A re-reading of a book by Natalia Ginzburg has brought back to me not only a work I found uniquely beautiful in its tranquil honesty when I read it in translation from the Italian in the '60s; it has opened an overgrown way, that I thought to be a cul-de-sac, in my own life.
Natalia Ginzburg's "Family Sayings"--is what? Fictionalized family history? What was actually said; and what has been invented by Natalia that went on out of her hearing, in her Italian family from the '30s through the '50s: added exchanges between its members, imaginatively created by familiarity and the emotions, love, resentment, understanding, of which she was part?
But she writes: "The places, events, people in this book are all real. I have invented nothing. Every time that I found myself inventing something in accordance with my old habits as a novelist, I have felt impelled at once to destroy everything thus invented." Not for her the usual disclaimer, all characters are fictitious, no living personages, et cetera. "The names are all real....Possibly some may not be pleased to find themselves described in a book under their own names. To such I have nothing to say." And yet, again, from this translator of Proust (" la recherche du temps perdu," no less), the other, self-admonition: "I must not be beguiled into autobiography as such." Her blindfold trail into the past is not sign-posted by an uneven paving stone or the bite into a madeleine, but by overhearing, echoing in her present, the intimate lingua franca of vanished family life.
The past is crowded out by the present during the day. Early in the morning I lie in bed eavesdropping on the birds and the rubrics heard in childhood surface from that past.
Natalia's family sayings are concerned with family relationships increasingly affected by conflicting views on and eventually actions of, fascists and antifascists--her family belonged to the latter. When I overhear in recollection my own family's sayings, this is in the ambience of a different but related context: racism, first of the colonial kind, then that of its apogee, apartheid. But although Natalia Ginzburg married a foreigner, a Russian Jewish revolutionary, her own half-Jewish family was Italian, deeply rooted in its native country. There was no Old Country, not far behind them.
Now that family sayings come back to me from the house in the South African gold-mining town where I was born and grew up, I begin to see that, involved as I was in the clamor of racism and anti-racism, I did not hear that other voice whose significance I've never pursued. It's a given: You don't know your parents, ever, no matter how venerably stable your social background may be. But it is immigrant parents you particularly don't know, if they have taken you, as I was, completely and unquestioningly into their assimilated life of the country of your birth, not theirs. My mother and maternal grandparents (the only ones I was ever to know) came to South Africa from England, my father from Latvia. There were revolutions and wars in Europe; nobody went back. Like Natalia, I don't intend to be beguiled into autobiography. I can only confirm to myself that we lived entirely in the present, in the mining town and in the city where my grandparents lived. For me, the lives of parents and grandparents began with mine. My time, my place. Only now I'm led to decode from family sayings what these meant as clues to the life, the drowned Atlantis of the past where they had lived without me, back beyond me. The family sayings have become my small glossary of where they came from, not as marked on a map of the world but in attitudes and perceptions formed to deal with life--elsewhere, or to counter the immigrant's alienation in the country he had adopted without assurance it had adopted him.
My grandfather Mark Myers was in love with his old wife, Phoebe, one could see that, but skeptical of her intelligence as a shopper. He was a connoisseur of fruit, as perfectionist as any wine buff. When she arrived back at their Johannesburg flat from the greengrocer, she would have to unpack her string bag before his eyes. He would pick up and sniff the melon, then run a finger over a peach's down, alert for bruises. Perhaps it was the avocado that caught her out, too hard, overripe, he would shake it gently to hear if there was an answer from the pip detached from the flesh. Then derisory judgment, softened by use of a love-name from the old life: "Bob, they saw you coming."
The reproachful quip didn't exist in South African idiom. Mark Myers was a cockney, streetwise from Covent Garden. None of us knew what his work was before he came "out to Africa," to prospect unsuccessfully for diamonds in Kimberley. But the saying became ours; if anyone in the family was conned, the affectionate jeer was to hand, from London. Bob, they saw you coming. If my grandfather's past was still extant, privately, for him, in the copies of the News of the World, the yellow press London paper he subscribed to by mailship, my father's past was sunk five fathoms. The inevitable shtetl in the region of Riga had disappeared or been renamed on the side of new frontiers, its remaining inhabitants killed in pogroms or later in war. He had left school when perhaps 11 years old, apprenticed as a watchmaker, and after immigrating to South Africa at 13, for some years plied his trade along the gold mines and rose to become the owner of a jewelry store where he prospered enough to employ someone else to repair watches. That much we knew. And that was all: Clearly his origins were humble in comparison with the middle-class ones of my mother, whose father made his modest living by the sophisticated means of playing the stock exchange--a respectable gambler. My mother was the product of a good school for girls and played the piano. She did not reassure her husband in any way about his origins; when they quarreled she had the last word with her family saying: He came from people who "slept on the stove." He never spoke of his Old Country and I, no doubt influenced by my mother's dismissal of his lowly foreign past, never asked him about it.
My father's sense of inferiority conversely had a sense of superiority: He had married "above himself" as my mother made sure he realized. He might not have known the phrase, but he was aware of its significance. He had not sent back to the Old Country, as some other immigrants did before it disappeared, for a wife of his own kind from among those, cold and poor, who slept on the stove.
The principal and enduring source of his superior inferiority was that my mother was a native English speaker with genuine English-speaking parents. It was due to the advantage of living with her, listening to her and having at least his own good fortune to have a parrot's ear, that he spoke that language almost entirely without the accent of Eastern European Jews that provides material for stand-up comics. Yiddish must have been his mother tongue--there was no one to speak it with, of any generation, in our family; a dead language for him. When some German speaker, result of a new immigration, this time from Nazi pogroms, was a customer in his shop, it was revealed my father could speak a little German learned in his short spell of schooling. During World War II, when there was news from the Russian front, it appeared that he also knew some Russian; he could pronounce all the unpronounceable names of cities and generals. He had picked up enough Afrikaans to deal with customers--Afrikaner whites in the town. Even more evident of the exigencies of immigrant survival, he had taught himself something invented by colonial mining companies in order for the white bosses to be able to communicate with the black indentured men who came from all over Southern, Central and East Africa to work in the mines--a curt pidgin of verbs and nouns believed to be more or less understandable to all--a mixture of Zulu, Afrikaans and English, dubbed Fanagalo. Be like--do--like this ; more or less the accepted, certainly intended meaning. It consisted mainly of commands. He must have acquired it--had to--in the early days of his immigration when he went from mine to mine mending workers' watches.
All this was mimicry, wasn't it--surely the first essential for survival as an immigrant in any country, any time?
He knew English. He was fluent enough for all the purposes of our daily communication. He had refined his pronunciation through his choice of an "English" wife. He had "English" daughters who read beside him, in the evenings, "Doctor Dolittle" and "Little Women," books he had never heard of from a culture that his wife assured him did not belong to him.
Yet I hear it again. When he came home from his shop at the end of the day and my mother's friends were gathered over their gin and vermouth, he would greet everyone with "What news on the Rialto?"
Where did that quotation come from, to him? He did not read anything except a newspaper; he certainly had never read "The Merchant of Venice." What painstaking early struggle with a phrase book, what lessons in English he must have scrimped and saved to afford does that family saying represent? His news was that he was part of the taken-for-granted cultural background of the company, by a tag if nothing else.
My grandfather's cockney sayings affirmed his past; my father's, his need to hold a place in his present. When people complained about a misfortune, the shortcomings of the city council or the problems of making a living, he had another saying, this one more expressive in his adoptive Afrikaans than its equivalent might be in English: "So gaan dit in die wereld" --that's the way of the world. He was ready with "More is nog 'n dag" --tomorrow's another day--if someone despaired in a troubling circumstance or lost the first round of a golf tournament. These sayings, heard over and over, I didn't recognize as the immigrant's tactics, seeking acceptance. The stranger my father was, was calling out. He was reinventing something: himself.
How much of self-esteem comes from defining someone as lower than oneself on the ladder of human values?
Where, on whom, from his precarious foothold, can an immigrant look down? An element of racism is identifying that person even while at the same time being identified by others as beneath them. By chance and history my father had come to a country where self-esteem via racism was indulged by those who were in absolute political power and social control, far from insecure. (The turn of history on them was to come much later, with the end of white rule .... ) That white community of South Africa--to which he could "belong" at least by the pallor of his skin--despised the black people whose country they had colonized and ruled by force. So even an immigrant from a people who slept on the stove was provided with someone, some humankind, to regard as beneath him. My father conformed to the racist social judgments of white townspeople, our family friends, his shopkeeper colleagues, using a saying of this extended family of whites as they did. The strongest condemnation of a white man's crude behavior, drunk or sober, was to call him "a white kaffir."
This was not a saying ever pronounced by my mother; in fact there would be in her face yet another confirmation of all that she found crude in my father; that he, of all people, should think it insulting for a white man to be called black.
There were subtleties in racism among the sayings familiar to me in our town. Here, even my mother, who was not racist when it came to black and white, would make use of them. Among Jews, there was the other expression of disgust: "He's a real Peruvian." "He" would be a Jew whose loud behavior, flamboyance and vulgarity offended. "The real Peruvian" did not come from Peru and the insulting implication surely devolved upon Peruvians as much as it did on the man so scorned. Why such behavior should be associated with Peru, where no one in the community had ever been, and there was no one from that country among our white population of English, Scots, Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Jewish, German, Greek origin, I can explain only by suggesting that to the speaker Peru was the end of the Earth, beyond civilization, the last place God made; remote as Africa might seem to Peruvians. Perhaps the outlandish epithet also served to distance local Jews from conduct that might give a toehold of credence to anti-Semitism, which rumbled among Afrikaners--themselves discriminated against by the English-speaking whites.
Fifty or more years later, I decode these family sayings as the echoes of lost home--Grandpa Myers'--in an immigrant culture, or the innocently crafty attempt--my father's--of survival in escape from that culture. These days, I walk past elegant shopping malls in the suburbs of Johannesburg through sidewalk markets where, capered about before me, dangled at me, are masks and jewelry, carvings and sculpture, cowrie-and-seed rattles; I'm importuned by strangers' mimicry of South African sales-talk English. The vendors have come from all over Africa, they speak among themselves the mother tongues of their Old Countries--Mali, Nigeria, Congo, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, Senegal, Ethiopia--anywhere and everywhere there is war, natural disaster of flood and drought, and poverty by comparison with which we are a rich country, despite our own share of the poor and workless.
Their cajolings, reproduction of phrases understood by them only in the sense of intention, are their family sayings. They're the latest arrivals of the endless no-nation of immigrants, forming and reforming the world, a globalization that long, long predates any present concept. That's the news on the Rialto; nothing new. Just survival.