“I found myself thinking that, in the space of a generation, thousands of people south of the equator had been imprisoned, tortured, and killed in the name of priorities long since forgotten. Who would answer for the fatal gale that had precipitously taken them all?”
The ironically titled, His Own Man, from Brazilian author Edgard Telles Ribeiro, follows the dubious career of Marcilio Andrade Xavier, otherwise known as Max, a Brazilian diplomat, over the course of several decades. The narrator, a younger diplomat, just a step behind Max in his career, begins the tale as one of Max’s “lunchable colleagues” in 1968. Unknown to the narrator, Max is already on a certain bloody political path chosen back in 1964 after the military coup. Throughout the rest of the book, the narrator pieces together Max’s career as Max is posted to Uruguay and Chile–countries which slide into military dictatorships. Max’s arrival in these countries at critical junctures in their history is, of course, no coincidence, and Max, although deeply involved in decisions related to political dissidents, is not directly involved in torture & murder. All of the dirt, the evil, the cruelty seems to slide off of the very well-educated, very polished Max who continues to move, elegantly, through the corridors of power thanks to his reptilian nature, natural duplicity, ruthless ambition and complete absence of conscience. The story of Max’s career is set against the backdrop of State Terrorism, Dirty Wars and Operation Condor waged by various right-wing governments of South America towards political dissidents, their friends, families, and sympathizers–in reality, anyone vaguely related to Socialism:
Writing a country’s history may be difficult, but tracing a man’s story presents its own challenges. For a country, there is a vast array of information in the form of books and treaties, maps and image, leaders, legends, and archives. But a man? What kind of history does he have? Where would his secret maps be found? Or his boundaries? What might be hidden beneath his façade or detected in his gaze should he give in to temptation and study himself in the mirror one night?
When the narrator meets Max in 1968, Max has a diverse reservoir of friends “of assorted leanings ranging from idealism to full-blown alienation,” and yet even these friendships are formed for reasons that are part of Max’s “master plan.” As the narrator follows Max’s career, usually from a distance, but also from occasional meetings, he realizes that clues to Max’s career and intentions existed all along–he just didn’t know what to look for.
There’s a mystification that obscures Max. Part of the mystification includes the disbelief that anyone who is refined, loves literature and discusses Flaubert, Proust, Chomsky and Chekhov is capable of throwing in his lot with right-wing governments who oppress anyone who poses a perceived threat or an independent thought. It takes the narrator some time, and he’s still reluctant at that, to grasp that Max is a chameleon–a man who uses friendships as disguises, who watches and mimics behaviour,–a man who delights in deceiving others, always operating under cover. Of course the crucial question for the narrator, constantly compelled by “the urge to dig deeper,” is: does Max have a conscience about his involvement in the heinous crimes against humanity enacted in various South American countries?
The more we learn about Max, the more elusive a character he becomes:
He had split his personality in 1964 and, apparently unsatisfied with that particular accomplishment, had subdivided it further in Montevideo, as though trying to progressively reduce his individuality into less and less visible niches.
Through the eyes of the narrator, we see Max’s wife, Marina–a woman who’s driven to extreme measures just by her dawning suspicions of her husband’s duplicity and involvement in state crimes. It’s witnessing the fear of others, including her own father, that finally drives the truth home.
Given the subject matter, it’s probably not too surprising that the book occasionally reads like non-fiction:
The same was happening on the Chilean end, even though the local economy was still weak. But Max relied on a few solid ties in the country, derived from the contacts he’d kept with certain local upper-middle class groups over the twelve months preceding Allende’s downfall. These connections ran deep given that, on his successive visits to Chile, Max had shared with these groups the plan crafted by the CIA in Montevideo and carried out in Brazil ten years earlier–by force of which the government had been systematically destabilized.
Following the Brazilian model and, later, the Uruguayan one, the Chilean business community had operated in a way that was at once light-and heavy-handed. First, it funded strikes that paralyzed the productive sectors, creating panic among the middle class and immobilizing the labor and farmers’ movements. These actions were backed by investors who in many instances received support from the CIA. As a result, nearly all the crucial sectors of the Chilean economy had crossed their arms at one point or another, most notably the truck drivers. Without transportation, essentials wouldn’t be distributed, except with great difficulty.
While this is a novel, there are some very real political figures here–including Allende. Max and his wife arrive in Chile in 1973 right in time to witness the CIA sponsored military coup, and at one point there’s a character who sounds remarkably similar to Dan Mitrione. I couldn’t help but wonder if the name of Max’s one-time secretary, Esmeralda marked the floating torture ship used by the Chilean government during its years of military dictatorship.
It will help the reader to have some background knowledge of the period in order to understand the corrosive consequences of Max’s actions. At one part in the book, towards the end, the narrator meets with a retired spook–an ideologue whose deep belief in the Domino Theory seems not only antiquated but also dwarfed and patently ridiculous in light of the terrorism of the 21st century–a whole new war. As the novel concludes, the overwhelming theme, at least for this reader, is Max’s motivation. He’s hardly an ideologue, and the narrator’s meeting with the former spook argues that some of the participants in the heinous Operation Condor at least had political beliefs–however misguided or fear-driven they were. Max had nothing except ambition, but even this does not seem to adequately explain Max. According to a colonel, a character who knew about Max’s activities and is ready to render his opinion, Max can be summed up like this:
His actions were those of a strategist with a personal agenda. Max’s team had only one player: himself. Our friend realized very early on that his superiors, within and outside the ministry, would come and go and lose power and prestige, gradually disappearing, whether from age or ill-formed alliances, while he advanced in his career. So he used them strictly for his own needs. No more, no less. he gave each an amount of attention proportional to his potential usefulness. And he knew better than anyone else how to buy low and sell high.
Max ultimately is arguably a hollow man whose complete absence of morality and conscience explains his choices, and with each step, he seems to splinter apart until there’s nothing left but a walking suit. He seems oblivious of the damage he’s caused:
Did Max notice how doleful these people were? That they had no radiance, not to mention mundane qualities such as flexibility, malice or a sense of humor? Did he ever regret having helped–even indirectly–to liquidate the country’s intellectuals, the artists, the teachers, the students, the liberals?
Or was he so bedazzled by his own splendor that he’d become immune to such doubts, content to shine on a now deserted stage?
In spite of its low-key approach, His Own Man is an incredibly moving book which traces a shameful period in South American history. The plot explores how this time provided a stage for ideologues, the ambitious, the psychos, and the amoral, and while this is a large stage, there’s also the very small personal stage between Max and the narrator. Part of the novel’s power comes from its Hall of Mirrors approach to the main characters–the narrator is fascinated by Max, and we’re fascinated by that fascination–the cobra fascinates its prey. It’s also intriguing to read how the narrator is continually reluctant to acknowledge how bad Max really is–we are so often tempted to ascribe our own morality to others. Parts of the novel, just brief entries, introduce victims of the repression, and these sections are understated but pack a powerful punch. This is a solid entry into the canon of South American political fiction and should appeal to fans of The Secret in their Eyes.
translated by Kim M. Hastings