Georges Perec, employing prose meditations, lists, and inventories (of countries of origin, of what the immigrants carried), conjures up in Ellis Island the sixteen million people who, between 1890 and 1954, arrived as foreigners and stayed on to become Americans. Perec (who by the age of nine was an orphan: his father was killed by a German bullet; his mother perished in Auschwitz) is wide-awake to the elements of chance in immigration and survival: “To me Ellis Island is the ultimate place of exile. That is, the place where place is absent, the non-place, the nowhere… Ellis Island belongs to all those whom intolerance and poverty have driven and still drive from the land where they grew up.” Ellis Island is a slender Perec masterwork, unique among his many singular works.
The acclaimed poet and scholar Mónica de la Torre contributes an afterword that keeps Perec’s writing front and center while situating Ellis Island in the context of current fierce battles over immigration.
‘What I find present here,’ the author writes, ‘are in no way landmarks or roots or relics but their opposite: something shapeless, on the outer edge of what is sayable, something that might be called closure, or cleavage or severance, and that in my mind is linked in a most intimate and confused way with the very fact of being a Jew.’ This sentiment drifts specter-like through Perec’s writings, often implied but usually too fragile to acknowledge — it really is on the outer edges of the sayable. I’m grateful that here, near the end of his short, sad, extraordinary life, he found a way of saying it.
While exploring the island—its history, its buildings, its leftovers—Perec identifies Ellis Island as a non-place, an isle of tears, and reveals Emma Lazarus’s metaphor of America’s ‘golden door,’ which is emblazoned upon the Statue of Liberty, to be little but a false promise.
The lyric study of Ellis Island is a mournful counterfactual about what might have been had his parents—and many others—made it across the ocean. If Perec took pride in not repeating himself, it did not stop him from returning, as if in an elliptical orbit, to the same obsessions: police states, citizens going missing, organized brutality, human fragility