Edgardo Cozarinsky is an Argentinian long based in Paris, and this gripping collection of stories is much concerned with the passage to the New World and the continuing lure of the Old. It starts in the port of Odessa in 1890, when a young Jew is about to set out for a better life as a smallholder on "the endless fertile plains of Argentina". Only at moments like this can one slough off an old identity and adopt a new one without anybody noticing - a decision which, 110 years later, comes back to haunt the imagination of his great-grandson.
Much of the book revolves around the dislocations of the Second World War. The last and longest story opens in another port, 50 years later, as some of Europe's cultural élite embark from Lisbon to New York. As they look back, wracked by "uncertainty, anxiety, relief, nostalgia, remorse", they see the bright lights - like "the last lights of Europe" - of an exhibition celebrating Portuguese culture. They may be fleeing fascism, but cannot help feeling "impressed despite themselves by the glittering display of a triumphal exhibition of imperial power".
Again departure from Europe offers an opportunity for radical reinvention, and again a descendant becomes obsessed with the scene: the émigrés, the spies, the racketeers. The very words "Lisbon, 1940" have an emotional power which nothing in his own life can match: "It sometimes seems to me that my grandparents... used up all the possible curiosity I might have for living adventures rather than reading about them."
Cozarinsky is brilliant at the multi-layered atmospheres of cities, where the ghosts of historical events or childhood memories echo through ordinary streets. Most of the book's "heroes" live in anguish, waiting for the decisive moment when the present is reclaimed by the past.
These bitter-sweet stories have a highly distinctive voice, but Cozarinsky shares Borges's fascination with revenge and the deep wells of passion which underlie the quietest lives. A former militant tracks down the man who betrayed his group when, 25 years later, she sees a poster advertising a production of Handel's Alcina. Surely no one else could have shared his dream of "putting on what was then an almost forgotten opera... on an island or beside a lake"? An ageing man recalls the woman who taught him Russian literature and who, "despite admiring the poetry of Donne and Keats", had nothing but contempt for the English and Anglophile Argentinians. It is only after her death that he uncovers the tragic roots of this bitter obsession.
Strangest of all is the story of the (presumably Jewish) musician who starts losing work in Berlin in the early 1930s and takes refuge in Argentina. Only cocaine keeps him going as a café pianist and, even in 1937, there is something luring him back to Germany. Cozarinsky lets us imagine his fate, fading out in a series of reflections about how death always leaves behind "brief fragments of a truncated story". This book is also a collection of strange fragments, disturbing fables rich in the sensual detail of places.
The reviewer edits the 'Jewish Quarterly'Reuse content