More than fifty years have passed since the Brazilian military staged a coup in March 1964. Like a domino game, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, and Peru soon followed my country’s sad example. Today, historians generally acknowledge that all these nations were to some extent victims of CIA-inspired operations, which essentially placed the region in an anticommunist lockdown that catered to Washington’s geopolitical priorities. These priorities actually made sense from an American perspective: the last thing the US wanted, in the mid-Sixties, was to see another Vietnam in its own backyard.
For twenty-one years, until 1985, my country lived under a military dictatorship. Some of our southern neighbors suffered harsher fates. It is estimated that between thirty and fifty thousand people were killed or died under torture in the region, or were “disappeared”—some thrown from planes into the sea during the infamous Operation Condor carried out by Argentina.
Today, except for those who lost relatives or friends, no one talks or writes much about those gruesome clashes (nicknamed dirty wars, since they were never officially acknowledged). Younger generations often react with incredulity when the subject is raised.
In South America, little has been done to bring the culprits to justice. In Argentina, some of the former presidents were jailed or subjected to house arrest, but apart from these high-visibility cases, few or none of the real criminals were brought to account. Since so much of the documentation involving torturers was burned or destroyed, how can one hope to shed light on the subject?
This is what I wanted to accomplish through my fiction. As a writer and a diplomat with intimate and personal knowledge of the intricacies of the Brazilian Foreign Office, I felt that I should deal with this relevant and painful subject. In 1966, when I joined the Ministry as a young diplomat, Brazil was still dealing with the first years of the coup, which were considered the “benevolent years”: a period when there was practically no censorship of the press, and most basic freedoms were respected by the military. Then, in 1968—when my novel begins—the military, reacting to student protests, began to play rough. Brazil was plunged into what became a real dictatorship. Strangely, its effects were never really felt within the walls of the Ministry, which went on conducting a rather progressive Third World foreign policy, respected even by leftist governments.
In the meantime, outside the walls of the Foreign Office, a small minority of Brazilians took up arms and started guerrilla warfare against the military; it was doomed to fail. Another group went into exile. The vast majority stayed, and did their best to lead their lives with dignity within the system, as professors, public servants, traders, scientists, artists, etc. And then there were those who adhered to the system (and the military) even beyond the call of duty—among them people like Max, the main character of my novel.
And this is what makes this story so interesting and powerful: the fact that, unbeknownst to almost everyone in the Ministry, a small group of diplomats were operating as fascists in liaison with the rightists of neighboring countries, and undermining these foreign governments in CIA-sponsored operations. Thus the origin of Max: based on people I knew, he is the informer who plays such a sinister role in my novel, and whose trajectory is unmasked as the story progresses.
Life under a dictatorship takes many shapes and forms. Think of it as a puzzle, the pieces of which remain permanently hidden, in a game that never ends. Year in, year out, for more than two decades. Then, one day, the masquerade is over, almost as quickly as it began, and the exiled friends return. Elections are finally held and the rule of law is reestablished as if by magic. But a strange silence sets in.
It takes time to digest a twenty-one-year-old nightmare. In my case it was only in 2006, after I had published several works of fiction on other subjects, that I began writing about those decades of repression. As I made my way through secrets buried in the past, I sought to create scenarios and relationships that might well have existed, characters whose loyalties and lures rang true to the times. The dictatorship itself was too abstract and faceless a subject. As a novelist, I chose to focus on something more vivid and particular. That’s how I finally settled on a man named Max. Of all the people I knew in those days, he was by far his own man…
Edgard Telles Ribeiro was born in Brazil in 1944 and graduated from the Diplomatic Academy in 1967, when he joined the Brazilian Foreign Service. Prior to that, he was a journalist and film critic writing in Rio de Janeiro. The author of seven novels and three collections of short stories, several of which have won major literary awards in Brazil, he currently lives in New York.