The Scar and Other Stories

Willem de Kooning, Valentine, (1947)
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By FABIOLA PADILHA*

Presentation of the newly released book by Bernardo Kucinski

Bernardo Kucinski debuted in literature with K., a novel published in 2011 by Expressão Popular, renamed K. report of a search, in subsequent editions. The story revolves around the tireless effort of a father in discovering the whereabouts of his daughter, a left-wing political activist, who disappeared during the Brazilian civil-military dictatorship, a narrative that is closely related to the author's biography.

In 1974, his sister, Ana Rosa Kucinski, a professor of Chemistry at USP, and Wilson Silva, her husband, were kidnapped, tortured and killed by the military during the dictatorship. Since his inaugural literary work, Kucinski has favored themes with a strong political accent. The atrocities committed by the dictatorship set the tone of the author's novels and short stories, showing the open veins of physical and symbolic violence exercised by agents in command and at the service of the military state apparatus.

Examples of this, in addition to K., the novels the new order (2019) and Julia, in the conflagrated fields of the Lord (2020), as well as the tales of You will come back to me, from 2014, which make up, alongside a large number of unpublished narratives and others published sparsely in newspapers and magazines, this new collection, bringing together stories written between 2010 and 2020. In his presentation, Kucinski explains the criteria for organizing the work , whose tales “are grouped by thematic or formal affinity and arranged in each group in the chronological order of their first version”. Six internal divisions house the narratives: I. Histories of the leaden years, II. Snapshots, III. Other Stories, IV. Kafkian, V. Judaicas and VI. You will come back to me.

Although the dictatorship is present in countless stories in this volume, occupying a significant part of the book, there is also a heterogeneity of other themes, which involve, for example, family conflicts, often marked by emotional indigence (“Chamada a collect”, “ The trampling", "Aunt Flora", "Modern Times", "Coisa", "License not to die alone" and "Poor Heloísa"), breakups between couples ("O sal da discorda" and "The sofa") and sexual frustration (“The slipper” and “O misfortune of Íris”), through violence against women (“The secret”), cases of corruption (“An efficient secretary”), environmental crime (“The turtle”), exploitation (“A small story of surplus value”), economic inequality, including its possible consequences, such as indifference to social injustice (“Order and progress”) and the early death of poor youths from the periphery by the military police (“The story of Thaddeus”), to narratives that dialogue closely with Kafka and those that incorporate references from the Jewish tradition, such as the tales from the Kafka and Judaica parts, respectively.

Some stories in the anthology are marked with humor, used, for example, to ironize certain sexist attitudes that show attempts to control the woman's life (“The breakup”) or to allude to the proverbial hostility between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law (“Papo de sogras” ). In other stories, still, the expedient of irony is activated with dark overtones, intensifying the reader's perplexity in the face of the way in which the violence of the narrated facts is constructed ("The bet", "The death certificate" and "You will return for me"). The vast range of themes is explored by the author with great technical mastery of the modern matrix of the short narrative.

The epigraphs, both by Julio Cortázar, converge on issues related to the act of narrating. The first speculates on the need to tell something “in its own moment” and the difficulty of finding the right moment to tell it. The second exposes the impossibility of having an ideal enunciative perspective to tell something, as if the suggested options were insufficient and did not account for the story to be narrated.

In both cases, a kind of impotence stands out in the attempt to give the intended account a precise form that is compatible and fair. The realization of this impotence accuses, in the very effort of trying to overcome it, a certain unspeakable character that covers what one wants to tell and which, despite the precariousness of resources, is told. The imperative of narrating prevails, despite, and perhaps because of, the unsurpassable lack of formal accuracy, and is articulated with the limitations and challenges imposed on the short story genre.

One of the limits conventionally assigned to this genre is brevity (in spite of the differences regarding the determination of this clause). When comparing, for example, the novel to the short story, in terms of length, Cortázar states: “[…] the novel develops on paper, and therefore, in the time of reading, with no other limits than the exhaustion of the novelized material; in turn, the short story starts from the notion of limit, and, first of all, the physical limit, in such a way that, in France, when a short story exceeds twenty pages, it already takes the name of nouvelle, a genre that ranks among the short stories. and the novel itself.[I]

Kucinski's short stories contemplate this premise. Most are between two and four pages long, with exceptions hovering between the extremes. There are, on one side, tiny stories, of little more than one page, such as, for example, “Lamento”, “Ordens não se discussed”, “Four stones” and “O salt da discord”, in addition to the smallest of them, “ Modern times”, occupying a single page, and, on the other hand, others more voluminous, exceeding ten pages, as is the case of “O exile de Pompeu”, “Recordações do casarão” and “O crime do sailor”.

As for the reputed challenges to the short story, with regard to the effect provoked on the reader, it is worth remembering, by way of example, the well-known boxing metaphor used by “an Argentine writer, very fond of boxing”, evoked by Cortázar, to compare the short story to the romance. While the former must concentrate a tension capable of knocking the reader out, the latter, considering the possibilities of success in the noble art of boxing, would supposedly win it on points. The accurate and decisive blow delivered by the short story writer is, therefore, conditioned to the skill with which he controls, without ever letting it cool down, the tensional charge of the narrative, which crosses it from end to end, and to which “the essential of the method” contributes: an internal economy refractory to accessory, “merely decorative” elements.

This tension can also be a result of what Ricardo Piglia postulates in one of his theses on the short story: “a short story always tells two stories”.[ii] As the Argentine writer and critic explains, in the tradition of the classic short story, whose exponents would be Poe and Quiroga, the second story is constructed in secret, cunningly ciphered in the first. The outcome comprises the “surprise effect” provoked by the revelation of this secret story concealed in the first story.

The confluence of the divergent dynamics that guide the two stories constitutes, therefore, “the foundation of construction”. This is the case, for example, at the end of Poe's "The Crimes in the Rue Morgue", in which the discovery of the author of the murder of Mrs. L'Espanaye and his daughter by the famous and unsurpassed detective Dupin, endowed with a supreme analytical capacity, gives relief to the reader. According to Piglia, in its modern version, whose models we find in Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Sherwood and Joyce, the “surprise effect”, capable of putting an end to tensions and achieving a pacification of conflicts, in a dialectical movement that frames the classic model in a “closed structure” does not exist, and the tension between the two stories remains unresolved: “The classic tale à la Poe told a story announcing that there was another; the modern short story tells two stories as if they were one”.[iii]

In Kucinski's short stories, modern modulation prevails, which abdicates a synthesis with a calming outcome. In many cases, the author not only maintains the tension of the narrative plot until the last line, but also enhances it, raising it to a paroxysm. That is, if, on the one hand, in the classic model of the short story, the revelation of a camouflaged secret culminates in reconciliation with a certain state of normality, normality convulsed by the intervention of exceptional circumstances, duly overcome, on the other hand, in the modern model, the progressive progress of the story exponentially intensifies the tensional force, which intensifies consummating the knockout. In Kucinski's short stories, it is not uncommon for the ending to distil an implacable shock in the face of the irremediable, withholding an indulgent leniency from the reader.

The opening story of the collection, “A Scar”, is paradigmatic of this type of construction. The story is narrated by a former left-wing militant, prison survivor, who tells how, some time later, the chance meeting takes place, in a bar, with the torturer nicknamed Nava, once in charge of killing “communists”. Immediately, the reunion does not allow the narrator to identify the agent of repression. The difficulty of instantaneous recognition is due to the passage of time (inaccurate, in the narrative) and the pain of the personal tragedies that affect the torturer and transfigure his features. The unannounced dialogue with whom until a certain point in the conversation seemed to be a stranger is punctuated by past images of Nava's sordid acts, which appear in the form of increasingly clear memories.

The tension increases at the exact rate that the contours of the stranger take on familiar traits. The gradual process of identification triggers, in the narrator, a reactive attitude of repudiation addressed to the executioner of the past. His extemporaneous reaction, when he realized he was facing the feared torturer of his prison days, is a corollary of the friction between present and past. The soldering of temporal instances evidences a past that has not passed, a past whose traces of violence and extermination are inscribed in the present like an immovable scar.

The articulation of temporalities opens up a reflection that goes beyond the domains of the narrative itself, allowing the perception of historical wounds that have not yet received due treatment, which have not yet been overcome, which have become traumas in the lives of victims of barbarism (“trauma”, in its etymological sense, it means, among other things, “wound”). Similar to the “unknown” that inhabits the “very heart of the immediate”, the past that continues to throb looms, in the end, both in the attitude of the torturer, who rekindles past violence by recalling it with extreme coldness (“— We did little… we had that having liquidated them all, that was the mistake. […] A good communist is a dead communist!”, a phrase, incidentally, that gives rise to definitive recognition), as well as in the narrator’s incisive gesture of revolt in the face of the shocking discovery.

The title of the short story, “The scar”, refers to the physical record of the violence and, by extension, to the cutting object used to strike the torturer's face, the razor, but it also indicates another type of scar, the one incapable of stopping with the time the pain of the violence received. The absence of a physical trace of the brutality of which the narrator was a victim also points, in a symbolic register and of amplified scope, to the erasure of the crimes committed by the military in the service of the dictatorship. A violence that “no one saw” and that, therefore, “did not exist”, a violence, in short, cowardly denied by those responsible for crimes perpetrated with the utmost sadism and inhumanity.

In the short story, a kind of macabre irony is insinuated when we realize that the bearer of the visible traces of the practice of violence (represented by the scar as an epidermal inscription in Nava) is precisely the author of the crimes. It is up to the victim to bear a scar throughout his life that, because it is sometimes lodged in deeper, inner layers (of the body and mind), continues to cause incessant pain, discomfort and suffering. The permanence of the past in the present is all the more overwhelming the more we see that the agents of barbarism remain unpunished, boasting of their iniquities and perversions.

In “An advanced software”, it is the intertextual relations with Kafka's work that contribute to potentiate the ascending tensional movement. In the story, José Alves da Silva, whose first name reverberates Joseph, the name, in turn, of the protagonist of Kafka's The Process, is a retiree who goes to a public office to complete the mandatory annual re-registration, but is prevented from doing so. to materialize it through the argument of an employee who categorically states that José no longer exists in the system (“— As I no longer exist! I am here, in front of you, look at my ID! […] — Of course you exist [ …] it is in the system that you ceased to exist. Do you understand? You were deleted”).

If, in Kafka's novel, Joseph K. is surprised by an accusation whose causes he is unaware of, tirelessly striving to maintain his innocence, which leads him to confront a despotic judicial system, in Kucinski's short story, José Alves da Silva it needs to make efforts to convince the bureaucratic apparatus of its civil existence. The absurdity of the situation in the story resides in the fact that irrefutable confidence in the effectiveness of state-of-the-art software is able to prevail over any evidence of system failure, even if the material proof of the failure is right before the eyes of the diligent employee in charge. to manipulate this system.

The choice of a narrative point of view that remains distant from the narrated facts, with little intervention in the story, similar to the containment method observed in Kafka, reinforces the incongruous arbitrariness suffered by the character. It's as if the world were indifferent to the nonsense in which José finds himself entangled, or rather, it's as if the nonsense were foreseen in the very logic that moves the world, a device inherent in its workings, and José's astonishment and indignation ( as with Joseph) were an untimely extrapolation of this unshakable order. Both characters, José and Joseph, experience the limit of oppression and absolute helplessness in the face of institutional powers that, instead of annihilating them, should guarantee them full rights as citizens. The dialogue with Kafka's work points to the possibility of verifying the condition of vulnerability to which we are subjected in a society dominated by the tyrannical control of social life, as well as perceiving the harmful results of this condition taken to its limit.

In the short story “Bialystok, the journey”, the tensional load is built based on the memory of traumatic historical events that cross previous generations of the narrator's family. Private memories alternate with reflections on the collective dimension of the barbarism that murdered millions of Jews during World War II. The narrative is full of references to Jewish tradition and the Holocaust, referred to in the story as “the unimaginable”. The narrator, whose grandparents and uncles died in concentration camps, is the son and grandson of Polish Jews, information that converges with some data from the life of Kucinski, also the son of Polish immigrants and descendant of Jewish victims of the genocide.

The epigraph, taken from Cortázar, expresses a contradiction involving something that looked like a lie, but was in fact true, a contradiction that is directly linked to Kucinski's story. The story opens with a strange word, Bialystok, stamped on an old letter from the narrator's grandfather that his mother gives him before she dies. The missive, addressed to his father, now deceased, is written in Yiddish, a language that the narrator never learned and which takes him back to his childhood when he heard it being practiced by his father in conversations with “acquaintances from Polish times”.

Belonging to a family of seven brothers, the narrator's father is the only one who went into exile in Brazil, fleeing Nazi persecution. With the translated letter in hand, he decides to go to Bialystok, the city where his ancestors lived and where his grandfather owned a textile mill, and decides to visit the old family home. The fact that the father never mentioned the letter to his son is a reason for the narrator to question and represents for him an interrupted story. The decipherment of the letter's content and the trip to Bialystok constitute the attempt to know the end of this story ("It was missing an ending. And a story without an ending is not a good story").

The outcome is important because it connects to the meaning of your own life; after all, it is up to him to continue telling this plot of which he is a part, ensuring its transmissibility, thus assuming the task of guardian of the family memory. In Jews and Words, Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger explain that the Hebrew language (whose alphabet is used by Yiddish and which provided it with words and various elements) prefigures a speaker “posted in the flow of time with his back to the future and the face turned to the past”,[iv] which marks a difference in relation to the western conception of time. The authors argue that “the Hebrew word kedmem means 'old times,' but the derivative kadma means 'forward' or 'ahead.' The Hebrew speaker literally looks forward to the past.”[v]

Kucinski's tale seems to be in line with this paradoxical principle. The search for the end of history is, in effect, a way of giving it continuity, its future depending on this gaze turned to the past. Therefore, deciphering the enigmatic writing of the grandfather's letter and seeking to know where his father came from, the house where his family lived, is to reestablish ties with a suspended narrative in order to guarantee its continuity. The end of the story recovers, in the form of a sad irony, reminiscences of a painful and convulsive past that characterize the episode known as “the massacre of Kielce”. In that city, after the end of World War II, when returning to their homes, the Jews came across the residences occupied by the Poles, who, in addition to having usurped their properties, invaded a congregation “killing forty-two Jews and injuring more than hundred".

Failure to overcome historical barbarities, as has often been stressed, in these dark times of unstoppable advance of the extreme right in Brazil and in different parts of the world, imposes the urgent task of excavating the traumatic past, in order to prevent the truth of what what happened becomes a lie by denialist rhetorical tricks, capable of encouraging the repetition of the “unimaginable” in the present. In this sense, “Bialystok, the journey” dialogues with “The scar”. The end of both stories alerts us to the need to guide our lives with “looking forward looking backwards”. This way of conceiving existence, as Oz and Oz-Salzberger observe, is “a metaphor for human life in general”[vi], based on the ethical imperative of combating the irruption of horror in the present and, at the same time, on the tribute to the memory of the victims of historical catastrophes.

The stories in this collection ratify Kucinski's narrative vigor and his ability to knock out the reader, proven in previous publications. From the prosaic situations of our daily lives, which welcome the most ordinary vibrations of life, to the solemn episodes, which encompass recalcitrant historical dilemmas, summarize what stirs and mobilizes thought. At the end of reading each brief narrative, the reader finds himself grappling with a myriad of disquieting questions that only good literature is capable of provoking. In this expressive volume, they multiply, attracting the eye to the most unfathomable layers of our inexhaustible humanity.

* Fabiola Padilha Professor of Theory of Literature and Literatures of the Portuguese Language at the Federal University of Espírito Santo (UFES).

Reference


Bernardo Kucinski. The Scar and Other Stories. São Paulo, Alameda, 2021, 452 pages.

Notes


[I] CORTAZAR, Julio. cronopio suitcase. Trans. David Arrigucci Jr. and Joao Alexandre Barbosa. Org. Haroldo de Campos and Davi Arrigucci Jr. 2nd ed. São Paulo: Perspectiva, 2008, p. 151.

[ii] PIGLIA, Richard. short forms. Trans. José Marcos Mariani de Macedo. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2004, p. 89.

[iii] Ibidem, p. 91.

[iv] OZ, Amos; OZ-SALZBERGER, Fania. The Jews and the Words. Trans. George Schlesinger. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2015, p. 131.

[v] Idem.

[vi] Ibidem, p. 132.

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