Cry Uncle: a novel by Ricardo Nirenberg.
New York: Latino Press, 1998. 320 pages.
Reviewed by Margaret Black.
We all know the rich vein of original literary ore that Latin Americans have discovered. Seventeenth-century conquistador silver and gold were nothing as compared with the region's twentieth-century treasure in letters, with its fantastic exaggeration, its passionate intellectualism, its magical realism. Author Ricardo Nirenberg, an Argentine by birth, shares all these traits and more in Cry Uncle, a novel that is also positively airborne with humor.
At the novel's cyclonic center is fifty-year-old Max Krocus, a mathematician turned poet who has come home to his native Buenos Aires from upstate New York after years of exile. Until now he's feared he was wanted by the police for business crimes his much-adored father had committed in his name. Now Max is back, searching in a spastic, disorganized fashion for love and understanding from his infuriating mother and reconciliation with his angry sister. But most of all he wants to orgiastically embrace his native land, preferably in the shape of women, preferably gorgeous and wearing extremely high heels. And, oh yes, he's also seeking vindication of his father's character and revenge on his wealthy uncle Chaim, his mother's successful brother. Our Max is a veritable Jewish Hamlet.
Max's distracted pursuit of revenge makes the efforts of Shakespeare's hero seem crisp and decisive, for Max reels around Buenos Aires reliving his history and the city's history, his crimes and the city's crimes. To complicate matters his successful university classmate Fontana is in town, giving lectures on mathematics and getting all the best women. It's a tough meeting between the two old friends. As Fontana says, "a mediocre mathematician has a lot to contribute ... but a mediocre poet, what's he good for." Max, of course, counters that he's a great poet, "inspired, orphic, essential," but he privately doubts his words. When he informs his mother that Fontana is world renowned, she swiftly responds, "He too shits, doesn't he," evincing what Max calls her "scatological egalitarian views" that "obliterates any differences due to merit, wisdom, or courage."
Reclaiming his father is no easier for Max than defending his own present. "Don Onofrio's life can only be explained in terms of quantum mechanics. You could never say for sure that he was entirely here or there, at this or that time, a member of a particular family, but was always a messy superposition in several locations and of many masks." Max has determined that only when his father lay dead in his coffin was he finally reduced to the definite here and now of Classical Mechanics.
Nirenberg's earthy vulgarity masks a fantastic intelligence that plays with notions ranging from Turing machines to the nature of miracles. Complex thinking may seem to bully its way into Max's mind through his habitually crude, downright bathroom take on reality, but it's there all the time, as insistent as his prick at the sight of skirt pulling tight over soft thighs. The author also plays daring games with images. When Max seeks out his father's grave in the Jewish cemetery, he finds the Jewish dead located just past the abattoir. Men are prodding cows, this time, out of cattle cars and driving them to slaughter. It is no idle juxtaposition.
But the real reward of Nirenberg's writing is his truly delicious, acid humor. Poor Max is twice divorced. His first wife "kept a tally of her orgasms and assigned him to the lowest quartile when he couldn't perform." Despite his renunciation of numbers, clouds of mathematics cling to Max like cooking odors. His second wife "was too clean. She shaved under her armpits." Indeed, Max took to writing in order to recall the smells of Buenos Aires. The wit comes sentence by sentence, but Nirenberg has a couple of splendid riffs, including a marvelous international comparison about coffee service for academics ("Now, in India, at a research institute in Bombay, each professor is assigned a man who crouches in a corner of the office and waits ..."). But the pièce de resistance comes in a scene where Max is caught in a psychoanalyst's office (he is trying to seduce the psychoanalyst's daughter) and pretends to be a Lacanian inspector. Nabokov would appear to be alive and well, and Cry Uncle is a rare find.
A street corner in the Buenos Aires neighborhood Mataderos, where part of the action of Cry Uncle takes place.
[Cry Uncle is available for $13 at The BookHouse, Stuyvesant Plaza, Albany, NY 12203. ]