A Writer Preoccupied

A Writer Preoccupied: Julián Fuks’ Occupation

by Sam Carter

Fuks, Julián. Occupation, translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Charco Press, August 2021, $15.95, 150 pages. ISBN 978-1-9162-7787-8

«The novel starts with a meditation on the idea of the ruin, a structure that is seemingly on the verge of disappearance but whose perseverance allows us to glimpse and perhaps even understand something of the past. Here, though, the structure is a body, with Fuks wondering if “every man is the ruin of a man.”»

On the Avenida Nove de Julho, one of old São Paulo’s main thoroughfares, sat a hotel that quickly became one of the city’s best-known spots after it was built in the early 1950s. Managed by a group of Spaniards, the Hotel Cambridge offered more than 100 luxurious rooms spread across 16 floors, but perhaps its most popular space was a bar that hosted jazz and bossa nova greats and was frequented by international travelers and performers, Nat King Cole among them. Yet as São Paulo expanded over the years—it is now the largest city in the Americas—that central area was paradoxically rendered somewhat peripheral. The Hotel Cambridge saw fewer and fewer guests, and despite a renovation in the 1990s it finally closed its doors in 2002.

The space then occasionally served as an underground night club, with the last party taking place in 2011. At that point, the structure was bought by the municipality, which planned to turn it into housing. But those efforts were mired in bureaucratic red tape, and in November 2012 a group of nearly 200 sem-tetos (houseless, or, literally, those without a roof) from the Movimento Sem-teto do Centro (MSTC, The Houseless Movement of the Center) decided to occupy it and deliver housing to those in need in a far shorter timeframe. Within the first few weeks, they removed 25 truckloads of debris from the building, and they would continue making improvements to ensure it was an inhabitable structure. By 2017, 171 families, or nearly 500 people, claimed it as a residence.

These sem-tetos were led by Carmen Silva, a mother of eight from the state of Bahia who, after marrying at age seventeen, suffered domestic abuse and subsequently fled to São Paulo to seek a better life for her children. In the megalopolis, however, she discovered that she could not afford to pay rent, finding herself forced to live on the street. She later joined the sem-teto movement and lived with them in another building on the Nove de Julho before becoming one of their leaders. Yet spearheading occupations was not the only role Silva played: she also appeared as a version of herself in a 2016 docu-fiction hybrid titled Era o Hotel Cambridge, known in English as The Cambridge Squatter. This film from director Eliane Caffé had professional actors performing alongside the building’s inhabitants in order to tell the story of their actions and the obstacles they faced.

Silva also features in a few pages of another work blurring fact and fiction: Julián Fuks’ Occupation, a slender yet striking novel first published in Portuguese at the end of 2019 and now available in Daniel Hahn’s excellent English translation. It is a title that echoes the start of the slogan of the Frente de Luta por Moradia (Front for the Struggle for Housing), the broader group in São Paulo that is dedicated to housing rights and that includes the MSTC: “Ocupar, Resistir, Construir, Morar!” (Occupy, Resist, Construct, Dwell). The second verb in that slogan in turn recalls the title of his previous novel, Resistance, which was also translated by Hahn and published by Charco Press in 2018. Of course, it’s doubtful that Fuks will next complete novels titled Construction or Dwelling, but the resonance between these two novels and the first half of the rallying cry does signal just how much his work responds to the pressing questions of the present.

* * * * * * *

Like Resistance, which portrays both the aftershocks of political exile and the arrival in Fuks’ family of an adopted brother, Occupation is firmly situated in the realm of autofiction. But here Fuks is concerned less with introspection than with how we engage others. As he has put it in an interview, autofiction for him still “seems very open, it does not need to be a narcissistic discourse about the author’s own life, but it should be a position closer to the reader, one that pushes the fictional fact in the direction of an ambiguous story.” By expanding the scope of his approach, Occupation complies with some counsel that Silva gives Sebastián, Fuks’ lightly fictionalized narrator. “If you want to understand this place, best to forget about the personal journeys, the private lives,” she explains. “If you want to understand this place, best not to lose sight of the collective.”

The place Silva refers to is of course the Hotel Cambridge, but Occupation does not merely depict life in that São Paulo structure. Two other narratives are also woven into the novel—they include health problems facing Sebastián’s father and the difficulties conceiving a child that Sebastián and his wife confront—and it is here that we can quickly recognize the Sebastián from Resistance. He readily admits to an “attachment to hesitation and uncertainty,” and he can turn inward at a moment’s notice. When his father goes on something of an existential excursus in a serious conversation, for instance, Sebastián’s only response is to share some good news; when his wife recounts a dream about motherhood, he barely registers what the details of the dream might suggest about their relationship, instead only wondering why he doesn’t dream of fatherhood.

Yet Occupation also finds Sebastián looking outward. In addition to listening to some of the many stories of those who have made their home in the hotel, he contemplates the efficacy or urgency of literature, as well as whether it is even appropriate to articulate his questions in those terms. Part of what produces this disquiet are his encounters with Najati, one of the five million Syrian refugees worldwide, who has taken up residence in the Hotel Cambridge and who shares with Sebastián some writings about his life in Homs. “It had been a while since literature had had that effect on me, it never transcended its wearisome games, its conceits, its childish enticements,” explains Sebastián. “It had been a while since literature had shown itself so urgent and expressive. The impression wouldn’t last any time at all, I knew that, the moment would immediately stretch out to dissipate its intensity. Here, all the same, I did believe I had found an unlikely ideal of writing, and wished that someday Najati’s pages might come to occupy my own.” The pieces, which had been handed to him unceremoniously in a plain white envelope, spark a new excitement in Sebastián, who hopes to find something to hold onto as he slips away from other parts of his life.

When Sebastián shares some of his enthusiasm for Najati’s writing by suggesting that they get it in front of more readers, the latter could not be less interested. As Sebastián recalls, “I decided to suggest we look for some place to publish them. He didn’t even stop walking to dismiss the possibility: don’t waste your time, I’m not remotely interested in literature. I’m only interested in an opening for dialogue.” The implication is clear: for Najati, literature can produce no such aperture, and this question of how to create opportunities for exchange within his work is what most preoccupies Sebastián. As the novel reveals, that process necessarily begins by listening to others—to their experiences as well as to their beliefs about how those experiences should be narrated. When he speaks with Ginia, a resident of the Hotel Cambridge who survived an earthquake in Haiti and who has grown weary of people asking her only about that part of her life, she encourages him to think more broadly by not limiting himself to easy observations or simply depicting difficult moments. “Put something like this, in prettier and correcter words than mine, they can be your words, that’s OK,” she says. “But put something more than pain, something more than misfortune, if you want to write something worth writing.”

Occupation heeds this advice halfway, for the pain that appears is primarily Sebastián’s own, which means he avoids any perception that his work profits off the suffering of others. Particularly difficult for Sebastián is watching the slow and seemingly inexorable decline of his father, who, as Sebastián readily admits, was his hero. (Julián also dedicated the novel to his father.) His father’s militancy in Argentina, which led him to flee that country’s dictatorship and which is the reason Sebastián grew up in Brazil and writes and speaks in Portuguese without the Spanish accent of his father, is something Sebastián almost feels that he can never live up to. But in a sense he does honor a paternal legacy: his father and mother, both of whom are psychoanalysts, equipped their child with the tools for analysis and introspection that so profoundly shape his fiction.

Sebastián reveals another form of fatherly presence in the novel, which is the fact that its composition began in the office that his father has now abandoned in order to work at home. Surrounded by his father’s writings and books, Sebastián dips into old articles, but the words do not inspire the same effect as Najati’s did. “I cannot find myself in my father’s past, in his words and his actions that belong to another time,” explains Sebastián, “but I find myself in almost everything he longs for.” It is a form of identification that resists easy description, or even any elaboration, but the naming itself gestures toward the indelible ways in which father and son resemble each other as they react to the world around them.

In an interview from May 2020, Mario Pablo Fuks, Julián’s father, indicated one such longing that his son would surely recognize. Amidst an unfolding pandemic, he argues that we need to recognize it as an opportunity to reconsider so much of our everyday life. “We will have to rethink everything, and what cannot be rethought could harm us a great deal,” he suggests. “What worries me now is the refusal, present among us, to comply with and respect social distancing as we should.” The verb for “worry” here is preocupar-se, which signals one potential resonance with his son’s work not only in terms of the title but also in the way that the novel airs so many of Fuks’ concerns. And for “refusal” he uses recusa, which suggests a form of rejection—or, to cite another Fuks title, resistance. Yet whereas what the father describes is a refusal to be part of a collective effort, the actions in Occupation constitute a collective refusal to accept things as they are.

“Words were little use to us now, they were empty conventions, conveniences that produced no more than the briefest burst of strength,” explains Sebastián. “And any word, any idea, any act, any gesture could provoke misunderstandings, which could provoke discussions, which could provoke disagreements. Our dictionary, our encyclopaedia, our anthology, our atlas, everything had aged from one moment to the next, everything had been forgotten, the pages all untouched, yellowed, covered in dust. Perhaps we had become illiterate in the language of our intimacy.”

[Image: Carmen Silva addresses a crowd about the Hotel Cambridge.]

* * * * * * *

Occupation occasionally gestures at a kind of recording, as so often occurs in autofiction, but here the emphasis is not so much on the self. Instead, there is briefly a real recorder—with a red button and all—that Sebastián uses during some of his interviews with the inhabitants of the Hotel Cambridge. By picking up this piece of technology, Sebastián suggests a certain resonance with the genre of testimonio in Latin America. In an attempt to bring the voices of marginalized communities into the literary mainstream, those without access to typical publishing circles or even the means to produce a written text could tell their stories to compilers or interviewers armed with a tape recorder. In perhaps the most famous example of the genre, anthropologist Elisabeth Burgos-Debray recorded her conversations with Rigoberta Menchú, a K’iche’ Maya woman from Guatemala, and edited them into Me llamo Rigoberta Menchú y así me nació la conciencia (translated by Ann Wright as I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala). Menchú would later win a Nobel Prize for her efforts on behalf of Indigenous peoples both in Guatemala and around the world, but the fact that it was the peace prize instead of the literary one signals how the testimonio was not the most important of her actions, as well as how the genre would later occupy a unique and sometimes uneasy place in Latin American letters as scholars there and in the United States fiercely debated the best approach to understanding and teaching these works.

Occupation never directly references this history, only alluding to it through the presence of the tape recorder. After all, autofiction would hardly be compatible with the primary political impulse of testimonio, and its signature device causes Sebastián some concern. When he participates in an action to occupy another building—one besides the Hotel Cambridge—he finds himself questioning everything about his approach to engaging with the group, which is one that is encapsulated by the tape recorder. “The ridiculousness of my presence in that room seemed so evident, taking possession of a vacant corner that somebody else could be occupying, taking possession of other even more vacant corners,” says Sebastián. “I, an onlooker, an intruder, a mole. I, a looter of stories, stealing from these people their eyes, their hands, even their voice. I think that was where I left my recorder behind, as if by doing that I might get rid of the evidence incriminating me.” Although he had wanted Najati’s pages to occupy his own, he now grasps some of the difficult ethical dimensions of this form of storytelling. By abandoning the recorder, in other words, Sebastián also abandons any fidelity to the testimonio tradition of solely collecting other stories.

Even as he retreats from the idea of actually recording, we nevertheless observe Sebastián maintaining a keen sense of sound, an alertness to the aural. Vocality is often singled out for careful descriptions, with Sebastián capturing everything non-semantic that his father’s voice conveys, including the “irritation that could be heard in everything he said, in the limited series of words that he suffered over stitching together.” Elsewhere, when trying to capture the effect of Najati’s prose, Sebastián observes that “It was a piece of writing with an accent, the same accent I had heard in his deep voice, in that voice that was potent but hoarse, as though a new language were being born from out of its hoarseness.”

Alongside the voices of Najati and his father, another one that deeply affects Sebastián is that of Mia Couto. The novel’s two epigraphs come from Couto, and his presence is in fact even more pronounced given that Fuks includes a letter from the Mozambiquan writer that answers one Fuks had sent (and which is also reproduced in the novel). In this epistolary exchange, Fuks articulates some of his doubts about his next project—i.e., Occupation—and about what literature more generally might accomplish. He finds himself lost, explaining that “I’m writing a book about the pain of the world, the poverty, exile, despair, rage, tragedy, ludicrousness, a book about this interminable ruin surrounding us, which so often goes unnoticed, but I am writing it protected by solid walls.” Couto responds with a reflection on literature’s sovereignty, encouraging Fuks not to forget that it can still carve out a space of its own. As if to underscore this lesson, the letter from Couto, which adds to the chorus of voices that occupy parts of the novel, is the only voice offered a section entirely its own, without any additions from Sebastián.

That a letter from Couto appears in the novel is the result of one of two grants that made it possible. The first was a three-month artistic residency at the Hotel Cambridge itself, which, as Fuks has recalled, changed the direction of the project and demanded that he abandon the initial title, Os olhos dos outros (The Eyes of Others). Couto then came into the picture during an experience almost diametrically opposed to this residency: the Rolex Mentor and Protegé Arts Initiative. As its name suggests, the program allowed Couto to offer guidance to the younger Brazilian writer over the course of a year as they met in different parts of the Lusophone world, including three weeks in the Azores, and exchanged work. The contrast between the support of a luxury watchmaker and the far more modest resources of the Hotel Cambridge is striking, but it’s also one that, as an opening anecdote in the novel indicates, perfectly encapsulates the extremes that one encounters not only in São Paulo but also elsewhere in Brazil.

In English, there is, of course, one final voice, namely that of translator Daniel Hahn. Recently, Hahn has shared a diary produced for Charco Press during his translation of Diamela Eltit’s Jamás el fuego nunca. (Notably, it is a work that Fuks himself translated in Portuguese in 2017.) In the diary entries, Hahn alludes to something like the process of inhabiting a novel: as he explains, “I tend to … use the first draft as my process of discovery—the book’s voice, plot, shape, language, pulse, everything will come into focus for me along the way, as they do for any reader.” It’s a method of occupying a text, in other words, and it is one that has also worked well for Hahn in Fuks’ novel, where he effortlessly shifts between the voices of Sebastián, Couto, and the residents of the Hotel Cambridge and ensures we appreciate their distinctiveness.

* * * * * * *

In Edifício Master (Master: A Building in Copacabana), Brazilian documentary director Eduardo Coutinho takes viewers through a number of the apartments in a building located in the Copacabana district of Rio de Janeiro. It’s a slow, deliberate work that lingers on the stories of the inhabitants and offers a remarkable look at the relationships between individual and collective that emerge as newcomers move in and long-time residents leave. (The documentary also features plenty of shots revealing how the crew moved through the building, observing as well as affecting these dynamics.) Because it offers such a captivating cross-section of people, the film, even without ever stepping outside the walls of the building, captures the rhythms that shape the city outside it.

It’s hard not to think of Coutinho’s film when reading Fuks’ Occupation. To be sure, there are plenty of divergences—Rio and São Paulo are entirely different cities, the novel turns to fiction where the film insists on fact—but they both share a sharp self-awareness and an ability to let moments speak for themselves. They occupy, in other words, a point of view that is conscious of blind spots while at the same time clarifying that the blind spot is in fact constitutive of the unique viewpoint. They open up a space for new narratives precisely by taking the time to understand a place in all its complexities.

Fuks, however, does more than Coutinho to turn the camera on himself by not only airing his doubts but also freely sharing his frustrations. But the most revealing moments come in the story of his wife and him attempting to have a child. A new pregnancy is portrayed with far more poignancy than anything else in either this novel or in Resistance, and it is not just a matter of reflecting about how a little one occupies space long before being born. The newness of it all draws the couple together, but some unexpected difficulties send them spiraling into forms of solitude without any sense of how to find their way back. “Words were little use to us now, they were empty conventions, conveniences that produced no more than the briefest burst of strength,” explains Sebastián. “And any word, any idea, any act, any gesture could provoke misunderstandings, which could provoke discussions, which could provoke disagreements. Our dictionary, our encyclopaedia, our anthology, our atlas, everything had aged from one moment to the next, everything had been forgotten, the pages all untouched, yellowed, covered in dust. Perhaps we had become illiterate in the language of our intimacy.” With the linguistic now rendered irrelevant, little is left to help Sebastián make sense of the situation, and it sends him to the Hotel Cambridge more and more.

* * * * * * *

The novel starts with a meditation on the idea of the ruin, a structure that is seemingly on the verge of disappearance but whose perseverance allows us to glimpse and perhaps even understand something of the past. Here, though, the structure is a body, with Fuks wondering if “every man is the ruin of a man.” This simultaneous sense of continuity—of a certain ability of the past to keep resonating in the present—and definitive separation—it is impossible to return to the original—might seem paradoxical, but it is also part of what drives the urge to learn from a ruin and perhaps even remake it.

It is this process of revision that emerges most clearly in the occupation of what was once the Hotel Cambridge. One person’s ruin is another’s redemption, as the novel suggests, but the very act of revising is, like the occupation itself, far more collective than the individual hotel rooms of the old structure. After all, it was only through strength in numbers that the occupations could successfully muster enough of a presence to deter police. But it’s a lesson that can be useful now, particularly as Brazil faces a terrible death toll from the coronavirus pandemic that Bolsonaro has often dismissed. A former military officer, Bolsonaro often only wants to look back, viewing the present as a ruin that needs to be returned to its former glory. The inhabitants of the Hotel Cambridge and other occupations do something entirely different: while they, too, identify a ruin in the present, they understand it instead as an opportunity for radical revision and reimagining. The force of their approach, which so profoundly affected Fuks as he composed his fiction, is also one that we would all do well to echo off the page.

* * * * * * *

In his doctoral dissertation, which explores the history of the novel and which has come out as a book this year, Fuks closes with a section on hybridity, focusing on Coetzee and Sebald. For him, the German writer is less an exception and instead more of an emblem of a new literary disposition. “Everywhere literature has concerned itself with combating a deficit of memory and the sordidness of institutional language, confronting, even if belatedly and uselessly, the collective machine of repression,” argues Fuks. Here the verb for “concerned” is ocupar-se, a reflexive form of ocupar, which is of course at the root of occupation, and Occupation, the highly self-reflexive novel, unsurprisingly does something similar to what Fuks identifies here. As it gives us glimpses of the stories of Najati, Carmen, and the occupied Hotel Cambridge, Fuks’ novel undoubtedly does its small part to counter the dangers he describes.

2019, which was the year Bolsonaro took office as well as the year that Occupation appeared in Portuguese, saw both Carmen and her daughter Preta arrested on trumped-up charges. Carmen was released before her daughter, who spent 109 days in jail. The time behind bars led Preta to recently enter the literary world herself with a diary of her time in prison, which includes an account of Angela Davis’ surprise visit to Preta’s home while the latter was still on house arrest and the former was in São Paulo to promote the Portuguese translation of her autobiography.

In his letter to Couto, Fuks recalls watching an interview that Preta gave in prison. To Couto, he confesses he’s not sure he’s done enough to feature her in the novel, but in the letter he describes the effect that hearing her sing at the end of the interview had on him: “Her singing is beautiful in a way that’s hard to put into words. It’s a high-pitched voice, a voice that totally floods the room, that spills out from there to cover the whole ruin. And I then once again can see meaning to this effort of mine, not because my writing can have the same potency, it won’t do that, condemned as it is to seriousness and paleness. But because it’s always necessary to make the attempt—that’s what I understand when I look at Preta—even if it’s only to fail again, and in that failure to survive.”

By allowing this voice and so many others into his pages, Fuks recognizes that his work can begin an important process of amplification, of signaling those stories that we should do more to listen to. If a strength of autofiction is a clear acknowledgment of just how difficult it can be to speak on behalf of another, here it allows him to portray one possibility for opening up without claiming to completely understand someone else’s position. In the end, Fuks suggests, it is this form of resistance that is an indispensable part of a writer’s professional responsibility—of their occupation.

Sam Carter is a writer whose work has appeared online at The New Republic, Public Books, Music & Literature, Real Life, Full Stop, and Asymptote, where he has also been an editor.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, July 6, 2021

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