#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

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.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

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.

 

 

#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.