Published on: Tue Feb 26, 2013
Author: Sue Branford
Source: LAB

The English edition of 'K', which has been shortlisted for literary awards in Brazil and Portugal, was published on March 4 at a conference organised by King's Brazil Institute, King's College, London University, under the title Post-Transitional Justice in Brazil --Progress or Perdition? The novel can be purchased at Central Books ( Look for Kucinski in their search engine.)

 The book was received with great enthusiasm in Brazil: 'a remarkable book! One of the best accounts, perhaps the very best, written on the theme of the disappeared.' 'A masterpiece. Unique.' 'I couldn't stop reading from the first page to the last.'

 'K'is the story of a father who searches for his daughter, ‘disappeared’ during the military dictatorship in Brazil. The novel is based on a true story – the disappearance of Kucinski's younger sister in 1973. As the author says, 'Everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened'. The book is made up of 28 self-contained chapters that can be read independently of each other.

 To give you a taste of the book, we are supplying below a shortened version of the foreword written by Jan Rocha, journalist and human rights activist, and the first chapter of the book, unabridged.


Foreword by Jan Rocha

During the last quarter of the twentieth century, as South America became a Cold War battlefield, a new phrase entered the lexicon of political terror: ‘the disappeared’.

 Thousands of men and women, and several hundred children, were seized in the street, abducted from their homes or kidnapped from their workplaces, never to be seen again. Some were members of armed guerrilla groups fighting the military juntas that had taken power by overthrowing elected presidents. Most were non-violent members of trade unions, student organisations, political parties or progressive churches, who believed in democracy and a fairer society. In some cases the crime was simply to be the mother, brother or child of a disappeared dissident, and to want to know what had happened to them.

 I was a member of an ecumenical group called the Committee for the Defence of Human Rights in the Southern Cone, known as CLAMOR. It was set up in 1978 under the auspices of the Archbishop of São Paulo, Cardinal Paulo Evaristo Arns, to help political exiles and denounce the repression taking place in the region. It was very similar to the group described in the second chapter – ‘The vortex’ – and referred to elsewhere in K.

 Human rights groups in Argentina, Chile and other countries began to publish appeals to the authorities for information, accompanied by ever longer lists of those who had disappeared. As we received list after list, we decided that it was important to show that each of the thousands of names referred to an individual – a husband, a daughter, a son. We ended up with a list of names of well over seven thousand people.

In K, Bernardo Kucinski goes further by turning the anguish of the families of the disappeared into a powerful work of literature. By imagining in detail the day-to-day struggle of one man to find his disappeared daughter, the frustrations and incomprehensions, the occasional short-lived glimmers of hope, he is also telling the story of thousands of others who, against all odds, fear, intimidation, lies and deceit, never gave up the search for their loved ones.

He shows how the burden of proof was shifted by the authorities to the families, who had to prove over and over again that the disappeared person actually existed. The burden of guilt also became theirs, the endless ‘ifs’ – if I had spoken to so and so, if I had tried this, gone there, done that, maybe I would have found him or her.

Just as remarkably, Bernardo Kucinski also gets into the minds of the armed-struggle protagonists. He recreates the drama of those so deeply involved in the clandestine struggle that dying for the cause became a matter of loyalty rather than a rational choice. He depicts the terror of a young, uneducated woman who ends up working in a house where torturers inflict unimaginable horrors on the disappeared. He tells the extraordinary – and true – story of a woman who seduced the most powerful man of the political-repression apparatus to save her brother and then, against her will, fell head over heels in love with this monstrous man, with disastrous results.

All twenty-eight chapters of this book, written in sparse, contained language, may be read separately. Together they add up to an extraordinary account of what political repression means for those involved in it, a compelling tale that is hard to put down. It presents one of the best pictures I know of the ways the dictatorships in South America distorted and undermined so many aspects of life, not only for the victims and their families, but for everyone who lived through it. The stories resonate beyond Brazil to every country that has experienced political repression. 

The first chapter of 'K'

The vortex 

The tragedy was already unstoppable when for the first time that Sunday morning K felt the anguish that would soon engulf him. His daughter hadn’t phoned for ten days. Later, he would blame the lack of routines in his family, routines that become more necessary in difficult times – a daily phone call, Sunday lunches. His daughter didn’t get on with his second wife.

And how had he, such a seasoned political observer, failed to notice the recent turmoil in the country? Would it have been different if, instead of having Yiddish writers as friends, connoisseurs of a dead language that only a few old people still spoke, he’d paid more attention to what was going on? How could he tell? Was Yiddish important?1 Not at all. A corpse whose death they lamented in weekly meetings, instead of looking after the living.

Ever since he’d brought her back little presents from the Sunday market, he’d associated Sundays with his daughter. Suddenly, he recalled rumours he’d heard the day before in Bom Retiro:2 it seemed that two Jewish medical students, one of them apparently from a rich family, had disappeared. Something to do with politics and the dictatorship, people said, nothing to do with anti-Semitism. Others, non-Jews, had disappeared as well, so the Jewish Federation had decided not to do anything. This was what the people had said. But he wasn’t sure it was true because no one seemed to know the students’ names.

It was the rumour that had upset him, not the fact that it was a Sunday. He spent the day dialling the number his daughter had given him for emergencies but the phone rang and rang. No reply, not even at one o’clock in the morning when she ought to have been back, even if she’d been to the cinema, something she enjoyed so much. He decided to look for her at the university the next day.

That night he dreamed of the time when the Cossacks had invaded his father’s cobbler’s shop to make him repair their boots. He’d only been a child at the time. He woke up with a shudder. The Cossacks, he remembered, had arrived precisely on Tisha B’Av,3 the Jewish day of mourning for all the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people, the day of the destruction of the First Temple and the Second Temple, the day of the expulsion from Spain.

Without knowing what there was to be alarmed about, but alarmed none the less, he got up without waking his wife, took his Austin out of the garage and drove to the university campus beyond the jungle of skyscrapers. He drove slowly, taking his time to cross the centre, as if he wanted the journey to go on forever; his emotions lurched from confidence one moment that he would find her there, working normally, to despair the next moment that the opposite would be the case. Finally he reached the chemistry block, which he’d visited only once before, years earlier, when his daughter had defended her doctoral thesis before a group of stern-faced lecturers, some of them educated in Germany.

She’s not in today, her colleagues said. They glanced hesitantly at one another. Then, as if afraid the walls might hear what they were saying, they took K into the garden. There they told him she hadn’t been in for eleven days. Yes, precisely eleven days, including the weekends. She, who never let her students down, never missed a lecture. They whispered, speaking in half-sentences, as if behind each word lurked another thousand words they couldn’t utter.

Agitated, dissatisfied with what he’d been told, K insisted on speaking to the head of the department – surely he’d know more? If she’d had an accident and been hospitalised, surely the university would have been informed? But her friends got alarmed. Don’t do that. Not yet. To be more persuasive, they changed their tone: she could have gone away, they said, gone off for a few days as a precaution. Strangers had been asking after her. There were some strange people on the campus. They were writing down number plates. They were operating from the chancellor’s office. Who were they? Nobody could tell him.

Finally convinced not to speak to the authorities, K, distraught, drove from the campus to a house in Padre Chico Street, an address his daughter had given him some time ago, telling him he should go there only if something very serious happened and he couldn’t get her on the phone. Why hadn’t he questioned her properly about this business of only going there if something serious happened? Why had he accepted it when she told him to phone only if it was urgent? How stupid he’d been. What had he been thinking of? Oh God!

The address was a terraced house, which gave directly on to the street, squeezed among a dozen similar houses. Leaflets and dusty newspapers on the doorstep suggested the house had been empty for a long while. Nobody answered when he rang the doorbell insistently.

The enormity of his predicament hit him. What could he do? His two sons were far away, abroad. His second wife, useless. His daughter’s university friends, panicking. The old man felt crushed by it all. His body felt weak, empty, as if it were about to collapse. His mind was numb. Suddenly, nothing else was important. A single fact dominated, cancelling out everything that wasn’t part of it. All that mattered was the concrete fact that his beloved daughter had been missing for eleven days, perhaps longer. He felt completely alone.

He mentally made a list of possible explanations. Perhaps she’d had an accident or a serious illness she didn’t want anyone to know about. But the one explanation that kept coming back was the most serious – that she’d been arrested by the secret services. The State is faceless and impassive, impervious and perverse. Its only weak point is corruption. But sometimes even access this way becomes impossible, on orders from above. And then the State becomes doubly malignant – cruel and unapproachable. He knew this very well from his own experience.

K recalled his recent contacts with his daughter, her nervousness, her evasive answers, her habit of arriving in a hurry and leaving in a hurry, her insistence he should only go to her house in an emergency and not pass her address on to anyone. With dismay he realised just how far he had been deceiving himself. Tricked by his own daughter, who was perhaps involved in extremely dangerous activities without him realising it, distracted as he was by his devotion to Yiddish, by the easy seduction of literary circles.

Ah, and the mistake of marrying that German Jewess only because she knew how to cook potatoes. He cursed his friends who’d persuaded him to marry again. He cursed them all. He, who never blasphemed, who tolerantly accepted people as they were, found himself out of control, raving. With a dull foreboding that his worst fears would be realised.

A writer friend, who was also a lawyer, advised him on the phone to register her disappearance with the Department for Missing Persons; it wouldn’t help, he added, but it was something a father had to do. He gave him the address, in Brigadeiro Tobías Avenue, the police headquarters. K asked him if he’d heard that two Jewish medical students had disappeared. Yes. It was true. One of the families had been to see him. What was he going to do? Nothing. The courts had been forbidden to accept petitions for habeas corpus in political cases. There’s nothing a lawyer can do, he said. Nothing. That’s how it is.

At the police station they weren’t very interested. Most missing people were teenagers running away from alcoholic parents or stepfathers who beat them. K explained that his daughter was a university lecturer, with a doctorate, that she was independent and lived by herself. She had her own car. Perhaps it was something political?

He didn’t want to go into details with the police official, he only hinted. So he didn’t give the Padre Chico Street address, gave his own as if it were hers and the shop address as if it were his. Without noticing it, K was reactivating the long-dormant habits of his conspiratorial youth in Poland. The police official became uneasy. He wasn’t allowed to get involved in political cases. But, feeling sorry for the old man, he registered the case, telling him to wait and not to mention politics.

Look for her? No, the police had too much to do. A grown-up university lecturer, just over 30 years old. He should wait, a circular with her photograph would go out to all stations. If he hadn’t heard anything after five days, he should go to the morgue, which received unidentified bodies from road accidents and other disasters. He looked embarrassed as he said this.

And so the old man began his odyssey, more anguished and more exhausted with each passing day. On the twentieth day, after yet another vain trip to the campus and to Padre Chico Street, he went back to his friends in the literary circle, the ones he’d sworn about when he lost his temper. Perhaps one of them would know someone who knew someone in the police, the army, the secret services, anywhere in that system that swallowed people up, leaving no trace. But, except for the lawyer, they were old, poor people who didn’t know anyone important. The lawyer mentioned vaguely a Jewish community leader in Rio de Janeiro who had access to the generals. He would try and find out more.

K began to count the days his daughter had been missing, another habit that came from his youth. And not a day passed without him trying to do something for his daughter. In fact, he didn’t do anything else. He had to take pills at night to sleep. On the twenty-fifth day of his daughter’s disappearance, he plucked up the courage to go to the morgue.

Without mentioning politics, he told them that his daughter had disappeared. He showed them a photo of her on her graduation day, looking distinguished. And then another, at a later time, when she looked thin and unhappy. No, the employees didn’t recognise her among the few recent female corpses, all black or of mixed race. Almost all of them beggars. To tell the truth, it must be over a year since they’d had the corpse of an unidentified white woman. K left the morgue relieved; he could still hope to find her alive. But the photographs of the beggars and nameless people had depressed him. He’d never seen such ravaged faces, such scared eyes, even during the war in Poland.

It was then that he began to talk obsessively to customers who came into his shop to make their monthly payments, to neighbours and even to strangers. He told all of them his daughter’s story. And, he stressed, her Beetle car had disappeared too. Most listened to the end in silence, gave him a pat on the back, and said: I’m really sorry. Some, a few, interrupted him at the beginning, claiming to have a doctor’s appointment or inventing another pretext – as if just to hear him out would put them in danger.

On the thirtieth day, K read an article in the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper that referred obliquely to political disappearances. The archbishop was to hold a meeting with ‘the families of disappeared political activists’. It was written just like that: ‘the families of disappeared political activists’.

K had never been in a Catholic church before, so alien had its silent gloom and the images of saints appeared to him when he’d glanced through the door. He felt an atavistic revulsion towards Catholicism, along with his scorn for religious rites of all kinds, including those practised by his own people. To be more accurate, it wasn’t the people and their beliefs he disliked, it was the clergy, whether they were priests, rabbis or bishops; he considered them all hypocrites. But none of this mattered on that afternoon. An important authority, an archbishop, was going to talk about the strange disappearances.

As he went into the main room in the archdiocesan offices, K realised how much the disappearance of his daughter had already changed him. He was looking with sympathy at the baroque image of the Virgin Mary in the centre of the room and at the other saints he didn’t know in the corners. When he arrived, the meeting had already begun. There were at least sixty people sitting on the numerous chairs laid out around the room. Seated in a half-moon in front of the public, four serious men who looked like lawyers were coordinating the meeting; a nun was taking notes in a large book.

A very old woman, perhaps over 90, slight, frail, with white hair and glasses on the end of her nose, was speaking; on his way back into the country from exile, her husband had arrived in Uruguaiana, on the frontier with Uruguay, where he’d gone to a pre-arranged meeting on the Brazilian side of the frontier; and then he’d disappeared completely, without a trace, as if he’d vanished into thin air or the angels had carried him off to heaven. One of his sons had tried to track him down and been to all the hospitals, police stations, bus stations in Uruguaiana, and found nothing, nothing at all. Her son, at her side, corroborated her account.

Then another woman, in her 50s, spoke; she introduced herself as the wife of a former federal deputy. Two policemen had come to their house, asked her husband to go with them to the police station to answer a few questions. He’d gone with them unconcerned because, although he’d been expelled from Congress by the military, he led a normal life and ran a legal practice. Since then, eight months ago, he hadn’t been seen. The police said they had only held him there for a quarter of an hour and then let him go. What could have happened? How could he have disappeared so completely? This elegantly dressed woman was accompanied by her four children.

More stories of disappearances – everyone wanted to speak. And to listen. They wanted to understand what was happening. Perhaps out of all these cases an explanation would emerge, a rationale and above all a solution, a way of ending the nightmare. A young woman, no more than 20 years old, asked to speak in the name of a group seated around her, ‘the families of the disappeared from Araguaia’, she said. This was the first time K heard anyone speak about Araguaia, how a large group of young men and some young women had been captured by the armed forces in the middle of the Amazon forest and immediately executed.4

This group had come to the meeting for a strange reason. The army claimed they were inventing the whole story, even though one of the prisoners, just one, had escaped, having witnessed it all. But the families knew that their loved ones, more than fifty of them they said, were dead and they wanted to bury them. They even knew more or less where in the region they’d been killed, but the military kept on insisting that there were no bodies to hand over.

A young man had met his wife for lunch in the Conjunto Nacional, a building in the centre of the city, and neither of them had been seen since. As she spoke, the man’s mother displayed photos of her son, her daughter-in-law and her little grandson. Then a man got up, saying he’d come specially from Goiânia for the meeting. His two sons, one 20 and the other only 16 , had both disappeared. This man stuttered, he seemed dazed. He was the first to use the expression: “they were disappeared.” He also held up photos of his sons. After him, K found the courage to tell his story.

Night fell and still the reports went on. The scenarios varied, the details, the circumstances, but all the twenty-two cases recorded at that meeting shared one fearful characteristic: the people had disappeared without trace. It was the same with the youngsters in Araguaia, although the families knew that they were dead. The nun recorded the cases one by one. She also collected the photos the families had brought.

K listened to everything, horrified. Even the Nazis, who’d reduced their victims to ashes, had registered the dead. Each one had had a number, tattooed on his or her arm. They’d noted each death in a book. It’s true there had been massacres in the first days after an invasion and at the end too. They’d made all the Jews in a village line up along a ditch, shot them, thrown lime over them and then earth. But even then the goyim5 in each place had known where to find the ditch where their Jews had been buried, how many they were and who they were. There hadn’t been this agony of uncertainty. These had been mass executions, not people vanishing into thin air.

  1. Yiddish, the language of Jews in Eastern Europe, reached its high point at the beginning of the twentieth century, when its literature became more established; it declined rapidly because of the Holocaust and because the Israeli state adopted Hebrew as its official language.

  2. A Jewish quarter of São Paulo.

  3. Literally, it means the ninth day in the month of Av, which is considered cursed in the Jewish calendar.

  4. Araguaia is a region around the river of the same name in the Brazilian Amazon. A guerrilla group was set up here in the early 197 0s to fight the military dictatorship, but their activities were discovered at an early stage, and all but one of their members were captured and killed, and their bodies disposed of in the forest.

  5. Yiddish for non-Jewish people; the singular is goy.

Comments (0)

Allowed tags: <b><i><br>Add a new comment:

Stay in touch