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Ivone Benedetti

A writer who lived through Brazil’s military dictatorship discusses her process writing a novel that represents the period decades later


What does it mean to live through a period of state violence – and then write about it from a distance? Ivone Benedetti’s 2016 novel Cabo de Guerra (Tug of War) represents what happened during Brazil’s military dictatorship through a male narrator who, in 2009, deliriously looks back on his experiences as a double agent for the leftist resistance and the repressive State during the dictatorial period. Here, Benedetti speaks with Artememoria about her experience writing that book as someone who experienced the dictatorship firsthand. The resulting conversation about issues ranging from political memory to religion to gender in first-person narration is key to understand representing histories of violence through fiction.

Artememoria: One impressive quality of your novel Cabo de Guerra (Tug of War) is the way in which the book approaches time. The narrative includes the beginning of the dictatorial regime and stretches all the way through the period of amnesty, and then it also takes on the memories of that era in the 21st century. How did you get the idea to write about the military dictatorship with such a vast scope?

Ivone Benedetti: The book actually deals with two moments in time. There is time in the present, which takes place over three days, and then there is the character’s memory, which stretches from 1969-1984 and contains the majority of the action. In a sense, this was a way for me to express something that existed inside of me as memory. I lived through the period of military rule; the 1964 coup happened when I was seventeen years old and I started college at the height of it all. And then all of those years passed until 2009, which is when the narrator remembers the dictatorship.

Writing about that period was something that I always wanted to do. I wanted to and was afraid to at the same time. Even though the book has a lot of my memories and experiences, I also separated myself, as an author, from what takes place. I use the intermediary of a first-person male narrator who remembers what he experienced, and that’s what distances me from the plot. Maybe this indirect way of discussing the period represents the ambiguous relationship I have to that moment in time, a relationship of both attraction and avoidance.

I think that what we are experiencing now is a more frenetic continuation of the military dictatorship that lasted from 1964-1985. If I had written the novel now, it might be very different.

Artememoria: The fragmentation between the two moments in time, 2009 and the dictatorship, is an important aspect of the text. Often, memory triggers, like images, sounds, and smells, are what inspire the transitions between the text’s two temporalities. Did you source these physical traces of the dictatorship period in the text vestiges of your own memories?

Benedetti: Cities live in our memories. We have a geography of memory that differs from physical geography. You feel that when you visit a place that you know really well. You get there and see that some buildings have been demolished and others have been built in their place, but inside your mind the city is how it was before. You ask yourself that old, poetic, philosophical question: where did it all go?

When I was writing this book, the sounds, the smells, the environment of the city from that time arose within me. If you look closely at the text, the events in São Paulo all take place in a small section of the city, which is more or less central, and runs roughly from Vila Buarque to Maria Antônia Street. I have so many memories from that part of the city. The part about the popcorn man is true, for example. He really existed. The tram tracks that went to Liberdade Avenue were really getting torn up. It was a moment when the city tram system was being phased out as part of the modernization project that the military was trying to do at the time. The huge influx of cars into the city, of gasoline, that was all part of pulling out all of the city trams. It was almost a vision of the apocalypse. Wherever you went, all of the streets were ripped up, cobblestone streets pitted, metal tracks resting against walls after having been pulled from the ground. These were the sorts of fragments that I began putting together in the book.

Artememoria: How did you go about structuring the various fragments, both in terms of memories and the fictional components? What were some of your major decisions as an author?

Benedetti: I often say that the most difficult thing for me is to find the tone of a book. It’s like how a musician who composes music has to choose the key in which he will write the song. This is the same thing. The book started out in third person. I knew that there would be a man who would witness an event by accident, and that he would use that to blackmail someone. From that start the events that happened in Santos started arising, the fact that a soldier was involved. After writing for a while in third person, I realized that it wouldn’t work because I wanted to enter the intimate thoughts of the narrator. I needed to use first person.

When I started writing in first person. I began to worry if I would know how to write in first person from a male perspective. I began to situate the character, thinking, this is a guy who isn’t from São Paulo, and then the great idea of using my husband’s experiences came to me. The region where the character is from is where my husband is from. For years, my husband would wake up and say, “I dreamed about Nazaré.” He would tell me, “Nazaré is a magical city, Nazaré had haunted factories, in Nazaré there was a train that went up a hillside, but it couldn’t make it up so it had to come back down and then build up speed in order to go up the slope.” I would ask him why he didn’t write about it, and he said he someday would. He never did, and so I told him that I would. I absorbed all of Nazaré from him.

In Bahia there was a lot of immigration from Spain, so I added a Spanish grandfather and former priest, which began forming the aspect of the novel that deals with religion. That’s a very important part of the book. It is the mystical and metaphysical dimension that underlies the text, which is something people often don’t notice.

Artememoria: That religious dimension also has an interesting parallel to the political themes at hand. In the same way that the narrator has flashbacks to the past, he hallucinates more religious, mystical images.

Benedetti: Exactly. There’s an issue of ambiguity at hand, of how certain things are indecipherable.

Artememoria: It’s an interesting choice to use such an unreliable narrator, in fact. The main character is not the typical protagonist of the military dictatorship, regardless of whether you are leftwing or rightwing in Brazil. He isn’t a hero, he isn’t brave. He is weak and has serious mental health problems. Why did you choose such an ambiguous, untrustworthy narrator?

Benedetti: That ambiguity, that lack of clear-cut decisions, is very specific to Brazil. To be clear, I don’t mean that this character is a typical Brazilian, but rather that the confusion he experiences is our nation’s confusion.

During the dictatorship, I lived in a student bubble with grand revolutionary aspirations. Countless friends of mine joined the guerilla resistance and died. I chose not to join. I knew that I wasn’t made for that, but so many people went, brilliant people who, had they lived in a freer, less tumultuous moment, would have contributed so much to the development of this country. However, we were living an optical illusion. That bubble was much smaller than we thought it was. So much of the country was unaware of what was going on, in part because of censorship, and in part because of support for the regime.

You may have noticed that there is a tendency in Brazil to accept or even wish for strongman regimes. There is a video in which Christian Dunker analyzes this fact. He says that Brazilians desire these strongman systems because they feel that our institutions do not work. They think that democracy makes institutions lax, and so they want someone to set up a tight-fisted regime that will force everything to work. That’s his analysis. I think it goes even deeper. I think that religion, for many sectors of Brazilian society, ends up being a way to delegate responsibility to a higher power. Brazilians are not the agent in their own stories. A higher power resolves all of the problems in their lives, down to the simplest things, like a bus coming on time.

Artememoria: That notion is certainly present in the novel. The main character needs religion in order to chart out a path as his mental health deteriorates.

Benedetti: But he’s also dense. For example, when he leaves the Praça da Sé, he remembers a passage from John in which Jesus argues with a priest, and both accuse the other of being the Devil. The narrator had just had a conversation with a policeman, and it’s at that precise moment that the passage he and his grandfather had talked about comes back to him. But he’s incapable of understanding why, he’s incapable of understanding anything. It’s too complex.

Artememoria: Let’s turn to the choice to use a male perspective. Even though that choice distances you as an author from the plot of the novel, there are a few interesting moments in which the reader can tell that the writer is a woman, specifically in how the female characters in the text are represented as complex and vivid characters who constantly surprise the sexist, male narrator. How was your experience of writing women through the male eye?

Benedetti: I was outside of the female perspective, writing the women through the male point of view. Do you think my construction of the female characters was artificial?

Artememoria: No, it was very much within the male point of view. The narrator, even the women, form a very sexist lens, like when he sexualizes Samira as she expresses her pain. That’s something that a typical, uncritical male character would definitely do. But, at the same time, details arise that most male authors would often fail to note, like the fact that Samira doesn’t orgasm during sex.

Benedetti: I’ve noticed that. A lot of male authors replicate this idea of their own sexual prowess, their ability to make a woman have amazing orgasms. Female characters written by men can be orgasm machines.

Artememoria: So when you wrote the actions of women in the book, were you just thinking about how women would act in that context?

Benedetti: Yes, I was. On the other hand, for the male side of things, I was often unsure. Would a man act like that? But I had my consultant, my husband. We would have long conversations about how the narrator would react in a given moment. One thing I had a lot of fun with was writing the scene when he meets Jandira, who had just gotten promoted. He’s pissed off, because she suddenly has higher status than he does, and so when he goes out with her he makes a point of checking out other women and not sleeping with her. In a way, he’s trying to maintain his power in the relationship, but he ends up regretting it the next day, since he didn’t get any. It was fun to write because I really do know men who act like that.

Artememoria: Did you have any important literary influences that affected the way you constructed these characters or the way you wrote about the military dictatorship more generally?

Benedetti: I wasn’t reading anything at the time. It was very hard to write this book, and I took a deep dive into this unconventional character, psychologically speaking. There was definitely some long-term influence from Russian authors like Dostoevsky, but that was just an echo of my past reading.

Artememoria: At the beginning of this conversation, you mentioned if you were writing this novel now, it might be a very different book. And, in fact, you begin one of the novel’s chapters by discussing the intertwined relationship between past and present: “On this morning in 2009, it reality hits me: this story is forty years old. It’s in the past. Or it should be. Because the past that never happened just won’t go away, it stays on to torment you, demanding to be called the present, occupying closets, chairs, always there, always here.” How is the military dictatorship occupying space in the current political moment?

Benedetti: The past is always affected by the present. It should be the opposite. The present is a continuity of the past, but at the moment that you start dealing with the past, it changes based on the moment that you are currently experiencing. That is essential. When I wrote this in 2009, it seemed as though democracy was consolidating in Brazil. A regressive shift to an authoritarian system wasn’t on the horizon. But after 2009, and specifically during the political shift from 2014-2019, it has been crucial to revisit memories of the past in order to understand what is happening at a national level.

Some small details of the book, like the conversation between the narrator and his handler at the end of the amnesty process, are aspects of the text I would develop further. It’s because of that moment that there are such grave continuities with the dictatorship. There was never a cathartic break in the system. In fact, a lot of the figures from the 1964-1985 military dictatorship are long-term character types in Brazilian history. Since there were never any real ruptures, figures in Brazil pass from one period to the next. In 1964, you had actors who were also active in the 1930s [during the Estado Novo dictatorship]. From 1964 to the 21st century, you also have continuity because there was never a real rupture. The president just ordered the military to celebrate the day of the coup. This resurgence of the past, which has now appeared with force, wasn’t on the horizon in 2009. But I always thought it could return, and today, I still know that it could happen again..

Ivone Benedetti is a novelist, literary translator, and academic from São Paulo. She received her PhD in literature from the University of São Paulo and has translated authors such as Umberto Eco, Mario Vargas Llosa, Leonardo Padura, Michel Foucault, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Her debut novel Immaculada (Immaculate) was a finalist for the São Paulo Prize for Literature in 2010, and, in 2011, she released a book of short stories entitled Tenho um cavalo alfaraz (I Have a Nimble Horse). In addition to her fiction, Benedetti has published a variety of books about the craft of translation.