WALTER BENJAMIN’S short essay “Unpacking My Library” (“Ich packe meine Bibliothek aus”), first published in 1931, begins with an invitation to the reader:

I must ask you to join me in the disorder of crates that have been wrenched open, the air saturated with the dust of wood, the floor covered with torn paper, to join me among piles of volumes that are seeing daylight again after two years of darkness.

The address to the second person is gracious in tone but misleading: the collector’s library — made up, Benjamin is aware, of commodities that have a public, social life, too — is “somewhat impenetrable,” since it’s unique to the personality and past of the one who has juxtaposed these particular tomes.

The narrator of Beatriz Bracher’s recently translated 2004 novel I Didn’t Talk (Não Falei), a São Paulo, Brazil, professor named Gustavo who is about to retire and move to the country, is a version of the Benjaminian collector. The physical setting of the novel is almost entirely restricted to the space of the home where Gustavo grew up and which he has just sold. Packing up his house, puttering around his library, Gustavo shares what he encounters: scraps from his sister Jussara’s notebook, pedagogical reports he wrote up decades ago, the manuscript of his brother José’s forthcoming book (an autobiographical novel that returns to the brothers’ childhood and adolescence), which José has left with Gustavo after a recent visit.

Memories begin to leak out of these writings, memories further unleashed by a university student named Cecília’s request to interview Gustavo about his involvement in the resistance to Brazil’s military dictatorship following the 1964 coup d’état and the months he spent in prison in 1970. Gustavo was released only after his friend and brother-in-law Armando died, presumably at the military’s hands.

Published in Brazil on the 40th anniversary of the Golpe de 64, I Didn’t Talk can be read as one of many novelistic catalogs of 20th-century atrocities. As with the works of W. G. Sebald and Patrick Modiano, this is a slim, dense novel that lingers in the eddies of personal memory and historical reckoning. In the novel, Gustavo wanders through his childhood home and rifles through his memories while wishing he might “stop and put all these old things in order.”

Benjamin, though, characterized the task of unpacking one’s library as a tension between order and disorder, between the “confusion of a library” and “the order of its catalogue.” Like Sebald’s Austerlitz (2001) and recent Latin American fiction such as Roberto Bolaño’s Distant Star (Estrella distante, 1996) and Alejandro Zambra’s Ways of Going Home (Formas de volver a casa, 2011), Bracher’s novel is also a formal experiment that enlists a potentially deceptive narrator and the tricks of montage in order to play with this tension. Understanding the past as an imaginary map filled with mazes and dead ends, the novel considers narration less as an imposition of order than as a kind of language game.

Literature of testimony tends to conclude, with a frisson of pathos, that memory and history are equally deceptive, that historical trauma is ultimately unrepresentable, attempts to narrate it doomed. In I Didn’t Talk, Bracher is up to something different. Also an editor and founder of the reputable publishing house Editora 34, she is interested in the conditions that make such retellings possible, in the many ways one might catalog the library of a national and personal past.

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Within the first pages of I Didn’t Talk, translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris, the facts of Gustavo’s case are set forth:

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, I was released two days after his death and they let me stay on as the school principal.

This passage’s spiraling loops set the stage for the repetitive, recursive structure of the novel. Chronology is shuffled like a deck of cards: Armando was later killed, Gustavo almost died, Armando died; they say he snitched, he could have snitched, they said he talked. (In Portuguese, the repetition is more enchantingly rhythmic, as the word falar can mean both “to say” and “to talk”: “mas não falei. Falaram que falei.”) Gustavo will return to each segment of this passage at multiple points: he’ll draw out a memory only to leave it aside and come back to it later, but he never puts it to rest (he never shelves the book).

At just 160 pages, with no chapter breaks, the novel reads as a sharp intake of breath, or a syncopated panting. Scraps of prose, quotations from characters, and jagged excerpts from other literary texts accumulate. They mingle with and contradict each other. We are far, here, from the powerful moral certainty of the dictator novel, that classic Latin American subgenre. If Gustavo’s narration can be called a confession, its delivery is far more baroque than a typical denunciation or plea of innocence.

A few details are added in the following paragraphs: Armando’s sister Eliana, Gustavo’s wife, died while in exile in Paris soon afterward; Armando’s mother killed herself; Gustavo’s father died soon afterward. Gustavo was left to bring up his daughter Lígia with the help of his own mother. Gustavo still believes that the others assumed he “talked,” though most of them are no longer around to accuse him.

The two identities with which he labels himself continue to be “educator” and “traitor.” But he describes the latter as someone who “hands something over, transmits knowledge”: a professor partial to etymological metaphor — there are digressions on the relationships between “apparent” and “parent,” traduttore (translator) and traditore (traitor) — Gustavo tends to veer from claims of innocence to such abstract ruminations. He “didn’t talk,” he reiterates, but now that he might (to Cecília), he frets and stalls and talks in other directions. Unlike Cecília or José — or Bracher, who in her acknowledgments thanks those she was able to interview for the novel — Gustavo is not a natural writer; he tends to get snagged on the building blocks of plot.

Cecília was, like Bracher, a child during the dictatorship years, and in her request to Gustavo she is looking not so much for corroboration as for sensual evocations and linguistic details, for what Gustavo calls, simply, “my age.” Gustavo is, meanwhile, both admiring and resentful of José, who was absent during the repression and resistance of the 1960s. José went off to hike in Machu Picchu, Peru, and smoke in California, only to return years later adorned with a degree and an apparent prerogative to probe his family history.

Reading José’s fiction, Gustavo grows frustrated with the ways he thinks it reduces and irons out their childhood. At one point, picking up on allusions to renowned Brazilian writer Machado de Assis laced throughout the manuscript, Gustavo wryly characterizes them as José’s Dom Casmurro tendencies, referring to an 1899 Machado novel in which the protagonist becomes destructively paranoid about his wife’s possible adultery. Gustavo may smile, but Bracher seems to be signaling a resemblance between Casmurro’s paranoia and Gustavo’s own assumption that everyone has always considered him responsible for Armando’s death.

Gustavo’s directionless reflections constitute what the Brazilian scholar Roberto Schwarz has called, in describing the experimental formal devices of Machado’s fiction, “an awareness of narrative in the making” — a self-consciousness about the possible mismatch between aesthetic devices and the experiences they seek to portray. Those experiences include not only Gustavo’s memories of authoritarian repression but also an account of the disillusionments of activism, a theme in which I Didn’t Talk is equally invested. Unlike Armando, “mediator of various factions, a spokesman for all our student demands, a merrymaker, a glutton, a foul mouth, and a miser” — a person who “felt part of any group that life set before him” — Gustavo remembers feeling at odds with the totalizing claims of the young revolutionary left. The novel presents Gustavo’s father, a union man, as a member of the leftist old guard, while Gustavo implies that the teenagers who filled the jail cells with him were more interested in a cultural revolution than in political change.

Gustavo was never an eager activist. He quotes Jonathan Swift approvingly — “I have ever hated all nations, professions, and communities, and all my love is toward individuals” — and describes settling back easily into a quiet administrative career following his release from prison. But unlike Armando, he survived. Uncomfortable with collective action, he has, despite himself, become a symbol of resistance-era activism, laurels he wears with bitter ambivalence.

In refusing to romanticize anti-dictatorship resistance, I Didn’t Talk implicitly challenges its glorification in accounts of those years that proved easier and more appealing to tell than others. But by only tepidly plumbing the contradictions of leftist activism during Brazil’s dictatorship years, Bracher risks elevating political quietism to the ranks of the aesthetic avant-garde.

This may have something to do with Bracher’s interest in exploring the effects of authoritarianism on cultural production. “Literature, poetry, cinema, art, theater: nothing happened for ten years,” Gustavo remembers. He’s skeptical of Cecília’s ambitions for her own novel, in which she wants “to portray a time when education still seemed to have an explosive meaning, a detonating force.” I Didn’t Talk never fully resolves whether this utopia was always a mirage or whether it was a real possibility that Brazil’s politics, during its dictatorship but also beyond, cut off at the root.

In a 2013 interview with the Brazilian literary journal Rascunho, Bracher was faced with the inevitable question of literature’s role in a violent and unequal world. At first, she recoiled: “This belief that art should radically transform the world, that it might create man anew, that it might bring us a kind of enlightenment — I don’t believe that.”

As the interview continued, though, she reflected on how it feels to inhabit another, fictional space for a time, and on the way one might emerge from such a space shaken or touched. “We wouldn’t be able to live without some order to history,” she admitted, yet she challenged the critical commonplace that literature imposes order on a world of disorder and chaos by suggesting that what fiction actually does is “show other ways of organizing our life.” I Didn’t Talk represents the military men who imprisoned Gustavo as, indeed, the opposite of chaotic: they are systematic, hierarchical, and ordered, unlike the fractured resistance movement attempting to counter them — and unlike the disorderly fiction Bracher offers in turn.

As it nears its end, I Didn’t Talk becomes even more citational and fragmented, incorporating excerpts from Gustavo’s, José’s, and Jussara’s writing as well as the work of writers such as Edgar Morin, Pedro Nava, and Primo Levi. Polyvocal if not cacophonous, these pages unfurl alternatives to the received order of things — the dictatorship’s account of its history, but also the triumphalist narrative of resistance. Gustavo’s way of reframing his personal history opens these “settled” stories up for revision in a rowdy, Swiftian, fictional public sphere.

The novel concludes, however, in the conditional: “That’s what I’d tell you, Cecília, if it were possible.” By turning Gustavo’s narrative into a hypothesis, Bracher cuts off the experiment before cataloging the results. The stakes lowered, the account withdrawn, I Didn’t Talk ends abruptly, fading back into what Benjamin called the “darkness” of uncataloged volumes.

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Victoria Baena is a PhD candidate in Comparative Literature at Yale University, where her research focuses on the novel between realism and modernism.