Antonio

by Beatriz Bracher, translated by Adam Morris

reviewed by Ally Findley

The darkness of Beatriz Bracher’s Antonio is glimpsed distantly from the first sentence: “Whenever anyone asked him how many siblings he had, Teo would say, ‘there are five of us, but one died.’” An intricate multigenerational saga, Bracher’s novel is stunning in its complexity and magisterial in its storytelling. Set in present-day Brazil, but stretching across several decades, the central narrative turns on the axis of Teodoro (Teo), his father Xavier, and Elenir, the woman they both loved. The novel is voiced by three narrators—Raul, Isabel, and Haroldo—Teo’s best friend, Teo’s mother, and Xavier’s close friend from youth, respectively. Though tied to Xavier and Teo intimately, the narrators have only glimpsed, or heard secondhand, the most pivotal moments of the stories they must now piece together, their voices the only ones left to speak for the dead.

A novel of family secrets, the story is eerily Oedipal, both father and son believing there is something ancient, blood-deep, and inevitable about their pull to Elenir, to the sons they each had with her, who were both given the same name: Benjamim. The story is infused with this sense of prophecy—the sense that its events were decided long before its characters were born. We are left to sort out for ourselves what was truly inevitable, and what was simply an accident of life, as avoidable and arbitrary as anything else that happens. After all, what sequence of events is truly inevitable? What parts of ourselves inextricable and determinant?

Reading this story told in the second person, we feel as if each of the narrators are talking over us, to Teo’s son Benjamim—the “you” addressed throughout the novel—as he, soon to be a father himself, seeks the truth about his family. This form forces the reader to hover, like a ghost, in the middle of the conversation. We are spoken through by Raul, Isabel, and Haroldo, just as they speak through time and the cobwebs of their own memories. It makes us feel intrusive being there; we are eavesdropping on these stories that are told for Benjamim, not for us. In their closeness to the events, each narrator has their own ways of making sense of the past, with their own biases and blind spots, not to mention some delightfully bitter asides about the other narrators. The overlaid and undercutting narratives are rich and intricate, with Bracher’s glinting, hypnotic prose rendered into English by Adam Morris in a delicate, precise translation from Portuguese.

In the simplest terms, it is a captivating story, full of the seductive pull of family secrets and colorful characters. Yet the novel becomes a masterpiece in its use of form to examine the nature of storytelling, the fallibility of memory, and the limitations of perspective. Antonio forces us to sift through three competing and sometimes contradictory narratives, to determine credibility for ourselves while grappling with the narrators’ self-mythologies and the other forms of mythologizing that come with death, grief, and fading memory. An old woman now and dying of cancer in a hospital bed, Isabel sighs, “I’m the one transforming this into literature.”

Narrator Raul describes Teo’s family as defined by an “illusion of a different sort of family, a special family,” one characterized by intellectual sharpness and the residue of old family money, even as the current generation goes broke. This family illusion, undeniably bound to their class standing, informs their interactions with the world and makes them the mythic heroes of their own stories. After graduating from high school, Teo moves to Minas, then Cipó, to work on a farm in an attempt to shed his inherited privilege and wrench himself from the social fabric he was sewn into at birth. Doomed to fail, this act is self-indulgent and inauthentic at its core, trying on working-class realities as an intellectual and spiritual exercise.

Class, and its myth of exceptionalism, further manifests in how father and son exoticize Elenir and her “simple” goodness. Raul recalls how “Teo nearly transformed her into a saint, the mother who birthed his true destiny.” Yet as self-possessed as Elenir is described to be by others, she never gets to speak for herself. It is mentioned only fleetingly, but she is said to have “indigenous roots,” making her final erasure all the more poignant and disturbing.

It is impossible to plainly capture the rich, tapestried nature of this novel, which examines—occasionally with shocking brutality—the layered processes of history and memory, further complicated by family, inheritance in all its senses, class, and literary form. What does it mean to be a friend or a lover? A parent or a child? In what ways are these identities imposed, embodied, or tried on, and what do we owe to them? Grief and distance have the power to turn memory into myth in Antonio, a masterpiece of storytelling that is slippery and prismatic, biting and cynical, and then, at last, gentle.

Published on June 11, 2021

2021-06-11T14:20:44-04:00