Marjorie Agosín

The Feminist Press, 1998
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Poetry cannot soar when the soul it expresses is dragging self-made chains.
ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is the story of the author’s father Moisés Agosín, a Jewish doctor from Chile. Marjorie Agosín’s loving phrases clearly convey her father’s caring nature and other admirable qualities, and her deep devotion to him, honoring his struggle to build the best life he could under difficult circumstances. Dr. Agosín was often disinclined to speech, and the author “has had to intuit much of the stories,” as Elizabeth Rosa Horan says in the introduction. It is important to remember this when reading moving descriptions of events at which the author was not present.
The Agosín family are wanderers, fleeing as anti-Semitism grows too strong in each new place. Their travels are recounted beginning with the meeting of Moisés’ parents Abraham and Raquel in Odessa in 1910, on to Istanbul, to Marseilles where Moisés is born, to Chile and the USA. In Chile, Abraham earns his way from poverty to upper middle class as a tailor, and Raquel is no longer forbidden to sing as she had been as a Jew in Eastern Europe. They find happiness and are honored in the community that is their refuge. Moisés is unhappy confronting institutionalized anti-Semitism in his schools, but he is determined and enterprising. He alleviates his unhappiness with passionate piano playing and wins respect as a doctor researching parasites at the University of Chile; but when he is offered the position of Director of Medical History all the assistants of the department resign in a body in protest against working for a Jew. He rebuilds the department, converting it into a modern institution of science. Eventually he is driven from Chile by a newspaper campaign against him. He and his family alight in Georgia, USA, and there confront prejudice against them as both Jews and Latinos. The author concludes the book by identifying most Jews, including her family, as wanderers in permanent exile.
ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is a book pervaded by grief. It has been described as a meditation on outsiderism. It is also, unintentionally, a study of the way a family passes misery down the generations from parent to child. It is not just the anti-Semitism of the rich Chilean Germans that is adopted from immigrant ancestors. Moisés teaches his daughter, just as he was told by his parents, that Jews are outsiders with no  home. He impresses on young Marjorie vivid stories about the pogroms that drove their family out of Russia. Abraham and Raquel refuse to dwell on their unhappy past, but Moisés intensely rebuilds it for his daughter. The author lives what she describes as a happy life in Chile, and shifts at age twelve to a  physically safe life in the USA, but even so she indicates survivor’s guilt when she asks herself, “Why did I survive?”
I kept waiting for the book to recognize the responsibility of the individual for his/her own life, and never found it. Dr. Agosín is offered two different respected positions in Israel where he would suffer less from prejudice, and refuses them, staying in Georgia instead. Throughout the Stalin-like repressions of Pinochet in Chile, he and his family make visits from the USA back to Santiago and wait for their chance to return permanently. The author says that for two decades the Agosíns make no effort to become part of life in the country where they now live.
Such books have a value. It is well to shine a spotlight on cruelty, heartlessness and false accusation in hopes that the perpetrators will see that such things are not acceptable. It is also well for anyone who is subject to prejudice to avoid looking for the worst in people who are not prejudiced. The author gives very little recognition to the many unprejudiced people she and her father must have encountered in their lives. Instead she emphasizes that their friends in Chile showed hypocrisy when they voted against Dr. Agosín’s elevation to university director, and describes how little capacity for friendship she finds in North Americans.
At first this book was difficult for me to read, because Marjorie Agosín is a poet and I am a prose reader by preference. It went much better when I learned to skip over the phrases that were inserted for their poetic value but left me wondering what the author was getting at. I leave it to experts to evaluate the poetry.
ALWAYS FROM SOMEWHERE ELSE is recommended for a very specialized taste. It is a companion book to A CROSS AND A STAR, the biography of Frida, Moisés’ wife and the author’s mother. Both books, translated from the Spanish original, are part of the Helen Rose Scheuer Jewish Women’s Series. The author has won the Letras de Oro Prize and the Latino Literature Prize, and is chair of the Spanish department at Wellesley College, Massachusetts.
July 2000 Review first posted on the Independent Reviews Site


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