His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro

Fiction — print. Translated from the Portuguese by Kim M. Hastings. Other Press, 2014. 341 pgs. Purchased.

“Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and images, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his page should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?” (pg. 1)

And so begins Riberio’s novel featuring an unnamed narrator (whose initial, N, is revealed at the end of the novel) fascinated by the personal history of a member of the Brazilian Foreign Ministry named Marcílio Amsrade Xavier. Rechristened Max by his American ex-wife,  the diplomatic attache appears to hold himself to same ideals of democracy as the narrator only to unexpectedly align himself with the military officers who carry out a coup in 1964.

“But for me, fear had a shape, which at times seemed so dense as to be almost tangible. Like a thick fog, the kind that leaves us feeling clammy and makes our clothes cling to our bodies.” (pg. 81)

N seems to idolize Max from their first meeting in Rio de Janeiro in 1968 as both men work for the Foreign Ministry and share similar interests in philosophy and literature. While the rest of the country is plunged into darkness and choked by fear of persecution, N struggles to find a position after the regime change and Max manages to scale his way to the upper echelon of the Foreign Ministry earning himself prominent positions in Uruguay and Chile.

During this time period, the military regime Max represents is working in collusion with the American CIA and the British MI6 to prevent communism from spreading to the countries of South America from Cuba. Both Uruguay and Chile experience military coup during Max’s tenure as a diplomat, and N becomes obsessed with the idea that Max’s presence in these countries was influential in toppling Uruguay and Chile’s previous, leftest regimes.

Decades later, N’s obsession with Max’s activities in the 1960s and 1970s compels him to conduct a series of interviews with those around Max during this time period — Max’s ex-wife who remains estranged from the couple’s two children in 2003, a Brazilian colonel who worked closely with Max, and a retired CIA agent living in La Jolla, California who explains how and why the United States was willing to work with the shady character they codenamed “Samuel Beckett”.

Ribeiro’s novel was originally published in Portuguese five years ago and has the distinction of being one the  of the most superbly translated novels I have stumbled across. The author’s descriptions of human action are evocatively and beautifully rendered, and I am so pleased that Kim. M Hastings was able to preserve this aspect of the novel. I found myself reading a sentence, pausing, and then reading it once more in order to savor the turn of phrase and the intricacies of Riberio’s writing.

South America is, sadly, a region I rarely visit via books, and Riberio’s novel is centered on both a region and a piece of history I am not all too familiar with. Of course, the Americans and the British are complicit, if not active, in the brutal torture of millions of people denying people the ability to participate in their own governments due to their fear of communism and their preference for controllable, mailable regimes. But the novel also focuses on the influence Brazil has on its neighbors, on the conflict between serving the interests of the individual and the collective as experienced by members of the Foreign Service. (Riberio is a career diplomat turned writer from Brazil.)

That said, I found myself reading the novel in fits and spurts setting it aside after a few pages because I either needed more time to process the story or found my imagination and attention failed to be captured. The narrator is telling us a story and maybe it’s not the story, but I never felt compelled or, better yet, unconvinced by N’s story. Riberio’s writing makes a compelling case for picking up another one of his novels, but I find myself hoping this one is not the cream of the crop so I might find one to fall in love with rather than pass along to a friend with muddled feelings.

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