In a searing work that hovers between memoir and novel, Brazilian writer Bernardo Kucinski describes the ordeal endured by his own father as he sought clues to the disappearance of a daughter in the 1970s at the hands of the country’s dictatorship.
David Lehmann is a visiting associate at the Brazil Institute, Kings College London, and former director of the Center for Latin American Studies at Cambridge University. This year he has been Lady Davis Visiting Professor at the Hebrew University. He wrote this review for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
In 1964 a military coup in Brazil signaled the start of a long cycle of dictatorial rule in Latin America, which later afflicted Chile, Argentina and Uruguay. Beginning in 1967, the Brazilian regime hardened fiercely, when, in response to a wave of student and worker protest, it adopted the region’s first system of institutionalized torture. Then, what had begun as a protest movement developed into an urban guerrilla struggle fought mainly by intellectuals and students, inspired by Marxist and especially Maoist ideas, and fiercely opposed as adventurist by the Communist Party, which followed a line set by Moscow.
The guerrilla campaign announced its arrival with some spectacular kidnappings of diplomats, including the American and German ambassadors, who were then exchanged for political prisoners. The humiliation impelled the military to undertake a systematic campaign of forced disappearances and violence against numerous people , many of whom had not taken up arms but were fellow travelers or just activists. The cycle calmed down somewhat after the torture and murder of prominent journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1974 provoked a broad-based outcry against the regime, but it would still be another 10 years before the military handed over power to a civilian government.
This is the background to Bernardo Kucinski’s book, in which he chronicles the suffering endured by his own father in 1973 after he realized that his daughter, a young chemistry lecturer at the University of Sao Paulo, had not been in touch, was not answering her phone, and had not been to work for a week. She had simply vanished – or, rather, as he begins to realize, she had been made to disappear.
In a preface, Kucinski makes it clear, indirectly, that the disappeared woman, who is never named, was his sister, and therefore that K, the father who also is never named, was his own father. Later, in the epilogue, the author positions the book somewhere between memoir and fiction, stating cryptically that “everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened.” The imaginative and ambiguous framing of the book fits in with his career as an academic at the University of Sao Paulo and as a journalist, writing for Brazilian and foreign newspapers.
Between preface and epilogue, however, Kucinski has written a meditation on loss, on parenthood, on guilt and complicity. He describes K’s inner thoughts, his fears, his sense of guilt, and the vicious learning process he underwent as his search for information drew him ever deeper into the nether region of informers and extortionists who form the essential machinery of any dictatorship.
We hear many other voices as well, and they highlight those moral bargains that are made in times of dictatorship and revolution: We meet the lawyer whose affair with the chief torturer, the notorious Sergio Fleury, is more than just a deal to obtain a passport for her endangered brother; we hear the vile-mouthed torture operatives sparing a dog who gets in their way; we listen to a revolutionary who previously under torture turned into an informer, as he decides to stop informing on his former comrades; we attend a meeting of the university’s chemistry department, whose members, 19 months after the disappearance of their young colleague, vote secretly and overwhelmingly to follow the instructions of the administration, and sack her for her “absence” – instead of acknowledging what they all know happened to her.
In one of the most extreme episodes, a domestic servant who has been hired by Fleury to work in the torture center is sent to see a psychologist because she cannot sleep and has hallucinations. Gradually, drawn out by the psychologist, whose friends and colleagues cross her mind as she listens, she tells, almost in passing, of her rape at the hands of a stepfather, of her life of drugs and petty crime, and then of her “‘rescue”’ from prison by Fleury. She tells, almost in passing, of his seduction of her, which she insists was not rape, and then recounts in detail her betrayal of the prisoners at his behest, passing on notes and addresses they had entrusted to her. As her suspicions grow, she comes to the realization that the prisoners were being killed and their bodies hacked to pieces and dissolved in acid. Eventually, she breaks down in the consulting room.
And then, right at the end, we read an internal letter from within the underground in which militants denounce the leadership for executing supposed traitors and presiding over the disintegration of the organization when it was clear that they had no hope of survival, let alone of political success. Here, I suspect, we hear Bernardo Kucinski’s own point of view. I am told that although the existence of such a letter had long been rumored among former militants and sympathizers, when the book came out in Brazil in 2011, and people asked the author how he had obtained the text of the letter, he said he had invented it. So, although the main body of the book focuses on the victims and perpetrators of the system of torture and disappearance, this “document” suggests that the revolutionary leaders also must bear responsibility for the fate of their followers.
Kucinski also gives us to understand that as a result of the ambassadorial kidnappings in 1969 and 1970, the shadow state decided that, to avoid a repetition of such hostage-taking, they should kill their prisoners and make them disappear, paving the way for the disappearance of K’s daughter and 150 others, apart from the other 217 currently known to have been killed.
K himself had been a left-wing Zionist in his Polish youth, and he had been twice imprisoned for it, emigrating to Brazil with his wife in the 1930s. There he found a more intellectually satisfying outlet for his Jewish identity, writing to preserve the Yiddish language. He wrote poems and translated Yiddish books, he sent accounts to the New York Yiddish press of his observations as a petty trader with his horse and cart on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, and he lived for his meetings with Yiddish-speaking friends. After World War II, his wife collapsed into deep depression when she finally learned that her entire family had been murdered back in Europe, and her illness prevented her from being a true mother to their daughter. K quarreled bitterly with his oldest son, who broke with his family and went to live in Israel. But Kucinski says nothing of his own relationship with his father, even though he writes as if he possessed profound insight into his mind. The focus is on the father’s love for his adored daughter and the terrible realization when she disappeared of how little he really knew her: He did not know, for example, that she was in the underground or that she had married another revolutionary.
And so he embarked on his search for her, employing every network he could trace, desperately clutching at every crumb of information he could find. The only person who emerges with honor is the archbishop of Sao Paulo – the famous, saintly, Cardinal Evaristo Arns – who was the first to set up a system for the relatives of disappeared persons to register and to find support. Otherwise, K falls victim to extortion and treachery. Individuals mislead him with false trails, a “general” is revealed to be a mere sergeant out for money (as are several others who promised to help), and K attends his trial for bringing the armed forces into disrepute. At the end he cries out, “But my daughter?” – before being bundled out of the courtroom.
A rabbi is unsympathetic to the point of aggressiveness, refusing to allow a commemorative stone for the daughter to be placed in the cemetery in the absence of a body, and disparaging her as a “communist.” But the writer acknowledges that Brazil’s leading rabbinical figure, Henry Sobel, who arrived in Sao Paulo from the U.S. in the early ‘70s, did take a courageous stand in the struggle for human rights, especially after the murder of Vladimir Herzog.
The funeral of Herzog turned into an occasion for a broad-based protest, after which the torture regime was dismantled, though the generals still held on to power for another decade. Sobel refused to bury Herzog as a suicide in a separate corner of the cemetery, as some traditions required, thus signaling publicly his rejection of the regime’s claims that the death had been self-inflicted.
In several respects this is a very Jewish book. Chapters have epigraphs from Ibn Ezra and Bialik; when the father comes himself to write his story in Yiddish, he cannot manage it and resolves never to use the language again, writing in Hebrew to his granddaughters in Israel whom he has never met, and who had never known their aunt; the American Jewish Committee is said to have had influence in the CIA to the point that an agent visits the chief torturer and offers to do away with all the evidence if he will hand over the young woman. Rabbi Sobel, like the late Marshall Meyer in Argentina, who played a heroic role in the struggle for human rights there, is a credit to us all.
In the book’s final scene, K visits a group of political prisoners to whom he has gained access with the connivance of a sympathetic official. Recalling his own time in Polish prisons, he has brought them chocolate and cigarettes. As they gather round him, their faces remind him of the people he knew in those prisons. They knew his daughter and her husband – they even knew the names of those who had betrayed them. Little else is said, and K collapses.
Readers will come away overwhelmed by this portrait of the destruction of a person. But although there have been a couple of private lawsuits, they should know that to this day no perpetrator has been brought to account publicly or legally for participation in the first system of institutionalized torture established in Latin America. Finally in 2012, President Dilma Roussef, who herself underwent weeks of torture and spent three years in prison in the early ‘70s, established a National Truth Commission. Slowly, archives are opening up, painstaking detective-like research is being conducted, collating multiple lists and files from different police and intelligence sources, and people are discovering betrayals and acts of complicity from decades ago.