‘Oscillating endlessly between history and story’ [book review]

A review of Resistance by Julián Fuks, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

It can be difficult to know where to start with a book like Resistance. The list of quotes I have noted down seems unfathomably long, and even a couple of days after finishing I keep thinking of new things it was trying to say to me. This might seem surprising for a book numbering 150 pages, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Charco Press titles – reading books from independent publishers in general, actually – it’s that paper weight does not equal emotional or philosophical weight. Even the slimmest volumes can contain lifetimes.

Resistance Julian Fuks

Written by young Brazilian author Julián Fuks and translated from the Portuguese by the brilliant Daniel Hahn – who was recently awarded an OBE for his tireless efforts to promote literature and translation – Resistance is a novel that does indeed contain a lifetime or two. Our narrator, who goes unnamed until the last minute, is a writer chronicling his family history and, more specifically, his relationship with his older brother. This brother, we are told on the very first page, was adopted by his parents shortly before they fled Argentina in the 1970s (their two younger children were conceived subsequently) and is a figure our narrator both deeply loves and cannot fully understand. Despite their parents’ equal treatment and loving attitude, as a young man the brother begins to retreat from the family, shutting himself off in a mirror image of the previous generation’s self-imposed exile from their country. The result is a complex and gently moving portrait of a family, and a profound exploration of themes including sibling relationships, national identity, exile, belonging and the reliability of memory.

This last theme – the reliability of memory, or rather lack of it – is perhaps the most complex and important, particularly given the period of history Fuks is examining. Between 1976 and 1983, a period known as the Dirty War in Argentina, thousands of people were killed or simply ‘disappeared’, including pregnant women whose children were given away immediately after birth. Many of those who opposed the military dictatorship were forced to flee the country, and this is exactly what the parents of our narrator did, walking out of their lives in Buenos Aires and beginning afresh in Brazil. Although the country has long been making efforts to uncover the fates of those who died or disappeared without trace, those years have left a deep wound in the national psyche and are still so fraught with fictions that in many individual cases it will be impossible ever to get to the bottom of things. Though our narrator describes a scene towards the end of the novel, on a trip to Buenos Aires, as imbued with the ‘feeling of a country being reconciled’, he is quick to undermine any sense of hope this might bring with it: ‘I’m absent and I’ll always be absent from the country’s reconciliation,’ he says. For many families like his, reconciliation has simply come too late.

Underlining the confusion surrounding this particular period of history – the rumours and lies that circulated, the second-hand reports and repeated fictions – Fuks has applied several layers of fiction to his novel and given us a deeply unreliable narrator, who freely admits that ‘this story might be very different if I could actually remember it.’ Although by the end the story has become so entangled in itself that it is impossible to say where the novel starts and finishes, this ambitious narrative device proves highly effective. Fuks does look directly at the military dictatorship, but he does so rarely; instead, by bringing a hefty dose of confusion to his own work, he shows rather than tells the immeasurable power fiction has to both shape and destroy lives. This ‘oscillating endlessly between history and story’ is a theme that lately seems to have cropped up often in my reading (most particularly in Paula, a work of translated German autofiction which I recently reviewed for Asymptote) and is one that will never lose its relevance. Why do we tell ourselves and each other stories? When – in what context – does fiction do more harm than good? Resistance is not a definitive answer to these questions, but a bold take on the topic that provides serious food for thought.

Not everyone likes to be baffled by a novel, but there is plenty to enjoy about Resistance on a less complicated plane. The narrator, though unreliable, is a very engaging voice – his tone is slightly laconic, slightly philosophical, tinged with a childish edge of uncertainty – and his descriptions of family life are both recognisable and moving. Short but intensely telling scenes build up a vivid portrait of the complex relationships between siblings; Fuks is a remarkable observer of people and the emotions that lie beneath human interactions. Daniel Hahn’s translation is extremely literary and beautifully pitched, a melodic flow of words that make the novel hard to put down despite its lack of a pacey plot.

Besides family, Fuks’s other key theme is that of exile, which again he chooses to tackle from an unusual angle. As well as directly asking questions such as ‘can exile be inherited?’, he uses the brother’s retreat from his family to examine the way exiles can sometimes shut themselves off from even their adopted country, whether intentionally or not. To what extent is belonging the product of our own attitude or our surroundings? Another question to which there isn’t a single or simple answer, just as our narrator hovers uncomfortably between two countries, never fully belonging to Brazil or Argentina, product of both and neither.

Resistance is a work of literature that defies expectations. Merely as an examination of one unusual family’s history – but then what is a ‘normal’ family?, our narrator asks – it would be worth reading, but the many layers beyond this serve to make it something extraordinary. This novel within a novel does seem born of ‘a desire to forge the meanings life refuses to give us’, yet in the end it asks more questions than it answers. Though it might be nothing more than ‘an extensive repertoire of false scenes’, fiction at its purest, it tackles a painful period of history in a memorable way – perhaps the only way, at this point, to attempt to come to terms with it. Brave, ambitious and extremely absorbing, Resistance is in many ways the very definition of its title.

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