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. 

The Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws & the Author

Title: The Elusive Moth
Author: Ingrid Winterbach
Translator: Iris Gouws & the Author
Publisher: Open Letter, University of Rochester (2014)
ISBN: 978 1 934824 77 1

 

The Elusive MothThe Elusive Moth by Ingrid Winterbach, translated from Afrikaans by Iris Gouws and the Author, is set in Free State, South Africa.  The heroine,
Karolina Ferreira, is a lepidopterist staying in the town of Voorspoed – a place she’d visited as a child with her father.

Free State is one of nine South African provinces. The terrain consists of grasslands, large agricultural tracts and mountains. It’s considered the “breadbasket” or “granary” of South Africa.  2.8 million people live there, the 87% majority of whom are black Africans.  The primary language is Sesotho, a Bantu language. Afrikaans is spoken by the white minority. Voorspoed is home to a diamond mine owned by the De Beers family.

None of this is stated in the novel, but the clues are everywhere. Winterbach is describing a place and, in the process of doing that, telling a story.

Karolina is in Voorspoed to study a rare species of moth.  She spends most of her day in the veld with her companion, Basil.  Him collecting plants and her studying insects. Their evenings are spent in town observing the locals – particularly the Afrikaner community that gathers at the hotel to drink, socialize and play snooker. She studies them with the same clinical intensity as the insects.

It’s difficult not to get caught up in the routine of Karolina’s days.  Mornings in the veld, evenings that begin in the Ladies Bar and end in the billiards room.  Afternoons she has lunch in the hotel’s dining room beneath murals that depict the history of the region.  On Saturdays she goes dancing.  Occasionally events interrupt the pattern – a controversial play is performed, tourists arrive, lovers are observed in a cemetery, protests lead to violence in the black settlements, murder, a suicide – but by the next day everything resets. The plot, in this sense, is simplistic. The bumps – the interruptions to the town’s routine – are what imbue the story with unexpected richness and texture. Karolina is always watching from the edges, never at the center, and seldom privy to the inner thoughts or motivations of the key players.

The man sat on the opened-out back flap of the police vehicle. He was covered with a blanket that was wrapped tightly around his shoulders. He seemed to be wearing nothing underneath it but a vest and a pair of trousers. Even though it was a warm night, his teeth were chattering, which made it difficult for him to speak coherently. He had been given a warm drink, for now and again he swallowed some liquid from the cap of a flask. Two black women stood a little apart from the rest, one draped in a blanket, occasionally weeping quietly into a corner of it. Kieliemann spoke for the police. Although he seemed impatient, he was allowing the man to tell his story  without interruption. The scene resembled a photograph – the action frozen, white and black equally stark in the unnatural yellow light.

Karolina stood at some distance, making sure that Kieliemann did not see her.The yellow light penetrated everywhere, eclipsing even the bountiful light of the night sky, etching the scene in hellish desolation.

The next day Karolina will ask questions and try to understand what she has seen.  But her outsider status limits her. The Elusive Moth is narrated in the close third person, keeping readers at an arms length from Karolina and creating another layer between them and the action. The writing is dense and self-conscious – in some places a little fussy (particularly  when Karolina’s love interest, a dharma bum named Jess, is in a scene).  The structure of the novel is based on the repetition and patterns, and Winterbach sometimes extends that repetition to her characterizations.  One lecherous police officer is always described as having a bulge in his pants when Karolina is around; another character is “aquatic” and shudders (both verbally and physically) incessantly; a friend of Jess’ never seems to be without a smirk on his face and a bottle in his hand.   The effect is that the supporting characters become two dimensional.  It feels like a flaw, but in truth I only noticed it when I was away from the book.  Here it works, where in another book it might not.

The heroine is perhaps the one fully realized, psychologically complex character in the novel. Winterbach maintains a balance between Karolina’s self-involvement / inner-thoughts and her outward reaching curiosity. There is a lot of activity in the story to act as counterweight to moments of introspection. The town’s Afrikaan community is a veritable Peyton Place of tawdry affairs and political intrigues.  Even the larger national picture creeps in, though so subtly as to seem like an afterthought. There are hints of the shifting balance of power occurring in South Africa.  “After the string of boycotts last year, Sarel advised the lads in town to reconsider their options, and to consult with the ANC and the township leaders. Some have begun to do so…”

But I would not call it a political novel.  Nor would I call it a relationship novel. Or even a novel about the human condition. What struck me is that it is concept-, rather than plot-, driven.  Voorsoed is an ant farm – isolated and contained.  And if asked to describe the book in one sentences, I would say “A woman studying the town of Voorspoed and its inhabitants from a distance.”

Except that’s not entirely right.  There’s a passage towards the end of the book. Like most everything else that occurs in The Elusive Moth, it’s unobtrusively inserted into the narrative. Karolina and Jess go away for the weekend. They travel to a nearby town.

At dusk they reached the Dis Al Motel where they had tea in the lounge. There was a large painting on the wall depicting Mabalel and the crocodile, painted by the proprietor… There were large animal skins on the ceiling. Antelope heads on the walls. In an adjoining room people played snooker – Afrikaner couples on the brink of suicide and dissipation. Homicidally depressed. Some national leader came on the television. Karolina and Jess went to their rondavel.”


You’re left with the sense that across Free State (perhaps across South Africa) there are dozens of towns like Voorsoed. Inhabited by people going about their lives, behaving in ways identical to the characters we’ve just met.  The same diversions, the same dramas, the same patterns are being repeated.