João Almino’s “Free City”

Reviewed by Ksenija Bilbija

Image of João Almino’s “Free City”

While Brasilia, the only city built in the twentieth century to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is undoubtedly designed to captivate the eye of the viewer, João Almino’s novel Free City, about the building of the Brazilian capital, is masterfully written to capture something more—the “I” of the reader, let’s say.

This richly symbolic narrative tells the story of one of the workers who comes to the site in order to help erect the city of the future, but is murdered the day after its official inauguration. The tale is set in a vivid historical context. Meandering through the narrative are names such as the country’s president Juscelino Kubitschek who envisioned the capital in the geographic center of the country and ordered its construction; Bernardo Sayão, an engineer who oversaw the construction of the city; the vice-governor of the state and also the first person to be buried at the Brasilia’s cemetery, thus marking it in the map of dead; world-renowned writers such as Aldous Huxley and Elizabeth Bishop, who at one point visited this city in the making.

Longtime readers of Joao Almino’s books will not be surprised that the setting of the new novel is Brasilia. This is his fifth novel set there, although until now English readers had only two of them at their disposal: The Five Seasons of Love and The Book of Emotions, both published by Dalkey Archive Press. Free City is a palimpsest of sorts, set within the frame of the forty some months (1956-1960) that it took for the most modern capital in the world to emerge from the vastness of the Brazilian savanna. It is narrated by João, who, after losing both parents in an accident, spends his childhood with an aunt and an uncle from different  sides of his family. Leaving their previous lives behind, they all move to Free City, a new and disposable site created for the builders of the capital. Now a young man, João is trying to reconstruct some threads of the early part of his life. And one of those threads is a murder mystery involving a family friend Valdivino, a construction worker, a killing in which his father may have played a part. João has some saved newspaper clippings, personal memories, accounts from other family members and, most importantly, explanations from the only father figure known to him, his uncle, now in jail (for another crime) and on his deathbed.

The novel is structured around the seven nights that João spends talking to his uncle, whom he refers to as Dad, and it engages the reader on multiple levels. It takes the form of blog entries that João once posted in order to reconstruct the times of building Brasilia as well as his own coming of age. While the reader of the novel never has access to the original posts—he revises them as he goes—there are constant references to multiple remarks made by other bloggers who had earlier commented on the text’s inaccuracies and insufficiencies. In order to further muddy things, there is a separate character called João Almino, a writer who is asked to read the novel and revise it. Ultimately João, author of the blogs and our narrator all along, refutes and rejects Almino’s suggestions.

It is as if João is trying to find his true self somewhere in all this—beyond language, beyond the historical accounts and the fictionalized, or embellished, ones supplied by the writer-character João Almino. And yet for all his efforts, he eventually seems to realize that an “authentic” self does not exist prior to writing. That identity is conjured-up, brought into existence through the writing of the text itself. What João remembers most from the time when Brasilia was being built is the awakening of his sexuality; it is now, with the imminent death of the man who’s been a father to him that the mystery around the death of Valdivino unravels.

In one sense, Free City is a novel about a literary sort of redemption. João tells a story; opens it up to the readers of his blog, who challenge his account; and then rejects their comments and reclaims his authority over the narrative. At the same time, the novel is also about the actual disappearance of a worker, Valdivino, an unexplained and uninvestigated case (a possible homicide) that João is intent to decipher. Even as the facts surrounding Valdivino’s disappearance emerge, the book offers another explanation for his fate. The figure of Iris Quelemém, a prophetess with a cameo in the novel, suggests something at once more magical and uncanny: Could it be that what lies beneath the modernist city is a body, the body of Valdivino, upon which the redemption of the citizens of Brasilia depends?

Story and history, the fictional and the real, while separated in the English language, coexist amicably in the Portuguese word história. With yet another particularity: the h is never pronounced, never given voice. So when memory tells stories and histories, when notes turn into blogs and autobiographies become novels, something is always silenced. The unspeakable and the unutterable are embedded in every história, whether an imaginary tale or a historical account. The h stands for the stories that never find their way into histories, versions that keep multiplying, never allowing a final one to fully take a position of authority. And so, the story of Free City I chose to remember and tell, may not be the same one that impresses another reader of this haunting, openended, and multiform novel. But then, isn’t this precisely what one looks for in a book?