His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro, translated from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings

Title: His Own Man

Author: Edgard Telles Ribeiro

Translator: Kim M. Hastings

Publisher:   Other Press, New York (2014)

ISBN:  978 159051 698 0

Ribeiro_HisOwnManMarcilio Andrade Xaviar – known as Max to friends & colleagues alike – is handsome, charismatic, intelligent, cultured and endlessly complicated.  In short, the perfect diplomat.  It is the late 1960’s and he is embarking on what will be a remarkable career in the Brazilian Foreign Service. A career that will span some of the most tumultuous decades in Latin American history.  Through the coups and purges, the government shifts from left to right and back again, the making & breaking of political alliances – Max thrives.  He is a golden boy. Incapable of a misstep, even if he tried.

Across Latin America governments will fall (in the words of one character) like “right-wing dominoes”. Socialist and Communist leaders will be replaced by military dictators backed by Western powers.  A Cold War game of RISK played on Central & South American maps.  “… We went through Brazil in sixty-four and from there all the countries toppled one after the other, just like a house of cards: Argentina in sixty-six; Uruguay and Chile in seventy-three (a good year for us); Peru at some point, I no longer remember when; then Argentina again in 1976 (after the brief and pitiful Peron hiatus); and so on. A beautiful domino effect… just perfect.”

And at the center of it all stands Max.  Except we aren’t given Max’s version of events.  Instead, His Own Man is narrated by a colleague and former friend. Obsessed with the trajectory of Max’s career and the wrecked lives left in its wake, the narrator (known only as N.) seeks out Max’s ex-wife, associates, even Max himself – anyone and anything that can provide insight into the actions of his former friend.  Structured like Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom, Bolano’s Distant Star and Matthiesson’s Shadow Country trilogy – His Own Man pieces together a flawed portrait from bits of rumor, chance encounters, speculation and fading memories.  And like the main characters of those books, Marcilio Andrade Xaviar comes to embody the evils of the society ruled by terror. Operation Condor, the Argentine Dirty Wars, the kidnapping of the Uruguayans, Pinochet’s coup and Chilean “Operation Silence”, the torture & murder of millions – somehow we are meant to understand that Max had a hand in all of it.  Yet, when pressed, he appears entirely disinterested in politics.

“After giving me a good-natured glance, Max repeated, ‘That’s right, he drank from the wrong well.’ And he concluded, ‘He only saw what was directly in front of him. Whereas…’”

I finished describing the scene to Marina.  Turning his back on the ministry esplanade, Max had slowly rotated, a motion I had to follow, given how close to him I was standing. And he’d gestured broadly with is arm from right to left through the space in front of us. His fingers glided past Burle Marx’s suspended gardens, descended to the people on the marble terrace – lost in their hopes and longings – and, without lingering, moved over the circle formed by the president and his entourage, all lively and elated. With the elegance of an orchestra conductor, his hand then swept past various groups of men in tailored suits,hovered over well-coiffed made-up women, reaching the new graduates and their relatives, until finally landing on the works of art, which ranged from Aleijadinho to Portinari, from colonial furniture to Persian rugs. Once his panorama was complete,  he leaned toward me and whispered, “… Whereas this is what I pursued.”

Ribeiro uses N.’s idealism to contrast Max’s opportunism, and then leaves it to his readers to determine the grey area where the truth resides. Max is mercenary, ruthless and ambitious.  But N.’s idealism never translates into concrete action.  N’s position allows him to shelter his family from the violence and upheaval taking place around them – but he fails to use it to change or even impact the world.  He coasts through events as a witness more than a participant. In fact, a lot of coasting seems to occur throughout the plot of His Own Man.  Max seldom instigates events, rather he stumbles into most of the opportunities that shape his career. Or finds himself manipulated into position by foreign government agencies.  His Own Man is something of a misnomer.

It stands to reason that a former diplomat turned author would avoid the clichés found in most espionage novels.  Edgard Telles Ribeiro – journalist, film critic, author, career diplomat with 47 years in the Brazilian Foreign Service and the UN – knows the world of which he writes intimately.  Not the shadow world of 007 and George Smiley, the real Diplomatic Corps is made up of  men and women who exist somehow independent of the governments and nations they serve. Stationed in embassies located around the globe, they often seem far removed from the events taking place in their home countries even as they help shape them. They live their lives, marry and raise their children in little oasis set on foreign soil. Ribeiro’s characters are intelligent and cultured, they are surrounded by elegance and view world politics as a particularly challenging game of chess.  They believe themselves grandmasters, moving the pieces across the board.  But in reality they are just as likely to be pawns – manipulated and eventually sacrificed.

Kim M. Hastings translation is straightforward, with some lovely moments like the passage quoted above.  Overall, though, I found His Own Man more interesting than engaging.  The Latin American history is fascinating and the premise – an espionage/political commentary novel set firmly in the diplomatic (versus the intelligence) community – is a novelty.  But the 1st person narrator, so important to this novel’s success, comes across as a less charming, a less engaging, a less vibrant version of Max.  That N., in his 60’s at the time of the story’s telling, is jaded and consumed by regret lends authenticity to his character. But it also flattens out his perception of people and events. The sections involving Max’s wife Marina are some of the best in the book, because N.’s empathy and humanity is on display. I’d have liked to seen more of that same kind of emotional depth somewhere in N.’s portrayal of Max. 

Women Writing About Horrible Things – Two French Novellas (a #WITMonth post)

TITLE:  Le Necrophile
AUTHOR: Gabrielle Wittkop
TRANSLATOR:  Don Bapst
PUBLISHER: ECW Press, Ontario  (2011)
ISBN:  978 15502 2943 1

 

TITLE:  Beside the Sea
AUTHOR: Véronique Olmi
TRANSLATOR:  Adriana Hunter
PUBLISHER: Tin House, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 935639 42 8

One criticism I wanted to address during Women In Translation Month was that women authors write exclusively about “women’s issues”. Or, worse, the categorizing of their work as “chick-lit” or “relationship” novels.  As somehow homogenously feminine and, as such, more easily lumped together and dismissed from the company of books written by men.  With that in mind I have deliberately chosen two books that are challenging and complicated – novels not easily identified as or typical of literature associated with women.  Le Necrophile (The Necrophiliac in English) by Gabrielle Wittkop, translated by Don Bapst and Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi, translated by Adriana Hunter, are unflinching character studies – depicting mankind in its darkest moments and (as is the case of Le Necrophile) at its most depraved.

The Necrophiliac is not a metaphor (as I initially believed when I bought it). Instead it is the very literal title of a disturbing and disturbingly beautiful book about –  there’s no way to put this delicately – a man has sex with corpses. Lucien, the protagonist and narrator, is an antiques dealer.  He has no friends; no family. He is a loner;  for reasons that very quickly become apparent. He reads the obituaries the way normal people read the personals. Sometimes he attends the funeral. Then at night, while everyone is sleeping, Lucien drives his Chevrolet to the cemetery to dig up his date. The relationship can last for weeks at a time.

He has no set type.  Men, women, the very young and the very old all have their specific attractions. The Necrophiliac is written in the style of a personal journal and the graphic descriptions of the sexual encounters will make your skin crawl.  There is no easing readers in.  From page one Lucien is revolting, breaking multiple taboos. By having him narrate his own story Wittkop manages to humanize him – but barely so.  Only the beauty of the prose keeps you reading.

I went this morning for a stroll around the Ivy Cemetery, charming under the snow like an ornate centerpiece made of sugar, strangely lost in a plebeian district. Watching a widow decorate the tomb of the deceased with a little Christmas tree, I noticed suddenly how rare they’ve become, those women in full mourning in their floating veils – though often blond – who for the most part – usually, not always – professionals who practised their art behind the family monuments with an absolutely depressing absence of brilliance and sincerity.  Widows’ meat.

The passage above is one of the few in The Necrophiliac that won’t cause you to flinch. And, fortunately, is still indicative of the author’s style – which is lovely and devoid of the cloying prose style inherent to most Gothic novels. In fact, if you can move past the subject matter The Necrophiliac is surprisingly engrossing. The writing is truly gorgeous. Don Bapst translation manages to capture the contemporary Gothic flavor and the voluptuous imagery which, combined, creates a truly unique reading experience.  The size is perfect; ninety-one pages that can easily be consumed in one sitting.

And – fortunately – the book is not without some humor.  As you can imagine Lucien has a difficult time keeping cleaning ladies.

This appears to be the only book by the author, Gabrielle Wittkop, that is currently available to English readers. Before her suicide in 2002, at age 82, the author had written several novels, short stories and poems.  She saw herself as “the heir to de Sade” and is widely read in both France and Germany.  Her popularity in those countries allows me to hope that more of her work will eventually find its way into the hands of English translators.

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Véronique Olmi’s novella Beside the Sea, translated by Adriana Hunter, is another book that describes the world through the eyes of a troubled protagonist.  The initial premise seems innocent: the narrator takes her two young sons on an impromptu seaside holiday. But from the first sentence – “We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us.” – it is apparent that all is not right. What unfolds is heartbreaking.  Both boys will be dead by the end of the book.

Beside the Sea explores difficult subject matter of an entirely different nature than The Necrophiliac. Matricide takes the place of perversion – and suddenly perversion seems the more palatable of the two.  This is not an easy book by any definition. Beside the Sea is another (mercifully) short novella  – only 119 pages.  But every one of those pages feels like a punch in the chest.  From the mother’s rough, uneducated voice (the grammar is ever so slightly off); to the anxiety of her two small boys ; to the ineptness of the social workers meant to help them.  There is nothing pretty about the story or the prose.  Nor is there anything comforting.  Olmi writes fiercely – refusing to shy away from all the horrible little details that make her story painfully believable. She has created a main protagonist who invokes readers’ frustration as much as she does their pity. The book’s two small children aren’t angelic – they behave & misbehave as little boys do. And their perfectly drawn imperfection makes you want to protect them from what is coming all the more.

Omni excels at character development, relying on her readers to pick up on all the little clues her oblivious narrator let’s drop.  Social workers, concerned teachers, poverty and absent fathers are all mentioned in passing.  The eldest boy, 11-year old Stan, has taken on the role of adult that she is incapable of filling.  Kevin is still too young to understand what is going on and still retains some innocence.  “Mom! Kevin cried when he saw I was awake, and that’s a wonderful thing! The way a little’un says hello to you in the morning, as if you were the surprise of the day, the piece of good news he’d given up on.”  Both boys love their mother, but Stan has learned not to trust her.  She, in turn, loves them.  That is never in question.  But she is psychologically unable to care for them properly.

We’ll go to a cafe, I said, but neither of them looked convinced by that and I added We’ll order and we’ll be served! They looked at me suspiciously like I was telling a fib, so I got up an then I couldn’t help smiling – never mind my gappy gums, I was too proud of myself, I rummaged through the blue sports bag, took out my tea tin and tipped it out onto the bed, regretting it didn’t make more noise: I spilled out all my money! All of it! Everything I’d put by to have fun someday, all my little savings scrimped from the change at the baker and sometimes at the supermarket.

The kids didn’t touch the money, they looked at it, cautiously, like they were meeting someone new. Can we have ice cream? Kevin asked to make sure, and I was convinced he was no longer missing school. Stupid! Stan said quietly, in a cafe you drink coffee! And, anyway, there’s practically only twenty-centime coins left! Really? I said. Only twenty-centime coins? And I looked a bit closer. The boys sat down next to me on the bed, peering at my treasure like some strange creature. It’s true there weren’t many ten-franc coins, but hey! It was my scrimpings, not an investment, a bit extra, okay! I didn’t want them to see my disappointment, but at the same time I resented them for showing so little enthusiasm. Stan started counting the coins with such a serious expression you’d have though he was picking up something I’d broken, sorting out some stupid accident, that’s what they teach them at school: to be distrustful…

I don’t believe Omni expects readers to sympathize with the mother, yet she manages to humanize her.  That, in itself, is an achievement.  It’s also the key to the success of Beside the Sea.  The characters and situations are hyper-realistically drawn, as if the author recognized the weight of the subject matter – the horrible, chilling, heartbreaking act that drives the plot – and realized it alone would have  to carry the reader through.  Anything else would be disrespectful – a Lifetime movie no one wants to watch.  So Véronique Omni makes the intelligent decision of telling the story without resorting to emotional manipulation or literary devices/embellishments. Without tears.  The only false note is the final sentence, which shuts the door too neatly on a situation that is anything but. Otherwise Beside the Sea is an amazing novella, one that deserves more accolades and attention than it will probably ever receive.  Therein lies the peril of taking on societal taboos in a complicated and meaningful way.*

 

*versus the exploitative