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When memory, disorientation and Kafka came to Brazil

K - Bernardo KucinskiBefore me is a thin volume, and its title is a precursor of the brevity to come. Yet despite this, K isn’t a short story, a novella, or a collection of fragments stuffed together in aspiration to one of these forms. It is a selection of glimpses into thoughts and states of mind, each fading in and out, like dimming pulses.

This is a structural quirk that emulates the disappearance of the Brazilian protagonist’s unnamed daughter and the desolating effect it has on her father. His hopelessness is limitless, the situation has no distinct end in sight, information given sparks up hope and then fades into the background amongst all the other lies.

This book is the work of Bernardo Kucinski, journalist, lecturer and one-time Lula-advisor, whose own sister was among the Brazilian “disappeared” of the 1970s. He begins K almost innocently, or deceptively, with the protagonist’s irritation at receiving post for someone who no longer lives at his address, and hasn’t for some time. The domesticity is touching, but it becomes dark when we realise it is a means to introduce the concept of ‘the disappeared’.

K follows the physical struggle and inner torment of an aging father trying to find his “disappeared” daughter. Filtered to us almost entirely through the mind of the father, the claustrophobic nature of psychological warfare is excellently conveyed.

The book explores a part of Brazilian history which for some time has deserved to be given a voice. Over 400 people were politically assassinated or disappeared during the 21 year military dictatorship of 1970s Brazil. The dictatorship transformed neighbours in to informers and suspended habeas corpus.

Although the number assassinated has been dwarfed by other historic periods of oppression, Kucinski conveys the hugeness of the impact on a single life. Choosing to portray the small groups of opposition in Brazil, as opposed to the much more considerable ones of Argentina and Chile, Kucinski makes it personal.

The organising principle, Kucinski tells us, is memory. He goes on to explain how the writing process unearthed things which had previously been buried in his mind. In interviews, Kucinski is open about the biographical nature of the work, relating how his sister disappeared during the dictatorship and the anguish he himself underwent.

The very personal nature of the story is countered by the anonymity of its characters. Rarely do we hear anyone’s name and character delineation is notably absent. The anonymity at times becomes disorienting, we are unsure of who is speaking, or who is being referred to as character’s like their real life counterparts, disappear without trace.

K cannot be read, or indeed reviewed, without noting the homage to Franz Kafka. The echoes of Kafka’s work immediately evident the title ‘K’ (suggesting Kafka’s characters ‘K’ and Joseph K) works excellently, without being too self-asserting. The sense of disorientation, alienation and the struggle to regain some, any, means of control over a spiralling situation plays right into the hands of The Trial and The Castle. Kucinski takes the abstract out of Kafka and applies it to real events in history.

I cannot say the book is enjoyable, but it is educative and short enough to be forgiven for its misery. What Kucinski has set out to achieve, he has executed well. K provides a chilling insight into the impact of the 1970s dictatorship on both its victims and the loved ones left behind.

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