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: Resistance

From the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses 2019 longlist – Resistance by Julián Fuks (translated by Daniel Hahn).

Resistance is a fairly short novel but one that should on no account be rushed. The language and turns of phrases reward those who savour. It is a story about a family and how each are differently affected by the same experiences, both shared and inherited. The insights offered are meticulous, sympathetic and deserving of attention.

The narrator of the tale is the youngest of three siblings whose parents fled Argentina in the 1970s and settled in Brazil. The couple brought with them their infant son who they had adopted after failing to conceive. They knew little of their new-born’s background – how he came to be offered to them. They were assured it would be better this way.

Their younger two children were born after the forced migration. The children always knew their brother was adopted although it was rarely referred to. The narrator is exploring if, within his family, this difference in birth – parentage and country – had a detrimental effect.

“I’m writing […] a book about that child, my brother, about the pains and experiences of childhood, but also about persecution and resistance, about terror, torture and disappearances.”

Each chapter is short offering a vignette on childhood, a retelling of family mythology, and the narrator’s questioning of the truth behind his memories. He recognises the difficulty of expressing feelings that continue to reverberate across years during which the events will have been retold on a variety of occasions.

“They’re all disposable fictions, nothing but distortions.”

Photograph albums are viewed and an apartment in Argentina visited as the narrator attempts to reconstruct the anecdotes his parents shared.

He recalls missteps, embarrassing incidents when he said or did something he immediately regretted. Childhood experiences leave imprints that grow imprecise in recollection.

There is a careful hesitancy, a striving for authenticity, yet the prose is piercing in its power to convey with clarity the difficulties of being a child in a close knit family whose history involved conflict and deracination.

An Argentinian colleague who was disappeared by the regime is remembered by the narrator’s mother, her story thereby impacting the next generation.

“I never knew Martha Brea, her absence does not live inside me. But her absence lived in our house.”

These family stories are an aspect of a childhood that was itself loving and stable. Also remembered are later difficulties dealing with the elder brother, although these are viewed differently by their parents and perhaps by the subject himself.

“I have tried to construct the ediface of this story, on deeply buried foundations that are highly unstable.”

The narrator is drawing on the experiences of parents and other forebears in an attempt to explore how an adopted child may be impacted when raised alongside unadopted siblings.

“An attempt to forge the meanings life refuses to give us”

The narrator writes of how his brother is regarded by their family and also by the boy’s friends. He acknowledges that the family view can only be his interpretation, and is perhaps not shared by his siblings or their parents.

“Our children always transcend how we think of them.”

After spending two years pulling together his various stories and analysing his thoughts on them he concludes:

“writing about the family and reflecting so much on it isn’t the same as experiencing it, sharing its routine, inhabiting its present.”

The narrator can only view his brother through a personal lens.

As a reader it is not so much the unfolding history, interesting though it is, that affected; rather, it is the carefully considered depiction of family and their interpretations of shared memories that reverberates.

The prose is breathtaking in its power and beauty, carefully crafted and always engaging. This was a joy to read.

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