fidelity almost as though it were "antiliterary" to those writings that assume a literary tone and style. Regina Igel has already provided a survey presenting the production written on the Shoah in Brazil. In her study she provides an inventory of the works on the theme of the Shoah in Brazil and describes them synthetically. There is no point in repeating here what she has already done so competently, and in the following pages I will rely on what she has already done so well. I will also refer to a few works she examines and that strike me as deserving of commentary. At the same time, I will introduce other books and works that have appeared since the publication of Igel's study, as an extension of her work. Taking into consideration the paucity of studies on the topic, we cannot yet hope to achieve a complete panorama.1 Igel divided the works that she studied into three categories: 1) works of a "pedagogical" nature that are oriented toward presenting what happened with "minimal narrative elaboration"; 2) works of "fictional" nature, with an omniscient narrator in the third person and including literary strategies; 3) and "hybrid" works that fluctuate between the first two models. This typology could be transposed in terms of a theory of representation, as gradation that runs from a "representationalist" posture. This would contemplate a "direct" and "objective" representation of the historical facts, to a very different one that would be marked by a consciously assumed "literary" undertaking, one that engages in a reflection on the difficulties and strategies for representing the "real" and, in particular, the Shoah, a historical fact that must be considered an event that challenges any strategy of representation. These two models can be analyzed historically. In a broad way we can say that in the period immediately following the catastrophes and the genocides, there is the predominance of the "representationalist" registry. At that point in time, juridical and historical testimony tends to be privileged. We might call this registry of testimony testis, in the etymological sense of this term, which indicated a "third" party in situation of litigation between two sides, one that can narrate what was seen. Here language is treated in an instrumental mode and attempts to avoid stylistic and literary questions. The linguistic model for this testimonial registry is a utopian "zero degree" of writing capable of transmitting its message whole: what counts is the recounted fact. At a later moment, the elaboration of the catastrophes incorporates the questioning of the supposed capacity of the objective transmission of reality. Memory tends to assume its individual character. There is a tension between the "testimonial debt," which assumes its limits to the same degree in which it confronts its "mediating" character, that is, its linguistic dimension. Survivors as well as those who were not survivors produce these types of works marked by such a reflection on language (regarding the concept of testimony and its historical and theoretical nuances, see my "Literatura"). Obviously, the typology I am proposing is not and does not pretend to be absolute, as there are so many cases of linguistically and reflectively elaborated writing as regards the limits of representation immediately following the catastrophe. By the same token, many years or decades after the fact, survivors still maintain their need for "objective" testimony as a sort of direct telling of the facts. We should also note that the work of writing or literature is part of any text, whether or not the writer is conscious of this fact. Above all else, this is the case because, just as Aristotle already knew and Kant reaffirmed, we cannot think, speak, or write without the assistance of our imagination. Moreover, we are always creating written narratives, plots, metaphors and the like that turn our stories into unique versions of what we wish to narrate, none of which diminishes the testimonial value of the testimonial narrative. We must learn to see the very texts that are born from the catastrophe as complex events that should be dealt with in all of their strata: Aesthetic, testimonial, individual, collective, mnemonic, historical, and so on. Even the text that appears the scarcest in aesthetic terms can hold a vital literary lesson, just as the novel that appears to be far removed from the facts or a very dense narrative in linguistic terms contains testimonial elements. Testimony and literature are inseparable. If it is true that every act of writing involves, at least for us still, an aesthetic act, it is no less true that every work of art, as Walter Benjamin wrote, is a document of barbarianism. In this sense, any attempt to establish a rigorous typology regarding the literary production on the Shoah will inevitably be doomed to failure. Yet this does prevent us, in accord with the line of thought inspired by Igel, from attempting differentiations. Such are necessary for our project on the study of works based on the Shoah in the context of a theory of the representation of catastrophes. In order to avoid a typology grounded on the mobile boundaries between "objective" and "literary"-the literature of a marked testimonial tenor reveals the fragility of the boundaries between these fields-we opt here for a more historical differentiation of the authors themselves. Thus, we separate them into the "primary testimonies" of those who emigrated from Europe during or after the war and "secondary" ones. It is important to underscore how such a differentiation is not simple: Testimonials tend always to affirm their "primariness," that is, their proximity and visibility that they bear in relation to accounts of the facts. Without this reference to an "extra-writerly" reality, the testimonial would lose its reason for being. On the other hand, the testimonial regarding events on the limits of endurance such as the Shoah, as was extensively demonstrated by the works of authors like Primo Levi and Paul Celan and, subsequently, by the analyses of Dori Laub and Shoshana Felman, among others, includes inevitably a double impossibility. In addition to the so-called "collapse of the testimony" in the face the traumatic reality one has lived, we must bear in mind the reflection on the ethics involved in the representation of historical facts in the similar vein of the genocides. The "how," the mode of representation is fundamental here (see Friedländer; Nestrovski and Seligmann- Silva). The complexity of testimonial discourse has, precisely, to do with dealing squarely with these limits. Just to give one example of the questions involved in this debate, for a survivor like Jorge Semprum, the best testimonies of the Shoah have been written by those who are not survivors. When we differentiate between those writings produced in Brazil that focus on the Shoah on the basis of these concepts of "primary testimony," which presents the experiences lived "first hand," and "secondary testimony," we are not in any way treating the latter as inferior, but only utilizing one possible categorization among those studies on the phenomenon of the testimony.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationLatin American Jewish Cultural Production
PublisherVanderbilt University Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9780826592552
ISBN (Print)9780826516237
StatePublished - 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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