Late in the Argentinian author Daniel Guebel’s novella The Jewish Son, the narrator gives an exposition of the Hebrew term and concept of pilpul, which “simultaneously means ‘pepper’ and ‘sharp analysis,’ that is, spicy thought”. Pilpul is a centuries-old method of Talmudic interpretation, an intensive, skeptical, and at times even sophistical “examination of the divine mind” whose goal is “to snare Him in contradictions, to cast blame on Him for the imperfection and absurdity of His creation: this was the true mission of every good Jew.” The goal of this mission is “to achieve, through logical operations and the oppositions of reasonings, the infallible and unique sense of Jehovah’s message.”
Like its author, the narrator of The Jewish Son is a writer named Daniel (or Dañele, in the Argentinian rendering). He discusses pilpul with regard to a particular text—not Hebrew scripture or the Talmud but Franz Kafka’s “Dearest Father“, which is “pure pilpul”, Dañele asserts. Kafka’s letter, written in 1919, subjects his father to a long, measured excoriation whose rational tone can’t conceal Kafka’s deep terror of its addressee, who comes off as an unbearable tyrant. Kafka’s fear of his father ran so deep that he couldn’t manage to send the letter and gave it to his mother, requesting that she deliver it for him.
She did not, and it has come down to us as one of Kafka’s most self-revealing writings, although not in the way Kafka intended. As Guebel’s narrator notes, “Letter to His Father awakens pity for the poor man who wore himself out lifelong to honorably provide for his family”; that is, for Kafka’s father, not for Kafka himself, whom the narrator regards as “a clumsy weakling […] a scatterbrain […] an emaciated vegetarian miser who hated [his father] while feigning the greatest submission.”
Both the technique of pilpul and Kafka’s letter serve as the foundations for The Jewish Son, originally published in 2018 and now appearing in an English translation by Jessica Sequeira. The novella does not take epistolary form, but it is clearly a letter to the father of the narrator (an obvious stand-in for Guebel himself)—to the point that, late in the book, he goes so far as to incorporate a dedication to his father of the sort that would ordinarily precede the narrative: “Father. I wrote these pages, an unveiling and shroud, so that you survive in some way”; he adds a dedication to his mother for good measure.
The story The Jewish Son tells is constructed anecdotally as a series of episodes in the difficult but deep relationship between the narrator and his father, around whom the boy’s mother and sister circle in fraught and formative ways. From the start, the relationship is not a harmonious one. Young Dañele believes himself unwanted by his parents, thinks they wish him to be other than he is, and his efforts to be loved by them are so overwrought and contorted that he instead grows “dry and hard as a reed, and my caprices and insolences began to adopt the form of hate.”
It is not long before these insolences, which are not specifically named, earn him frequent beatings at the hands of his father, Don Luis. Afterward, Don Luis, whose monstrousness we feel viscerally while he subjects his son to ritual beltings, can be heard crying behind the closed door of his bedroom.
Dañele’s tortured childhood memories are interspersed with episodes of caring for his terminally ill father many years later, when Don Luis can barely walk, regularly soils himself, and struggles to remember his son’s name. These scenes of a body and mind in collapse, rendered by Guebel in unsparing detail, are nearly as tough to read as the one in which Don Luis lengthily beats Dañele. The monster we knew has lost all his menace and is now a pitiable and dying old man.
As a result of this change, the narrator understands that he, like the Kafka of his “Dearest Father”, bore much of the blame for the bad relationship with Don Luis. He was all along “weak and weepy, a dark freckled runt” who developed behavioral problems as he grew up—to be sure, these must have been at least partially caused by his father’s beatings—and could often be insufferable, egoistic, and virtually uncompanionable. As a child, he turned to writing as a refuge, the one place where his father’s “system of surveillance” couldn’t reach.
Or was it that Don Luis’ leaving Dañele to his writing was his way of honoring his son’s vocation and identity? We find out late in the story that Don Luis, in addition to seeing himself “as one of the enlightened beings capable of changing the course of humanity” as a member of a leftist revolutionary group that had been banned by the Argentinian regime, also always “dreamed of being a writer” himself.
Many years later, when unsold copies of Dañele’s books are returned to the family by the publisher, Don Luis discreetly goes around the neighborhood handing them out, leaving them on doorsteps and in mailboxes. “Giving away his son’s books was a way of showing his love,” Dañele recognizes. (There have been other ways, although he has not always noticed them.) He also recognizes how formative his father’s influence was and can finally tell his ailing father, “Thank you, Dad, for awakening my love of literature.”
Dañele’s change in perception about himself and his father, which emerges gradually from the novella’s early establishing pages of aggrieved raging and even ranting, comes as something of a relief. His opening pilpul on the “text” of his father is assertive and often aggressively rhetorical, with an occasionally overheated spiciness that Sequeira’s heated translation emphasizes. The maturation of both writer and man begins to guide the book through its second half, where The Jewish Son develops a poignancy and tenderness, stirs up deep longing from son toward father, and builds a great intimacy between them in scenes from both the boy’s youth and the adult writer’s caretaking responsibilities—responsibilities which, it is not lost on the reader, Dañele chooses to take on, so powerful is his love for Don Luis.
The second half of The Jewish Son also takes an increasingly literary turn. This is where we encounter Guebel’s discussion of pilpul and two other texts about fathers and sons that come to be nearly as important to The Jewish Son as Kafka’s “Dearest Father”. One of these is a children’s tale called “The Little Florentine Scribe” by the 19th-century Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis—the connection is strengthened by the leftist political activism De Amicis shared with Dañele’s father. “The Little Florentine Scribe” is a heart-piercing tale about the secret measures a schoolboy takes to assist his overworked father’s efforts to keep the family from penury. The other text Guebel invokes is the chapter of The Aeneid in which Aeneas carries his aged father, Anchises, on his back while Troy burns. “Now I am a worn out Aeneas carrying an Anchises on his shoulders,” Dañele moans.
The substantial presence of “The Little Florentine Scribe” and The Aeneid in the final section of The Jewish Son—and the somewhat perplexing appearance of the repeated words “Fire Earth” shaped into the form of a cross that takes up most of an entire page—cast into question whether The Jewish Son is a categorically Jewish book. To be sure, not only pilpul but a number of other culturally and spiritually Jewish traditions figure prominently, and there is no question that Guebel is writing from an immersion in those traditions.
At heart, though, his Dañele seems less a specifically Jewish son than one who enacts a version of the age-old conflict between fathers and sons that has persisted since antiquity. Although The Jewish Son is short – barely over 100 pages – Guebel enriches it with that history, subjects it to a new session of spicy thought, and adds his own complicated, bloody filial love to it.