Thursday, 18 March 2010

Elastic realities - Tobias Hecht's After Life (2006)

Tobias Hecht wrote After Life on a Guggenheim grant after having studied the lives of street children in the city of Recife, northeast Brazil for a decade. He has won a Margaret Mead prize for his earlier ethnographic writing, and a notable literary prize in Spain for his fiction.
Surprisingly, After Life has not yet received as much attention as his earlier works.  I believe it is an ethnographic text still waiting to be found, both by academics and lay people. As it is published by Duke University Press, the current primary audience may be limited to other anthropologists.

I have been tempted to read After Life for some time now, so it was a moment of joy to finally get hold of the book at the university library.
I cannot but admire Hecht's approach to the project of ethnographic writing - by recycling the oral and written data his true-life informant Bruna Verissimo delivered him over years of interaction, he found that the only way to do justice to Bruna's stories of his many selves was to write a novel. Bruna, a youth brought up by the streets, a sex worker and transvestite, invented alternative selves, whom s/he interviewed on the tape recorder provided by the curious ethnographer. Over the years, Hecht found out that very few of Bruna's stories were literally true, but nevertheless they reflected an ethnographic reality of the historical moment, a collection of episodes that could have been. The novel reminds us of the elasticity of all storytelling, for whichever purposes.

Hecht resolves his dilemma of representation by creating a purely fictional character to replace Bruna Verissimo. Aparecida is perhaps an alter ego, one of Bruna's many apparitions, a former street child, prostitute and junkie trying hard to establish himself as an activist and artist. The informant's strong sense of agency and willingness to produce his/her own narrative with the help of a researcher from the North reminds us slightly of what happened to Rigoberta Menchú in the 1980s (and especially the aftermath of her Nobel prize victory - how other anthropologists wanted to prove the falseness of her narration). Hecht is aware of the similarity of his approach, acknowledging Menchú's position in the history of Latin American testimonial literature. However, After Life is not a simple testimonio. It is far too complicated a narrative to be treated as a voice of the dispossessed, or marginalized people. Neither is it a human rights narrative. Seen from a comparative perspective with works that attempt at claiming rights and speaking for a group that may not speak without an intermediary, After Life is not primarily an ethnographic piece. It is ethnographic fiction, but the emphasis lays on fiction, as artistic expression. The novel does create its own universe. It shows more than explains. It can be understood without the normal academic explanations.

However, not unlike in much of academic ethnography, written to appreciate postmodern sensibilities of the Western academically educated readers, also in Hecht's novel the personality of the protagonist, the ethnographer, receives perhaps more attention than the informants. Zoë, an American professor on sabbatical, who due to her singlehood and childlessness can travel light and change plans at a whim of a moment, returns to Recife after many years' break to meet up with her old informants, all street children. Much of the narrative deals with Zoë's depression and violent sense of paralysis - a plot that partly builds a sounding board for her informant's narrative, but also in its vividness becomes almost too consuming and overpowering. The narrative of her mental breakdown was convincing but at the same time I was not sure if I could deal with it.

The most powerful passages in the novel are passages in which Zoë finds release from her illness while going through her field notes about her interaction with Aparecida:

"A life like the mouth of the Capibaribe: a current flowing from one place to the tides, the mixture of flesh and salt water, the sordid runoff from the city, a meeting place spanned by decaying bridges. And so, like Aparecida who crichets into the night, Zoê begins to knit together the incongruous strands, searching for the beginning in the middle, the denouement where it doesn't exist, translating, rephrasing, reinventing, bearing." (Hecht 2006, 79)

I also found the passages in which Brazil's everyday religiosity of the streets is reflected informative and empowering. While getting a bit annoyed with the protagonist, I enjoyed those parts of the novel that show the political and social tranformations of today's Brazil ("the big picture") in the globalizing world.  The phenomenon of gated communities and secluded lifestyles seems to be everywhere.

The photos and passages with authentic Portuguese conversation worked particularly well.

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