Book Review: Elizabeth Graver’s “Kantika” — A Vibrant Portrait of Bravery
By Roberta Silman
Kantika is Elizabeth Graver’s poignant homage to her grandmother, but it is also a testament to her talent as a storyteller, to make a narrative so believable and compelling and, indeed, sometimes funny, just as it is in life.
Kantika by Elizabeth Graver. Metropolitan Books, 304 pages, $27.99.
“Kantika” means song in Ladino, the language of the Sephardic Jews, and in this sweeping epic based on the life of her grandmother, Rebecca Cohen Baruch Levy, Elizabeth Graver has created a fascinating mixture of novel and memoir, complete with photographs, that is its own unique song of a Turkish family journeying through the first half of the 20th century. Very different from the usual rags to riches narratives of the Ashkenazic Jews who came from Eastern Europe, Kantika is about privileged proud people who suffer loss after loss, but whose hold on their traditions, their unswerving belief in El Dyo, and their innate sense of self-worth sustain them again and again.
As I read I was reminded of the eerie feelings I experienced whenever we traveled to the Middle East — to Jerusalem and Egypt and later to Turkey — that there, in the place where civilization began, there is a sense that the past is somehow still mingled with the present in ways that one does not feel in other parts of the world. It may come from the street noises in the bazaar, or the Muslim call to prayer five times a day, or just the echo of footsteps on those ancient streets. I don’t know. But it is palpable, and somehow, with authentic details and a mixture of Ladino phrases, Graver conveys the exotic allure of that culture, plunging the reader into the world of Constantinople in the early 1900s.
The novel starts off with the comings and goings of the second daughter Rebecca and her best friend Rahelika, whom they call Lika, and who lives in the very apartment house where the witch-like figure of Rebecca’s father’s first wife reigns. A woman who could not have
children and is thus consigned to a spinster’s life caring for her ancient mother. Her name is Tiya (Aunt) Djentil and soon the girls are spending time with her, listening to her stories, comforting her when she is lonely.
Her plight begins to haunt Rebecca and her very existence answers many of Rebecca’s questions: Why her father Alberto is so much older than her mother Sultana. Why he continues to live above their means, even after it becomes clear that times are getting harder and harder for his once-thriving textile business. Why he retreats so often to his beloved garden. And also why the children — six in all — are so cherished. After Tiya Djentil is long dead, her sad fate will serve as a reminder of what not to become as Rebecca navigates her own fears and desires and becomes the linchpin of the story.
With the onset of World War I everything changes. “So it is that Rebecca’s childhood — the beautiful time, she will also think so — ends in a matter of hours.” Her beloved school closes, her favorite teacher leaves for France, her friend Lika’s father loses his job and that family emigrates to America, she and her sister end up in a terrible German school, and finances tighten. Those magical family times of peace and relaxation so prized by Jewish families, especially on the Sabbath and holidays, become relics of a fast disappearing past.
By 1924 it is clear that this once hospitable city for Jews has changed. People are leaving for Palestine or other parts of Europe, especially England, or America. Alberto is desperate and finally agrees to take a job with a small synagogue in Barcelona as the shammash (caretaker), although he lies to his family and tells them he will be the cantor. In moving, simple language, Graver portrays the pain of a great-grandfather consigned to a role he never imagined. His defeat is emblematic of the loss of power occurring all over the world; these once commanding Jewish men, heads of families and prosperous businesses, lose their identity. Because Fascism, with one of its main components, anti-Semitism, is becoming rife everywhere.
At this juncture so many of the women, until now subservient, have to take things into their hands. Sultana gathers strength, and by watching the dynamic shift in her family, Rebecca acquires the knowledge and insight she will need as she goes forward. In Barcelona, she relinquishes her plans for a higher education and manages to get a job as a seamstress. Though only after she obscures her Jewish heritage and takes a pseudonym. Soon she has her own shop but no husband. She marries badly, to a man who is not quite right and who has “docked in too many ports,” according to those who know him best. She decides, after two sons, there will be no more sex, and soon he disappears. There’s an almost hilarious, if it weren’t so tragic, attempt to join him back in Turkey — Adrianople — where Rebecca is told that he has died and returns with her two sons to her parents in Barcelona.
There is an interlude, which may be intended as some comic relief, but was the least convincing part of the book. The family becomes involved with a filmmaker who is making documentaries about the Jewish diaspora. But then we are plunged into the politics of the time: Spain in the ’30s is a place of enormous turmoil and the future is bleak. This is where Kantika makes an interesting turn, and we are reminded of the amazing risks that our ancestors took for the reason that there were so few choices.
A letter arrives from her older sister Corinne, who has emigrated to New York. Unexpected yet sensible, it proposes marriage to the man Lika married in New York. They were childhood sweethearts and Rebecca knew him casually; then Lika died in childbirth with the second child. There is a daughter Luna who has some health issues, but, as Corinne says:
Sam needs a wife and you need a husband, and your sons need a father and Luna a mother. Being married to a United States citizen, which Sam already is, would be a sure way to get you to America. Our efforts to bring the whole family over at once are going nowhere…. How to bring you over is increasingly on our minds when we read about what is happening in Europe…. I don’t know what you’ve seen, Rebecca, but [my husband] showed me an article about a Spanish poster, widely distributed over there, that called Jews a sinister force, along with Bolsheviks and Freemasons. In short, it seems like the tide is turning and could really turn…. You would marry in Cuba so you could gain entrance as Sam’s wife, but that’s simple to do, and the perfect place for a honeymoon…. If you’ll consider this idea…
After Rebecca absorbs the fact that her father was the propelling force behind the letter — in the end Alberto had more agency than anyone gave him credit for — she agrees, and a new life starts with Sam Levy. But there is one more surprise in store: Sam and Lika’s daughter Luna is more damaged than anyone has indicated thus far. Although it is never stated in the novel, she has cerebral palsy; she is highly intelligent but her condition and care have tyrannized the family — Sam and his widowed mother and his sisters — and she is viewed by a panicked Rebecca as “an animal,” still wearing diapers at seven years old. But by a twist of fate she is now Rebecca’s child. So begins the struggle between these two, as Rebecca insists on the kind of hard work that will make Luna self-sufficient. Some of this is told from Rebecca’s point of view, some from Luna’s — she has named Rebecca “Newmother” in her mind — and their story is simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant as they first circle around each other, then establish a connection as important as anything either of them will ever know, as Luna matures.
Kantika is a novel about bravery. It is not only the courage necessary for exile and readjustment and making a new family — Sam and Rebecca will eventually have three children of their own, bringing the number to six after Rebecca’s two boys David and Alberto come from Barcelona to New York — but the bravery of dealing with a handicapped child whose enormous potential has not yet been tapped. Here Graver does a wonderful job, never descending into sentimentality but presenting the situation with great understanding and empathy: how “Newmother” becomes Mother; how this family endures the hurts and humiliations that come with having Luna in their midst; and how Rebecca’s steady determination propels them all in the right direction. Kantika is Graver’s poignant homage to her grandmother, but it is also a testament to her talent as a storyteller, to make this part of the narrative so believable and compelling and, indeed, sometimes funny, just as it is in life.
In delving into Luna’s life and thoughts, Graver also explores the role of our bodies in our lives. She dramatizes how a body like Luna’s can rebel but ultimately be controlled, how physical intimacy can comfort us in difficult times, and how our knowledge of our bodies can lead to unsuspected truths. It is one of the central themes in this novel: surprises that start with efforts to tame the body often lead to unexpected pleasures, to what the Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky called “delicate joy.”
By 1950, when the book ends and they have their own home and Sam owns his own candy store, Rebecca thinks about her life as she enters middle age:
Rebecca is fine, even lucky, but while she would never say it to her siblings, whose struggles in Spain dwarfed her own, her disappointments are many. She is not rich or even well-to-do, though she was born to be, and spends too much time clipping coupons, stretching meals (more lentils, more onions) and scrounging for bargains, which depresses her despite her knack for it. She is not surrounded by family and has a perpetual sense of being not quite at home, no matter how many bulbs she plants and her pear tree growing bigger every year. English has never become her language, even as her Ladino and French have dimmed, and she often feels thick-tongued (in this, she shares something with Luna), without recourse to the present or the past. More than anything, she is often lonely, wanting more chatter, more cuddling, more laughter and especially — is it odd for a woman her age, a mother of six? — more play.
What saves her in mid-life is that, in addition to all her responsibilities as a wife and mother, she sings a repertoire of Spanish, Hebrew, and Ladino songs at the Cambria Heights Jewish Center, where she has “a small but devoted following.” Her beautiful voice brings to life those haunting melodies that hold all her memories of that enchanted childhood when she and her siblings and their beloved parents would stroll — so carefree before the world changed utterly — on the shores of the Bosporus.
Roberta Silman is the author of five novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her latest, Summer Lightning, has been released as a paperback, an ebook, and an audio book. Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus and it is now available as an audio book from Alison Larkin Presents. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for the New York Times and Boston Globe, and writes regularly for the Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.