I bought this book several weeks ago but after far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro was elected president of Brazil last week and I read author Julián Fuks’ powerful response in this Guardian article I felt prompted to prioritize reading his novel “Resistance”. It’s a very meditative story about the narrator’s reflections on his family history – in particular his adopted brother’s troubled life and his parents’ move from Argentina to Brazil after living under a tyrannical dictatorship. It felt ominously prescient when I came to the line “Dictatorships can come back, I know, and I also know that the arbitrariness, the oppressions, the suffering, exist in all kinds of ways, in all kinds of regimes, even when hordes of citizens march biennially to the ballot box”. But, of course, Fuks must have experienced and read about many shifts in leadership over the years to see how frighteningly quickly oppressive political leaderships can take control of a country. So yes, this is a novel about personal and political resistance to these tyrannical governments, but it’s more about a resistance to the categories and interpretations of history which diminish its reality.

The narrator struggles to describe his pressing concerns about his brother without stating this sibling was adopted. He’s anxious that just stating this fact will encourage all sorts of presumptions about why his brother grew into being a certain kind of man. This inner-conflict about giving details is echoed throughout the novel where the narrator questions both his memory and the meaning such information has in truly understanding the past and his family’s situation. It’s an anxiety I really understand and can relate to because of the way creating narratives necessarily means taking a certain slant on the past and it can impose limitations. This is especially true in families when a child or relative is defined in family stories as being a certain type of person. It perpetuates a certain understanding of them and can become a self-perpetuating thing which inhibits the freedom of an individual. The same is true when looking at the history of a country or a community of people who have lived through certain events. The narrator is just as reticent to define his parents’ political affiliations and the events which led to their defection from Argentina. This makes a compelling conflict that runs throughout the novel where the author not only questions the truth about the past, but about how it’s related.

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Barely any names are used throughout the book and I think the narrator abstains from using them because of this same reason of not wanting to limit or define his family members. However, one character who is named is Martha Brea, a colleague of his mother's who is abruptly taken away in a car, executed and her body isn’t found until many years later. The narrator describes how “her absence lived in our house, and her absence lives in infinite circles around other unknown houses – the absences of many Marthas, different in their unrecovered remains, in their distorted features, in their silent ruins.” The novel describes the way many families experienced personal loss because of people who were “disappeared” for political reasons and the development of the famous movement by the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo to recover children stolen under Argentine dictatorship. It’s powerful how the narrator considers the way his parents would have undoubtably been lost as well if they hadn’t taken the step to flee the country.

“Resistance” was a very different novel from what I was expecting but I was glad to be surprised by its deep thoughtfulness and philosophical quest to question the way we define family and history. Although the circumstances described are quite specific, Fuks’ unique methodology means the story takes on a much more universal meaning as the reader reflects on their own family and country. It certainly prompted me to rethink how I consider my own. In the coming years we’ll hopefully see many more strong Brazilian voices like Julián Fuks being heard and published as the country lives through this difficult period of time.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesJulián Fuks
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How do you reconcile the national identity of your ancestors with the person you are today? The children of recent immigrants will most likely have a stronger sense of duality because they are exposed to their parents’ culture which was brought from somewhere else and that of the society which they’ve been raised in. The main characters in “The House in Smyrna” have an even more blended sense of self because their family has strong roots in Portugal, recent ties with Turkey and eventually moved to settle in Brazil. Rather than tell the story of how a child of immigrants embraces or rejects her various cultural influences, Tatiana Salem Levy does something radically new with her narrative by moving between characters and periods of time in brief image-driven sections. This creates an emotionally-charged story which blends disparate elements together to show how there can be no true cohesive sense of self.

The primary drive of this tale is a key left to a character whose grandfather tells her it is for the house he left in Smyrna, Turkey. Alongside her journey (which might be real or imagined) to seek out this ancestral home there are the stories of a man caring for his dying mother, a heated and tempestuous lovers’ relationship, the incarceration and abuse of a political dissident and a writer whose body is breaking down. This may sound like a lot to include in such a short novel. At first it can prove a bit confusing between these strands of narrative because few names are used. However, they quickly take on the characteristic of a unified voice searching and seeking out a place to call home. The narrator declares: “I was born in exile, and that’s why I am the way I am, without a homeland, without a name… I was born away from myself, away from my land – but, when it comes down to it, who am I? What land is mine?” This narrative embodies this sense of anonymity as a strategy for contemplating these insolvable dilemmas. Imagery is repeated throughout different sections making the experiences of the characters feel unified. Strong sensations of pleasure or pain are carried between one part and the next fusing them together. The line of time is subverted through these methods to suggest subtleties not available in traditional ways of storytelling.

Inevitably, this sometimes gave the disappointing effect of making me want to know more about the specifics of certain characters and their dilemmas. In particular, the sections about the brutality of the Brazilian military during the dictatorship feel like they deserve a wider space to deal with the complexities of the situation. However, the pointedly strong imagery which appears in some sections makes up for this consciously shortened style of storytelling. Scenes of grief, isolation, discovery, pleasure are rendered with impeccably-crafted prose making them strongly resonant. There are instances of sexual power play, the sense of exploration in a foreign country and the bitter sting of mourning which are depicted in a way that really transported me. The novel also includes some plot twists which give these tales a strikingly charged quality making the piles of detail you’d get in more traditional narratives feel superfluous.

“The House in Smyrna” is an emotional, startling novel that makes every sentence earn its place. As a narrator in the novel passionately declares: “If my writing doesn’t bleed, it doesn’t exist.” The intensity of writing here does feel as if the writer has shed her life into it. This is a book written by someone who is deeply concerned about the meaning of identity and finding a way to express the full complexity of it. It’s what makes this such a noble and intense novel.

Read an excellent interview with the author here:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
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