“A word like self naturally knows more than we do,” the psychoanalyst and pediatrician D.W. Winnicott writes; “it uses us, and can command us.” Attempting to exert control over the word rather than be controlled by it, Winnicott famously distinguished the widely understood, frequently analyzed “false self” from its more fundamental yet often undertheorized counterpart: the “true self.” The false self, Winnicott surmised, originates as a bulwark against “that which is unthinkable, the exploitation of the True Self, which would result in its annihilation.” Less a façade than a fortress, the false self shields the true self that appears at the earliest stages of development and that is precisely what a false self always lacks—no matter how convincing the false self’s presentation in everyday life may be. But the two are not purely opposed: in a healthy individual, the false self deals with the external world, its ultimate goal being not to dominate the true self but to provide it with a space for free, constructive expression.
True and false selves, and the complex interrelationships between the two, are everywhere to be found in Julián Fuks’ Resistance, a reflective and reflexive work in which Winnicott’s name crops up repeatedly, a cryptic influence for readers to decipher. As he depicts the frustrating and frequently frustrated process of writing a book, Sebastián, the lightly fictionalized version of Fuks serving as the narrator, examines the life of his older, adopted brother, whose name is never revealed. Even as he resists the lure of a purely psychoanalytical perspective, Sebastián does analyze the ways his brother confronts inescapable issues of truths and fictions, of true selves and false selves, as he grows up in a family that both is and is not his.
This inner conflict is a cornerstone of the home where the brothers were raised. While it addresses the adoption of a child, Resistance also probes the lingering effects of exile—of being forced to adopt another country as one’s own. Like Fuks himself, Sebastián is the third child of psychoanalysts who moved to Brazil to escape the deadly dictatorship in Argentina that resulted in the devastating disappearance of tens of thousands of citizens and the flight of many more who feared such a fate. Of the three siblings, only the adopted brother was born in Argentina, creating yet another rupture in a family that both crossed borders and was double-crossed by them. The attachment that all three children feel to a country they never really knew is uncertain: they doubt whether they will ever be able to claim it as their own.
The twinned forms of adoption raise a question of heritage that cuts across any biological considerations. “Can exile be inherited?” Sebastián asks himself. “Might we, the little ones, be as expatriate as our parents? Should we consider ourselves Argentinians deprived of our country, of our fatherland?” The paternal overtones of this last word resonate as he wonders about the relationship between what gets passed down and what proves impossible to overcome, pondering whether history helps individuals sidestep heredity and whether heredity enables them to elude the long reach of history. Fuks places this issue of essentialization and its effects at the novel’s beginning, where adoption evokes exile:
My brother is adopted, but I can’t say and don’t want to say that my brother is adopted. If I say this, if I speak these words that I have long taken care to silence, I reduce my brother to a single categorical condition, a single essential attribute: my brother is something, and this something is the set of marks we insist on looking for, despite ourselves, in his features, in his gestures, in his acts.
Just as Winnicott had suggested with the word self, the word adopted commands us, coercing us into its simplifications. And what Sebastián points to here are the ways it sets up limited and limiting expectations about the possible arrangements of true and false selves.
Alert to these dangers of reduction, Fuks frequently pushes against language as an ostinato-like “and” echoes across the text, reminding us of that ever-present condition of conjunction that characterizes life in exile. Just as the three siblings are both Brazilian and not Brazilian, or simultaneously Argentine and not Argentine, Sebastián employs this polysyndeton to emphasize how his work-in-progress also escapes classification or even clarification. “This is history,” he explains, “and yet, almost everything I have at my disposal is memory, fleeting notions of days long gone, impressions that precede consciousness and language, destitute relics I insist on embezzling into words.” The transaction, in other words, is suspicious, yet it suggests not so much an irregularity as an inadequacy.
This struggle to find the right words, or to make the wrong ones somehow work, finds a counterpart in one of the decisions that defines both the family and this novel about it: telling the brother, at a young age, that he was in fact adopted. It is a challenge for language that becomes both inseparable from questions of selves and synonymous with finding a formulation that acknowledges not only heredity but also the possibility of creating one’s own history. Sebastián articulates the difficulty of the task in terms that recall the novel’s opening: “How to convey the importance of that fact, with the seriousness the subject demands, without assigning it unnecessary weight, without transforming it into a burden the boy will never be able to carry?”
It’s something Sebastián also confronts as he determines how much narrative weight the brother alone can bear in the story of their family. To a large extent, Resistance is the sum of a set of such calculations: the novel consists of forty-seven short chapters that are often framed as false starts in a genealogy that simultaneously traces the development of both a family and a fiction. Writing mainly from Buenos Aires, where he searches for a sense of belonging or at least familiarity as someone born in Brazil to Argentine parents who are now more at home in their adopted country, Sebastián threads accounts of the difficulties of displacement together with a narrative of how his own work almost unfailingly unravels. Although anchored in the present, it frequently finds itself adrift in the past, where Sebastián hopes to locate an explanation for how his family might have failed their adopted son.
Sebastián’s brother eventually went into an exile of his own inside the walls of the family’s house, leaving his room only infrequently for events including birthday parties that were more often the cause of conflict than celebration. This increasing isolation led the whole family to begin group therapy, an effort whose sole success arrives when the brother finally explains that he feels no one ever worries about him, that he remains invisible among the other four members of the household, and that they all share an inability to understand his situation.
Sebastián, however, does begin to worry about his brother once the latter suggests the former write about being adopted—the ostensible impetus for the work whose convoluted composition is chronicled in Resistance. Yet because the adoption obscures an origin, it also opens up narrative possibilities that carry Sebastián away from his brother. The account of the arrival of the couple’s first yet not first-born son leads to the story of how Sebastián’s parents met, how their militant positions made life in Buenos Aires untenable, and how exile, which they had resisted, is something to which they resigned themselves.
Yet the family’s story also resists being easily adopted by Sebastián. Like his brother in the family home, he is not entirely at ease among the materials he amasses. Although fading memories are partly responsible, so too are his parents’ hesitations, contradictions, and, more importantly, their skepticism that any of it needs to be shared. They are unsure how their experience will be understood against the backdrop of a more general or widely accepted narrative. But this sense that their story is not exactly emblematic of more familiar ones about exile and adoption is precisely one of the novel’s greatest strengths. The clearest example comes with the brother’s adoption: whereas during those years other children were often adopted under suspicious and sinister circumstances—taken from people who had been disappeared by the military and sent to families who supported such actions—that did not happen with this child adopted by the two psychoanalysts who would soon flee to Brazil.
This clash between the specificity of the family’s story and Sebastián’s broader ambitions ultimately distorts his representation of his brother. “I wanted to take my brother as an example and turn him, somehow, into something greater: assemble a case in which somebody would recognize himself, in which some people would see themselves, and which spoke like a pair of eyes,” he explains. Sebastián does come to recognize that his efforts to impose an origin on his brother reflect his desires more than his brother’s. It’s both a manifestation of his own conflict between a true self and a false self and what his parents might correctly call an example of counter-transference: “It’s me, not him, who wants to find a meaning, it’s me who wants to redeem my own immobility, it’s me who wants to go back to belonging to the place where I’ve never actually belonged.” When in Buenos Aires trying to understand his family’s history in a city he hardly knows, Sebastián reaches a realization that doubles as a description of the novel itself: “If I’m lost and I keep going round in circles in such a logical city, I muse as I walk, it’s because I don’t want to arrive at a central point, it’s because I resist reaching the destination I’ve chosen, it’s because I’m trying to escape whatever’s waiting for me when I get there.” At the end of the novel, Sebastián finally overcomes his reluctance to take that final step toward sharing his manuscript with its inspiration and its most important reader: his brother.
First published in 2015, this engaging addition to the burgeoning genre of autofiction has already earned Fuks wide acclaim in the Lusophone world—it won both the Prêmio Jabuti and the José Saramago Prize—and it is now available to English readers thanks to Charco Press and Daniel Hahn’s deft rendering of its aloof yet affecting prose. Only his second novel, it evinces stylistic mastery and exemplifies ideas that Fuks outlined in a recent essay arguing that in the current moment such autofictional explorations are not only to be expected but also markers of a broader shift in attitudes toward the role of fiction.
In “The Post-Fiction Era: Notes on the Insufficiency of Invention in the Contemporary Novel,” Fuks suggests that this concept of post-fiction—of turning to the real in one’s representations rather than seeking any sort of realism—is ultimately a positive development. “If the novel now deprives itself of what was characteristic of it for so long,” he explains, “perhaps it is not as a sacrificial gesture against itself, the decisive abolition of invention, but rather as what is necessary to reinvent itself as a genre.” Pointing to W.G. Sebald as a primary figure, he locates the adoption of this new attitude in the beginning of the post-war era, associating the ruins of Europe with the ruins of the novel and tying together the rebirth or reconstruction of both. (Although he makes no mention of it, this thesis would work equally well with Fuks’ own approach, which arises after the ruinous dictatorships in both Argentina and Brazil.) To capture exactly what this relationship between fiction and the real might accomplish, Fuks reminds us of Max Ferber, Sebald’s composite character from The Emigrants. An artist, Ferber applied paint generously only to scratch it off, producing a thick layer of remains that was the true result of his efforts and the most obvious proof of his failure. He resists the typical conception of a work just as his works resist him, and this unusual technique leaves Fuks wondering
if Sebald and so many fiction writers of the post-fiction era might be writing today like Ferber painted, making use only of the leftovers and the dust, of what is still intimate to them, of the poor remains that the real gives to them so that they can compose a vivid fiction, a fiction that still has some value, some urgency. And I also ask myself if that might not be the movement of the novel in general, if the novel today is constructed with the remains of its own destruction and if what is created from the remains is only created in order to be destroyed later.
The true self, Winnicott insists, is the one responsible for creativity, and Ferber’s scratching away enacts a new arrangement of the true and false selves that mirrors the new relationship Fuks identifies as necessary in the post-fiction age.
In the epigraph to Resistance, the Argentine writer Ernesto Sábato raises a similar question of arrangement by asking how one might best embody the idea of resistance. Left unquoted is Sábato’s intuition that whereas in an earlier period resistance often entailed a heroic act, now it is likely something smaller, less formidable. At a time when a far-right candidate in Brazil speaks openly and nostalgically about that country’s military dictatorship—and gains surprising, terrifying amounts of support by doing so—Fuks’ novel now resists on this more modest scale that Sábato identifies. It scrapes away at a family’s story, reminding us of a past that should remain historical rather than become hereditary.
Sam Carter is an editor at Asymptote whose work has appeared online at Public Books, Full Stop, and The New Republic.
image source: flickr (CC BY 2.0)