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Works of Radical Imagination

Book cover for The Jewish Son
Book cover for The Jewish Son

A breathtaking short novel about the complicated feelings of hate and pity in familial love, by an acknowledged Latin American master.

A brilliant and dark tour de force, The Jewish Son presents the delicate archeology of the stubbornness of a boy who demands his parents’ attention. It is a brutal confession of the lies necessary to win a space of approval in a troubled family, a treatise on the excesses of love and the paradoxical lack of affection that is never enough, an accomplished narration of childhood from the point of view of the adult gaze, and a rewriting of Kafka’s Letter to His Father. As his father’s imminent death becomes an ever more concrete reality with surgeries, caregivers, sedatives and his mother grows obsessed with visits to the rabbi and amasses saint cards and Buddhist prayers, the narrator evokes the remnants of the rejection that pervaded his childhood. Without yielding to the idealization of youth or to the delight in pain before physical decay and death, Guebel dissects, beautifully although with discomfort, his very early conversion to the dream of literature as an act of reparation.

Read an excerpt in Asymptote

Book cover for The Jewish Son
Book cover for The Jewish Son

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“Guebel's...writing is always alert and impressive and is strikingly well translated by Jessica Sequeira.”

“Early in The Jewish Son, an electrifying novella by the Argentine writer Daniel Guebel, arriving in English in April, the narrator makes a bold claim: “Franz Kafka’s Letter to His Father is one of my favorite books; if I had to choose between rescuing this handbook of self-disparagement and reproach from a blazing fire, or Ulysses, I’d abandon Joyce’s pyrotechnic novel to the flames and burn my fingers to save the few pages written by the Czech Jew.” We soon learn that the autofictional narrator, also named Daniel, is so attached to this minor work because Kafka’s tempestuous relationship with his father parallels Daniel’s own. The Jewish Son, vividly translated by Jessica Sequeria, centers on this fraught bond, slipping seamlessly between recollections of a youth defined by a domineering father and a present consumed with care for this patriarch, now laid low by age and illness. While brief mentions of the Argentine military dictatorship hint at the contestations of power unfolding in the wider world — Daniel’s father, a follower of Lenin, belongs to an illegal political organization — Guebel remains focused on the intimate struggle between father and son. But following his literary idol, Daniel understands this conflict as nothing less than metaphysical. “For Kafka,” he explains enigmatically, “the Law is no longer God but the Father, and the struggle is no longer to understand Him (for the Father, like God, is at the mercy of His own whim, and to the violence of His formulations) but to be understood by Him, and to confront Him so that he may survive.””

“In Argentine writer Guebel’s potent blend of autobiographical fiction and criticism, he analyzes his relationship with his 89-year-old father and reflects on Franz Kafka’s “Letter to His Father.” Daniel regularly shuttles Luis, who has terminal prostate cancer, from Luis’s home to the hospital. During their time together, Daniel quizzes Luis to help spark his memory (“When I ask him his what his name is, he says: ‘Me’ ”) and entertains Luis with games of dominoes. In flashbacks, Daniel recounts a childhood rife with antisemitic schoolyard bullies, beatings from Luis, and attempts to win over Luis’s affection. As Daniel grows older, his father’s physical abuse turns verbal, and while working at the family’s refrigerator store, Daniel is tasked with an endless barrage of menial and demeaning duties. Throughout, Daniel meditates on Kafka’s account of his own complicated relationship with his father (“What the text constantly says is: that which I am, Father, you shall never understand”), and finds contrasts between himself and Kafka, as he matures into the role of caretaker. Along the way, he arrives at striking insights on the fragility of masculinity. A satisfying story emerges from Guebel’s searching study.

“Who does Daniel Guebel resemble as a writer? One might say that his subversive prose comes from Gogol and Nabokov, or even that he seems an improbable Argentine Pynchon. But Guebel is great due to his own qualities.”

“A book like this one, which asks about identity, the invention of an inheritance, and even the construction of the figure of the author, necessarily had to inquire into the very limits of the genre in which it is written.”

“This brief novel, written in just two months, has the simplicity—which never means simplemindedness—of a perfect book. The Jewish Son is an autobiographical novella that reads like a memoir, in which Guebel retraces his relationship to his father: from the boy’s childhood education of physical punishments, to the Copernican turn when the grown man has to take responsibility for a vulnerable parent.”

“Guebel measures himself against Kafka as a long-suffering Jewish son, but also as an author. He acknowledges the Prague-born writer’s top place on the podium of European literature (as he assures us, he wouldn’t hesitate to save him in a fire before Joyce), and like Franz, he shields himself with writing as a refuge from paternal incomprehension and cruelty.”

Daniel Guebel
Daniel Guebel has published over twenty-five books, including novels, short stories and plays. He won Argentina’s National Literature Prize as well as the Argentine Academy of Letters’ novel prize. The Absolute was chosen by La Nación newspaper as its book of the year and The Emperor’s Pearl won the Emecé Prize. His autobiographical book The Jewish Son also won the Buenos Aires Book Fair’s award for literary criticism. Guebel’s latest novel is A Japanese Crime. A lover of Japanese literature, he owns a sushi restaurant.
Jessica Sequeira

Jessica Sequeira is a writer and literary translator. She is the author of the novel A Furious Oyster, the story collection Rhombus and Oval, the essay collection Other Paradises: Poetic Approaches to Thinking in a Technological Age and the hybrid work A Luminous History of the Palm. She has translated over twenty books by Latin American authors, and in 2019 was awarded the Premio Valle-Inclán for her translation of Sara Gallardo’s Land of Smoke. She lives in Santiago, Chile and Cambridge, England.