The literary world has a growing tradition of books about failing to write. This has a lot to do with the rise of auto-fiction: how long can an author write about herself, really, without bringing up writer’s block or how much she hates her work? Mostly, the only person getting disappointed in these novel-failure novels is the writer. Maybe there’s a contract about to be broken, or an opportunity getting squandered, like the Fulbright in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station or the Guggenheim in Mario Levrero’s The Luminous Novel, which might be the peak of the form.
In Resistance, the Brazilian-Argentine novelist Julián Fuks takes the auto-fiction of failed writing a step further: his protagonist, Sebastián, disappoints both himself and his brother as he struggles with his book. The stakes involved in his effort go beyond literary ambition. Like Fuks, Sebastián is the child of two leftist Argentine psychiatrists who fled Buenos Aires during that country’s dictatorship. Shortly before they went into exile, Fuks’ parents adopted an infant boy, as did Sebastián’s. We learn this from the novel’s first sentence: “My brother is adopted, but I can’t say and don’t want to say that my brother is adopted.” This sets the tone for the whole book: Sebastián is trying to write about his brother’s adoption, but he has no idea where to begin.
Fuks, or Sebastián—let’s say Sebastián, since he’s the narrator—spends the whole first chapter searching for a better way to say, “My brother is adopted.” Eventually, he settles on describing his brother as an adoptive son, less because it sounds right—even he admits it barely sounds different—than because he needs a phrase. Otherwise, he can’t start the book about adoption that his brother asked him to write. It’s less an ask than a plea: “That’s something you should write about one day, about being adopted. Someone needs to write about that.”
Sebastián wants to write the book his brother needs, but it becomes rapidly clear that he can’t. He’s too self-conscious, and too aware that “this is not just a story, not just his story. This is history.” The history here is double: first, there’s the story of the hundreds of children stolen from political prisoners during the Argentine dictatorship, for whom the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo search and march to this day. Second, there’s the story of Sebastián’s own parents, leftists who adopted Sebastián’s brother months before they went into exile.
Sebastián understands that his brother is not a stolen child; how could a subversive couple, a couple with guns hidden in their house, receive a baby from the junta? And yet he wants to believe otherwise, to “insist on a probable lie, against all evidence, the idea of my brother as a disappeared grandson.” That idea brings him closer to history, and to historical trauma. More importantly, it takes him away from his own family. Writing about Argentine history, Sebastián admits, is easier than writing about his brother.
Resistance never turns into a novel about Sebastián’s brother. Not really. For most of the book, he’s an infant, or he’s a teenager locked in his room, or—in a few chapters—he’s throwing parties and starting fights. He never speaks, except reported dialogue, though at one point Sebastián asks, “How can I not let him speak, attribute even the smallest phrase to him in this fiction?” But that’s what happens. Sebastián retains total control over the story. He resists, in other words, writing a book about his brother, the adoptive son. Instead, he writes a book about himself, the adoptive—adopting? —brother.
So Sebastián, the writer-character, has failed. What about Julián Fuks?
Resistance earned high praise upon its publication in Brazil, in 2015. It won both the Lusophone Saramago Prize and Brazil’s Jabuti Prize, and, before it was done, earned Fuks a Rolex Arts Mentorship with renowned Mozambican novelist Mia Couto. Luckily for Anglophone readers, it found its way to an excellent translator. In Daniel Hahn’s version, Fuks’ prose is calm, lovely, with an almost tidal effect: it carries the reader effortlessly along.
Fuks is a master of structure, too. He uses variation beautifully, both across the novel and within a paragraph or passage, exploring the subtle differences of meaning in some of the novel’s most loaded words: Argentina, adoption, resistance. In one of the novel’s best chapters, Sebastián defines and re-defines his own failure. First he’s failing to write about his brother; then he’s failing to write to his brother; finally, he is failing because he is writing without his brother “here, resting his hand on the back of my neck, pressing with alternating fingers, so gentle, so subtle, to guide me where to go.”
Fuks is just as careful in writing about the Argentine dictatorship and its aftermath. This makes Resistance particularly important in the English-speaking world, where stories of Argentina’s Dirty War tend to be dramatic, sometimes extreme. Take Nathan Englander’s Ministry of Special Cases, which puts a political disappearance at the center of what is essentially a screwball tragedy, or Carolina de Robertis’ Perla, a tearjerker about a young Argentine woman who was, in fact, stolen from political prisoners and given to a right-wing family to raise. Both novels use disappearance as theater, not as human fact.
The comparison might be unfair: Englander and de Robertis write in English, for an American audience. But that makes it all the more important for that same audience to read Resistance, which avoids drama at every turn. Sebastián wants to be dramatic, but Fuks won’t let him. He forces his protagonist to pay attention instead to the quieter trauma of exile, to admit that even if his brother were a disappeared grandchild, “this wouldn’t give his life meaning… It’s me, not him, who wants to find a meaning, it’s me who wants to redeem my own immobility, it’s me who wants to go back to belonging to the place where I’ve never actually belonged.”
So Resistance resists drama. It resists the impulse to exaggerate, maybe even the impulse to tell stories. Writ large, that’s the project of auto-fiction. Don’t make the character who might be you look good, or bad. Don’t make his life bigger than your own. Fuks never does. Sebastián’s missteps are constant but tiny. Most of them are internal and minor. We don’t even know if his novel is as bad as he fears. At the very end of Resistance, Sebastián carries his manuscript to his brother’s door. The reaction he gets will tell him—and us—whether his novel is a failure, but the reader never finds out. In other words, there’s never quite an ending. The novel resists even that. It’s a brilliant last move, and one that makes Julián Fuks, unlike his poor protagonist, an absolute success.