Elia R. Karmona, The Chaste Wife [La muz’er onesta provada por su marido], translated and introduced by Michael Alpert
Reviewed by Ralph Tarica
187 pages. Nottingham, UK: Five Leaves, 2009. www.fiveleaves.co.uk
The aim of this book, as the editor notes very aptly, is to “introduce readers to a neglected aspect of Jewish culture which arouses a largely unsatisfied curiosity” (p. 11). The culture in question is the literary fiction of the Spanish Jews of the old Ottoman Empire. A critical reason as to why modern readers’ curiosity is “unsatisfied” is that this literature, written in a language (Judeo-Spanish/Ladino) that would otherwise be largely accessible to readers of modern Spanish, was printed in Hebrew/Rashi characters and is thus inaccessible to readers familiar only with the Latin alphabet. Michael Alpert’s book thus comes as a welcome addition to the still relatively small body of work published to help us satisfy our curiosity about what kind of books our recent ancestors used to read.
After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, practically everything published in Judeo-Spanish in the Ottoman Empire was of a religious nature and intended for readers who often knew Hebrew as well: commentary on the Scriptures, moral treatises, liturgical poetry and so on. One must wait until the latter part of the 19th century, and only after the French instituted the schools of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, to find a class of readership literate in the vernacular tongue and eager to enjoy reading for pleasure in their own language. The appearance of newspapers in Judeo-Spanish at this time contributed largely to promoting the growth in literary culture by their inclusion of serialized episodes of novels. Girls, in particular, could now go to school and learn to read their own language, thus providing a significant market for writers of fiction as well as translators of novels from other languages, primarily French.
The outlines of this fascinating period in the history of the Spanish Jews are presented in the first part of this book by British writer Michael Alpert. He covers the origins of the Judeo-Spanish novel, the evolution from serialized novels in newspapers to independently published works of fiction, the major writers and translators themselves, and finally a commentary on one novel in particular both as a literary work and as a point of comparison with the Yiddish novel of the same period. Notable among the writers was Eliya Rafael Karmona (1869-1932), whose life and hardships resemble those of other Sephardic intellectuals of the time. Born in Istanbul, he attended the Talmud Torah and the Alliance school, taught French to the sons of the Grand Vizir, lost his job, sold matches in the street, worked as a typesetter at the newspaper El Tyempo, left for various jobs (and often poverty) in Salonika, Izmir and Cairo before returning to El Tyempo and writing for his comic weekly, El Djugeton. Of the five hundred or so “novels” written in Judeo-Spanish, he alone accounts for a great many of them (his contemporary, Alexander Ben Giyat, being another prolific producer of popular works).
The novel chosen here, La muz’er onesta provada por su marido (which might also be translated as “the decent or moral woman, put to the test by her husband”) was published in 5685 of the Hebrew calendar (1924-25). Alpert first presents the translation into English. This is followed by the modern Spanish translation of Alpert’s introductory notes (slightly different from the English version). Finally, a transliteration of the novel into Latin characters is presented, along with a list of vocabulary notes for words and expressions that might perplex a reader of modern Spanish. What the language here reveals, besides the usual archaisms that we would expect of Ladino in relation to modern Spanish, is the enormous influence of French, undoubtedly the result of the French education imparted by the Alliance schools. As for Alpert’s choice of spelling style, while it does not follow the “Aki Yerushalayim” norms familiar to American audiences, it is nonetheless quite easy to read.
The plot itself is a curious one: A newly-wed husband, jealous of his wife and fearful that she may not remain faithful to him, wants her to submit to the amorous advances of three of his friends. Cervantes used a similar test in his short story “El curioso impertinente,” and one is also reminded of Mozart’s opera “Cosí fan tutte” – both of which end with a failing grade for the young women. This, however, is a story written by a Jewish writer for Jewish readers who expect a fully moral ending. Alpert comments on the simplistic nature of the story, in particular its lack of psychological and narrative complexity when compared with the French writer Flaubert. To this reviewer, at least, a comparison with Maupassant might be more appropriate, at least in terms of the simplicity of the plot line and brevity of dialogue focused on the positive moral example provided by a wise and patient woman in contrast with the silliness of her husband. The very simplicity of the dialogue, with its constant use of the vos form and elegant clichés, is often reminiscent of classical French novels (“Ordenad, Madame, vuestro esklavo esta dispuesto a todos vuestros ordenes,” p. 143).
While this is certainly not great literature, the mere fact that a little novel written in Judeo-Spanish has been resuscitated from oblivion, transliterated and translated quite competently, and made available for a modern audience to study and enjoy – that is cause enough to be grateful to Alpert for having published this work. It is more than likely that heritage readers of Judeo-Spanish will find it a sheer pleasure to be able to read what our parents and grandparents used to read, in their very own authentic language.