This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes: #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.
The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.
So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.
I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.
Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.
Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.
Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.
A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.
What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.