I Didn't Talk by Beatriz Bracher: Personal Subversion
Recently, I reviewed My German Brother (O Irmão Alemão) by Chico Buarque and was dissatisfied with its use of deflection as a means of resolution. Also slated for release this summer in English translation, Beatriz Bracher’s 2004 novel I Didn’t Talk (Não Falei) is its counterpart, in many ways the book I wished that Chico Buarque had written. As far as setting and background, they are two extremely similar texts: both view Brazil’s 1964 coup d’etat and subsequent totalitarian regime retrospectively, reflecting on the impact of the authoritarian regime and its tortures on family structures from the perspective of old men who lived through dark times. However, like two brothers raised in seemingly the same household but diverging in identity, setting is just about the only thing shared between these two texts. Where Buarque’s protagonist Ciccio shuns self-awareness and self-reflection and is painfully emotionally dissociative, Beatriz Bracher’s protagonist Gustavo becomes aware of his own dissociative tendencies and begins to address his past and work through his shame and traumatic experiences under torture. I Didn’t Talk is a cheeky and patient book, gently confronting pain without sacrificing wit, a book which merges together a fraught past and an uncertain future.
Structurally, the book is a chapterless journal which splices together the diary entries of a man confronting his past with quotes, excerpts and impressions from a number of sources--family journal entries, songs, poems, an imaginatively over-the-top novel his brother José is writing that is loosely based on their childhood. The protagonist Gustavo, a pragmatic man who realizes he is often perceived as not-present among even his own family, is contrasted by his radical, well-loved, free-willed brother-in-law Armando. Both men find themselves seized as political prisoners by the government and are tortured for information. Gustavo survives, Armando dies. As a result, Gustavo faces decades of shame that festers until he confronts his past in preparation for an interview with a writer who is exploring the role of education during the Brazilian regime. He is initially hesitant to agree to the interview, out of concern that his own story is insignificant or deviant from what he believes to be the common narrative, and that he will have to face his past. Gustavo grapples with the fear that he somehow betrayed Armando, or didn’t do enough in protecting Armando, that he was responsible for the grief and deaths of numerous family members following Armando’s death.
Gustavo often returns to the idea of the subjectivity of history--how his siblings can possess such disparate accounts of their childhood, or how he knows himself to have resisted selling out Armando, yet is blamed (or believes so) for Armando’s death. He often returns to the question of, “If someone sings a song yet no one is there to sing it with him, does it truly matter whether or not he sang the song?” The collective history of a time misses so many nuances of individual experience -- we can aggregate documents to form a general impression of what it was like then, for that group of people, but in doing so, we inevitably miss the quietly diverging experiences of individuals. This aggregation distorts individual experiences into a history which is almost certain to diverge from the broad range of possibility and emotion of a given circumstance. Structurally, I Didn’t Talk is an aggregation of impressions of a time that form a collective history, yet through which Gustavo is able to regain his control over his life story and become the predominant voice. No excerpted material in the text goes uncommented--this is Gustavo’s method of curating his own story for himself.
It is common, when faced with overwhelming social injustices and corruption that are outside individual control, to feel shame with regards to “doing enough”. Many actions a person can take--protesting, voting, signing petitions--may in result be inconsequential and ineffectual, but serve to assuage a person’s conscience. Which is not to say that these are purposeless, or to dissuade anyone from engaging in these actions, but rather that they are granted perhaps undue significance compared with the range of human decision-making. This is also not to say that there is a dichotomy between personal and political spheres. There is, however, some notion of irony in that the louder the voice with regards to the political, the more easily it fades into the noise of the spectacle. Among the multitudes of voices, a hyped-up collective narrative of a time arises to obscure individual and personal experiences. The selfish concern given to what a person could have or should have done to ease their own burden of responsibility can occupy enormous amounts of time, to the point that it inhibits the ability of a person to be present in the personal realm. The day-to-day seems to dissipate behind the loud and blatant voices of opposition or power. However, there is power in subtlety--when truth and meaning become indecipherable in the noise of the collective narrative, the personal realm arises as a sphere of control and understanding. Sacrifice of self may feel noble, may be disruptive for a time, but from a utilitarian perspective often makes for better storytelling than to shift societal norms and institute change. Personal, subtle power is that which erodes a landscape over time, molding it more permanently, shaping it toward the cultural values that are intergenerational and constitute the structure of a society.
It is one thing to be a martyr, to be a Jim Casy or Sydney Carton. It’s another thing to choose to go on, to live. Often, the most subversive thing a person can do is to willfully and adamantly live. By live, I mean to engage in and embrace the full spectrum of human experience, rather than to simply subsist. The human experience is not merely eating, breathing, and shitting, but to have emotional connections and relationships, to discover and learn, to begin to fathom what your place is in the larger context of humanity. To be a small part of a greater whole. Gustavo goes on to become an educator, and in doing so, creates impacts that are subversive even when they have no intent to be. Ultimately, although corrupted by goals of money-making and conditioning, the function of education is to learn how to be a human. Education asks its students to place themselves in the sequence of the massive discoveries of mathematics and science, to be a part of it and to absorb and utilize the work that has been done by the people who preceded them. Education asks its students to consider the events that culminated in their own current position, to feel small, to communicate their own experiences to others and find common ground, to question what they know and progress. Bracher is able to incorporate a number of beautiful anecdotes into Gustavo’s narrative, notably to me: where a teacher is successful in education is often when they are able to experience that awe of reliving the initial moment of discovery vicariously. Teaching, in this sense is not an act of charity, but of embodiment. The most contagious of passions are not given, but are shared.
When Gustavo chooses to educate, he does so partially out of an impulse to taxonomize and categorize the world as a means of making sense of it. After facing traumatic circumstances, the mind desires to make sense of things and seeks comfort in dichotomies and categories that will simply and neatly divide the world into structure. While comfortable, this thinking pattern can act to the detriment of a person’s psyche, as it eliminates nuance and glosses over the idea that meanings and objects often elude classification and alter contextually. He is inhibited by his careful analysis of the etymology of words, organizing them by structure and history, often deflecting from his own thoughts by intellectualizing over words. Gustavo views words as relics of the past, although he becomes more and more aware that he has been more concerned with the origins of language rather than its present function and potential. Here arises an interesting double entendre of the titular phrase “I didn’t talk”, referring not only to his past during interrogations, but also to his present inhibitions in being able to fully connect with others and speak freely without concern over words.
Given that this is a book that is fundamentally concerned with language and can often dive into nuances of Portuguese, Adam Morris boldly rises to the occasion of addressing specific Portuguese linguistic nuances--linguistic eccentricities so seemingly specific that I’m contemplating buying a Portuguese copy purely because I’m confused how he managed to translate certain passages so smoothly. Morris becomes a vocal character in the text, providing distinct personality and interacting with the readers. Morris’s decision to insert himself into the text and address the reader directly is a decision I might have found to be annoying had the book not been so concerned with storytelling and language, yet for this particular text his method of translation is well-suited. The result is necessarily unique from the Portuguese original, but it adds a supplementary layer of meaning rather than detracting from the book’s inquiries and impact.
Gustavo’s taxonomical relationship to language is reflective of his relationship to his own life, being stuck in the past, struggling to accept the past for what it was and embrace the present moment. However, I Didn’t Talk is a redemption tale. Gustavo is redeemed in his acceptance of the past’s events as history, while freeing himself from dictating his future by his history, and instead choosing emotional progress. It is his own personal education on how to negotiate dichotomies such as history and progress, as well as collective history and personal history, and find the space in which these concepts coexist. As a redemption tale concerning a man who is coping with addressing life-altering circumstances without an easy target for blame aside from a totalitarian regime, I Didn’t Talk is a kind of parallel to Milan Kundera’s The Joke. Kundera’s protagonist Ludvik seeks vengeance on those who had a hand in his forced internment; Gustavo turns his anger inward, onto his own self. The setbacks accrued from decades of shame and anger, detachment and vengeance, cannot be resolved except by passing through them, onward, realizing the pointlessness of such concerns. Bracher’s Gustavo and Kundera’s Ludvik are redeemed by the simplicity of accepting that the past happened but it does not dictate the present.
The world does not demand greatness of us, nor even blamelessness. In fact, it demands nothing. Empires will continue to rise and fall, pain and devastation will continue. Humans will continue to adapt, distract, and love. No difference is made to the mind of the world whether or not we as individuals act nobly or assume responsibility. Instead, the question of redemption is a personal one--whether to fully accept the range of experiences offered by life, or not.