Searching for the “I” in History

Doreen Carvajal
The Forgetting River
(Riverhead, 2012)

It seems as one becomes older,
That the past has another pattern, and ceases to be a mere sequence—
Or even development: the latter a partial fallacy,
Encouraged by superficial notions of evolution,
Which becomes, in the popular mind, a means of disowning the past.

- T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

In the fall of 1944, T.S. Eliot gave his presidential address to the Virgil Society in London, an event that J.M. Coetzee historicized in his essay “What is a Classic?” During the address, Eliot argued for an understanding of Western Europe as a single civilization descending from the Roman Empire, and purported his belief that its definitive classic must therefore be Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil’s epic figured heavily into Eliot’s own work, and arguably into his conception of himself as both a poet and a man—a historical refugee seeking to forge a new “un-American” identity for himself in London.

Coetzee is not particularly interested in Eliot’s fascination with Virgil, but rather is compelled by Eliot’s positioning of himself in the trajectory of Western civilization. Eliot, who was born in St. Louis to a middle class family of New Englanders, had, by 1944, so fully subsumed himself in European culture that he felt comfortable presenting himself as a Londoner. Moreover, by virtue of the argument he was advancing, he saw himself as a Western European and a descendent of the Holy Roman Empire. As Coetzee writes, “…the Virgil lecture can be fitted into a decades-long program on Eliot’s part to redefine and resituate nationality in such a way that he, Eliot, could not be sidelined as an eager American cultural arriviste lecturing the English and/or the Europeans about their heritage and trying to persuade them to live up to it…” By advancing his own vision of a historical trajectory, Eliot was attempting to revise his own place in history as well, editing a collective past to redefine his individual present.

It is this notion of personal reinvention and historical revision that preoccupies Doreen Carvajal in her book The Forgetting River, a firsthand account of her attempt to uncover her family’s hidden Jewish roots in Spain. Like Eliot, who sought to frame history in such a way that he could be transformed from a blue-blooded American into a European man of letters, Carvajal sets out to explore what it would mean to discard her Catholic past in order to embrace her Jewish identity.

In the centuries following the Inquisition, Spain sought to eradicate any recollection of its errors rather than address the egregiousness of its past. Following the exile of its Jewish population and the ensuing trials of “heretics”—when government officials sought out and tortured Jewish converts suspected of practicing Judaism in secret—the country endured a collective memory loss of sorts. Re-purposing its synagogues, ridding the country of its Sephardic culinary traditions, and dismissing the cultural contributions of its former Jewish population, Spain transformed itself into a devoutly Catholic country, void of any Jewish heritage.

Carvajal was raised as a Catholic in California, but long heard whispers of a hidden past among her ancestors. Intrigued, and compelled to ascertain where she came from, Carvajal began digging through old family letters and reading Inquisition manuscripts in private libraries. In 2008, to continue her search in greater earnest, Carvajal relocated her family to the port town of Arcos de La Frontera, a Spanish city perched high atop a sandstone cliff, overlooking the Guadalete River. “I had come here to dredge memories of the forgetting river,” Carvajal writes, “searching for information on a totally quixotic quest. I wanted to feel the spark of old souls.”

And so Carvajal’s search takes on a character that is both serious and ephemeral. Like any good historian, she begins by seeking out those who resisted the country’s national memory loss. Through them, she pieces together the story of a once vibrant Jewish community: the Jewish bell maker who forged the city’s oldest bell in 1437; Calle de la Cuna, the long-forgotten Jewish quarter; and the ancestors of philosopher Isaac Cardoso, one Jewish convert whose name was not forgotten. She learns of the country’s willful amnesia: the Jewish converts who filled their traditional foods with pork to assert their full and complete conversion to Christianity; the winding road that the accused Jewish heretics were forced to march down on their way to the gallows; the sun-bleached prison wall where Jewish prisoners’ bodies once hung, and which now borders an outdoor cafe. She listens to the song of the city’s bells, searching for an ancient message, stares down at the rushing Guadalete River, mining its ancient water for hidden clues, and stands before the sandstone cliffs, hoping they will whisper secrets in her ear.

Unlike Eliot, who argued for a broad re-reading of history that enabled him to revise his personal standing as well, Carvajal is much more interested in re-reading the history of an entire population: the Jews in Spain. Her search for her family history is overshadowed by her larger discussion of the character of modern-day Spain—of the people who have worked to preserve the heritage of Arcos de La Frontera, and those she meets who are further along in their quest to reclaim their Jewish roots. While the story of Spain’s relationship to its own history is often fascinating in Carvajal’s retelling, the book suffers from her unwillingness to truly grapple with the personal, weighted meaning behind her search.

The Forgetting River meanders to and fro between a serious piece of journalism, filled with DNA testing and hours spent pouring over ancient texts, to something that reads much more like a folly. On Palm Sunday, Carvajal follows a woman named Mari who sings Spanish religious songs called Saetas. “Saeta music was a coded form of singing with double meanings, the music of converso Jews conveying their true emotions in words demonstrating faith in Christianity,” Carvajal writes. “I wondered if those ancient voices could reach me through Mari’s notes.” It is at moments like these that Carvajal’s training as a reporter, a skill that gives her strength throughout much of the book, fails her. She can neither apply her reporting skills to more abstract pursuits, like decoding the ancient lyrics, nor can she sacrifice her reporter’s distance to lend personal insight to the fraught search for identity. Rather than untangle what it means to be raised attending mass and Catholic school and then to ostensibly slough off that identity, Carvajal relies on banal musings about “ancient voices” and “old souls,” leaving the reader with no better knowledge of the subject or the narrator.

Throughout The Forgetting River, Carvajal seeks transformation, looks for signs, and awaits the emergence of hidden meanings. Though by the book’s end, Carvajal has concluded her search, the reader’s relationship to her journey remains unresolved. She has received her answers, yet we have not benefited from having those answers distilled or expounded upon. The best memoirs are those that tell one small story, but offer a universal message. It is typically that quest for broader meaning that writers struggle with, and yet with The Forgetting River, the problem is quite the opposite. The book reads as a rich recounting of a country’s difficult history, and of one town’s struggle in particular, and yet the narrator whom we feel the most invested in, remains hardly more than a shadow.

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Abby Margulies

ABBY MARGULIES is a freelance writer who lives in Brooklyn.