Must-read writing by Sarah Lawrence alumnae/i, faculty and students. This issue: An excerpt from Llámame Brooklyn (Call Me Brooklyn), the prize-winning first novel by Sarah Lawrence College faculty member Eduardo Lago, translated from Spanish expressly for Sarah Lawrence.
In this excerpt, the protagonist of the novel, Gal Ackerman—an orphan of the Spanish Civil war who was adopted by Benjamin and Lucia Ackerman, two members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—discovers the truth about his origins.
For Benjamin Ackerman, truth was a religion and it had always been clear to him that he had no right to conceal it from Teresa Quintana's son. What he never explained is what prompted him to tell me the story of my origins precisely on the day I turned 14. We were in the Archive, as Ben called the locked room where he kept his papers, and Lucia had joined us. As you can imagine, Abe, I was not at all prepared for what was to come. Perhaps, there is no way of preparing anyone to hear such a revelation. I can't remember his exact words, only their effect on me.
I felt an insufferable blow. My world collapsed and became incomprehensible. I felt as though someone had severed the mooring lines to my reality and as if I were floating in space. My attachment to them took on even greater meaning when I was told why they never had any other children; Lucia was sterile. She told my father when he proposed, and although Ben loved kids, he didn't want to give her up. Naturally, the limits of my life went beyond what happened in the house. My world was Brooklyn and its streets. Sometimes when filling out papers in school it felt strange to write down that I had been born in Spain. Well, perhaps it wasn't so strange after all. My classmates were from all over, from faraway states, even from other countries, children of Italian, Irish and Polish immigrants. Believe me, Abe, I really can't complain about a thing, it would be unfair. Ben and Lucia gave me all the love they were capable of. They saw to it that I had a proper education. When I finished high school, I entered Brooklyn College. Those were happy years, at least in retrospect. And now that I am telling you this, who knows why, the figure of David, my grandfather, looms large in my memory. He was not in the library that afternoon, nor does what I am telling you right now have anything to do with him. However, for some reason beyond my grasp, I relate that afternoon in the Archive, not just now but always, to something that happened the day I graduated. Maybe the connection lies in the fact that it was then that I understood that I had to face the world on my own. The truth is that I did not have the slightest idea what I wanted to do with my life; but the day of my graduation, when my grandfather asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I answered him resolutely that I wanted to be a writer. I don't know what the hell made me come out with that, I spoke without thinking, but when on that very night, I dwelled on it deeply, I realized that I had spoken the truth.
But back to the story. It would be entirely impossible for me to describe my feelings. At some point I became aware of Ben's voice, but I heard as if it was calling from far away. All of a sudden, I understood what he was trying to say. He wanted to show me a photograph of my parents. He had held on to it all those years, and the day had finally come to reveal it to me. I hesitated before telling him that I was scared to look at it. I didn't want that chasm to crack open beneath me. But Ben was adamant. They are your parents, he said. Lucia took my hand and held it tight. Truth exists, whether you accept it or not. There's no use denying it. I finally gave in, half-scared, half-curious. I felt like crying but was incapable. After what felt like an eternity, I decided to reach out my hand.
It was a picture of a couple. They are both very young. She is 19, I hear Ben say. He is a little older, maybe 20--21 at most. I behold the image as if from an infinite distance. They both seem beautiful and full of life. He is beaming, wearing a militia uniform, and she holds his arm. He is a slim and dark young man, with sharp features and a straight nose, very good-looking. Perhaps it's my imagination, but they seem very much in love, particularly her. She's clearly pregnant. With me. Her eyes are large, black, a bit sorrowful; one hand rests on her belly. His foot is on the ledge of a stone fountain inscribed with the words: República Española, 1934.
These are not my parents, that's what I said, looking at Ben and Lucia. You are my parents. I felt very calm after saying that. I no longer felt the need to cry. I'm sure they were feeling worse than I was. Not knowing what to do with it, I gave the photo back to Ben. It was clear that he had given it to me because he wanted me to keep it, but didn't dare say it. Finally he said: It's yours, I've been waiting years for the right moment to give it to you. Please take it.
I simply couldn't. I was afraid even to touch it. I remained still, not uttering a word.
All right, as you wish, Ben said. To him it was like being forced to drink the bitter cup as well. I will keep it here in the Archive in safekeeping, as before. His sense of duty made him add: With or without the photo, your mother is Teresa Quintana. Nobody can change that. He put his fingertip on the surface of matte print. Above the half oval shape of his fingernail the girlish face of the militia woman stood out. Ben slid his forefinger to the right a little and for a moment I was expecting him to add: and your father, Umberto Pietri. But he said nothing. Once again I felt an intense urge to cry, but was still incapable. My throat was very dry and gritty, as though clogged with sand.
A member of the SLC Spanish language and literature faculty since 1994, Eduardo Lago drew from North American and Spanish literary traditions to pay tribute to the friendship between the land of his birth and his adopted home. Llámame Brooklyn won the 2006 Premio Nadal, Spain's oldest and most prestigious literary award. One critic glimpsed the shadow of Cervantes on the pages of Llámame Brooklyn, in its retelling of events from different perspectives; others mention Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. The novel was inspired, Lago says, by the jobs he held and the Brooklyn neighborhoods he lived in after arriving in the United States. A full English translation is in the offing.