It’s time to kick off an annual tradition! From today till the end of the year, Asymptote staff will take turns reflecting on his or her year in reading, revealing the pivots they took in their consumption of literature, and the intimate ways those pivots informed their lived experience. First up, our Editor-at-Large for Brazil, Lara Norgaard.
In the first painful weeks of 2017, I found myself looking to the past to make sense of the present. How did we get here? That was the question that repeatedly echoed through my head, like a drumbeat, during inaugurations, rallies, executive orders, new legislation. How did we get here?
It was on a flight to Buenos Aires during those first painful weeks of January that I gained insight into why this is so difficult a question to answer. I’d packed an old copy of the Argentinian-Chilean-American playwright Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden (1990) and, as the plane took off, found myself transported back to the first years of democracy after Pinochet’s fall from power. A woman who had been kidnapped under the dictatorship faces the very man who tortured and raped her: he enters her home, randomly, after helping her husband Gerardo get back home when he is stranded because of a flat tire. She takes justice into her own hands, staging a trial in her living room, while Gerardo, who is a member of the truth commission investigating deaths incurred by the military regime, urges her to follow democratic procedure even if the state might never recognize her story or bring the man to court. In his stunning English-language play about post-dictatorship politics, Dorfman captures a private memory that is at odds with public discourse. Though the fairly recent periods of fascism in South America predate the global bubbling up of right-wing energy in 2017, official narratives of those regimes remain incomplete.
During the next few months, I sought out fiction and nonfiction writers who look beyond national histories and narrate alternative stories of authoritarianism and state violence. South American detectives often accompanied me on that search. The protagonist of Onde andará Dulce Veiga? by Caio Fernando Abreu brought me to back to 1980s Brazil, leading me from São Paulo punk shows to Amazonian forests to find a pop singer who disappeared under the Brazilian dictatorship. In Black Novel with Argentines, a thriller by Luisa Valenzuela (translated by Toby Talbot), I accompanied Roberta, an Argentinian writer living in a self-imposed exile, in her investigation of the murder of an unknown woman that her boyfriend commits on the Lower East Side of New York City – a search that dredges up the memories of dead bodies from her home country. Ricardo Piglia’s The Absent City (translated by Sergio Waisman) articulated my own investigation of underground memories on a meta-scale: a reporter, Junior, searches through a futuristic, dystopian Buenos Aires for a narrative-creating machine that the Argentinian state tries to shut down when it can no longer control the stories being told.
A detective seeks to solve mysteries, and in the classic detective genre, the story ends with a whodunit. But for each of the crime stories I read in 2017, satisfying, clear solutions are not available. Maybe my most intense experience confronting the perpetually unresolved crime came with Os bêbados e os sonâmbulos by Bernardo Carvalho, a story narrated by a Brazilian soldier who loses his mind and memory because of a brain tumor, resulting in a dizzyingly fragmented series of incomplete mysteries.
As summer turned to fall, I gravitated to auto-fictional and autobiographical accounts of these same authoritarian contexts. As described in the book Happy Old Year (translated by David George), Marcelo Rubens Paiva nearly becomes paraplegic when he dives into shallow water. He intersperses the story of his recovery with memories from his youth under the Brazilian dictatorship, including those of his father being kidnapped by the military regime. Brazilian musician Caetano Veloso gave me some hopeful respite from this otherwise dark reading list with his book Tropical Truth (translated by Isabel de Sena). The memoir is an intensely personal account of the experimental music and art movements that flourished in Brazil at the beginning of authoritarianism. I listened to the strange Trópicalia album as I read, managing to escape the four walls of my chilly New York apartment to explore a psychedelic, radical 1960s Brazil. During the weeks I was immersed in his book, I wore brighter colors than usual.
Of course, not only Latin American authors remember state violence. My 2017 inspired an effervescence of book sharing amongst friends and family, bringing me stories and ideas from farther afield. My brother handed me an activist’s memoir with a deep red cover, Love and Courage: A Story of Insubordination by South African movement builder Pregs Govender. At once personal and political, the book is a nuanced account of activism and feminism during apartheid that gave me the energy to read the news each day.
It was my parents who gave me the thickest book I read this year, The Tin Drum, a classic by Günter Grass (in Breon Mitchell’s translation). In many ways this novel was the culminating text of a year full of painful memories, real and fictional. Grass’s strange protagonist, Oskar, pulled me into one very long, fragmented memory of a life – a life full of violence, sex, circus performers, complicity, death, Nazis, screams, resistance, insanity, shattered glass – which all comes together through the varied rhythm of Grass’ language—sometimes frantic, sometimes slow, but always like the beat of a small tin drum.
As 2017 draws to a close, I’m turning to titles that capture the politics of the current era: Mahmoud Darwish’s 2002 poetry collection State of Siege (translated by Munir Akash and Daniel Abday-hayy Moore), a testimony to the Israeli occupation of Palestine, and Ricardo Lísias’ 2017 novel, Diário da cadeia: com trechos inéditos da obra inédita Impeachment, a satire of right-wing Brazilian senator Eduardo Cunha. And as I read them, after this long 2017, I think about how collective memory—that living, ever-shifting phenomenon—shapes the stories we tell ourselves today.