“Talk… speak… voice”: each word appears dozens of times in I Didn’t Talk, our July Asymptote Book Club selection. Beatriz Bracher’s novel blends together a chorus of voices, orchestrated by retiring professor Gustavo, to explore one of the darkest periods of Brazil’s history.
In conversation with Asymptote’s Jacob Silkstone, translator Adam Morris outlines how the novel came to be translated into English, why it resonates with a contemporary audience, and why the central question of whether or not Gustavo talked is perhaps best left unanswered.
Jacob Silkstone (JS): What led to you translating I Didn’t Talk? It’s the first of Beatriz Bracher’s four full-length novels to appear in English: do you have a sense of how it compares to Bracher’s other work?
Adam Morris (AM): I proposed I Didn’t Talk for Bracher’s English debut because its thematic concerns, although universal, seemed to possess fresh urgency in the context of ongoing political upheaval in Brazil. Censorship and various forms of state repression have re-emerged, and so has openly expressed nostalgia for a law-and-order society like the one the dictatorships professed to uphold. The crisis of democracy in Brazil is so severe that occasional murmurs of a return to military rule must be taken as a serious threat.
Of course, in the time since I first proposed the translation in 2016, authoritarianism has been on the march all across the world. I did not foresee that happening, but it makes the novel that much more timely—some fourteen years after its publication and nearly half a century since 1970, a pivotal year in Gustavo’s story.
Aside from institutional politics, the novel gained currency in other unexpected ways. Ideas about hearsay and presumed guilt, about silencing and erasure, and about the tension between personal and collective truth, occupy a good deal of Gustavo’s mental bandwidth. These are seams along which the #MeToo movement and certain strands of identity politics have defined themselves in the time I spent translating I Didn’t Talk.
JS: In an interview with Guernica, you mentioned that Brazilian Portuguese “is extraordinarily permissive of what we would consider run-on sentences in American English.” The opening sentence of I Didn’t Talk is perhaps an example: discursive, mildly convoluted, beginning in confusion and ending in a measure of clarity. Do you feel the voice behind that sentence belongs to Gustavo, the narrator, or to Beatriz Bracher? What were the challenges of shifting that voice into English?
AM: The sentence belongs to Gustavo, just as the sentences in Quiet Creature on the Corner (which I translated for Two Lines Press) very much belonged to João Gilberto Noll’s nameless narrator. The talents Bracher shares with Noll are her keen ear for voice and corresponding ability to transmit that sensibility through her characters’ first-person speech and narration. The challenge of translating a writer who focuses so intensely on voice, especially in a novel narrated in first person, is to ensure that the voice remains consistent throughout the text. This means reading over the entire translation many times, and sometimes reading it aloud.
JS: Voice and voices are, I think, of central importance in I Didn’t Talk. Gustavo observes that, in his profession, “our voices are our instruments”; during his torture sessions, “talking was necessary to avoid being killed.” For Gustavo, it’s made overwhelmingly clear that speech holds the power to either save lives or take lives. There are obvious parallels to be drawn with the current surge of authoritarianism you alluded to earlier: how do you feel about the idea that literature should serve—perhaps especially in times of crisis—a political purpose? Can the voice of a single author hold any political power?
AM: Gustavo learns that speech is what others make of it. In his case, the circumstances are brutal, but not lethal or politically consequential. Whether he gave up Armando under torture is irrelevant to the outcome, in part because he and Armando were captured at the same time. Armando died and Gustavo did not, but his torture lasted long enough for anyone he might have compromised to flee or go into hiding. His captors already knew anything Gustavo might have told them—or at least that’s what he believes based on conversations with ex-guerrillas. Gustavo’s potential speech in the torture chamber was redundant and irrelevant because he was not involved in the guerrilla movement in the first place. This is, in part, what torments him for decades. By including the young novelist, Cecilia, in I Didn’t Talk, and by positioning her as a figure who inadvertently dogs Gustavo’s conscience and haunts his memories of things that came to pass before her birth, Bracher poses the same question you ask: Gustavo’s speech or silence in the torture chamber might have been impotent and inconsequential, but what power does his narration of those events have in the present? The question is not answered definitively because, as Gustavo learns, speech is what others make of it. The novel suggests that it is up to readers of I Didn’t Talk—and of history and moral philosophy—to decide whether narrative and memory can have any meaningful influence over whether history will repeat itself. History is not entirely objective; it is what posterity makes of conflicting memories.
JS: Gustavo reflects on “a time when novels and films could change the world” with something resembling incomprehension, but I’d like to think literature has a role to play in determining exactly what posterity makes of conflicting memories. With that in mind, I’d like to ask how Brazilian writers have dealt with the legacy of the military dictatorship…
AM: Novels about dictators and repressive military regimes are abundant across Latin America. I Didn’t Talk interested me because it is about much more than that. It approaches the subjects of authoritarianism, and of individual and social trauma, through Gustavo’s evasively digressive reflections on memory, education, truth, betrayal, and family ties. Bracher juxtaposes Gustavo against other characters—like his brother, José—who were affected quite differently by the experience of living through the same years. José is a gay writer who writes autobiographical books that betray Gustavo’s memories of their childhood. Gustavo writes him off as a romantic revisionist. But as he prepares to sell a house that has been in the family for generations, Gustavo discovers artefacts that contradict or destabilize the version of family history he remembers. His doubts bleed into his feelings of guilt about what happened to Armando, and lead him back to his insistent and decreasingly convincing refrain: I didn’t talk.
JS: “Armando was given up for my sake, but not by my lips,” insists Gustavo, “as though that made any difference.” Did he (in your opinion) talk? Does the answer make any difference to your reading of the novel?
AM: That is for the reader to decide—or not decide. The narrator is a linguist and at times, I Didn’t Talk seems haunted by Derrida and poststructuralist theories about narrative, history, and truth. Undecidability, ambiguity, and uncertainty are sources of the novel’s quiet power.
Photo credit to Quinn Wharton
Adam Morris has translated novels by Hilda Hilst, João Gilberto Noll, and Beatriz Bracher. He is the author of American Messiahs: False Prophets of a Damned Nation (Liveright 2019).
Jacob Silkstone is an Assistant Managing Editor for Asymptote. He was previously Managing Editor of The Missing Slate (Pakistan) and has worked at international schools in Bangladesh and Norway.
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