Book Review: Occupation

Occupation

“I told you … about my desire to expand, to go beyond my own petty dramas. To go beyond those beloved people surrounding me, too, to examine others and contemplate their abysses”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn), is once again narrated by the author’s auto-fictional alter ego, Sebastián. In his rightly lauded previous novel, Resistance, the author focused on Sebastián’s parents and siblings – their shared memories and personal mythologies. This latest work is more outward looking while still offering intimate yet clear-sighted observations of family, along with several others the narrator comes into contact with. Some are dealt with briefly while a handful are revisited over several chapters as the tale progresses.

The story opens with two encounters while Sebastián is out walking with his wife. A man in a wheelchair and then a young boy ask for favours. Both want something from Sebastián and he finds himself unsure how to react, unsure how his wife wants him to behave. He fears that making the wrong decision could be his ‘ruin’. This concern – that he could become ‘not a man, merely the ruins of one’ – gains focus from his interactions with the aged and displaced.

The setting shifts regularly to a room occupied by Sebastián’s father who is in hospital and gravely unwell. Chapters focus on how Sebastián now views this man he has known all his life, who has been changed by time and illness.

“That man existed only in photographs, it was he who was guilty of the fate of this other man now pinned to the bed”

While his father approaches the end of his life, Sebastián and his wife are trying for a baby. He mulls what it means to occupy a body, not just with illness or the effects of poverty but also pregnancy.

Sebastián seeks out migrants as part of his research for his planned book, visiting those living in an abandoned tower block that houses the homeless in challenging conditions. He tries to tell their stories in their voices but recognises he is only capable of seeing them through a personal lens. Nevertheless, he empathises with their plights and desires, recalling his own family history.

“Like my family, every family has, if we go far enough back in time, countless displacements in its origin. All humanity is made up of this incessant movement, and it only exists in the way we know it thanks to these displacements.”

In the background, during this time, the reader is made aware that the political climate in Brazil is deteriorating. The narrator may despair of the ‘imbecility of the rulers of the day’ but still believes ‘literature will remain beyond any occupation’. All has happened before, somewhere, and will likely happen again.

“violence against the other is a violence against ourselves, doomed to destroy each of us and all humanity”

Despite some of the more bleak observations, somehow these musings come across as uplifting. Sebastián’s father is still there behind the shell of a body he must now occupy. The migrants taking over another building, preparing it for new occupiers, are forward looking. Sebastián and his wife face challenges but do so together.

Structured in short chapters, the tale told is humane and succinct. The writing is taut yet close to lyrical in places, philosophical and deeply personal. What comes to the fore is the difficulty of understanding human reactions and their affects. In trying to delve deeper, Sebastián offers his readers a chance to contemplate issues – those that cause change through the passing of time and the numbing caused by familiarity. He pauses to step back and consider, enabling the reader to do the same. Thoughts and observations are all the more powerful for the the clear language in which they are conveyed.

Like its predecessor, this book was a joy to read on so many levels. Thoughtful and penetrating, it is a tale for our times.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Charco Press.

Book Review: My Sweet Orange Tree

My Sweet Orange Tree, by José Mauro de Vasconcelos (translated by Alison Entrekin), is an autobiographical novel set in Rio de Janeiro. It introduces the reader to five year old Zeze, a precocious and mischievous child who lives much of his life in his imagination. Zeze is the second youngest of seven surviving siblings. Their father is out of work so their mother must put in long hours at a factory to keep the family afloat. There are many others living in poverty in the city but Zeze still finds their situation challenging, especially at Christmas when there is no money for fine food or presents. The hardships the family endure lead them to take out frustrations on their little troublemaker. Zeze suffers regular beatings, believing those who tell him he is a devil child and that it would be better had he never been born.

The family move house when their rent arrears become untenable. In the new back garden is a little orange tree which becomes Zeze’s friend. He plays games around it with his little brother, turning their backyard into exciting new worlds. At school he reveres his kind-hearted teacher, behaving well to please her and excelling in his lessons. Zeze earns what money he can from polishing shoes and assisting a songbook seller. He finds a friend in a wealthy adult who teaches him tenderness exists.

Zeze’s escapades are undoubtedly naughty but he is punished so regularly and severely he regards himself as unlovable. The smallest kindnesses offered are grasped and held close. Zeze may lie and swear with abandon, copying the adults around him, but he feels deeply the unfairness of the life he must accept. He shares his thoughts with his little orange tree which he believes listens and responds.

The narration is way in advance of any five year old I have come across but Zeze’s life is also unlike any situation I have known. He is cunning but never malevolent, although at times he harbours thoughts of bloody revenge when mistreated. He dreams of being a poet, finds beauty in music, is eager to learn and to be seen to attain.

Alongside the poignancy of Zeze’s day to day life there is humour, such as the inappropriate lyrics he sings because he likes the popular tune. He asks the adults he encounters whatever questions come to mind without filter, delighting in new words and their meanings. He ponders why Jesus rewards only those who already have plenty.

This is an unusual little story but one that draws the reader in. The author achieves a fine balance between conveying Zeze’s distress at his circumstances and his imaginative coping strategies. The harshness of the boy’s life is clear yet the telling never feels heavy. A story of survival and a search for love as seen through the eyes of an insightful, lonely child.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.