I first came across His Own Man (original title: O punho e a renda) through Guy’s great review at His Futile Preoccupations. A novel about the involvement of a Brazilian diplomat in the dark times of Latin America’s military dictatorship in the 60s-80s? My Latin-America-and-International-Relations-loving heart jumped. And His Own Man did not disappoint.
Brazil, 1968: a young diplomat is approached by Marcílio Xavier Andrade (Max) and asked to lunch. He’s honoured by this more senior figure’s assessment of him as one of few “luncheable colleagues” and quickly joins his social circle. Max has a penchant for surrounding himself with interesting figures, writers, artists, actors etc., and inviting them to listen to jazz. Things take a sinister turn very quickly though and slowly but surely, those with oppositional views disappear from Max’s circle of “friends” as the political environment becomes ever more oppressive.
Max, it turns out, is a careerist chamaeleon, able to adapt himself quickly to any situation and any new “master”. He becomes increasingly involved in the dark manoeuvres of the Brazilian state in Uruguay and Chile, where the country was heavily involved in supporting the military regimes’ rise to power. But Max isn’t just a chamaeleon, he also seems to have a highly efficient non-stick coating. No matter how deeply involved he becomes, nothing sticks, and he’s able to swiftly shift his allegiances post-democratisation:
“There were few among us like him, so readily adapting to the ever-changing conditions of that time with such charm and competence, swiftly scaling the ranks of our hierarchy over the twenty years of military rule, and then going on to achieve further triumphs after the return to political normalcy”
The narrator, who has been following Max’s career, is eager to finally unearth all there is to be known about Max’s real actions during the dark chapters of Brazil’s recent history. As he goes along, he discovers the real extent of Max’s ruthlessness.
His Own Man is an excellent exploration of the inner workings of Brazilian diplomacy over several decades. The issues it addresses affect everyone working in a diplomatic service – mostly to a lesser degree though: to what extent is it possible or impossible to remain true to political, ethical or personal beliefs if your job is to represent your government (no matter what)? What role does your conscience play and when do you have to act on its calls? In other words, is it possible to remain “your own man (person)” as a diplomat? To some degree, a good diplomat is one who is able to make his own judgement fade into the background in favour of his country’s interests. But in the case of this novel’s title, the answer to these questions is ironic, since Max is nothing but “his own man” – everything he does, every acquaintance he makes, even his marriage, has only one goal: to further Max’s own advancement. To achieve his goals, he sheds every morsel of morality and ethics, and seemingly every aspect of whatever personal values he may have held at some point.
The narrator ponders these issues as they pertain also to himself:
“I knew full well that I’d been no hero. I hadn’t criticised my superiors out loud; I hadn’t resigned […] nor had I taken up arms. On the contrary, I’d become part of an orchestra – in which Max was the soloist.”
What’s more, the narrator addresses the responsibilities of any diplomat dispatched to a country under a dictatorial regime. To what extent is it your duty to try and take action against the regime, and if so, how? In what ways are you able to influence the government of a country that isn’t yours and where you’ve been sent as a representative of your own government?
“During my year and a half in Central America, I hadn’t hesitated to dutifully socialise with known tyrants of the region, to whom I was introduced at dinners and receptions.”
His Own Man sent shiver after shiver down my spine. The fact that Telles Ribeiro himself is a former diplomat means that he can explore these issues in an extremely thorough way, drawing on his own experience. This is an excellent political novel.