April 2014

Arts & Letters

Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s ‘His Own Man’

By Kevin Rabalais
Scribe; $29.99

It’s no surprise, given the region’s turbulent history, that the boom in Latin American literature during the 1960s and ’70s included the “dictator novel” subgenre. During the era that brought international recognition to Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa, coups erupted in Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Uruguay, and – 50 years ago this month – Brazil.

In 1967, Fuentes and Vargas Llosa invited several Latin American authors to write novellas on their “favourite” national tyrant. Although the project fell through, Alejo Carpentier, García Márquez and Augusto Roa Bastos completed exemplary novels in this tradition, respectively Reasons of State, The Autumn of the Patriarch and I the Supreme.

Rather than chronicle a tyrant, Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s His Own Man extends this tradition by concentrating on a young diplomat, Marcílio Andrade Xavier, aka Max. The novel’s Brazilian author, a former diplomat himself, provides a page-turning pleasure that scrutinises Latin American history and politics with a focus on the tumultuous ’60s and ’70s.

“When the history of this period is written, impartially, without being manipulated by one side or the other, it will become clear that these weren’t acts planned by the military or political leaders, much less by bankers or businessmen, as rumour would have it,” says Max. “They were works orchestrated in absolute secrecy. As if the CIA had commissioned Merce Cunningham … to choreograph the series of coups to happen in rapid succession, so that the entire region would fall like a house of cards.”

In Brazil, General Olímpio Mourão Filho’s troops overthrew the democratically elected government of the leftist president, João Goulart, and two decades of military dictatorship ensued. Max – opportunist, scoundrel, gentleman with a sword for hire, MI6 and CIA co-operator – helps connect the new regime to the feared National Intelligence Service.

Max captivates the novel’s narrator. “In spite of it all, during those early days, I never stopped seeing Max through admiring eyes,” he says. Forty years pass before he acknowledges the truth. “Not so much in order to reveal what we always knew within our group: namely, that the devil was in our midst … But out of my own need, as a witness to the adverse effects that the period had on the people I cared for.”

The lead-up to this year’s FIFA World Cup in Brazil coincides with the English-language revival of several of the country’s novelists, among them the inimitable Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst. Those seeking to understand Brazil’s past and present should look also to Telles Ribeiro.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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