Academic journal article Chasqui

Paternity, Patria, and Patriarchy: In Search of the Unhomely Father in Las Hojas Muertas by Barbara Jacobs

Academic journal article Chasqui

Paternity, Patria, and Patriarchy: In Search of the Unhomely Father in Las Hojas Muertas by Barbara Jacobs

Article excerpt

Las hojas muertas (1987), the first novel by Barbara Jacobs, has been described as having been written with a tone that is "voluntariamente menor" (Jimenez de Baez 128). This novel, winner of the Xavier Villaurrutia prize tbr literature, is emblematic of the diversity of voices in contemporary Mexican letters. As the daughter of a Lebanese-American father and a Mexican mother, Jacobs' familial ties afford her personal experience of multiple cultures and a unique perspective on the United States and its citizens. Indeed, the novel suggests an intimate and personal relationship between Mexicans and North Americans. Many of the representations of the U.S. in the novel, both positive and negative, stem from archetypes and stereotypes as perceived by the multicultural narrators of Las hojas muertas. The North American protagonist, the narrators' father, defies some of these stereotypes while fulfilling others. The narrators tell their father's story in simple language, apparently with great reverence for him, although the inconsistencies in the narrative cause the reader to doubt the veracity of certain events they remember or reconstruct. The father, a failure, wields power within his family by withholding approval and intimacy from them. Because of this, the narrators will never really know him, but will instead idealize him and forever seek his affection.

Late in his life, however, the father's shortcomings will become too great for his grown children to ignore; the conflict between their desire to please him and their awareness of his shortcomings lead them to disclose certain events and to obscure others. This rift in the perspective of the children and the impact it has on the reliability of the narrative allows the novel to explore and critique the spaces between a variety of boundaries and cultural stereotypes. Las hojas muertas not only presents a nuanced view of a minority community coexisting within the United States, but also recognizes the diversity -- and the corresponding marginality -- within both the U.S. and Mexico. At the same time, the novel provides a space in which fatherhood, fatherland and father figures coincide in subtle but provocative ways. Both the Lebanese-American protagonist and the novel itself with its Lebanese-American-Mexican narrators reflect the "unhomely" or unheimlich as described by Homi K. Bhabha in lhe Location of Culture, capturing the sense of estrangement and dislocation that accompany the blurring of lines between public and private, presence and absence, and between one culture and another. Jacobs engages the dynamic of the "unhomely" in a complex calculus of ambiguities surrounding the age and number of the narrators, the relationship between herself and her narrators, national stereotypes, and the tensions inherent in the narrators' desire for but increasing (and increasingly troubled) awareness of her/their father's failures.

Las hojas muertas is narrated in first person by an undetermined number of siblings who reconstruct the youth of their father, a Lebanese-American man who marries their Lebanese-Mexican mother and emigrates to Mexico. The novel is divided into three sections. In the first, the narrators describe the children's memories of their father from when they were young: their visits to Michigan, their relationship with their aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmother, as well as their life in Mexico where their father owned and operated a hotel. In the second section, the narrators uncover and describe the experiences of their father prior to his marriage and arrival in Mexico, including his communist leanings, his travel to Moscow as a would-be journalist, and his participation in the Spanish Civil War. In the third section, the narrators explore their father's economic decline, his old age and descent into a depression from which he seems unlikely to recover, dwelling instead on a lifetime of exiles both self-willed and compulsory. He wallows in his failures, contemplating the bridge outside his bedroom window and wondering in vain about the origin of a half-remembered line from one of the many books he has read, wishing only to be swallowed by the eddies of dead leaves under the bridge. …

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