Translated from Portuguese by Adam Morris
Naming a novel after an unborn character is a tad unusual. But Antonio is the catalyst of everything that follows. His father, Benjamin, decides that, on the advent of parenthood, it is time for him to delve into the history of his own father, Teodoro, who died when he was 12 (I think). Forgive my uncertainty, but nothing in this novel is straightforward.
Benjamin begins to interview key figures in his father’s life: Haraldo, his grandfather’s best friend; Isabel, his grandmother; Raul, his father’s classmate, and the novel rotates around the stories told by these three characters. Benjamin himself never utters a word. Also unusual. Without doubt a literary conceit, ghostly like his dead uncle, but then he might simply be stunned by the history he is hearing.
For example, he is the second Benjamin in the Kremz dynasty. That the first, the baby who died, was the sibling referred to by his father when he said “we are five siblings, but one died”. And yet, Isabel was not the first Benjamin’s mother. Not a biggie you might think, but when the first Benjamin’s secrets are fully revealed, then you begin to wonder whether the second Benjamin will keep a grip on his sanity, in a way which his grandfather Xavier and his father Teodoro did not!
Feeling confused? There’s more than a nod to the story of Oedipus here. Though it is opaque. To work it out, you’ll need pen and paper to keep a handle on the family connections, because Bracher makes no concessions to her reader. Also there’s little differentiation between the two male voices, despite generational differences. (Familiarity with Brazilian history might have helped in this regard.) Isabel’s voice, too, is of a similar register, though her story – that of an estranged mother of 4, who finds mothering very difficult, particularly as her husband loses his sanity – I found most arresting. The story of Teodoro’s final breakdown is brutal leaving unhealed wounds in both his mother and his best friend. What about his mute (in the novel at least) son, who was at the time old enough to register what was happening? Was he old enough to understand and heal or is he now to inherit the – dare I use this recently misused phrase – genetic pain?
What about the unborn Antonio? Will he be the blank page on which his family’s legacy is rewritten? Your guess is as good as the author’s or mine, for as Isabel says “No, Benjamin the story of our lives still isn’t finished, and it never will be.” Life simply isn’t as neat as a literary plot can be, but in this case is not.