I have told the story of my grandparents’ arrival in England countless times. Their bags, their passports, even the car that picked them up. It was a blue Rolls Royce, sent from the family in whose huge country house they would work, an auspicious sign for my grandfather: England was going to be good to them. They had left Portugal in 1971, during the last years of the regime of António de Oliveira Salazar – a name familiar to me both from the story of my grandparents’ departure, and from the Harry Potter series. Reading the books as a young child, I came to imagine that the historical figure I heard about from my family was also the figure in the books I was reading: Rowling had had a Portuguese partner, and so knew that Salazar’s name stood for something bad. The fantasy series seemed, to me, to be grounded in a reality I felt I somehow, obliquely, had a stake in.
This resonance between history and fiction seems fitting, because throughout my life I have come to relate my family’s journey as a story, even though I know it to be true. The narrative of my grandparents’ move to England is so familiar to me: I know what my mother saw, standing on a balcony in Cartaxo, watching soldiers march on a protest my grandparents took part in; I know about secret police and disappearances, and my grandfather being on a blacklist and not being able to get work. I feel sure in the details, and perhaps take liberties with some of them, as I recount these tales to friends in pubs, describe my grandparents’ experiences as cleaners or hospital porters in a Marxism and creative writing seminar, or in casual conversation. Or in this writing here.
But I don’t repeat the facts without some trepidation. I have learnt parts of the story, but not the way to tell it. I always feel guilty, as if I’m using it to present myself, rather than describing real things that happened to people I love. It’s hard to know the right tone of voice or degree of solemnity with which family history should be told, especially when I know my knowledge is only partial. At my grandfather’s funeral, for example, I learnt that he was not able to get a passport, and could only leave the country through a loophole that allowed him to be put onto my grandmother’s. I cannot imagine how they felt as they pretended, with their suitcases, that they were going on holiday. All I’ve gained is one more detail of how they made it here: a new snippet to add to my repertoire.
My experience is, of course, completely common. How many children and grandchildren of authoritarian regimes must there be, telling their horror stories to friends? What do children of immigrants, of regimes, do with their idiosyncratic knowledge? Some families recount it over and over again, squabbling over details and dates. Some families never speak of it. I once was excited to discover an older man I’d met was Portuguese, and wanted to know how his family had come to England; I never expected him to answer, his shame palpable, that they had been involved on the other side, that his grandfather had looked after Salazar’s horses. It was an awkward encounter. What was he to me? Should I defend my grandparents’ honour? Reprimand him for the pain his forebears had caused my mother and uncle? He already knew, clearly, that this was not the narrative I wanted him to tell. I think I tried to make my face stay blank, and slipped away the next chance I got. I didn’t know how to relate to this version of events.
I’ve thought about this moment a lot since it happened several years ago. What can we inherit, and what do we give up between generations? What is the legacy of a dictatorship? In contemporary South American fiction this is a profoundly complex question. As the children of the 1970s get older, their writing unavoidably deals with the profound impacts and the still-present aftereffects of the regimes under which they grew up. Two novels published in 2018 thought deeply about these questions; in both, the narrators are children of political dissidents who fought against the regimes and paid the price, either having to flee the country, or staying behind and dealing with the psychological consequences. THE REMAINDER, by young Chilean writer Alia Trabucco Zerán, explicitly deals with the legacy of the decades-long Pinochet regime, while in RESISTANCE, Brazilian-Argentinian writer Julian Fuks explores the ‘Dirty War’ of the Videla regime between 1976 and 1983. Pinochet’s authoritarian military regime came into power in Chile after a military coup in 1973, banning all leftist and socialist parties in the immediate aftermath and subsequently enforcing strictly anti-leftist policies. Videla gained power in Argentina after a coup in 1976 and installed a military government that transformed the social and economic landscape of the country for years to come. In both cases, the common enemies were Marxists and those in other left-wing parties; dissidents were targeted, tortured and many thousands were disappeared – the sheer brutality of both regimes’ practices remains truly staggering.
Both novelists experiment and wrestle with the ways that complex political history can be communicated through fiction. Zerán splits her narrative between two narrators, brought together through the actions of their parents. Iquela – a translator – constantly interrogates the precision of her language; the book is full of parentheses in which she offers substitute words, moving from the fairly benign and general to the much more violent. Felipe, a strange and disturbed young man, hallucinates dead bodies strewn across the streets of Santiago; we read his increasingly fraught internal monologue through a first-person stream of consciousness that seems to circle around the profound trauma of the disappearance of his parents. Fuks’s nameless narrator is preoccupied with his own position as mediator of his family’s past, anxious that he is writing this book to shield himself from his own failings. ‘Can exile be inherited?’ he asks. Like Iquela, he is dogged by worries about imprecision, stuttering through tenses – rendered with impressive fluidity in Daniel Hahn’s translation – and questioning his own motives in telling.
All these characters, brought up during or in the aftermath of regimes, occupy a strange in-between position, both part and not part of the events that took place. They ask themselves the questions I’ve asked myself: around the limits of legitimacy, and the granular problems of language itself. Yet what legitimacy can there be? I am ensconced in a particular kind of privilege, and yet I am undoubtedly close to something else, entirely alien to my current way of life, but which I can’t cut off from myself. The question becomes not one of legitimacy, but of inheritance. What are the limits to inheritance? Can I explain myself through a regime I know very little about? Does each generation pass on a particular version of their family’s past, or does the event become more diffuse? The astonishing Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra is deeply invested in questioning the ethics of writing: in his 2015 novel WAYS OF GOING HOME the chapters move between narratives, one in which an ‘I’ tells a story of his childhood and subsequent reflection as an older man, and one in which the writer considers the way this narrative is produced, and whose experience it tells. Zambra’s formal inventiveness is not for the sake of experimentation, but a deep ambivalence about the novel itself – a method of communicating experience, but by no means the method. The writer becomes a figure in search of other forms, trapped between questioning and explaining, reflection and refraction.
Later in this novel, the young man reconnects with a woman from his childhood, who explains an aspect of their shared past: ‘The plot begins to clear up: I look at her astonished, but it isn’t a pure astonishment. I receive the story as if expecting it. Because I do expect it, in some way. It’s the story of my generation.’ Zambra’s work echoes something of Walter Benjamin, whose 1936 essay ‘The Storyteller’ makes a distinction between the collective force of the storyteller and the individualism of the novel. The storyteller, writes Benjamin, ‘takes what he tells from experience – his own or that reported by others. And he in turn makes it the experience of those who are listening to his tale. The novelist has isolated himself.’ There is something generative about exposing human life not in chronological order but through the associations of recollection, gossip, word-of-mouth, and through the imprecision of memory, our own and other people’s. But as Zambra seems to suggest, how can he present something in the recognisable limitations of the novel, if he does not really know what it is he wants to communicate in the first place?
Both Zerán’s and Fuks’s works dwell on similar problems of foundation. In a striking scene in THE REMAINDER, Iquela’s mother recounts the details of her political resistance, while Iquela listens from another room, able to tell from her mother’s tone exactly where the familiar story was heading. The moment encapsulates the tension between narrative-building and memory, the distance between repetition and truth. We begin to read and hear not necessarily the story itself, but its contours: what is repeated and emphasised, what is elided or omitted altogether. Fuks’s narrator encounters the opposite in his family; he is unsure about some of his history because ‘the plot-line is less precise, perhaps because of my mother’s narrative style, which is summary and diffuse.’ This worry pervades the novel in the form of his preoccupation with the past of his adopted brother. Though his parents assume they know his origin – they were told he is the child of a young Italian woman abandoned by her partner – there is always the concern, the shadow of a doubt that he could in fact be a child of one of the ‘disappeared’. During the Videla regime, some of the left-wing women who were incarcerated were already pregnant, had children, or, disturbingly, were impregnated during imprisonment; their children were subsequently taken away, and given to families who supported the regime, often facilitated with the help of the Church. The missing women and children are still very much at the centre of Argentinian consciousness, partly due to the tireless work of two groups – the Mothers of the Plaza del Mayo and the Grandmothers of the Plaza del Mayo – who still, decades later, are searching for these children in the hope of reconnecting them with their families. In Fuks’s novel, the narrator recounts the unspoken anxiety with which his family read newspaper stories about these reunions, terrified that the narrative they had been told was false, and obfuscated a darker truth.
In fact, the very creation of narrative seems profoundly painful for this narrator. The word ‘if’ dominates Fuks’s writing, functioning like a scar or a tear in the fiction. In both novels, there is a distance between family members, a residual suspicion not necessarily of the parents themselves, but of knowledge. Every telling is an approximation, and we cannot tell when we have got it right. Fuks’s narrator is haunted by his inadequate information: ‘this story might be different,’ he insists, ‘if I could actually remember it.’ In THE REMAINDER, this pain manifests in a more disturbing psychosis: Felipe, profoundly distressed by the process of ‘exhumation’, particularly dwells on the problems of bodies (an enduring national trauma in Chile is that many of the bodies of those who were disappeared were never recovered). Felipe hallucinates these bodies as a way of giving weight to those he describes as the ‘bodiless dead’. For him, the legacy of the regime becomes a problem of arithmetic: ‘how do we make the bones tally with the lists? …what we need around here is a maths whizz, a numerical mind that knows all about the maths of our end times.’
This question of how to reconcile the present with an unknown past is further troubled by the problem of migration. In thinking about his family’s move from Argentina to Brazil, Fuks asks, ‘isn’t all migration forced by some discomfort or other, some kind of flight, an incurable failure to adapt to the land you inhabited? Or might I, in these foolish musings, these inconvenient enquiries, be devaluing their struggles, belittling their paths, slandering the institution of exile that for years has demanded such seriousness from us?’ Distance and proximity are paramount in the lives of many immigrants, who feel neither at home in one place nor another. To be at a distance does not stop you feeling the problems, the issues and the transformations of your home country deeply. But this is compounded further when you are a political exile. The legacies of repressive and violent politics are profound, but perhaps, in the minds of those who have moved away from home, they exist out of time; or people themselves exist out of sync with their memories.
My grandmother is a vault of knowledge. She is our family’s memory. I like to think that I have inherited her skill of recollection, and pride myself on the exactitude of my powers of recall. But I’m learning that memory is not necessarily always valuable, or even particularly helpful. Maybe by repeating memories I provide a barrier to stave off uncertainty; maybe I need to bring some of the contradictions, the contrasts and the fabrications to light. Fuks often comes back to the inherent contradiction of his narrator’s knowledge: ‘I know and I don’t know,’ he insists. In these opposing statements, he shows that both can be true at the same time. His knowledge of his family is not something that can be owned, but that is instead something continuously brought into being. The family narrative is an ever-expanding archive, adapted and transformed by each generation.