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K — a chorus of voices worthy of a Greek tragedy

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In this review for The Tablet, Amanda Hopkinson is impressed by the variety of voices that gradually expose the sins of omission and commission in Bernardo Kucinksi’s first published novel. We also have a video interview with the author.

The title of Bernardo Kucinski’s first novel, and its eponymous central character, will prompt readers to think of Kafka, that invented name of a Jewish author who wrote in a foreign language (German) although he was a Prague-born Czech nationalist. Joseph K is also, of course, the protagonist in Kafka’s most famous novel, The Trial.

K is an immigrant Pole, the veteran of underground opposition to Naziism in the 1930s, who since the war has lived in Brazil as a Yiddish scholar. Yet he failed to observe that his socialism had passed to his daughter, who to his horror has become one of the “disappeared” during the time of vicious military dictatorship. Was her presumed murder the consequence of a targeted kidnap? Was it abetted by her craven handover by the authorities of the university where she lectured? And, was she definitely dead?

A chorus of voices worthy of a Greek tragedy reflects on the disappearance. It includes the parents of her husband, also disappeared, a prison guard who recalls her incarceration, and a cleaner who falls for a torturer. None of their narratives tallies. K searches, much like Joseph K, for coherence. While state functionaries and the armed forces respond predictably with rebuffs, the university (theoretically autonomous) and the Jewish community (to which she belonged, by birth if not belief), warily guarding their backs, also renounce her.

Latin American Catholicism emerges well from the story. In the opening chapter, K enters a church for the first time (“he felt an atavistic revulsion towards Catholicism, along with his scorn for religious rites of all kinds … it wasn’t the people and their beliefs he disliked, it was the clergy, whether they were priests or rabbis”) and joins a meeting of some 60 “Relatives of the Disappeared” in the archdiocesan office. Throughout his quest he is sustained and supported by the Church. When K finally renounces Yiddish literature and determines to write his account in his adoptive language of Portuguese, his starting point is his first meeting with the Archbishop of São Paulo, “because an authority in the Catholic Church, the same Church that had once nurtured Torquemada, was welcoming him warmly and becoming deeply and sincerely involved in his search for his daughter, something not even the rabbis had been prepared to do”.

The epigram on the flyleaf tells us, “Everything in this book is invented but almost everything happened.” We meet a third K here – the author himself. Kucinski, a journalist and university professor in São Paulo, lost his sister in the Brazilian military misrule in 1973, while he was a student in England. K is his first novel, and it is permeated by the guilt of the survivor. Its moral authority lies in its message that the truth is powerful. Its literary impact lies in its multilayered voices, which gradually expose the perpetration of sins of omission and commission, of failures to help and of violence, each voice convincingly relayed by translator Sue Branford.


 Also check a video interview made in São Paulo with Bernardo Kucinski specially for LAB readers:


And a review by Mônica Vasconcelos for the BBC Brasil here.