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The so-called dirty wars in South America that began in the 1970s and accounted for the disappearance and torture of thousands of citizens of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Peru and Brazil is the backdrop for this novel. This history is narrated  from the perspective of a diplomat in the Itarmarty (Brazil’s State Department) who as a young man is befriended by Marcilio Andrade Xavier, a slighty more senior colleague with whom he shares an interest in jazz, theatre, film, literature and a socialist bent. Brazil’s involvement in the coups is traced through Marcilio (Max), who moves from the Itarmarty to working with Brazil’s National Intelligence Service (SNI), the Church, and foreign governments’ spy agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. that worked behind the scenes to destabilize the existing governments in Uruguay and Chile. The novel is mainly a character study of Max, who apart from being ambitious, cannot be defined by those who knew and worked with him. He is part chameleon; teflon and a survivor. He may be more sinister than those who committed or orchestrated the atrocities. For him there is neither good nor evil. He accepts the present for what it is and deftly moves with each new present. He ultimately secures a senior diplomatic post after the revolutions and becomes a supporter of human rights. His narrator friend, questions him early in the book.

“I decided to cut to the chase. ‘If that’s the case, why did you feel compelled to take a stand in 1964? To switch sides without even batting an eye? What happened in the mind of Marcilio Andrade Xaxier?’

Unflappable as always, Max looked me head-on and asked, ‘Who told you I switched sides?”

Max is a realist, devoid of emotion. Overheard in conversation, his troubling remark could be his epitaph. “Convictions are a luxury, my friend. Reserved for those who don’t  play the game. I played the game.”

Max’s wife from whom he is distant and ultimately divorced, felt the terror while they briefly lived in Santiago, Chile. She conveys to narrator friend that cultural blindness comes with terror. The narrator recalls photos he has seen.

“Like the scenes of Paris during the German occupation, where what matters isn’t so much what is shown in the image-but what isn’t there. The couples sipping coffee along the Rive Gauche or ambling hand in hand in the Blois de Boulogne are not in themselves noteworthy. Except for the fact that, just steps away, at the exact same time, hundreds of Jews-men, women, and children- were being boarded onto trains and sent to concentration camps.”

Is Max’s relativity correct? Which blindness is better?

“Unlike his peers, he had been among the privileged few to live in the present without, at any moment, losing sight of the future. Whereas we… we had remained suspended in time, tied to the past, facing realities that had nothing to do with our values. How could we envision the future if the present reflects fear, torture, and resentment?”

Martina, Max’s ex-wife tries to understand societal evil in the context of human nature. “I read a line about Eichmann in the Economist the other day that applies to all of them. ‘Like most of his fellow Nazis, he was monstrous only when fate gave him power.”

The novel is a very interesting. It has elements of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. The author’s background makes it more interesting. His father was a diplomat and the a graduated from the Diplomatic Academy in 1967 when he joined the Brazilian Foreign Service. He remained in the diplomatic corps, moonlighting in writing and film.

The novel is published in the U.S. by Other Press (www.otherpress.com), a small press that recently published Kamel Droud’s well-regarded The Meursault Investigation, a reimagination of Camus’ The Stranger. It is a publisher that is worth investigating.

The only criticism I have about this book, is that the translator seems to occasionally forgets that the diplomat is the narrator. It is nit-picking, but having the diplomat convey what Max is doing on occasion by referring to him as “our hero” is misplaced. This description does not convey cynicism in context.

Like Max, the novel is not judgmental; which is its allure. The conclusion, or lack thereof, is strong.  It says as much about Max as it says about us.

 

 

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