I Didn’t Talk

The calm and muddy river of the satisfied

Amalia Pica, Reconstruction of an Antenna (as seen on TV),  2010, Found metal, wood, wire, cable, and cement. 96 x 64 x 41 inches. Courtesy the artist and Marc Foxx, Los Angeles. Photo: Robert Wedemeyer, 2010.

Beatriz Bracher, born in 1961 in São Paulo, is an editor, screenwriter, novelist, and cofounder of Editora 34, one of Brazil’s most respected literary publishing houses. She published her first novel, Azul e dura (Blue and Hard), to critical acclaim in 2002; Não falei (I Didn’t Talk), excerpted here, was published in 2004. In 2016, Bracher won two of Brazil’s most prestigious awards, the Rio and São Paulo literary prizes, for her fourth novel, Anatomia do paraíso (Anatomy of Paradise, 2015).

Bracher came of age during the Brazilian military dictatorship. Like the nameless young woman who wishes to interview the narrator of I Didn’t Talk about his involvement in the resistance movement, Bracher’s memories of that time intersect with the lives of people whose friends and lovers were tortured, exiled, and killed, as well as those who may have done the killing. As Brazil’s fortunes have risen and fallen over the past two decades, Bracher’s voice has remained steady and restrained, her eye critical and alert. Now, as the nation is roiled by political unrest, memories of the authoritarian past, both mournful and nostalgic, torment the historical imagination of a nation lurching in an uncertain direction.

It happens every day. It has to be among strangers: that’s where things emerge. It’s how they become known. Stories are the shape we give things to pass the time in line at the bank, on the bus, at the bakery counter.

I asked, what do you do for a living? And he told me, I’m retired. Twenty years ago, at a motel café table, I found the answer unhelpful. His wife, all in white, looking like a nurse — an impression aided by her husband’s physical defect — worked in the navy. I was a school principal. Jobs help us make assumptions about people, the same as wrinkles on a face, the color of someone’s skin, the clothes a person wears, the way they butter their bread. “Retired” tells you nothing. A retired doctor, retired garbage man, retired president, retired manicurist, not simply “retired.” But today, yes, now I understand: retired is right.

Look, I was tortured. They say I snitched on a comrade who later died by soldiers’ bullets. I didn’t snitch — I almost died in the room where I would’ve snitched, but I didn’t talk. They said I talked and Armando died. I was released two days after his death and they let me stay on as the school principal.

Eliana was in Paris. Our daughter, Lígia, was here with my mother, in this empty house which then was full. After I was imprisoned they arranged Eliana’s trip to Paris. They didn’t arrange for me to go anywhere. Eliana died. My father, sick and retired. My sister, Jussara, still a girl, was finishing school and doing a free test prep, studying all day. The family could never really count on José. Eliana died in Paris, she’s buried there. I talked to her on the phone after they released me. It was summer here, and she was in Paris, trembling with cold, and complaining a lot about it — she wanted to see her daughter, bury her brother, take care of her mother — her voice trembled on the broken public phone I would use to get a connection without paying. I imagined her with purple lips, inadequately clothed. She couldn’t come back, and I understood she couldn’t take it, she always felt the cold more than I did — but she couldn’t come back, and that was all that remained of her.

Armando, my classmate, was her only brother. Luiza said that Eliana died of pneumonia without ever finding out that I’d said what I never said. I don’t trust Luiza. How does someone die of pneumonia in Paris? She stopped eating. Yes, but weren’t there friends around to feed and clothe her? I was furious. Luiza told me to remain strong for the revolution — she hesitated, her metallic voice taking on the electricity of the military shocks, and to make things worse, I’d gone deaf in my right ear — no matter what happened to Armando you’re still one of us, not everyone can withstand it, not even the strongest, Eliana died without knowing, don’t worry. Doña Esther went crazy over the death of her children and wanted to hang on to her grandchild. I didn’t go crazy and I couldn’t touch Lígia. I found her baby babble intolerable.

Francisco Augusto, who’d recently left med school, reset the bones in my fingers, taped them to splints that I tore off a week later, confirmed permanent deafness in my right ear, and recommended a dentist friend I should see about my two lost teeth. But I didn’t go. I didn’t tell him about my nightmares or the impossibility of sleeping for more than fifteen minutes straight. Nightmares, we all have them, and I couldn’t go insane.

Doña Esther killed herself, but not without paying us one last visit, embracing her granddaughter, Lígia, whispering in her ear a final good-bye mantra and looking at me with disappointment: Armando trusted you even more than he trusted me.

At the café table in that inland motel, the girl from the navy told us they were newlyweds. Eliana had been dead for ten years and I said, I’m a school principal, and the husband said, “retired.” I could have also said biologist, or linguist, or educator. I had a full set of teeth again and was spending the holidays with Lígia and her friend Francisca in the “historic cities” of Minas Gerais.

As though only some cities were historic. The present history of São Paulo is so violent that it occupies space in possible pasts and futures. Unable to look forward or backward or to the side, we stare at our feet. When Lígia was 10, São Paulo still had the possibility of history. We’d go to the São Bento Monastery, the Pátio do Colégio, the Ipiranga Museum, the Consolação Cemetery. Usually she could go by herself to buy bread at the bakery. She knew Doña Maria the grocer, Senhor Ademar the shoemaker, she played with the neighborhood kids. I’ve been the victim of an urban pastoral that I don’t like at all. My lack of belief in the impossible is yielding. I’d rather not believe it and argue with Lígia about it. The move to São Carlos is the next phase in my career. I’m not giving up, as she alleges. I’m going to dedicate myself to Lucilia’s project at the university, her study of language-acquisition difficulties. Lígia thinks I should have accepted the post at the Department of Education, or at least continued directing the program in professional development and responding to requests for talks and seminars. I’d like her to come with me. The university there is very good — her husband would have no trouble getting in and, more important, my little granddaughter Marta could go out by herself to buy our bread. Not yet, she’s only 3, but she’d come with me, she’d get to know the baker, the neighbors, she’d pay attention to the color of the sky, the winds that bring the rain. No, there’s nothing pastoral, I try to tell myself, about this empty house.

We finally sold the house. I have a few months left before I have to give it up. I’m looking over the pieces of furniture that are coming with me. José, Jussara, and Lígia took what they wanted after my mother’s death. Jussara took only a few small things: some shirts, the oil painting of a little boy drawing, and the vanity mirror in the ugly mahogany frame, the kind there were in so many homes on Rua Teodoro Sampaio. It was Vóana’s but beloved by my mother — it was where she stuck little notes to remind herself what she had to do the next day. Jussara grew up to be a beautiful, tall young woman, very thin like our father, but even so she took some of her short, plump mother’s shirts. She said she’d wear them around the house. I never went to visit her: she raised her family in London, is a respected psychiatrist, her children speak Portuguese with an accent. But she says she wears Doña Joana’s clothes whenever she’s home alone, especially a wool-gauze dressing gown that our mother often wore. I had to shrink Jussara a bit in my mind, imagine her compressed, or else the gown was too short on her, too indecent to be something from Doña Joana’s collection.

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