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Shaping the senseless with stories: Beatriz Bracher’s ‘I Didn’t Talk’

By Tristen Harwood
An unreliable narrator reckons with the lasting impact of Brazil’s military regime

Memory is a scab that grows uneasily over past wounds in I Didn’t Talk (John Wiley & Sons; $30.99), a potent novel by Brazilian author Beatriz Bracher, published in 2004 and recently translated into English. The novel traces the splintered past of Gustavo, the narrator, who was imprisoned and tortured during the Brazilian military dictatorship, which followed the 1964 coup and ended in 1985. Through Gustavo’s drifting retrospections the novel portrays the shattering weight of torture and the impact of lingering military violence on an individual. Ultimately, Bracher’s novel examines the way in which stories give shape and meaning to the unknowable, and resists the notion that one definitive version of history can or should impose meaning on the past.

A São Paulo professor and educator, Gustavo’s past begins to unfold when Cecília, a university student, asks to interview him about living through martial law. Gustavo was released only after the military killed his childhood friend, comrade and brother-in-law, Armando. He’s dubious about Cecília’s reasons for interviewing him, reluctant to become a symbol glorifying the resistance movement in which his involvement was only ever ambiguous and tepid.

Gustavo thinks that his family and friends consider him a traitor who sacrificed Armando to save himself. This is made plain early in the text when he lays out the facts that set the novel’s coiling narrative in motion: “Look, I was tortured, and they say I snitched on a comrade who was later killed by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch – I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn’t talk. They said I talked and Armando died.”

Torture, denial, betrayal and Armando’s death weigh heavily on Gustavo’s psyche. The torturers forced him into self-betrayal, they turned his body against itself – “[M]y body was no longer mine,” he recalls. Although Gustavo never “snitched” on Armando, he feels he carries the mark of Cain, the archetypal traitor. Speaking of his profession, he reflects that “in my work I hid the sad and troubled monster who had developed in me”.

I Didn’t Talk is set in the home that Gustavo grew up in and has just sold. As Gustavo prepares to retire, he delves through stored archives: old academic reports he’s written, his deceased sister Jussara’s notebook, and his brother José’s unpublished autobiographical manuscript, which details their childhood.

The family home and retirement symbolise different relationships to time in the novel. Retirement is linear, it presupposes an end and a beginning, a past you can move on from. The family home is non-linear; it’s filled with evanescent memories and spectral figures from a past that disintegrates while constantly threatening to recur. As Gustavo prepares to retire, it becomes clear he is stuck in the past, unable to move on from Armando’s death or the disruptive shadow of self-betrayal.

The novel revolves around Gustavo’s recollections of people from his past. Fragments of his memory and family-authored writing reveal stories about his father, an old leftist organiser who died from a stroke, and the charismatic and impressive Armando, who was active in the resistance movement: “he believed he was at war”, Gustavo notes. There is Eliana, his wife and Armando’s sister, who died in exile in Paris; Jussara, who helped care for Gustavo’s daughter, Lígia, while he was physically recovering from the torture; José who was overseas during the dictatorship; and his mother, who took her life shortly after Gustavo was released from prison.

As he attempts to map out his story, he frequently becomes distracted by thoughts of denial and treachery, and likens his role as an educator to that of a “traitor, he who hands something over, transmits knowledge”. Gustavo’s sense of dissonance is compounded by the disjuncture between his memories and those of his family. This is particularly the case with Jose’s manuscript, which Gustavo thinks compresses and misrepresents their childhood. This compels Gustavo to recount his version of the past to himself, but he’s consistently tripped up by itinerant memories and drifting thoughts. For example, while trying to relay the story of how he met Cecília, he is diverted by memories of “soldiers and death”; aware of this, he laments, “how thought betrays”.

As with the novel itself, José’s manuscript is laced with references and allusions to other writers. Of particular importance, as Gustavo notes, is the canonical Brazilian writer Machado de Assis’s novel Dom Casmurro (1899), a fictional memoir in which the protagonist, a jealous husband, descends into self-destructive paranoia. Throughout Dom Casmurro it becomes clear that the narrator is unreliable and his wife’s supposed adultery is his own invention. Gustavo wryly comments that his brother is like Dom Casmurro, but we see this is a projection of his own paranoid ruminations. Bracher’s pointed reference to Dom Casmurro suggests that, potentially, Gustavo’s fixation on the idea of betrayal is just as self-destructive and illusory.

I Didn’t Talk tempts the reader with a past accessible only through different characters’ fragmented and at times contradictory memories, which are filtered for the reader by Gustavo, who is traumatised and unreliable. This has the effect of prompting the reader, who may be suspicious of the protagonist’s paranoia, to question received ways of organising the past. Here, history is a distorted amalgam of past events and lives.

Bracher’s commentary on truth may also be extended to the Brazilian military regime’s own distortion of history, and its denial of the torture and murder of dissidents during its 21 years of dictatorship. In May this year, The Washington Post reported on conclusive proof that Brazilian military leaders knew and approved of the atrocities carried out by their regime. And yet the generals in charge have long denied the use of such brutal tactics, a sentiment recently echoed by Brazil’s pro-torture, dictatorship-praising president-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, who claims the people of Brazil “still don’t know what dictatorship is”.

Throughout the novel, Gustavo struggles to recuperate his sense of identity in the aftermath of the military regime. He did what he could, taking people in and hiding their guns; he never talked, he survived, and his involvement in the resistance has left him with memories that he cannot put to rest. Yet, he doesn’t align himself with the resistance movement, “I was never part of any of the organizations,” he says. Instead, he was motivated by something more personal: it was “love … toward individuals”, specifically Armando, that led him to support those in the resistance movement. For Gustavo, there is no triumph in having been on the side of liberation and life. Instead, he’s left grasping at fissured memories for a sense of coherence.

The structure of I Didn’t Talk resembles the tortured protagonist’s fractured memory. The narrative, purposefully patchy, cacophonic and incomplete, transmits the discordant personal stories of the novel’s characters without warping their form. “Stories are the shape we give things to pass time,” reflects Gustavo on the opening page of I Didn’t Talk. It’s the banality this phrase describes that gives it weight. Gustavo isn’t looking for a place in history, instead he uses storytelling to transform his ruptured and senseless experience into something comprehensible.

Tristen Harwood

Tristen Harwood is an Indigenous writer, cultural critic and researcher, now living in Naarm (Melbourne).

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