His Own Man
By Edgard Telles Ribiero Translated by Kim M. Hastings
Other Press, September 2014
352 pages, $17.95
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
Translation are difficult to read, let alone review. You must decipher the intentions of the author and willing trust the translator is leading you on the path set forth for you. In His Own Man, written by Edgard Telles Ribiero and translated by Kim M. Hastings, you are gifted with both: an incredibly tragic story about the struggles for power in Brazil and guided by empowered and pristine prose that allows you to follow such a thrilling story. This novel shines on a history many readers may have forgotten, and for many, it will be a somber introduction. While history remembers the Cold War; the Korean conflict, the quaqmire that was Vietnam, the shadow war that many know through John Le Carre thrillers, it seems to ignore the numerous tragedies of the entire continent of South America all together. Ribiero rights the ship, and weaves a tale of friendship and duty, of power and survival. He makes sure to remind his readers that the history of the dirty wars will not be lost in the annals of recent history, they will not be relegated to footnotes and the last pages of textbooks students rarely get to. They rightfully deserve better.
The novel centers around Marcílio Andrade Xavier, better known as Max by his friends and his enemies, and his attempts of rising in the ladder of power during a time of history turmoil. However, the true story is that of admiration of our narrator, a character who fills a need to see the results of Max’s rise to power. He is a witness to the story and serves as a moral center to the world around him and to the history of his country itself:
“I found myself thinking that, in the space of a generation, thousands of people south of the equator had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer for the fatal gale that had precipitously taken them all? Who, in Brazil, to cite one scenario, would face a camera to publically lament what had happened, as Robert McNamara had with respect to the horrors caused by the Vietnam War?”
The dirty war, otherwise known as Operation Condor, is one that all should know but seem to somehow live with. It was a war that saw multiple leaders, both public and military, rise and fall like dominoes. And in the background, it seemed like a game that merely being played by two powerful and motivated sides. It included the kind of torturing reserved for the world’s worst, and yet it was given to a public eager for freedom, for their own voices to be heard.
The result all of this, as noted earlier, are seen and recorded thanks to our young and sometimes idealistic narrator. Through him, we see the growing admiration that he and others have for Max, we see the potential of change he has, the ability to be someone. From there, we see the journey Max takes with a family in tow, a wife that is a casualty of the atrocities of Brazil, not physically but one that results from not seeing the world for what it was. She is along for a ride that nobody wants: she loved Max for who he was, the passion and energy he once had for the family he made, and it eventually becomes a footnote in his own history. The rise of power is a story that many know, and have read quite often, but often these stories—these histories for lack of a better word—fail to show us the effects. Every action has an equally powerful one, every friendship creates enemies; for every good intention, there is a doubt that things could be done better.
Max, like his country seemed be under “the illusion that he was his own man, that he was outsmarting everyone.” Max acts as if he is in control of the rise, of the trip he takes for what he believes is best for his country. The same can be said for Brazil. How many knew then of the United States involvement? How many Americans knew of the shadow war nearby that rivaled the destruction of Vietnam? Furthermore, where are the people that cared to notice? This is the heart of the novel, this is Ribiero at his finest. There is a brutal honesty within these pages, and Hastings as a translator does a magnificent job of portraying the reality as it is and now what it could be. There is a horror here, as well, between the lines of every line, between Part 1 and Part 7, that needs to be remembered.
There is a reason why this history is foggy, why this memory is nearly out of reach. Terrible things were done for the sake of them being done, and all together believed that we were, and continue to be now, our own man.