The Pope’s Daughter by Dario Fo (Antony Shugaar, translator)

July 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Pope’s Daughter
Author:  Dario Fo
Translator:  Antony Shugaar
Publisher:  Europa Editions, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 60945 274 2

Dario Fo – playwright, comedian, Nobel Laureate  –  is an admirer of the 16th century form of street theater known as commedia dell’arte. These roving theatrical troupes employed masks, improvisation, wordplay and slapstick comedy to entertain the masses. The actors and actresses performed broad “types” (stereo- or arch-), which were popular in that time period.

For  The Pope’s Daughter Fo has translated the theatrical form into a novel. He encourages these somewhat archaic references by dividing the tale into episodic chapters with old-fashioned descriptive titles such as: “The puppet king who walks like a marionette” and “Out of enmity between women, sometimes a great friendship can spring”.  At the same time Fo imagines conversations, spins events like a contemporary satirist and displays a razor sharp eye for historical absurdities. The narrative voice (which we can only assume is the author’s own) always seems to be on the verge of laughter. It is a charming, farcical portrayal of the Borgias – with a preamble at the front, a bibliography at the back, and Fo’s drawings & paintings of the main characters scattered between.

“… The chronicles of the time, in fact, reported all sorts of social events, some of them held within the walls of the Vatican itself, with a matter-of-fact approach and without the slightest hint of scandal. But when the Borgias strode onto the stage of Rennaisance history, to the cheers of a horde of supporters, first and foremost among them their closest relations, then indeed the attention of the public, an audience both national and international, really became keen.”

What do we know about Lucrezia Borgia, her brothers and her father?  Quite a bit, actually.  She and her family were 15th century celebrities on the scale of Kardashians – subject to all the attention and public scrutiny that kind of celebrity brings.  There are the historical records.  But because they were so much in the public eye, positioned at the epicenter of all of Christendom really, we also have an almost embarrassing wealth of rumors, gossip & innuendos. Take the time to sift through the mess of information and an image forms of a smart, extraordinarily pretty woman who enjoyed all the privileges of status, wealth & education. A woman who made the sacrifices which were expected of well-born females of that time period.  Sacrifices which were necessary to maintain a life of privilege (three marriages to further her father’s & brother’s political ambitions) and luxury.

History has assigned her the alternating roles of virgin and whore, political victim and poisoner, incestuous seductress and cultured Renaissance Duchess.  That need to define Lucrezia through such a multitude of archetypes has obscured her many real accomplishments and achievements. Few portrayals focus on the known facts: that at age nineteen she acted as governor of the cities of  Spoleto & Foligno; or that she remains the only woman to have sat on the Papal throne and wielded the power of the office (which she did at the age of twenty-one while her father was away from Rome); or that after her father’s death, when her brother most needed help, she would raise and send him an army.  As Duchess of Ferrara she would be known throughout Italy as a Patroness of the Arts.  Byron admired her love letters. Where her father & brother failed in their quest for dynasty, Lucrezia succeeded – many European monarchs trace their lineage back to the Borgias through Lucrezia and her granddaughter Anna D’Este (who was also the granddaughter of the French King Louis XII).

Throughout her life Lucrezia Borgia demonstrated intelligence, humility and no small amount of political acumen – all  of which allowed her to survive the fall of the Borgia family’s fortunes.

This is the Lucrezia Dario Fo is set on portraying.  And to that end he has swept aside much of the unsubstantiated speculation (and cable tv melodrama) to present a very real woman who possesses the full range of human emotions.  Fo’s Lucrezia is in turns frustrated, angry, intelligent, desperate, loving, affectionate, wily, passionate and a little bit bawdy. He allows her to grow from a young girl to a matron. And, realizing that her story is always bound to the stories of her brother Cesare and father the Pope, he’s put them in his book as well. Not as sinister demons consumed only by ambition, but as men with a multitude of failings. Setting them all in a world that bears uncanny (but very intentional) similarities to the one we live in today.

The hardest thing for Alexander VI was getting past the stumbling block of the “morality” issue.  That is, how was he to modify, at least in appearance, his licentious need for forbidden copulation? For that matter, how on earth could anyone keep their distance from such an adorable creature as Giulia? An old saying goes: “If the hyenas are on your heels, then toss them the most savory morsel, say a newborn lamb. You’ll see, when they open their maws to savage their prey, there’s not a hyena or jackal on earth that will pay the slightest attention to anything else.”

And so the great reformation was gently lowered into the swamp of forgetfulness. Every so often someone with a good memory would ask: “When are we going to talk about the revolution again?”

And everyone, from the pontiff down to his cardinals, would reply: “Never fear, we haven’t forgotten. Just be patient and we’ll bring it back up again.”

Sure, and who believed them?

If I’ve given the impression that The Pope’s Daughter is a history book or even your typical historical novel then I’ve badly mis-represented it. Fo creates an atmosphere of old-fashioned theatricality which is unusual and at odds with the genre.  He relies heavily on dialogue, usually imagined but sometimes taken from actual letters, which he exaggerates to the point of pantomime.  He uses this dialogue to convey most of the historical plot points of his heroine’s story. For example, when Lucrezia is attended by the same doctor who was also there when she miscarried her first child she spends some time answering his questions and recounting what has befallen her over the intervening years.  Fo tells his story on a stage: sometimes employing a sardonic voice-over commentary as in the passage above…  or creating elaborate set pieces as in the passage below.

Lucrezia was in Rome. The scene opens in the very instant at which the thump of the doorknocker is heard at the bottom of the central staircase and the voice of a servant girl calls: “Milady, it is your lover who just knocked on the door!” And Lucrezia responded: “At last! What are you waiting for? Let him in?”

“He’s already entered, that’s him on the stairs!”

Alfonso appeared, she hurried toward him to throw her arms around him, and he pushed her away.

“Hey, what’s come over you? Why do you shove me away?!”

“Why don’t you ask your brother and your father, too!  You’re a fine gang of blackguards!”

“Blackguards? Why, are you drunk or are you just pretending to insult me?”

“Listen, you’re a woman of letters, do you like ballads and strambotti? Then why don’t you just try reading this!” And with those words, he pulled a sheaf of paper from inside his jacket. “Be my guest, it’s dedicated to you, or really, I should say, to us both. It’s funny as can be.”

Image taken from the Nobel Prize website biography of Dario Fo.

The scene above features the archly delivered, wooden style of dialogue (seemingly fully aware of the audience listening in) that appears throughout the book.  Similar stylistic choices – which in other books would be seen as weaknesses – make up a good part of The Pope’s Daughter ‘s charm.  Antony Shugaar has done an excellent job of reconciling modern language to an antiquated context.  Fo’s storytelling is self-conscious and referencial in a very calculated way. He plays off of the historical events (juicier than anything he might have made up) and theatrical forms, slyly grinning all the while.  My one criticism is that he doesn’t go far enough.  An often quoted description of Fo, made on his receiving the Nobel Prize, is that he is a writer “who emulates the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”.  With that in mind, this first novel seems to be at odds with itself.  Instead of a jester who mocks authority secure in his knowledge that he does so with impunity, Fo is strangely restrained.  Some of the characters speeches stop just short of becoming pedantic/preachy.  I was expecting wordplay, pratfalls, send-ups… I suppose I was expecting a little more of the Spanish Inquisition. Fo is so much of a playwright that the absence of the visual, performance component in his work is inevitably felt.  The shadow of the author is standing in the wings of this novel, winking at the audience and holding a banana cream pie behind his back.

While it may not be for every reader, The Pope’s Daughter is sophisticated, clever, challenging and flawed – everything we have come to expect from a Nobel Laureate and in a first novel. With it Dario Fo has decided to rehabilitate the image of Lucrezia Borgia – though in his own, unique way.  His substitution of commedia dell’arte for the sinister gothicism we’ve come to associate with the name Borgia is both unexpected and refreshing.  His combining of contemporary social criticism and (yes) Monty Python-style lampooning is incredibly entertaining.  His history isn’t bad, either.  There’s much more to recommend than not, and it seems to me a delightful first introduction of this Italian artist to an English, novel-reading public.

 

 

The Meursault Investigation: A Novel by Kamel Daoud, translated from French by John Cullen

June 29, 2015 § 4 Comments

Title:  The Meursalt Investigation
Author:  Kamel Daoud
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2015)
ISBN:  978 1 59051 751 2

When L’Étranger was translated into English and published as The Stranger in the United States in 1946 two articles appeared in the NY Times. The first was a fawning profile of Camus, hailing him as the “Apostle of Post-Liberation France”. In the second article, a review of the actual book, Charles Poore wrote,  ‘Mersault’s unkindness toward his mother weighs more heavily in the court’s scales against him than the fact that in a drunk and heat-dazed moment he shot an Arab. There may be poetic justice in that, though it doesn’t seem to be the futilitarian point that Camus is making. (Incidentally, the fate of the Arab’s family is completely overlooked in the proceedings.)’

Daoud_MeursaultInvestigationPoore’s insight seems to have been exceptional, not the norm, among his contemporaries.  Albert Camus’ L’Étranger was once taught in schools across this country as an example of post-war existential and absurdist literature, but I don’t remember any examples of it being discussed in the context of colonial history.  A ommission that continued over time and which seems ridiculous in hindsight.  True, things were different in 1946 – the entire world would be rebuilding after the Blitz, the Holocaust, the Dresden bombings, the Vichy occupation, Pearl Harbor, the bombing of Berlin – every country had a tragedy and every tragedy seems to have been given a name that stuck. Existentialism, absurdism and nihilism were philosophies that fit then and (I suppose) continued to fit as time went on. And let’s face it – no one was in the mood to discuss dismantling a racist colonial system. Particularly not those who benefited from it.  Algerian Independence wouldn’t be won –  hard won – from the French until 1962, twenty years later.

Pied-noirs – black shoes – was the nickname given to the white, French colonists who benefited from the colonial system. And Meursault is the more extreme version of this privileged class. Camus’ place in and stance on Algier’s society was as complicated as his protagonist’s motivations were simple. As a journalist for an anti-colonial newspaper prior to WWII and during the Algerian War of Independence he would express sympathy, even some solidarity, for those who fought on the side of Algerian independence. “The truth is that we are living every day alongside people whose condition is that of the European peasantry of three centuries ago, and yet we, and we alone, are unmoved by their desperate plight.”  But he didn’t support full, Algerian self-rule.  Instead he thought it best for Algiers remain part of France. (The obvious question is “best for whom”?)  It was a stance which did not make him popular in Algiers and to this day he remains un-celebrated (and largely unclaimed) by the country where he was born. Camus was very much a man of his time, as was his book.

And so it is unsurprisingly an Algerian writer, Kamel Daoud, who has set out to correct the omissions in Camus’ narrative.  He gives the murdered Arab a name: Musa.  A mother. And a brother, Harun, who tells their (the “Arab”) side of the story.  In a way Daoud has created a parallel, Through the Looking Glass version of L’Étranger.  He opens with the words “Mama’s still alive today” and ends with “I too would wish them to be there in force, my spectators, and their hatred be savage”.   What happens in between is a tale told to a stranger in a bar decades after the events it describes took place.  Told by a narrator who is in every way Meursault’s opposite. Harun, as already stated, is Musa’s brother and so one of the Arabs Meursault & his friend Raymond despised.  He contextualizes the familiar story within the history of Algiers – his and his brother’s world – rather than the first half of the 20th century as experienced by Europe.  Harun ultimately disputes every fact in the original account, disperses our illusions, and goes on to explain the repercussions of that afternoon on the beach. Some we might never have considered. (One new detail that is introduced:  because Musa is never named in the original story, he can never be identified as a martyr and so his mother can not claim a martyr’s pension).

Meursault and Camus blend into a single man – the author/actor of this retold story – who is cleared of a murder he does not deny having committed and then goes on to write a book that enthralls the world. In this way Daoud holds both men, and by extension the readers who were complicit in the dehumanization of the victim, accountable.

Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes. In our neighborhood, in our world, we were Muslims, we had given names, faces, and habits. Period.  The others were “the strangers,” the roumis God brought here to put us to the test, but whose days were numbered anyway: one day or another, they would leave, there was no doubt about that. And so nobody responded to them, people clammed up in their presence, leaned on the wall, and waited. Your writer-murderer was wrong, my brother an his friend had no intention whatsoever of killing them, him and his pimp friend. THey were just waiting for them to leave, all of them, your hero, the pimp, and the thousands and thousands of others. We all knew it, we knew it from early childhood, we didn’t even need to talk about it: we knew one day they’d eventually leave. When we happened to pass through a European neighborhood, we used to amuse ourselves by pointing at the houses and sharing them out like spoils of spoils of a war. One of us would say, “This one’s mine, I touched it first!” and set off a frenzy of claims and counter-claims. We were five years old when we started doing that, can you imagine? As if our intuition was telling us what would happen when Independence came, but leaving out the weapons.

To his credit Douod doesn’t try to match the eloquence of Camus’ writing, cleverly dismissing its perceived worth in the very first page – “The murderer has become famous, and his story’s too well written for me to get any ideas about imitating him.”  Instead he focuses on what happened to that other, forgotten, mother and our narrator, Harun. How they dealt with their grief and survived the decades of war.  Harun is presented to us as a drunk – angry, bitter, irascible. His voice is coarse, his manner Falstaffian*. He is a tragic figure, too, in his own way.  Harun may have lived while his brother did not, but circumstances forced him to live in the shadow of another man’s version of Musa’s death. Though he goes on to paint a picture of what came after post-colonialism and rages against a country where religious has replaced the secular in day-to-day life – for him and his family all these events pivot around the millisecond, 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when his brother was shot.  “And  so when Musa went away into the mountains to talk to God about eternity, Mama and I left the city and went back to the village.”

I wonder what Camus would have made of it.

If you haven’t read The Stranger there’s really not much point reading The Meursault Investigation. It is not a stand-alone book. You will have to read both books, back-to-back. Which is not a suggestion but, rather, a directive. (Just in case anyone was confused). Daoud’s novel is increasingly relevant – as literature, as social commentary and as an aid in understanding current events. If that’s not compelling enough consider this: The Meursault Investigation corrects the record 70-years after and proves that every life – even a fictional one – is significant. That there always exists an untold story. And every story gains power in the telling.

 

*Perils of a reader/reviewer:  I just want to admit that at this point I’m not sure if that Falstaff comparison is entirely my own. If I somehow absorbed it from another review (or even the book itself?) it was unintentional & I’ve forgotten where I came across it.

 

 

3 Novellas for Summer

June 12, 2015 § 1 Comment

Loud footsteps in a vast and otherwise silent corridor; the cloying perfume of lilacs; an ice-cold drink at the end of a hot, dry day.  In Winter we bundle-up, huddle inside and create a barrier between ourselves and the elements. Summer, though, is a different story. We open ourselves up to the full sensuality of the natural world – we wear less clothing, bask in the sun & surf, spend as much time out-of-doors as the weather allows.  Antonia Skármeta, Marie NDiaye and Haruki Murakami are writers who know the power of evoking the senses. Below are three novellas.  Small enough to read at the beach, while camping in the woods, or on a shady park bench.  And still broad enough in scope to provide a brief (and welcome) escape from the everyday.

ADistantFatherTitle:  A Distant Father
Author:  Antonio Skármeta
Translator:  John Cullen
Publisher:  Other Press, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 159051625 6

I’m the village schoolmaster. I live near the mill. Sometimes the wind covers my face with flour.

I’ve got long legs, and nights of insomnia have stamped dark rings under my eyes.

My life is made up of rustic elements, rural things:  the dying wail of the local train, winter apples, the moisture on lemons touched by early  morning frost, the patient spider in a shadowy corner of my room, the breeze that moves my curtains.

During the day, my mother washes enormous sheets, and in the evening we drink lemon balm tea and listen to radio plays until the signal gets lost among the dozens of Argentine stations that crowd the dial at night.

A Distant Father by Antonio Skármeta is straightforward storytelling written in beautiful prose. Imagine a handmade diorama of a Chilean country village, populated by picaresque characters, that depicts a young man’s coming of age and you’ll have some idea of the rudimentary plot (and feel) of this charming 92 page novella. Our narrator, the young man, describes his father’s departure on the same train from which he disembarked on the day he returned home after completing his studies.  This estrangement, between his father and his family (the narrator and his mother) forms the central mystery meant to drive the plot.  But the characters are what truly move this story forward.  Skármeta has a talent for developing fully realized individuals on the page – allowing them their quirks and eccentricities while avoiding grotesque caricatures of life.  The result is delightful: moments of tenderness balanced by comedic episodes (usually revolving around the narrator’s attempts at getting laid).


SelfPortraitInGreenTitle:  Self-Portrait in Green
Author:  Marie NDiaye
Translator:  Jordan Stump
Publisher:  Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 39 9

I have a love-hate relationship to Marie NDiaye’s books. The savagery of NDiaye’s writing repels even as it entices me to keep reading… a bit like a venomous snake. The kind that mesmerizes its prey as it rears back to strike.  She is a challenging writer, but her readers and fans find her worth the effort her books demand.  Marie NDiaye stands easily among the most exciting and experimental writers being translated into English today.

… The schoolyard is empty, the sweet lilac has numbed me. I must have been one of those children the woman in green carted off down an endless hallway, but fear and the inescapability of the torments to come kept me from crying out. Was I ever seen again? It’s true that green can’t possibly be the sole color of cruelty, just as green is by no means inevitably the color of cruelty, but who can deny that cruelty is particularly given to draping itself in all sorts of greens? Before going on my way, I pull three leaves off the lilac and slip them into the pocket of my shorts. That might come in handy, I tell myself, though for the moment I have no idea what’s awaiting me.

Self-Portrait in Green is  a disturbing little book, filled with portraits of women connected to a narrator who we are led to assume is NDiaye herself.  I suppose it would be more accurate to describe it as a collection of linked short stories. Though the format feels more connected forming a unified, continuous narrative than you’d expect in a book of stories. And there is the fact that the paperback is exactly 7-inches tall, 4-1/2 inches wide and 103 pages long – “petite” is an adjective that springs to mind.

These women in green who appear in story after story are subversively feminist (as were their predecessors in All My Friends). The intensity with which they interact with the world and the reader is terrifying. They present as strangers, friends, mothers, lovers, daughters and wives.  They are strong, mysterious, neurotic, paranoid, nurturing, dominant, submissive, beautiful and grotesque.  They contradict each other and at times cancel each other out, yet the copy on the back cover tells us that “(t)hey are all aspects of the internationally celebrated writer Marie Ndiaye.”


TheStrangeLibraryTitle:  The Strange Library
Author:  Haruki Murakami
Translator:  Ted Goossen
Publisher:  Alfred A. Knopf, Publisher, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 0 385 35430 1

Haruki Murakami is a bona-fide international literary celebrity with a huge following. When that happens publishers are wont to rush to print anything – even random scribbles discovered on the back of a napkin. An argument could be made that The Strange Library is such a case.  It’s a remarkably slight book, dependent on the illustration/graphic design talents of Chip Kidd* to transform it into something more substantial.  Happily the collaboration is entirely successful.   Bright, beautiful, with a definite Zakka (a style of Japanese handicraft) influence – the book itself is an object to desire.  The story, narrated by a boy who discovers and is imprisoned within the labyrinthine basement of the strange library, is weird enough to meet the expectations of Murakami fans across the globe.  Of course, you’ll be finished with the entire book in 20 minutes – the slow, careful reader might stretch it out to a half hour – but sometimes good things really do come in small packages.

The library was even more hushed than usual.

My new leather shoes clacked against the gray linoleum. Their hard, dry sound was unlike my normal footsteps. Every time I get new shoes,it takes me a while to get used to their noise.

A woman was sitting at the circulation desk, reading a thick book. It was extraordinarily wide. She looked as if she were reading the right-hand page with her right eye, and the left-hand page with her left.

Murakami novels are often an assemblage of odd & uncomfortable, deceptively mundane, details – as demonstrated in the passage above. The narrator constantly remarks on the strangeness of the world he has stumbled into: the librarian’s strange eyes which read two pages at once, the awkward way in which the other characters speak, the size of the basement versus the footprint of the building & his ability to understand books despite their being written in Turkish (a language he does not speak). This mood/atmosphere of unease is established through direct explication. What information we are not told is simply not there – leaving an informational vacuum that is too substantial not to have been intentional. Perhaps this is because The Strange Library was targeted at children (albeit, in the way Grimm’s original Fairy Tales might have been targeted at children) and the legion of hardcore  fans. The Sheep Man, a character from Murakami’s earliest published writings makes an appearance. But, this “insider baseball” doesn’t detract from the book’s charm and shouldn’t deter the casual reader.  The Strange Library is a wonderful diversion into fantasy regardless of how you approach it – as a Murakami aficionado or amateur.

 

*The British version of the book is illustrated/designed by Suzanne Dean, the art director at Harvill Secker

 

The Red Notebook In a Rose-Colored World

April 20, 2015 § Leave a comment

Title:  The Red Notebook

Author:  Antoine Laurain

Translator:  Emily Boyce & Jane Aitken

Publisher:  Gallic Books, London (2015)

ISBN:  978 19083 1 3867

TheRedNotebookAntoine Laurain writes perfectly pleasant novels. And his latest, The Red Notebook, sticks to that amiable formula which seems to have brought him some success in the past. The President’s Hat was the story of a man who mistakenly switches hats with French President François Mitterrand. It changes his life. And then he, too, loses the hat. The books is structured around his frantic search to find it again.  The hat passes through a string of characters – changing all their lives for the better during the period they posses it – before eventually, serendipitously, finding its way back to Mitterand.  None of the characters are in any way disagreeable, though one is interestingly curmudgeonly.  Even Mitterand is portrayed as genial and sympathetic, appearing like a benevolent fairy godfather in the final chapters.

The Red Notebook takes its name from another lost object.  A woman is mugged and her purse left behind by the assailant on top of a trash bin. Laurent Letellier, a divorced middle-aged bookseller, finds the bag and goes through the contents looking for information that will help him to return it to the proper owner. Instead he discovers a red notebook and very little else. He becomes intrigued by the women who recorded her thoughts on the pages (obsession would be too powerful an emotion for a Laurain character).  He sets out to find her.  In the place of Mitterand, the French poet Modiano steps in to provide a cameo appearance.  Modiano is remarkably accommodating when Laurent approaches him in the park, having discovered a link between the poet and the notebook’s owner.

Antoine Laurain writes characters well. The protagonist, Lettelier, is attractively disheveled.  His teen daughter spoiled, but wonderfully vibrant. The heroine a brooding version of Juliette Binoche.  Even the employees at Lettelier’s bookshop are convincingly realized. And I desperately would like to believe that Modiano is exactly as Laurain portrays him – engaging, wise and utterly, delightfully pleasant.

At their best Laurain’s books and characters remind me of a sitcom. Because everyone likes sitcoms. I could also compare The Red Notebook to a Rom-Com starring Meg Ryan & Tom Hanks.  Or a less successful version of Laurence Cossé ‘s A Novel Bookstore.  Or even one of Alexander McCall Smith’s many, many books – without the mystery and tongue-in-cheek sense of humor.

Therein lies the rub.

The Red Notebook (and The President’s Hat, for that matter) relies heavily on character and formula, without injecting any real conflict or originality into the narrative.  It reminds me of too many other things: other books, films, television shows.  But I can’t imagine three months from now saying  – this (story or thing) reminds me of an Antoine Laurain novel. They, the books, lack the qualities which make a story memorable. Which is the problem that comes with pleasant.

 

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

September 15, 2014 § Leave a comment

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. 

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