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. 

Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from Spanish by Rosalind Harvey & with an introduction by Neel Mukherjee)

1.

Juan Pablo Villalobos’ novella Quesadillas* is set in the Mexican backwater of Lado De Moreno,  in a house on a hill called Cerro de la Chingada (which roughly translates into “the armpit”) and tells the adventures of a boy named Orestes.  “Oreo” for short.  This follow-up to last years’ Down the Rabbit Hole is about many things: adolescent angst,  class economics and the impact of  gentrification on a family. And you can’t leave out: alien abduction, sibling rivalry and grass-roots revolution… which should just about cover the first 2 chapters.

Orestes is the second of seven children (reduced to five in the first few pages when the fake-twins Castor & Pollux go missing).  All – Aristotle, Orestes, Archilochus, Callimachus, Electra, Castor and Pollux – are named for classical Greeks. Despite their father being a  high school teacher the family lives in abject poverty, surviving on a diet of quesadillas.   A good portion of the narrative is spent describing the varieties of quesadilla Orestes’ mother cooks.  Changes to her recipe directly correspond to changes in the Mexican economy.

We entered a phase of quesadilla rationing that led to the political radicalization of every member of my family.  We were all well aware of the roller coaster that was the national economy due to the fluctuating thickness of the quesadillas my mother served at home.  We’d even invented categories – inflationary quesadillas, normal quesadillas, devaluation quesadillas and poor man’s quesadillas – listen in order of greatest affluence to greatest parsimony.

Like Tochtli, the hero of Down the Rabbit Hole, Orestes is unhappy with his family’s circumstances and trapped in a world of his parents making.  But there the similarities end.  Orestes and his  problems in no way resemble those of a Mexican drug lord’s son. He is speaking to us from 25 years in the future about his 1980’s adolescent self; describing “the period when I passed from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to youth, blithely conditioned by what some people call a provincial world-view, or a local philosophical system.”   This system collapses when a wealthy family moves next door and his own family’s poverty becomes glaringly apparent.

‘Father, forgive me for being poor.’

‘Being poor is not a sin, my child.’

‘Oh, really?’

‘No.’

‘But I don’t want to be poor, so I’ll probably end up stealing things or killing someone to stop being poor.’

‘One must be dignified in poverty, my child. One must learn to live in poverty with dignity. Jesus Christ our Lord was poor.’

‘Oh, and are you priests poor?’

‘Times have changed.’

‘So you’re not?’

‘We don’t concern ourselves with material questions. We take care of the spirit.  Money doesn’t interest us.’

My father said the same thing when, in order to prove my mother was lying, I asked him if we were poor or middle class.  He said that money didn’t matter, that what mattered was dignity.  That confirmed it: we were poor.

This scene takes place after the disappearance of the fake twins.  Oreo goes on to consider the relative merits (more quesadillas!) of getting rid of a few more siblings.

Irreverent, profane and strangely touching – Villalobos and his translator Rosalind Harvey have captured the sarcastic and rebellious voice of adolescence.  Just as  they did a 7-year old’s innocence while describing a world he didn’t fully understand. Oreo’s take on the world is ridiculously funny.  At its best Quesadillas is George Carlin-brand comedy; laced with anger and frustration and politics and sheer astonishment at the absurdity of human foible.  As the novella progresses the situations increase in absurdity to the point of incredulity.  And yet Villalobos always provides a possible, if unlikely, explanation.  Regardless, most readers will happily suspend their disbelief for the brief period of time it takes to breeze through this book.    That’s the beauty of the novella: longer than a short story but shorter than a novel.  An author has the time to throw out a few curve balls, be a little crazy and break some rules.

All without running the risk of losing his audience.


Publisher:  FSG Originals, New York (2014)

ISBN: 978 0 374 53395 3


*FSG Originals published the U.S. edition of Quesadillas.  The imprint has positioned itself as Farrar Strauss & Giroux’s “edgy” paperback division – meant to target the publisher’s  “well-educated, pop-culture-obsessed, young-ish urban readership” whose needs, one assumes, were not being met by the house’s current catalog and who were more likely to seek out the non-traditional offerings of smaller, independent publishers. There are a few facts that I find interesting about this.  First that the FSG Originals catalog is a carefully curated (or life-styled, as they say in the fashion world) mix of titles – some of which in their original incarnations were websites, apps, and other non-traditional/non-book storytelling mediums; in 2013 FSG Originals introduced a Digital Originals program; the aggressive targeting of a specific demographic of consumer; and that both the Villalobos titles were originally released by & Other Stories – the UK indie publisher (with a U.S. office) that’s been making a name for itself with a roster of unusual and  innovative authors like Juan Pablo Villalobos, Rodrigo de Souza Leao & Deborah Levy.