1933 – 2012
Alicia Steimberg was born on July 18, 1933 in Buenos Aires, the city which provides the backdrop to her autobiographical fiction, to parents who had advanced beyond the tenement life and agricultural work of their immigrant forebears. Her paternal great-grandfather, Zalmen Steinberg, emigrated from Russia, arriving in Argentina in 1890 and settling in the Jewish colonies in the province of Entre Rios. Zalmen farmed and helped build the homes of Jewish agricultural colonists on the Argentine plains. Her maternal grandmother, Carlota Jurafsky, emigrated from the Ukraine, arriving in Argentina in 1890 and settling in Buenos Aires. In the novel Músicos y relojeros (Musicians and Watchmakers, 1971), a character based on her maternal grandmother’s boasts that all their Romanian and Ukrainian ancestors “were very illustrious” and had been either musicians or watchmakers all the way back to King David himself. Steimberg’s father, Gregorio (1900–1941), born in Argentina, was a teacher, and her mother, Luisa (née Imas, 1907–1979), was a dentist. Her father’s death when she was eight years old threatened the family’s economic stability, which was later totally destroyed when her mother lost her job immediately after criticizing Peron during a telephone conversation. Despite their penurious situation, both Steimberg and her younger brother Oscar (b. 1936), a well-known semiologist, studied at university. Steimberg graduated from the prestigious Instituto Nacional del Profesorado with a degree in Modern Languages and a major in teaching English, a vocation she has followed at the secondary and university levels and as a private tutor.
Alicia Steimberg’s life forms the framework and informs the themes of her satirical and irreverent novels and short stories. She often names her protagonists Alicia or similar names, such as Cecilia. The loss of her father when she was very young and a tempestuous relationship with her mother are recurring themes in her fiction. Her first novel, Músicos y relojeros, deals with her youth and adolescence as well as with the tumultuous and amusing activities of her immigrant relatives: courtship rituals, tacky weddings, and family feuds. La loca 101 (Madwoman 101, 1973) relates the tribulations of the aspiring writer whose drive to write and social and familial responsibilities threaten her mental stability. In Su espíritu inocente (Her Innocent Spirit, 1981) she portrays her years in high school and college as well as her first marriage to Abraham Sokoloiwcz (1957–1966). Her second husband, whom she married in 1968 and with whom she had one child, Martín (b. 1973), encouraged her to publish work she had been writing since she was an adolescent. El árbol del placer (The Tree of Pleasure, 1986) satirizes the myriad of psychoanalytic and self-help therapies current in Buenos Aires in the sixties and seventies. The death of her second husband, Abraham Svidler (1928–1990) from cancer is the subject of her novel La selva (The Jungle, 2000), a painful work which deals with the physical abuse she suffered from her son Martín after the death of his father. The novel contrasts the narrator’s painful memories with the sensual pleasures of a love affair at a spa somewhere in Brazil.
Most of Steimberg’s novels deal humorously with difficult personal topics and the social and economic chaos in her country. As Saul Sosnowski points out, she skillfully weaves together pieces of stories in ways that challenge the reader. Her playful use of language and popular themes taken from comic strips or tangos attenuate the underlying current of terror. Yet nowhere in her fiction has she described a family crisis which occurred during the military dictatorship called the Proceso (Process of National Reorganization), which lasted from 1976 to 1983. Steimberg and her husband decided to send her teenaged children by her first marriage, Estela (b. 1957) and Víctor (b. 1958) to Italy to save them from being arrested and “disappeared.” Steimberg ceased writing altogether because there was nothing funny she could say about that time. While many of her fellow writers emigrated during the Proceso, Alicia remained in Argentina.
Like her parents and grandparents, Steimberg knows little about formal Judaism. In her fiction, Catholicism has an aesthetic allure which beguiles the young Alicia, while Jewish ritual and edifices seem shabby and dull in comparison. Steimberg loves Yiddish music and certain foods, but her cookbook for children, El mundo no es de polenta (The World Is Not Made of Polenta, 1991), focuses on Italian and Spanish specialties. In an interview with Susana Conde, she declared: “I was never a member of the Jewish community and I never went to the Jewish cultural and social centers; moreover, I had a nucleus of people from that community against me when I published Musicians and Watchmakers because they felt it was derogatory.” (Conde, 47) However, from the time that her work received critical acclaim, she has been accepted by the Jewish community and invited to participate in conferences of Jewish writers in Brazil, Argentina and the United States.
Literary contests and prizes have stimulated Steimberg’s late-budding career. Músicos y relojeros and La loca 101, as well as her book of short stories Como todas las mañanas (Just Like Every Morning, 1983) and Amatista (Amethyst, 1989), an irreverent take on erotic fiction, were finalists in literary contests. Cuando digo Magdalena (Call Me Magdalena, 1992) won one of Latin America’s biggest cash prizes, the Premio Planeta Biblioteca del Sur, and the translation Call Me Magdalena (2001) was a finalist in the 2002 West PEN Prize.
Despite critical acclaim, writing has never afforded her economic stability, so Steimberg has always supplemented her income by other activities: translation, literary workshops, English classes, and journalistic essays. A Fulbright fellowship funded her attendance at the Iowa International Writers’ Conference in 1983. From 1995 to 1997 she served as Director of Books for the Argentine Secretariate of Culture.
Current projects include the translation of a screenplay about the period of the Proceso. The fear of impoverishment which threatened her childhood has returned with the current economic crisis. It remains to be seen whether Steimberg’s humor can be applied to the infirmities of aging and the chronic debt, corruption and fiscal fiascos of Argentina.Ms. Steimberg died in Buenos Aires on June 16, 2012.
Músicos y relojeros (1971); La Loca 101 (1973); Su espíritu inocente, (1981); Como todas las mañanas (1983); El árbol del placer (1986); Amatista (1989); El mundo no es de polenta (1991); Cuando digo Magdalena (1992); Vidas y vueltas (1999); La selva, (2000).
English translations by Andrea Labinger
Musicians and Watchmakers (1998); Call Me Magdalena (2001).
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