Gracias a la Vida

Gracias a la Vida

n a particularly gloomy day last November, I opened an e-mail message that began, “I am Paulina Rabinovich, the daughter of José Rabinovich, the writer who wrote “A Man and His Parrot.” That’s the title of an Afterword we published last year, written by a man who had emigrated to Argentina from Bialystok in 1924. It was translated by longtime contributing writer Debbie Nathan and published in a collection, Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing, edited by Alan Astro of Trinity University in San Antonio and published by the University of New Mexico Press. It’s the story of a basically good man who is down on his luck: Manuel is unemployed, supported by his pregnant wife. “He is itching to do something so his hands will turn back into hands,” wrote Rabinovich. “He rolls the bitterness inside his mouth and catches it in his throat unable to swallow, but unable to spit it out either. And the harsh taste refuses to stay in his throat. It goes all through his body and is concentrated around his heart. What a life!” Meanwhile, Manuel is engaged in an existential battle with the household parrot. “Master! Master!” shrieks the parrot, whenever it sees Manuel, who takes his revenge slowly and secretly by depriving the bird of water. One day passes, then another, and another. To keep up appearances—he doesn’t want the neighbors to think that he is starving the creature—he feeds it seeds and pieces of stale bread. But the little water tin remains dry as dust. And then finally something gets him thinking—life itself—and Manuel rushes to give the parrot a drink. “I was emotioned when I received from my grandchild, who lives in Israel, and who found in Internet this tail of my father,” Paulina Rabinovich said in her e-mail. “I miss him from the day he died. I was born between books and I went with my father to all his friends’ houses. They were writers and wonderful human beings.” Reading “A Man and His Parrot,” she continued, reminded her of the many other stories her father would tell his children at night, after he finished his work. Her initial message soon turned into a flurry of e-mails between Nathan, Astro, the Observer, and various members of the Rabinovich family in Argentina, including a grandson visiting from Los Angeles. He was able to read his grandfather’s story—because it was in English—for the first time. While putting together this Winter Books issue, I keep thinking about Manuel and his parrot, José and his daughter. I loved “A Man and His Parrot,” but I like the story of Paulina and the Rabinovich family even more. And this is why: We live in an era of branding and psy-ops in this country, a time when language has been debased and stripped of all meaning. “No child left behind”; “enemy combatant”; “shock and awe”; “precision bombing”; “moral values.” “Freedom,” is the name of an “operation” in Iraq, the consequences of which your children and your children’s children will be paying for the rest of the century. And then one day, there it is—an e-mail inspired by a short story written decades ago in a language that some have given up for dead; a story that bounces through cyberspace from Texas to Israel to Argentina and back again to Texas. “I should be happy to receive some words of you,” wrote Paulina Rabinovich. “My english is not very good.” No, Paulina, your English is just fine. It does what language is supposed to do. Can there be a better combination of sentences in any language than this: “I was born between books and I went with my father to all his friends’ houses. They were writers and wonderful human beings.” ? If you are an editor these days at a magazine in Austin, Texas—the cradle of oligarchy, to borrow a phrase from Bill Moyers—maybe that’s as good as it gets. Gracias a tí, Paulina. —BB

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Published at 12:00 am CST