Aaron Kerlow and His Circus World

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-11-09 09:15:10

 
Aaron Kerlow. Photo: courtesy

 

The following text presents excerpts from the new book released in November 2015 by LACASA Chicago, the cutting-edge branch of Global LACASA Books: El gran circo chico de nuestro mundito/ The Great Little Circus of our Small World: Dibujos y escritos en español e inglés/ Drawings and Writings in Spanish and English Por/by Aarón Kerlow Coordinado y presentado por/Coordinated and presented by Marc Zimmerman, as part of its Chicago Latino Artists Series (CLAS), volume #3. I should note that for the sake of brevity, the introduction excludes the discussion of Kerlow’s art work. MZ

 

 

Excerpt from Introduction: Kerlow the writer

 

Inevitably, Aaron Kerlow’s work must be seen in relation to the exodus of thousands of Eastern and Central European Ashkenazi Jews fleeing not from the Inquisition but from the anti-Jewish pogroms in the Russian Empire beginning at the end of the nineteenth century.

Many of the children of those who arrived in Mexico entered the professions; and not a small number became contributors to predominant currents of Mexican culture. Writers like Margo Glantz and Sara Sevchovich come to mind, as do artists and filmmakers like Felipe Ehrenberg, Arturo Ripstein y Paul Leduc.

Aaron’s brother Sergio became an excellent and affluent entrepreneur. But his other brother, Max, was an architect and painter as well as art and handicraft promoter and close friend of Ehrenberg for many years; somewhat later in his life, he became a character actor in countless Mexican films, but he is perhaps best known for playing Trotsky opposite his wife Ziuta’s portrayal of Trotsky’s wife in Leduc’s Frida. Carolina Kerlow, Max and Ziuta’s daughter, and Aaron’s much loved niece, became known for her naïve paintings, even as she, like other Mexico City Jews, developed careers on television.

Of course, Aaron himself left Mexico to pursue his medical career and marry in Chicago; in spite of his many returns, his U.S. experience affected everything — though not to the point of his losing his ties to Mexico. While keeping on top of the latest turns in his profession, he was obsessed with literature and art as an expression of the imaginary. He loved primitive, naïve painting, loved folk art, but above all loved the playful inventiveness of surrealism and the Latin American, magical realist version of high modernism in almost all its variants. With a visual imagination stimulated by a Mexican-based break from the Semitic imagistic prohibitions, Aaron cultivated the visual not only in his drawings but in his stories, as well as in his life. How to see things and people, how to transform appearances: such were all part of his everyday concerns.

Caught up in a profession that often provided the most horrendous visual representations, he often longed to break with his parents’ wishes that he pursue a secure, lucrative and respect-earning profession and take another, more adventurous path —something he never fully did even as he read and wrote, drew and doodled in his office. Inevitably of course, women would enter the stories Aaron told and the few he committed to paper. In fact, the scarcity of his written stories (mainly erotic, “clinical” or mock-apocalyptic in content) may have stemmed from the superabundance of time he dedicated to living his life and, what amounted to much the same thing, playing out his fantasies.

The prose works presented in this collection represent several qualities Aaron Kerlow had as a human being and creator. What are they about? What do they say to me and others who have read them? We have a great circus brought down by a midget’s jealous love; a parakeet who memorizes secret formulae and is destroyed in a madness that all but ends the world; a man whose one-sided disease of hyper-sensitivity sours his family ties and life; three mob-wives who survive their gangster husbands and then de-criminalize their assets; a trapeze artist-thief and his true love enthralled in sixty years of erotic acrobatics; and a special history of a circus-like, globalized world — all this accompanied by a selection of abstract patterns, as well as several faces and other figurations.

To summarize their contents, we can start with the brief essay, “Civilization or Barbary?” What we have with this text is virtually an updated parodic paraphrase of the famous world historical vision from The Communist Manifesto — a little virtuoso piece based on a text originally co-written by a Rabbi’s grandson that is perhaps more fantastic and yet more real than Kerlow’s fictions, but suggests, in fact, the overall context of globalized capitalist relations in which “The Circus,” and indeed every Kerlow creation, should be seen. The only thing lacking in the world view presented in Kerlow’s essay is a call à la Stephen Sondheim to send in the clowns. But in one sense, that call is unnecessary, because, mention the clowns or not, in the creations of Kerlow, they are always already present, always ready to enter with every step taken in this life which is one great (though small) circus.

As for the stories themselves, we may start with some brief comments made by Kristin Laymon on the four pieces she translated in her Honors thesis (2011),[1] plus some additional thoughts of my own on two other texts and Kerlow’s overall production. Writing of “The Circus,” Laymon writes that the story is a condensed “mystery novel in reverse: the readers meet the culprit and understand why he does what he does before they ever know [what it is that] he’s going to do” (Laymon 74). Meanwhile, “The Parakeet” “blends fantasy with science fiction as it moves from the world we live in now to a utopian future” that then leads to world destruction (71).

“The Half-Man,” says Laymon, “it is a mock case study about … an accidental superhero” whose senses “are inexplicably enhanced” but whose inability to cope with the change [causes] “his life to fall apart” (62). “The Three Queens,” Laymon asserts, “is a young girl’s ‘bedtime story’ or wish fulfillment fantasy in which evil finds a happy ending of good works and social improvement” (66).

With the final story, “Luis and the Acrobatics of Love: An erotic fable,” we have Kerlow directly defining his genre — and indeed “fable” is a term that applies equally to all his works of fiction. In this case, it’s a male fantasy of a kind of sexual utopia emerging through the exploits of the protagonist and his lady love in the execution of a series of ever-varying trapeze acrobatics that lead to continuous and endless libidinal ecstasies.

Kerlow was perhaps acrobatic in words and images; as a doctor and friend, he was quite agile — but his obesity undoubtedly prevented him from super-athletic exercises in the bedroom. That his sexual fantasy involves an absolutely complicit partner who has no name and is only referred to as “the girl” is perhaps an indication of the machistic nature of his fantasy and may point to a childlike obsession tempered only by a reality principle based on limits posed by the facts of aging and death. That the erotic ecstasy is somehow tied to a kind of playful fascination with theft or criminality suggests something special about our author’s ludic imaginary. At least one might suggest that he apparently believed that women, or rather girls, fall for bad guys, or at least devilish ones — a truth or delusion that may explain certain aspects of Kerlow’s life as well as his fiction.

Throughout these works, there is the quirky and iconoclastic sense of humor, the presentation of bizarre or absurd characters, situations and patterns, the play on cultural clichés, the search for apocalyptic resolutions that I encountered in Kerlow’s life as well as in his writing. Of course his stories are really tales — short, pithy and emblematic narratives, without what E. M. Forster long ago called “round” as opposed to “flat” characters, and with striking but simplified plots designed to induce some intellectual as opposed to emotional reaction from the reader. Indeed the narratives are rather what Latin Americanist critics call “relatos fantásticos” (fantastic tales) — or, to point to more traditional forms, “fables” or “parables” — though without the kinds of fixed moral messages and allegorical equivalents that we associate with those older forms.

The tradition is large, and these tales point to his love of contemporary “high modern” Latin American literature, including some traces that might point to Julio Cortázar, Augusto Monterroso (“Mr. Taylor” comes to mind), and Juan José Areola.[2] However, going outside the Latin American frame, we should also remember Kafka’s parables (especially, perhaps, the circus or carnival world of “A Hunger Artist,” though with a displacement from skinny to rotund (as in the Colombian artist Botero) and a marked emphasis on ambiguity and post-religious indeterminacy.

In another vein, the first story could make us think of the southern gothic tradition of the United States and of a text that Kerlow probably never read (though perhaps he saw the film version): Carson McCullers’ short novel The Ballad of the Sad Café — with its love affair between a tall woman and a midget. More generally, we might evoke certain Hebrew or Yiddish, Talmudic or Hassidic tales and a large tradition of diasporic dislocations, closer to Kerlow’s own Jewish and Mexican roots, if not conscious sources for his imagination and writing.

To be sure, there has been a recent debate over fantasy in Jewish literature, starting with Michael Weingrad’s article, “Why There Is No Jewish Narnia” in The Jewish Review of Books (Spring 2010).[3] However, aside from the pros and cons evoked, Weingrad makes it clear he is referring to mega-fantasy books like those written by Tolkien, and others — without negating the broader, deeper tradition of fantastic short stories or “micro-narratives,” and, in effect, fábulas or fables to which I refer.What I can in fact note is the growing fascination of Kerlow in his later years with the narratives of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Turning again to the theme of the circus, central to our opening and concluding stories, and Kerlow’s crucial motif, we may note how this ubiquitous focus suggests his over-riding concern with spectacle, and points to the large-scale, sometime three-ring contexts for his particular narratives. For him, as for Leonid Andreyev, in He Who Gets Slapped, Nobel Prize novelist Patrick Modiano, in Un circo pasa, or in Tod Browning’s Freaks (and leaving aside the role of circus in the work of Fellini and so many others), all the world’s a circus — a world of spectacular performance populated by acrobats, midgets, animals, freaks and, yes, clowns.

Another obvious dimension of Kerlow’s stories is his professional turn toward scientific and specifically medical themes, central of course in “The parakeet” and “The Half Man.” And yet in the latter story the matter seems almost personal, in that the protagonist undergoes a life change that deeply affects his marital and familial relations, in a way that may well be a virtual parable of his own life experience of divorce and re-direction. While the global context for his end game imaginary emerges most fully in his essay, that same sort of vision also surfaces in “The parakeet.” [4]

However, what is striking in Kerlow’s writing, is the limited overt reference to his Jewish or Mexican background. His beloved Mexico merits only a few direct references (including one to Max and Ziuta’s postal address in the Colonia Roma), while Brazil and Argentina are among the Latin American places most mentioned. Also worthy of note is the fact that, although all the stories were written in Chicago, there are few direct mentions of the city — and in the story most obviously influenced by Chicago gangland lore, “The Three Queens,” Kerlow displaces the action to New York.

In sum, Kerlow never forgot that he was a Jew, a Mexican and a Chicago Latin American. But he wished to draw on specific aspects of his cultural capital that did not refer directly to his hybrid backgrounds, to arrive at something that at least to him both implied and then went beyond them.

We might complain about the rootlessness to which this cosmopolitan, universalist drive leads: the over-truncated nature of some of these writings—their lack of dialogue, of closer and deeper characterization. More than one story contains some “stereotypical elements” (Laymon, 68) — partially a result of his choosing the most concentrated fable-like narrative mode “The Half-Man” may well seem half a story and we might wish for more, especially as we sense the personal, life-changing dimension of the fiction. We would perhaps wish that he had let loose and created a broader story structure reaching toward the global in the concrete and complex terms set forth in his essay.

Above all, we might wish that Kerlow had drawn more directly on his experience with Chicagoans — above all, Chicago Latinos and Latinas, with the Chicago Latino intelligentsia (including the writers interacting with him at the Tres Américas bookstore, especially in the meetings and special events involving the store’s literary journal) — and above all, of course, with his many Mexican working class patients whose lives and problems, which Kerlow knew so well, could have been the source for an endless number of stories.

This probably unconscious refusal to deal with the more specifically local and personal is a characteristic of many Latin American writers in the U.S., who, at least in their first years in their new home, cling to their worlds of origin and seem unwilling or unable to deal with many of the particulars of their new context. It is often only those who at least partially transcend this attachment to their past who are then able to stop imitating Borges, García Márquez, or Vargas Llosa and actualize themselves fully as cosmopolitan U.S. Latino writers.

Without claiming to see Kerlow’s writings as being on the level of the writers and artists evoked here, I would like to leave perfectly clear my conviction that the works which appear in this small collection point us to an writer who never achieved his maximum potentiality, but who, nevertheless left much that represents a particular strand of cultural expression among Chicago Latinos in the last decades of the Twentieth Century, that can still speak with some significance to our time and to the future, and that is, in and of itself, worthy of publication.

What, finally, may we say of the vision which animates Kerlow’s writing? That whatever prospects he saw for the future of the planet, he believed that it would be better to see the world in which we lived and the hopes and fears that world engendered as part of a gigantic enterprise — a globalized circus involving a revolution of imagination and spirit that remained humanity’s greatest chance for happiness.

 

 

A sample story: Luis and the Acrobatics of Love

 

Luis was a trapeze artist in Circus Atayde, a craft that he had learned from his parents from the time when he was six years old. He had also learned juggling; and when the top clown failed to show up, usually after going on a bender, he substituted for him with great success. Despite all of his abilities, his salary was not sufficient for him to buy the things he wanted: a car, a stereo, a bed and a refrigerator. It was for this reason that he became a burglar. He started by robbing stores: clothing, toys, and small radios. Later on he moved on to houses, burglarizing them by night, when he would spot windows or doors left ajar and ready for him to open with ease.

He used to scope out places in the San Ángel neighborhood; and during one of his runs, he decided to enter an apartment on 330 Durango Street in the Colonia Roma. By night, the second floor window was always left slightly open; and for a circus performer of his ability, entering through that window would be a piece of cake. He climbed up to the first story window, then along the gutter before finally opening the window. Upon entering the room, he found a girl sleeping. She was sleek, had bronzed skin; and her black silky hair lay partially over her shoulders, exposing her round breasts, her virgin-firm nipples. Her pubic mound was partially covered by a silk sheet; a noise awakened her, she opened her eyes and murmured: “Is that you, Luis?”

He threw himself upon her bed, furiously taking off his clothes and throwing the sheet to the floor. They touched and caressed each other for hours; and then came their simultaneous orgasm as she let out a cry of pleasure that all but terrified him. Afterwards, he rose quickly, got dressed, filled his sack with his hot stash of jewels, and descended hastily, escaping down the dark streets until he reached his room located on the rooftop of a building near the circus. He continued coming to the same place, always at midnight, and they always loved each other with passion, wantonness, discovering new crevices, spaces, textures, smells and flavors.

There was never anything lacking for him to steal — a mirror, a coat, a silver plate, a statue, a painting. After some time, when he had lifted everything in the room, she would give him other things from the rest of a house, seemingly never lacking for treasures. This allowed Luis to save some money and buy himself a new car, a stereo, a refrigerator, and a bed, and to move to a very elegant apartment where he would meet his lover at other times of the day. In the living room, they hung two trapezes, and she learned to swing on one of them; and with both of them on trapeze they would practice different lovemaking positions.

They lived this way for 60 years. He would sell his stolen loot and each time, they would make love — just like the day when he first entered her room through the window. They never abandoned the place where they got to know each other. When he was already an old man and it was difficult for him to climb up to the window she would help him, grabbing him by his hand and pulling him toward her bedroom, where they would recreate their lovemaking scenes and find new pleasures.

When they both turned 90, Luis and his love wrote an erotic book more extensive than The Kamasutra and more beautiful than A Thousand and One Nights, describing six erogenous zones, the K spot, the L spot, the Z spot, the J spot (the prime spot), the H spot, and also the F. The positions they practiced on the trapezes — and which they were able to still do at a very old age — were documented in the book. It is said that when they died they were found in a naked embrace. Their tombstone read: “Here rest two souls that lived by stealing and loving.”

Translated by Carlos Eduarte

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Aaron Kerlow (1933-2006) was a Mexican Jewish medical doctor who practiced in Chicago’s Latino communities and who also worked in fiction and the visual arts. He was born in Mexico City in 1933 and completed his pre-med studies in Mexico; he then entered the University of Chicago medical program, interning at Michael Reese Hospital, marrying a Jewish American woman from Evanston, Illinois, and beginning his career on Chicagoland’s prosperous north shore.

Kerlow and his wife raised two children, Eleanor and Eric, but their marriage ended in divorce in the 1970s. Over the years, he had come to dislike his practice of wealthy patients and the “HMO-ing” of his profession. Now single and free, he left Evanston, and settled in as a physician in several of the poorer Mexican neighborhoods on Chicago’s Southside, where he enjoyed his modest practice, but above all his evenings and off-days living the cultural and romantic worlds of the Lincoln Park area.

In the 1980s and 1990s, even as his practice developed, Kerlow participated in activities of Chicago’s Mexican and more broadly Latino communities. He became a presence at the Chicago Latino Film Festival, often accompanying his brother Max and his actor friends to one presentation or another. Many of his friends attended literary and artistic soirées at his house, for presentations by Mexican cultural icons like actress Ofelia Medina or novelist Carlos Fuentes, often arranged with his friend, Argentina de Erdman, Cultural Attaché of Chicago’s Mexican Consulate. At the same time, his own work on collages, line drawings, and stories began to develop. Then, beginning in the early 1990s, he joined the board of the journal Tres Américas, the organ of the like-named Spanish-language bookstore on Chicago’s Northside, publishing three of his stories in successive issues of the journal.

For some time after that, Kerlow talked about publishing a collection of what seemed to be a quickly growing collection of stories, working on them and their translation from time to time with Marc Zimmerman. However, over the years, he gradually lost interest in this project in favor of dining with friends, traveling abroad, making collages, drawings and doodles when time permitted in his office or at home. In 2000, Marc Zimmerman’s wife, Esther Soler, held an exhibition of his drawings at her Chicago Wicker Park Latin American art and handicraft gallery, Collage of the Americas — a show which also featured art work by Max Kerlow and his well-known daughter Carolina, as well as some examples of Sergio’s son, Isaac. Then Zimmerman selected different drawings to appear on all seven volumes of his Pre-Post and Post Positions series (2004-2005), as well as on a collection of his own short stories, Stores of Winter (2006). Well known for his wit, creativity and strong opinions — for his love of art, food, travel and life itself — Kerlow died of a sudden heart attack in November, 2006 and was buried in Chicago’s Ravenswood Cemetery, after a ceremony involving many of his family members and close friends who remember him with affection to this day.

 

 

_______________________________

[1] See Kristin Laymon, Multiculturalism through Literary Translation: A Translation from Spanish of Short Stories by Dr. Aaron Kerlow (Houston: University of Houston mayo de 2011). A copy is available in the University of Houston’s Anderson Library. As I tell in the preface, Laymon initially worked with me on her translations; unbeknownst to me, she continued and completed her work with Professor Maria Elena Solino. Meantime, I had requested translations by writer-friends and above all my son Carlos Eduarte. For the most part, the final translations were achieved by my combining Laymon’s translations with the others until I felt I had the best combinations. Nevertheless I should note that the story presented below is of a story Laymon for some reason chose not to translate, and while involving the slightest editing work, is properly credited to Eduarte alone. 

[2]To cite just one recent text studying this phenomenon, see Cynthia Duncan, Unraveling the Real: The Fantastic in Spanish American Fiction (Philadelphia 2010).

[3]See for example, Charlie Jane Anders, “The Idea That Jews Don’t Write Fantasy Is A Fantasy,” in Genres [(3/04/10 12:25pm) and Abigail Nussbaum, “Asking the Wrong Questions: Fantasy and the Jewish Question” https://www.blogger.com/profile/.

[4]Here, one might wish to consider Kerlow’s view of circus in relation to Guy Debord’s influential book, La société du spectacle (Paris, 1967), as well as those works drawing on Debord in relation to circus in recent capitalist formations — e.g., Paul Bouissac, Circus and Culture (Bloomington, 1976); Helen Stoddart, Rings of Desire: Circus History and Representation (Manchester 2000); and Peta Tai, Circus Bodies: Cultural Identity in Aerial Performance (Oxford and NY, 2005). See also Susan Crutchfield and Marcy Epstein, ed. Points of Contact: Disability, Art, and Culture (Ann Arbor, 2000).

 

Marc Zimmerman. Emeritus, Latino and Latin American Studies, University of Illinois at Chicago, director Global CASA/LACASA Chicago Books. Commentator and contributor to El BeiSMan.

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