If periods of time can ever have national identities, 2014 is turning out to be my year of South American literature. Starting with the Good Offices, a satire on the Colombian Catholic Church by Evelio Rosero, through the recently released At Night We Dance in Circles by the talented Peruvian Daniel ALarcon (review to appear here shortly) and most recently His Own Man by Brazilian Edgard Telles Ribeiro. His Own Man is the story of ambitious Brazilian diplomat Marcilio Andrade Xavier, generally known as Max, slowly revealed through the retrospective observations of a colleague he first met in Rio de Janiero in 1968 at Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Pieced together over the decades, each fragment reveals Max’s transition from confident, ambitious newcomer to consummate player in an international game that sees democracies brutally toppling across South America – Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay:- a web of clandestine interference and manipulation supported by the shadowy sinews of the American CIA and the British M15.
The impact is devastating. Terror becomes the official currency: fear and intimidation, torture and murder, the political weapon of choice. The military, politicians and business leaders make up the rules of the game and are the prime beneficiaries. Those who rebel are silenced with production line efficiency. Others learn to keep quiet. To not see.
Ruthless and Machiavellian, seemingly without scruples, Max is a chameleon who moulds himself to suit the occasion, shedding political allegiences, friends, even his marriage, with seeming nonchalance. When peace eventually descends and others are called to count for their part in the brutality, Max has already recreated himself.
As our narrator comments: “Those who admired Max would say he was a pro; to others, he was simply an opportunist. And, inevitably, there were some who saw him as a scoundrel. I personally think Max, like many before and after him, might simply have been a victim of his own inherent contradictions – and not just a gentleman with a sword for hire.”
His Own Man is much more than just a first rate political thriller, although it certainly is that. Ribiero worked in Brazil’s diplomatic corps and he describes the highly structured, serpentine yet intensely pragmatic environment that is Max’s world, with an insider’s knowledge and attention. There are some beautifully drawn incidental observations, like the cold hierarchal world of the diplomats’ wives. But others, like the narrator’s visit to the Californian home of the former key senior CIA in South America, and his nonchalent explanation of national vested interest, is chilling.
Ribeiro is well-known in Brazil where he has won a number of awards for novels and short stories including the 2011 Brazilian PEN Club Prize for Fiction for His Own Man. This is his second book translated, into English. In the acknowledgements he pays tribute to Australian Henry Rosenbloom, for getting his publishing company Scribe to take on “a novel dealing with a forgotten war in South America, a tragic story that no one cared about anymore in this world of our deprived of memory.”
His Own Man by Edgard Telles Ribeiro, translated by Kim Hastings, was released in Australia this month by Scribe.