Reviewed by Julian Murphy
It was L.P. Hartley who first described the past as a foreign country. The phrase comes from the opening of his magnificent novel, The Go-Between: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” These words could well have served as an epigraph for Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s new novel, His Own Man. Ribeiro’s book, like Hartley’s, investigates the extent of two of our most durable qualities as human beings, our facility for adaptation and selective amnesia.
Ribeiro understands, as Hartley did, that with the passage of time, individuals adapt to new circumstances and new contexts, such that the old ones seem entirely alien. Though Hartley originally deployed his dictum to describe the way individuals look back on their pasts, his epithet is equally true when applied to entire nations. In His Own Man, nations, like the individuals therein, adapt and change such that their contemporary states bear little resemblance to their earlier incarnations.
There is a rich array of case studies to illustrate Hartley’s contention, but it would be hard to overlook the purple patch of South American politics from 1965 to 1985. These two decades saw countries like Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and Chile careen from socialist democracy, to authoritarian military dictatorship, before returning to representative democracy again. It is this time and place that Ribeiro takes as the setting for His Own Man.
Ribeiro’s narrative progresses in two distinct, but related, directions. The first of these narrative strands follows the protagonist, Marcílio Andrade Xavier, an ambitious Brazilian diplomat agilely navigating the tumultuous regional politics of the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. The second strand is the political narrative: the series of coups, dictators and toppling democracies that plays out in the background of the novel.
These two strands are woven together so masterfully that it is sometimes hard to tell whether Marcílio is a representative figure, changing along with the nations he inhabits, or whether he is more calculating, anticipating political movements in order to best position himself in the new regimes. Ultimately it is the second characterization that proves the more accurate. Ribeiro’s protagonist becomes an epitome of the iniquitous ruling elite who devised the authoritarian governments in Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile.
Ribeiro is well placed to write about the turbulent years of the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s in South American politics. The son of a Brazilian diplomat, Ribeiro grew up with firsthand knowledge of the precarious course that his country was charting in the lead-up to the 1960s. The young Ribeiro was a student in the ’60s, after which he worked as a journalist and film critic in Brazil documenting the changes in politics and the arts that were occurring all around him. In 1967, three years after the coup that ushered in Brazil’s military dictatorship, Ribeiro entered the Brazilian Foreign Ministry. Since then he has worked in Brasilia and abroad and is currently Brazil’s Deputy Consul in New York City.
Throughout his diplomatic career, though, Ribeiro continued to moonlight as a writer. Now he is one of Brazil’s most highly respected authors with a number of short-story collections and novels to his name, all originally written in his native Portuguese. His Own Man is set for a staggered release this year, first appearing in Australia and the UK through Scribe and later in the United States with Other Press. For anglophone readers of Ribeiro, the long wait has been worth it. Kim Hastings’s translation lives up to the rapturous reception that the Brazilian edition, O punho e a renda, received upon its release when it won the Brazilian PEN Prize for Fiction.
His Own Man begins in early 1960s Brazil, with President Goulart pushing progressive socialist reforms. But in 1964, Goulart is overthrown by a military coup and Marcílio must moderate his views if he is to stay in the Foreign Service. Unlike many of his idealistic colleagues who fall on their proverbial swords, Marcílio, with disconcerting ease, discards his progressive views like a snake shedding its skin. As a result, he is soon promoted to a position in neighboring Uruguay where he passively watches the country slide into authoritarianism before he is transferred to Chile. There, he supports the American backing of the infamous military dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Most chameleonic of all Marcílio’s moves, though, comes when he returns to Brazil in 1985 just as the authoritarian regime that he has supported all along is capitulating. Rather than go down with the ship, Marcílio manages to align himself with the democratic movement as if he supported it all along.
What makes the novel so interesting, and so ambitious, is its aim of telling two stories at once—the personal and the political. The author’s intention in this regard is flagged at the very outset, in the novel’s opening paragraph:
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?
Ribeiro suggests that both human and national identity are amorphous entities, “difficult to trace,” as he says. The novel makes a remarkable effort to retain this enigmatic quality while it limns its twin portraits of a man and a continent. Part of this mystery, this ambiguity of definition, is achieved by the manner in which the novel is narrated. Rather than have the story told by Marcílio, or an omniscient narrator, the story is related by one of Marcílio’s colleagues, another career diplomat looking back at his native country from the relative comfort of a posting in the USA in the late 1990s. The narrator admits that the story is a difficult one to tell, necessarily cobbled together from faint memories and incomplete recovered documents.
The resulting narrative does not proceed linearly; instead it is subject to the vagaries of the narrator’s storytelling and his memory—moving backward and forward in time and skipping from country to country. It would have been easy for Ribeiro’s jumbled-up chronology to feel contrived, but instead it transports the reader into the mind of the aging narrator. Old memories are turned up like gemstones, they glow for a time then fade, later burning bright again when their true significance is revealed by some new fact.
What we get is a socialized portrait of a person and a personalized portrait of a country. We only learn as much about Brazil as is necessary to tell Marcílio’s story and we only get the bits of Marcílio’s life that correspond to important socio-political changes in the region. And both of these portraits bear the subtle facture of the unobtrusive narrator—a man who also served in the Brazilian Foreign Service throughout these years, and who can be read as a foil to the morally ambiguous Marcílio. Unlike his colleague, the self-effacing narrator modestly lets on that he preserved his ideological integrity throughout the various changes of government. Though the narrator’s career flat-lined while Marcílio’s tracked ever-upward, it is clear from the novel’s conclusion which man is most at peace with his decisions. The narrator then, through his insistent presence at the novel’s margins, becomes a figure of hope in an otherwise dark story.
For many Brazilian, and South American, readers the novel is a poignant yet somber reflection on a time and a country now receding into the dimmer corners of living memory. For other readers, those not living on the South American continent, the novel is fascinating for different reasons. It resurrects a Brazil that most of us have now forgotten, or that we never knew: a Brazil of coups, dictators, spies, and revolutions. With Brazil’s recent, and meteoric, ascent to an economic powerhouse, this book serves as a timely reminder of what the country has emerged from. But to suggest that the novel is solely concerned with Brazil, or even its neighbouring countries, is to miss the underlying point. Ribeiro’s political commentary is of global import, a caution against too readily forgetting and too quickly adapting. While the past might seem like a foreign country, it was once our country, we were there, and we cannot easily deny our citizenship.
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