:: Article

paper monument: an experimental review

By Matthew Jakubowski.

Photo Credit: Matt Jakubowski

At the protest that weekend against immigrant detention and family separation, the critic looked around at the crowd. Mostly white faces, middle-aged people holding signs as they listened to younger voices, the featured speakers, some of whom spoke in Spanish from the small stage at the center of the park downtown.

There were creative statements—a woman in an Army green jacket with the words “I do care” painted on the back in stark white letters, someone shuffling about in an inflatable T. rex costume. Several counter-protestors at the fringes were shouting, with bike cops standing guard. A bit like a street festival, but with fewer stoned smiles, the critic thought. She left after an hour, feeling guilty as she threaded her way through the crowd, leaving them behind.

Walking to her bus stop, her mind turned to money; namely, the seven-hundred dollars a foreign newspaper had just told her they’d pay her to write a review of Bracher’s novel. She laughed out loud as she read the email from the editor, whom a friend had recommended her to. Somehow she’d finally be making money she could almost live on, a far cry from the thirty dollars she used to get. “They’re importing culture. You’re a cultural commodity now,” her friend, another critic, had said and laughed, clinking glasses with her to celebrate that night. The critic wasn’t crazy about that label, but there it was.

Waiting for her bus, an older woman came by carrying a protest sign. She looked at the critic’s “Abolish ICE” sign and said out of the blue, with a friendly half-smile, “What do we do now?” The critic smiled back, uncertain if the woman was serious. Her face showed no sign of sarcasm. She looked at the critic as if it were a perfectly natural thing to ask of a comrade after the day’s protest. The critic tried to look the woman in the eye, growing uncomfortable in the lengthening silence. What do we do now? indeed.

While reading Bracher’s book for review, she’d also faced, in print, unusual questions that had come up unexpectedly. One question had appeared as a footnote in the novel: “Is it clear what I’m trying to do here?” After some investigation she learned that the publisher, New Directions, had accidentally printed some of  translator Adam Morris’ notes to the editorial team in the advance reader’s copies of the book they’d mailed out.

The critic had read plenty of interviews with translators over time, but had never seen unfiltered material about the translation process in a galley before. “This is one of several direct citations of another writer,” Morris had written. And, “This is in the text but a rare case in which I’d advocate cutting an entire sentence.” These illuminating notes about creating an English version from Bracher’s Portuguese formed a unique subplot that didn’t appear in the finished version of the book.

They also added another slight fracture to an already fractured story about totalitarianism and torture in Brazil last century, which the critic had wanted to find instructive. Did. Felt she should. Because fascism. Old and new. Here and there.

“What do we do now?” The old woman’s post-protest question was also what the narrator of Bracher’s novel, Gustavo, had essentially been asking himself for thirty years.

Beatriz Bracher, I Didn’t Talk, translated by Adam Morris (New Directions, 2018)

“Look, I was tortured,” he says to begin his story, “and they say I snitched on a comrade who was later killed by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch—I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn’t talk.” The murdered comrade was Armando, his brother-in-law, a childhood friend to whom Gustavo’s family, especially his father and brother, were very close.

Gustavo is deaf in one ear and lost teeth when he was tortured. But he’s suffered most greatly in mental anguish under the suspicions of others since he was rounded up as a revolutionary in São Paolo in the late 1960’s, and hasn’t received any counseling or therapy to speak of. At age sixty-five, looking back on his life, he’s adrift in the evidence of history. After a career as a linguistics professor—a key detail for someone obsessed with proving to everyone he knows that he did or didn’t say certain things in certain ways to certain people long ago—he’s leaving his family home for the next phase of his life.

With all his belongings unpacked, he’s stuck in time looking back, physically surrounded by boxes of papers and journals from his friends and family, which Bracher interjects into the text, as if Gustavo is scrap-booking, looking for bits of proof that he’s lived a life he can defend. “Dona Joana’s patterns, Grandma Ana’s school notes, old man Joaquim’s draft of minutes and manifestoes, Jussara’s letters, Lígia’s stories, annotations, and outlines; and José’s book.”

There is no true storyline or arc he can find in the mess scattered around him, and Bracher structures the novel in similar fashion, without clear scenes, sections, or guideposts: “Fragments of life in no particular order, awaiting imagination, or a need, or whatever might sew them together.” The novel’s form is pragmatic, intriguing in its difficulty, because Bracher’s aim is to reveal a person, not a plot. By the end the pieces seemed to be arranged with great sophistication. Gustavo was realistically vague, broken, loyal, angry, disappointing, brilliant, and unknowable.

The system of anecdotes and interruptions, polyphony of voices and interjections from people who aren’t identified until several pages later, wind around the central core of Gustavo’s guilt about Armando’s death, all of which Morris handles superbly in English. “Bracher knows how to make you love and hate someone simultaneously,” the critic wrote for her review in the far-away newspaper, and wasn’t surprised when it was used as a pull-quote.

Gustavo says that, in the early ’60s, before the dictatorship took power, he only “wrote violent articles”, mostly as an intellectual exercise. “They existed, our enemies, before 1964: the bourgeoisie, poverty, capitalism, ignorance, oppression.” After the coup, however, “We were mobilized, taking people in, hiding guns, debating what kind of revolution it would be.”

He claims that his brother-in-law Armando was more militant — he “participated in a kidnapping and bank robbery, he laundered money, he prepared safe houses for fugitives” — and Gusvato admits at one point, “I was probably taken prisoner because of him.” The two men were among the thousands of Brazilians arrested, tortured, raped, and killed while resisting the military dictatorship that overthrew the government in 1964. Afterwards, “Soldiers, the secret police, Operation Bandeirantes, the prisons of constituted power,” ruled for more than twenty years, thanks to coordination and financial support from other countries, especially the United States and France, with their interests, still very much alive, in the destabilization of South America.

Adding further agony to his grief and guilt is the fact that Gustavo was married to Armando’s sister, Eliana, and she also died, soon after Armando’s death and Gustavo’s release from prison. She’d been sent to Paris for her safety, but succumbed, at just twenty-five, to pneumonia. At her grave, Gustavo notes she lived from 1945 to 1970. “When Eliana died next it was an earthquake. Mother, Jussara, and I steadied ourselves in the doorframes to keep from collapsing all at once, to prevent the whole earth from swallowing us whole.” Facing his family, including his younger sister, Jussara, his younger brother, José, and his parents in the years after he was released and allowed to go back to work teaching, he was tormented most by the thought that during his last phone call with Eliana, she may have still believed he had betrayed Armando. “I didn’t talk, and it’s just as though I did. I know this, I know that you understood this right away,” he says, as if she is still listening, perhaps waiting for a confession he can’t deliver.

Gustavo depends on others for forgiveness, which connects him intrinsically with other people. But Bracher doesn’t portray him as a noble victim, even if he was on the right side of history. His younger brother, José, was a memoirist who, somewhat conveniently, wrote extensively about their family. Reading José’s manuscripts, pieces of which appear throughout the book, seeing “the rest of us described like this, constructed by my brother’s gaze,” Gustavo remembers how José left Brazil for much of his life, returning only to visit occasionally. We learn that José is gay and Gustavo teased him about this when they were boys. His homophobia and cruelty haunt him, combined with the loss of the relationship he might have had with his brother. And whether it’s true guilt or not, Gustavo equates the times he cruelly taunted his brother with “the pleasure of the man who beat me and administered the shocks,” when he was prison: “Along with the pain came an immense shame: I had known that pleasure.”

Gustavo endures more deep pain, after the regime ends, especially related to Renato, Armando’s son. One of the accidental footnotes from the translator reads, “I will return to this. It’s hard to translate a teenager’s attempt at rap.” We learn that Gustavo raised Renato as his own, but that he, too, also died very young, younger than Armando was when he was killed. “Renato never reached his father’s age. He died drunk when he drove his car into a post.” The critic noted how Morris neatly renders this tragic death in a terse, triple alliterative, and the way “drove” carries assonance over to the final word “post,” the object that ends Renato’s life. The rap Morris refers to was something Gustavo found in a journal of Renato’s he couldn’t bear to throw away, another guilty reminder of failure: he let Armando’s son, die, too. Gustavo doesn’t address that Renato’s death was likely related to alcoholism brought on by his father’s murder.

Gustavo finds little to no peace. He does say that shortly after Armando died his father offered him a reason to forgive himself. Gustavo brushes it off at the time almost coldly, intent on staying angry with the regime, as if no one who survived the violence should forgive themselves for letting it happen. He didn’t accept his father’s reprieve, the only one anyone has given him, but he remembers it.

“What do we do now?” the woman had asked after the protest. Seeing the woman reminded the critic of her mother, who was nearing seventy. Her father had been dead more than five years now. Life was going on. No other tragedies had struck their family since. They were lucky, considering. But stories about people in jail were getting closer to home. Every day they had to ask, What now?

The woman’s question was sound. It was small and large. An urge toward solidarity, indicating that the woman wasn’t satisfied, she wanted more, and had the energy and will to engage someone else. “I guess we stick together, right?” the critic had said to the woman, feeling inadequate the minute she said the words. She’d also meant: remember who we are, who we’re with, what we want to accomplish together. The woman had nodded and walked on.

“Reality is not transformed within the work of art, it’s transformed by the work,” Bracher wrote. “Each reader, spectator, or listener becomes an armed agent of the transformation.”

The critic got on the bus a few minutes later with the other sweaty, annoyed passengers. How, if at all, will we be remembered? Will people judge us fairly? What monument will represent what we lived through? Maybe all that would linger, would be a question like the woman’s, or one like Morris’s. “Is it clear what I’m trying to do here?”

Gustavo had said several times he hated having to make a story, that lives don’t really fit into stories. He wanted something else to remain:

If it were possible. My story perceived as a rumbling, without words, without voice, but incorporated whole, solid. In fact, that’s how things are. Our image of the world is the sum of various rumors, reverberations of the steps we do and do not take: they pass through us. There is no alibi, no way to repair the story that we end up with.


Matthew Jakubowski is a fiction writer and literary critic. His experimental reviews, which form an ongoing series about a fictional literary critic, have been published in gorse, Interfictions Online, and Full Stop. He maintains a litblog called truce and lives in Philadelphia.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, August 29th, 2018.