A Human Body of Books: A Passionate Seeker of Knowledge, Mexican Writer Margo Glantz Connects Lines between Critical Essays, Fiction, and Personal Histories

By Bach, Caleb | Americas (English Edition), July-August 2003 | Go to article overview

A Human Body of Books: A Passionate Seeker of Knowledge, Mexican Writer Margo Glantz Connects Lines between Critical Essays, Fiction, and Personal Histories


Bach, Caleb, Americas (English Edition)


We are not just the lives that we lead but also the lives that we read," observes Mexican writer and thinker Margo Glantz. "After all, we can only live one life, but when we read we can lead a thousand or even ten thousand lives!"

Certainly this has been true for Glantz, who as a child began devouring books in her father's library and still calls herself a "voracious" reader. Throughout her long, distinguished career as a university professor she has shared her passion for literature through perceptive lectures and critical essays that often reveal unsuspected connections between seemingly disparate elements. In recent years, she has embarked on another career as author of fictional works of great imagination. Deftly she has blended her academic specialties--theater, literature from Spain's Golden Age, chronicles of the Conquest, and the mystical writings of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz with her personal history, as well as fictional narratives dealing with women's issues, painting, music, the human body, food, and favorite animals. Now in her early seventies, she says, "I feel like I am still very young because I started writing fiction quite late. These days, I know what I want to write about and how I want to go about it."

As a person intensely curious about the entire world, Glantz loves to travel, but home base is a colonial-style house on a busy corner about a block from the main square in the Coyoacan district of Mexico City. Befitting a writer, shelves of books occupy almost every room of the house, especially her light-filled studio on the third floor that looks out on a terrace full of plants. The house abounds in works of art, including portraits of her, but mostly paintings and pieces of sculpture of and by her father, Jacobo Glantz. "He was also a serious poet with strong political opinions that often got him in trouble. That's him over there," she says, pointing to one of his many self-portraits. "Everyone said he looked like Trotsky because of his steel-rim glasses, unruly hair, but mostly his goatee."

In Las genealogias (1981) [The Family Tree, 1991], a touching and often humorous novel that functions like a memoir, Glantz describes how her parents emigrated from the Ukraine in the mid-1920s, almost settled in the United States, but eventually opted for a new life in Mexico. To support themselves, her parents engaged in a succession of commercial ventures that included a shoe-repair business, boutique, bakery, and even briefly a tooth-extraction clinic. But even now, Glantz recalls with special affection the family restaurant, the Cafe Carmel, where her mother, Elizabeth Shapiro, presided over the kitchen. "It opened in the fifties and survived for many years. I was not a little girl when they had it. It was a wonderful place, at the corner of Genova and Londres in the Zona Rosa, which offered food in the kosher style and served as a gathering place for the Jewish community, also many Mexican writers, intellectuals, and especially painters who showed their work on the premises."

Widely acknowledged as a pioneering work, The Family Tree is a model for the many memoirs by women that subsequently appeared in Mexico. Argentine author Nora Glickman believes it should be "read against the grain" of what she perceives as the usually self-congratulatory tone of male autobiographies, especially in Latin America. She says, "Glantz whimsically splinters her Jewish-Mexican woman's past, putting together a patchwork of trivial anecdotes and momentous events, a calculatingly untidy evocation at once poignant and implacably ironic."

Glantz does tell her story in an unstructured way, but it still congeals effectively into a cohesive whole. Its apparent randomness accurately captures the haphazard and often repetitive nature of memory. At one point in her account, she quotes Isaac Bashevis Singer, "that time and space are just an illusion" and goes on to say, "this sense of elongated, gelatinous, compressed time that has a single theme with multiple variations and cadenzas resembles my parents' lives. …

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