Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Arts & Culture Novelist’s Latest Book Reflects His Own Split, Conflicting Identities

October 10, 2005
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Novelist Francisco Goldman’s name reflects the contradictory elements of his life. “I’ve always been what I am,” says the writer, whose third novel, “The Divine Husband,” has just been released in paperback by Grove Press. “Half and half.”

Son of a secular, Jewish-American father and a Guatemalan immigrant mother, Goldman grew up in the Boston suburb of Needham, Mass.

“We went for Passover dinner at my aunt and uncle’s house. I had a ‘fake’ Bar Mitzvah — my Torah portion was written out for me in phonetic English; I had no idea what I was saying. Obviously it was a very reformed temple,” says Goldman, 50.

On his mother’s side, the novelist’s family is Catholic.

“I was baptized but never got around to being confirmed. My mother was a churchgoer for many years, but she fell out with the church over anti-Semitism,” he says.

“One day, the priest gave an anti-Semitic sermon and my mother went up to him and said, ‘I’m a Catholic and I’m married to a Jew, and anti-Semitism is wrong.’ The priest wouldn’t retract, and that’s when she began to drift away from the church.”

History more or less repeats itself in Goldman’s fiction. In “The Divine Husband,” set in the late-19th century, Mac Chinchilla, a Mayan Indian adventurer from Central America who has grown up in New York, returns to his home country and defends the migration of Jews to Central America before the local immigration society.

The novel is an epic that begins with its heroine as a pubescent novice in a Central American convent school in the 1870s. It ends in New York some 20 years later, at which point the protagonist has a daughter whose father may or may not be the Cuban poet and statesman Jose Marti.

“The Divine Husband’s” historical aspects were thoroughly researched.

“One of the treasure troves I found deep in the bowels of the New York Public Library was the actual records of the Guatemala Immigration Society. There are accounts of these ridiculous debates they had about whether they should let in Jews, or Irishmen,” Goldman says.

“I didn’t have an articulated strategy about what I was doing with Mac, just that there was some kind of force that drew him to the Jews. They express something to him that the white people — the Irish, the English, the Germans — don’t. He likes them, he admires them, they are his friends.”

When the book was released in hard cover last year, it was reviewed in newspapers and magazines across the United States. But Goldman is amazed that not a single critic mentioned the Jewish theme, which pervades the novel’s 400-plus pages.

Among the major characters is Jose Pryzpyz, born Josip Ginzburg, a Polish Jew who arrives in Central America by way of England and founds a thriving business repairing umbrellas and making condoms. There also are the Nahon brothers, Moroccan Jews who befriend Mac in New York, and a couple of American Jews who play on the Guatemalan baseball team.

“No critic would touch that,” Goldman says, his voice rising incredulously. He thinks it’s because he tends to be identified with Latino writers, and the Jewish theme “doesn’t go with the stereotype of what Latino books are like. So the critics say to themselves, ‘Why should we tax our brains and think about why this book is different from other books?’ “

Goldman divides his time between apartments in New York and Mexico City with his wife, the Mexican writer Aura Estrada Curiel.

Goldman’s previous novels, “The Long Night of the White Chickens” and “The Ordinary Seaman,” have won or been finalists for important awards, including the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

While his own identity is a melding of his two halves, the writer says, “Never do I consider myself more of a Jew than when I am faced with anti-Semitism” — something he says happens all too often in literary circles.

Last year, Goldman was invited to a literary conference in the Caribbean at which Amiri Baraka read his controversial poem about the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, “Somebody Blew Up America,” which includes the lines “Who told 4000 Israel workers at the Twin Towers/To stay away that day.”

“He played the victim of censorship and got a standing ovation,” Goldman says. “I felt as if I had been at the Nuremberg rally. I couldn’t relax after that.”

Nonetheless, in “The Divine Husband,” Goldman examines what Jews and Latinos have in common. Mac Chinchilla “expresses an ambition and endurance and reverence for work that Jews have, too. You see Macs among the Mexican illegals in the U.S., just as 100 years ago you would have seen millions of Jewish Macs,” he says.

“It’s probably more difficult for an immigrant today, but I still think there is a common spirit between the tough Jew of the late 19th century in the New York tenement and the tough Central American dealing with the U.S. today,” he says. “I admire that spirit so much. That’s what I wanted to celebrate.”

Recommended from JTA