‘A poet, in a time of ashes’ [book review]

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

Julián Fuks is a man who chooses his words with great care. Fortunately for his English readers, Daniel Hahn is very much the same (anyone wishing for evidence of this might dip into his excellent Translation Diary from earlier this year, available to read online at Charco Press). Between them, the writer–translator team are responsible for Occupation, the second of Fuks’s novels to be published in English, a slim but mind-bending work of literature that packs layer upon layer of meaning into every sentence.

Cover image Occupation

Returning to Sebastián, his ‘auto-fictional alter ego’ whom we first encountered in 2018’s Resistance, Julián Fuks brings his personal narrative towards the present day, building on the foundation of his previous novel which examined his parents’ involvement in the resistance to Argentina’s military dictatorship and subsequent flight from the country of their birth. Now in São Paulo, Fuks/Sebastián leaves his childhood firmly behind him, writing instead of his father’s slow slide towards death, his own continued struggles with a sense of alienation, and his and his wife’s attempts to start a family. Woven through all this are Sebastián’s visits to a crumbling hotel in central São Paulo, which is now being used as a squat by refugees who in many cases share snippets of their stories. Still blending fiction with fact – but, compared to Resistance, with a marked lean towards reality – Occupation is a fine balancing act between death and life, a novel that questions the very essence of being, both as individuals and as a society.

Writing in tightly controlled yet lyrical prose, Fuks begins the novel with one of its big ideas: ‘Every man is the ruin of a man’. The person in question is not his father – though he will come soon enough, in his rapidly failing body – but a wheelchair-bound drunk who persuades Sebastián and his wife to buy him another drink. The dilemma that ensues when a young boy is added into the mix is, the narrator admits, ‘a tiny one’, yet these two pages are illustrative of Fuks’s extraordinary ability to take a small moment and examine it from every angle, drawing bigger questions and conclusions from a scene that any other author might have been tempted to skim over. Utterly devoid of drama yet full of feeling, he conveys powerfully the discomfiting sense of being adrift within one’s own life, of how the world contains many tiny absurdities that can stack up with paralysing force. It is a feeling that returns again and again throughout the book, repeated calmly but with such insistence that we can’t help but stop to examine our own place in the world. The place in the world that we occupy – because the title, of course, is the beating heart of this novel.

Just as Resistance examined the different facets of that concept – resistance in politics, within the family, the sense of exclusion encountered in a new home – so too does Occupation hold one word up to the light and slowly turn it to view its many sides. Sebastián writes in moving detail about the place he occupies within São Paulo, ‘that city we believed ours’, a position rooted in a state of exile but much more solidly founded than that of the refugees he later encounters. These characters – Najati, Carmen, Rosa – are occupying the shell of the Cambridge Hotel in a more literal sense, their stories relayed through records of meetings, written accounts and verbal testimony that leads Fuks to examine his own occupation as a writer, a ‘looter of stories’, as he puts it. Occupation is also viewed from a more intimate perspective: when Sebastián’s wife finally gets pregnant, a new life comes to occupy her body. And, as his father’s body deteriorates, Sebastián comes to view him more and more as a mind occupying the human version of the Cambridge Hotel.

If it sounds complex, it is, and yet Fuks keeps his writing accessible. Occupation is divided into short chapters – vignettes, really – that slowly draw back the curtain on Sebastián’s world, giving us insights into his relationship with his wife and reminding us of his childhood through certain well-placed episodes. While there is an awful lot to think about here, it is also possible to enjoy the story for what it is; though it is hard to speak of anything as straightforward as ‘plot’, there is a driving storyline that keeps us reading – we want to find out whether Sebastián and his wife will become parents, and learn what happens to the refugees with whom he becomes acquainted. A warning here, without wanting to give away too much: there are some very upsetting scenes involving the pregnancy, made all the more brutal and moving because of the simplicity with which they are conveyed.

‘I have already squandered words about resistance,’ writes Fuks with reference to his previous novel, and yet, as mentioned at the beginning of this review, no words penned by this author are ever squandered. Occupation is a beautifully composed lesson in how to create great literature, beginning with hard-to-capture thoughts, feelings, fractional moments, digging into them for their complexities, then layering everything to create a bigger meaning. Condensing life on to a page isn’t easy, but Fuks has mastered it with apparent ease. Daniel Hahn’s translation is likewise thorough and elegant, each word weighted carefully with a compelling meditative undercurrent. Towards the end of the novel, Fuks includes excerpts from correspondence with the Mozambican author Mia Couto, who writes of his own father as a ‘poet, in a time of ashes’ – a line that could equally well be referring to Fuks.

Although the story has moved a long way from the fraught family webs and political upheaval of Resistance, the themes of exile and life’s fragility are still very much at the core of Occupation. As he relays the refugees’ stories – themselves fractured, none ever truly complete – Fuks writes that he is telling ‘the story of civilizational failure’, warning that ‘history can repeat itself in very short order’. Though he and his parents may have found their place in São Paulo, Sebastián is reminded at every turn that he too is an occupier of sorts – but then, the novel seems to be asking, isn’t everyone in some way an outsider, not to say (taking it back to the opening sentence) a ruin? Closing the novel, we are left with a sense of slight discombobulation but, crucially, we are not without hope. If we examine things carefully as Fuks does, and listen to the many stories in the world around us, maybe we can find an anchor, a way to build a new and better civilisation.

Occupation by Julián Fuks is translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn and published in digital and paperback by Charco Press. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create your website with WordPress.com
Get started
%d bloggers like this: