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October 19, 2017

Books to cherish

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A woman's wanderings in search of answers

Miriam Frank, in London last year.
Miriam Frank, in London last year.
Miriam Frank, in London last year.

By Andrew Graham-Yooll 
For the Herald

My Innocent Absence, Tales from a Nomadic Life; by Miriam Frank. Arcadia Books, London, 2010. (366 pages)

On page 307 of this at times self-indulgent but no less fascinating book, in the chapter called “A Writer in the Andes”, author  Miriam Frank describes her accidental decision in 1990 to visit Argentina, a propos of an invitation to a medical conference  (a congress of anesthesiologists). In London, she was facilitated a contact by former Herald art critic Micaela Meyer with the Argentine novelist  Héctor Tizón (1929), who lives in Jujuy. His writing changed her life.  In her own words: “a meeting with an Argentine author and his writing, (which) opened up momentous new insights in my search for answers.”

In that chapter there is the follow up to that line. Before she met the author, she already wanted to translate one of his books. It is the translation of Tizón into English that brought about, in part, the change in her life. But before she reached that point in her memoir, Miriam Frank travels through a lifetime, often it would appear changing something of her identity to adapt to new circumstances. Maybe this happens to all of us in some way or form, but in this dramatic and quite gripping autobiography every step comes with an added “about turn” into a new experience, in many cases shared with thousands (millions?) in the middle of the last century. Yet Miriam Frank has achieved a certain uniqueness.

Miriam Frank was born in Barcelona four months before the Civil War broke out in July 1936. Her father, a US citizen,  was a usually absent businessman, whose brief visits she enjoyed. Her mother was German, of liberal Jewish background, a trained nurse who, with a friend, decided to move to Spain in 1933, as darkness began to fall on their homeland. The peregrinations of the nomadic life in the title start from that first departure.  As Franco’s troops moved in, mother and daughter moved out, briefly, to Casablanca, thence into occupied France and finally Marseilles. Her aunt wrote to her mother suggesting they leave. Miriam Frank learned French in Vichy France, before her mother took her to Mexico. From France, at the end of 1941, Miriam Frank’s mother secured safe passage onto a ship taking refugees to the Americas. The long journey from Catalonia to Latin America is a memory of a transition from a big house to a mattress, “a long row of straw mattresses, lying side by side, heads against the wall — on and on, as far as I could see — each lodging a family in transit from Marseilles to Mexico.” The story of their wanderings is put together by way of memory, assisted in the early days by a bundle of letters in German, which her mother had sent her sister (the aunt). Her first night in the new world was spent in a small hotel near the port of Veracruz. They settled in Mexico City, where she started primary school and relearn the Spanish she had gained in Barcelona but lost in France. In 1948, they moved to the other side of the world, to Christchurch, New Zealand. There the author switched to English, gained a secondary education, and went to university where she studied medicine. Eventually Miriam Frank moved back to Europe and made a career in London as an anesthetist.

Each move, often in an increasingly difficult relationship with her mother, who would eventually die in London in April 1984, seems to be a jouney into a new identity, as a professional, the wife of an artist, a mother of two daughters, etc. Invariably the writing draws the reader to that point on page 307, where she goes in search of writer Héctor Tizón who has made it his business and literary triumph to have set his best writing in Jujuy, the place of his own birth and identity.

This is how her life connects with Argentina.  During preparations for a first visit to Buenos Aires in 1990, still with a good command of Spanish, Miriam Frank asked about post conference destinations and people to meet.  She was advised to look up Tizón and his wife Flora, if she went north. Frank was also advised to read Tizón’s short novel, Fire in Casabindo (Fuego in Casabindo). Next she read another short novel by the same author, The Man who Came to a Village (El hombre que llegó a un pueblo).  Eventually Miriam Frank translated both books and they were published in one volume by Faber, in London. In so doing, Miriam Frank found a new occupation (translating), and thus, in a way and even if it sounds too much like a simplification, was able to explore  a literary world and also the path to other identities in other people, changed and adjusted over decades and centuries.
In Fire in Casabindo, Tizón goes deep into the local beliefs among ancient societies in northern Argentina, and in one particular scene of gruesome killing attacker and victim metamorphose: “...  he knew that when one dies at the hands of another, victim and victimiser become confused, they take on each other’s smell and habits, personal gestures, inclinations.”

And in The Man who Came to a Village the reader comes head on into the changes we all go through but which fiction makes more poignant because that is what fiction is for.  “The man” in the story is a fugitive, wanted for committing some crime, who arrives in a village where the locals are expecting a new priest.  The fugitive is mistaken for the priest and, after some denial, he falls in with the fraud, and takes on a new identity. “Yes, Father: we all say we are not when we are, and we all are what we cannot be. I am what I’m not... I am not the one you say I am...” etc. Fascinating.

From there, Miriam Frank sets out on a new search for the characters in her own past.: “I love and enjoy each place I find myself in, without missing the others, as I learn to come to terms with myself and find contentment within.”

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