Gustavo, the Brazilian professor and narrator of Beatriz Bracher's I Didn't Talk, has found himself with a lot of time to think about stories. He's recently retired from his job, and as he goes through years of accumulated papers, he finds himself constantly being transported back in time, remembering his past. "Stories are the shape we gave things to pass the time in line at the bank, on the bus, at the bakery counter," he reflects.
There's a single story he keeps returning to, though, and it's one that's haunted him for years. His anguish and self-doubt are at the heart of Bracher's stunning novel, the first of hers to be published in English.
Gustavo wastes no time addressing the story that changed, and almost ruined, his life. In 1970, he was arrested with his best friend and brother-in-law, Armando, by police working for the military dictatorship that ran Brazil from 1964 to 1985. The two had links to left-wing anti-government groups; for this, they were confined to jail and tortured. Shortly after Gustavo's release, his young wife died of pneumonia.
The torture cost Gustavo two teeth and the hearing in his right ear. Armando fared worse; he was eventually shot to death by soldiers. After his release, Gustavo learns that their family and friends suspect him of turning on his brother-in-law: "Look, I was tortured, and they say I snitched on a comrade who was later killed by soldiers' bullets. I didn't snitch — I almost died in the room where I could have snitched, but I didn't talk. They said I talked and Armando died."
The physical torture was temporary, but the emotional torture has never ended for Gustavo. He's haunted by the memories of Armando — "a loudmouth, a truant who always got away with things, a ringleader, a prankster" — and of the wife he lost.
Recent circumstances have prevented Gustavo from forgetting about his past. He's selling his childhood home, which prompts a visit from José, his brother and also a friend of Armando, who wants Gustavo to read his memoir. And a college student writing a novel about the military dictatorship era wants to interview him about his experience in prison. No matter what happens to him, all roads lead back to his dead comrade: "Armando was always there, submerged in my thoughts, and he now returns in force. I think it might have been more tolerable — the weight of accusation, the mark of the damned — if it had been anybody else who got killed."
Gustavo narrates the novel as one long story, drifting from topic to topic, in an almost stream-of-consciousness style, and that's one of the reasons I Didn't Talk works so well. The structure perfectly mimics the train of thought of a man caught in an endless cycle of guilt and self-doubt, and who still bears the scars of torture, both physical and otherwise. Bracher studs the monologue with sections from letters and books Gustavo has accumulated; it's a clever technique that allows other voices — sometimes conflicting ones — into the narrative.
The pacing of the novel is similarly effective. The reader learns about Armando's death very early on, but Bracher has Gustavo slowly reveal more of the circumstances behind their arrests throughout the book. This raises some inevitable questions: Is Gustavo an unreliable narrator? Could anyone who's gone through what he has be reliable?
Gustavo doesn't go into too much detail about the torture he's suffered, but Bracher renders his anguish in ways that are heartbreaking to read. At one point, addressing his daughter, Gustavo insists, "I didn't kill Armando. Eliana, I didn't talk, can you hear me, my little one, my darling girl, I didn't talk." It's a tremendously affecting passage; it reads almost like Gustavo is trying to convince himself rather than Eliana.
Above all, it's the writing that shines in I Didn't Talk. Bracher, along with translator Morris, handles immensely difficult subjects beautifully, with language that's sometimes spare, sometimes elaborate, but always gorgeous. It's a novel that's intelligent but not showy, and Bracher's restraint makes the story all the more potent.
And the story is an important one. I Didn't Talk isn't just about one emotionally bruised man; it's about the lasting effects of violence, and the way cruelty causes its victims to torture themselves. "Maybe no one has ever considered me a traitor except myself," Gustavo thinks at one point. But it's impossible for him to know either way, and that uncertainty is possibly the cruelest cut of all.