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Chronicles of Brazil

by Julian Murphy

In his new novel, His Own Man, the Brazilian author, Edgard Telles Ribeiro, takes his readers back to the tumultuous period in Brazil’s history between 1960 and 1985. During this time the body politic careened from socialist democracy to military dictatorship before returning again to representative government. Today, with Brazil a monolithic force in international politics and economics, it is difficult to imagine such political instability in that country. Yet 1985 is not so long ago, especially not for Ribeiro, who was a Brazilian diplomat during those years.

Ribeiro lived through this difficult period in South American politics but it obviously left its mark on him. His Own Man sometimes reads like a personal effort at coming to grips with how a country and a people can rapidly change its leaders and its values. Yet to say the effort is personal is to do the book a disservice, it is also undoubtedly a contribution to public record of this dark era of South America’s history. Nor should the fact that this contribution is in the form of a novel necessarily detract from its importance, though Ribeiro’s choice of the fictional mode presents its author with certain challenges when mounting a political analysis. Ribeiro acknowledges as much from the very outset. On a mostly blank page facing the publication details we are given the following two jarring epigraphs:

I don’t claim to paint things in themselves, but only their effect on me.

In the presence of certain realities, art is trivial or impertinent.
George Steiner

The first quotation is quite pointedly a foreshadowing of the novel’s concerns with memory and perspectivism. We know already that any people, events and happenings on the other side of this frontispiece are just shadows in Plato’s cave, flickering silhouettes that the world has cast onto the cave wall of the author’s mind. The subsequent chronicle of Brazil, we can already assume, is to be a self-consciously personal portrait – mediated most obviously by the narrator but also by the author himself.

Ribeiro’s second epigraph, from Steiner, seems to further problematize the novelistic foray into politics and history. Being one of the most important writers on literature’s response to the Holocaust, Steiner’s caution against political art is one imbued with much weight. What is Ribeiro doing by deliberately putting himself in so precarious a position? His novel is clearly about the ‘certain realities’ facing Brazil under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Is the author asking us to characterize his book as trivial before we have even begun to read it? I’m not sure that he is. I think that the modesty arising from the choice of the Steiner epigraph is a façade. Behind this false front Ribeiro is quietly confident that his mesmerising personal narrative can offer its readers some insight into the Brazil that he lived through in the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

Dreams of modernity: Oscar Niemeyer's Edifício Copan, Sao Paulo, completed in 1966 (photo: Doorwerth, source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 License). [1]

Dreams of modernity: Oscar Niemeyer’s Edifício Copan, Sao Paulo, completed in 1966 (photo: Doorwerth, source: Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0 License).

This Brazil is one in which politics was a game played for keeps. The military ruled with an iron fist and with the authority and resources of the United States’ Government behind them. Freedom of speech and the press was curtailed and dissidents were tortured and exiled. The politics of Brazil at the time proved significant beyond its borders. The Brazilian model influenced its neighbours in a sort of anti-democracy domino effect. In Uruguay, Juan Bordaberry began ruling by decree from 1972 and nearby Chile succumbed to the Pinochet junta in 1973. Ribeiro’s account of these political events and the general tenor of that time in South American politics is especially effective and engaging because it is refracted through a personal lens. The lens is that of Marcílio Andrade Xavier, the protagonist, an ambitious diplomat rising in the ranks of the Brazilian Foreign Service as democracies topple around him and dictators are propped up by American power and influence.

Himself a career diplomat, Ribeiro’s knowledge of the political realm makes for a convincing portrait of the wily Marcílio and his native country. What results is a character study that doubles as a national history lesson. The book’s dual concern with defining both a character and a nation is advertised in the opening lines:

Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and images, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries?

In the final analysis, His Own Man never purports to strictly delimit the boundaries of the nation, Brazil, or the character, Marcílio. Instead the reader is left with deliberately enigmatic portraits of the two entities. Ribeiro’s novel always avoids didacticism in favour of the power of suggestion. Shining a light on the path Marcílio’s treads through history, Ribeiro leaves the reader to wonder at the shadowy margins, only occasionally illuminated. We are told little of the goings on in close-by Argentina though there are references to the Argentine Revolution and to the Falklands War. Similarly once Marcílio leaves his posts in Uruguay and then Chile these countries drop off the narrator’s radar and we must make our own enquiries to learn how these regimes eventually ended.

Ribeiro’s method of hinting at things that lie beyond his narrative frame is alluded to in a passage from the text itself where the narrator recounts the following:

I remembered an article I had read recently, about certain photos in which everything appears normal because of what’s been left out. Like the scenes of Paris during the German occupation …[where] the couples sipping coffee along the Rive Gauche … are not in themselves noteworthy. Except for the fact that just steps away, at the exact same time, hundreds of Jews … were being boarded onto trains and sent to concentration camps.

Street Life in Brazil. (Photo by: Agência Brasil; used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License; Source: Wikimedia Commons) [2]

Street Life in Brazil. (Photo by: Agência Brasil; used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Brazil License; Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In framing His Own Man, Ribeiro focuses on his protagonist and the picture necessarily loses resolution as the eye wanders out from this centre. But this is not a shortcoming of the book. The hazy edges of Marcílio’s story entice the reader into further exploration, to develop his or her understanding of this crucial time in South American history.

And so it is that Ribeiro stays true to the first of his epigraphs. His narrative makes no claim to historical fact, and instead is avowedly personal – coloured by memory and character. Yet it would be hard for any reader to say that His Own Man proves the truth of the other epigraph, Steiner’s claim that: ‘In the face of certain realities, art is trivial or impertinent.’ Ribeiro’s novel is neither trivial nor impertinent; it is measured and respectful in its delicate treatment of an important time in South American politics. As a work of art, Ribeiro’s book provides an accessible entry point into a complex political history.

The novel is only the second of Ribeiro’s books to be translated into English but it will surely be followed by more if the author’s rapidly rising international reputation is anything to go by. Winner of the Brazilian Pen Club Prize when published in its original Portuguese, His Own Man is likely to alert a whole new readership to this important Brazilian writer. Here’s to hoping we will see more Ribeiro in English soon.

Edgar Telles Ribeiro: His Own Man
(transl. from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hasting)
ISBN-13: 978-1590516980
Price: US$17.95
New York: Other Press 2014, 352 pages, hardcover.

Julian Murphy is a criminal lawyer and arts writer dividing his time between the Northern Territory and Melbourne, Australia. You can find his recent writing at The Millions, Rain Taxi Review of Books and Art and Australia.

(c) 2014 The Berlin Review of Books.