Small indie publisher Charco Press first came to the attention of many readers following last year’s Man Booker International Prize longlisting of Ariana Harwicz’s short, dark novel Die, My Love (translated by Sarah Moses and Carolina Orloff). It’s not giving much away to say that it was a big hit with our Shadow Panel, so there’ll be several of us looking out for her next work in English, Feebleminded, when it appears later this year. So can Charco sneak another book onto this year’s list? Well, they have a few that have been well received, and today’s choice certainly has a shot, thanks to a compelling story and a translator you might have heard of 🙂
Julián Fuk’s Resistance (translated by Daniel Hahn, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is narrated by a writer, a Brazilian of Argentinian descent. In a series of short chapters, each covering just a few pages, he decides to tell the reader a story:
This is not just a story, not just his story. This is history.
This is history, and yet, almost everything I have at my disposal is memory, fleeting notions of days long gone, impressions that precede consciousness and language, destitute relics I insist on embezzling into words.
p.15 (Charco Press, 2018)
The task he sets himself is to remember, and then form those memories into a book – but whose story is it?
The opening lines appear to give this away when he muses on how best to introduce his adopted brother, and the first part of the book focuses heavily on how the writer’s older brother grew up with the knowledge. Their parents were open about the information from the start, believing honesty to be the best policy, but the writer isn’t sure whether this decision was the correct one. We are shown a portrait of a family where one member always seems to be slightly to one side, not quite on the same wavelength as those connected by blood, until he decides to withdraw further of his own accord.
Yet we always sense that there’s much more to Resistance than just the brother’s tale, and so it proves. The focus gradually shifts onto the parents, and as it does, our gaze slips inexorably into the past. The writer takes us back to his parents’ youth, the Argentina of the 1970s, telling us of the euphemistically named ‘troubles’ and writing of the ‘disappeared’. Gradually, he pieces together a picture of two people, angry at what’s happening in their country, and to their friends, but also scared at the thought of what might happen to them.
This political side to the story echoes the work of many other Argentinean writers, with similar themes covered, for example, in Things We Lost in the Fire. However, where Mariana Enriquez’s take on her country’s history can be brutal, the Brazilian writer takes a far more personal, almost wistful, approach. His narrator is a man trying to piece together family and national history decades on, two ideas that are intertwined. The troubles are fundamental in forming their lives, not just because of the move to Brazil but also in causing the adoption and the subsequent evolution of their family.
The adoption is obviously at the centre of the novel, and Fuks returns on several occasions to the desire the two young Argentinians feel for a child, but also to their doubts:
Perhaps at that moment the desire to have a child was all she had left in life, another kind of struggle, a refusal to accept the annihilation being attempted by the regime. Having a child must always be an act of resistance. Perhaps affirming the continuity of life was no more than an ethical imperative to be followed, another way of opposing the brutality of the world. (p.38)
The writer explores the decision to have a child as an attempt to carry on with life in the darkest times, showing how the parents later wonder if it was the right choice – and in the background, the baby they took in continues to develop into a disturbed young man.
Cleverly, though, Resistance, while starting with the brother then moving on to the parents, is just as much about the writer himself. From the start, there’s a confessional tone to the writing, a man explaining his background in an attempt to get everything off his chest. It’s no coincidence that both parents are psychiatrists, and later in the story they turn to family therapy sessions in an attempt to help their adopted son. In fact, the book itself (which, of course, the narrator is writing…) can be seen as a form of therapy, or catharsis:
As if the book were a long letter to him, a letter he would never read (and if the book is a long letter to him, which is what I’m wondering about now, then I need to write it better, I need to make it more sincere, more sensitive). (p.72)
Yes, he’s trying to tell his brother’s story but also relieve his own confused feelings at the same time, and his visit to Buenos Aires, where he wanders around the scenes of his parents’ youth, is just another effort to make sense of his, and his family’s, past.
Resistance is beautifully written, a monologue that examines a point carefully, turning words this way and that. Daniel Hahn’s excellent work is sensitive, catching the confessional nature of the text with its rhetorical questions and undertones, always hinting, never quite saying. If anything, it threatens at times to be underwritten, and with the end in sight, this reader wasn’t quite ready for it to finish. However, Fuks manages to tie it all up nicely, even if a reread would definitely help with understanding the book fully.
Resistance is, naturally, a recurring theme of the work, with each of the characters resisting in their own way: rebelling, fleeing or simply remembering. The question Fuks poses, though, is what it actually means to resist:
Resist: how much of resisting is the fearless acceptance of misfortune, compromising with everyday destruction, tolerating the ruin of those close to you? Does resisting mean managing to stay on your feet when others are falling, and until what point, until your own legs give way? Does resisting mean struggling in spite of inevitable defeat, shouting despite the hoarseness of your voice, acting despite the hoarseness of your will? It’s necessary to learn how to resist, but resisting will never mean surrendering to a fate that’s already sealed, it will never mean bowing down before a future that’s inevitable. How much of learning to resist isn’t learning to question yourself? (p.85)
His answer? Not forgetting, not giving in, persisting. It’s as true for the parents and their children as it is for a people still trying to discover the truth of what happened so many years ago…