Title: His Own Man
Author: Edgard Telles Ribeiro
Translator: Kim M. Hastings
Publisher: Other Press, New York (2014)
ISBN: 978 159051 698 0
Marcilio 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.