Julián Fuks’s “The Dinner” (“O Jantar”; tr. from the Portuguese by Johnny Lorenz) is the tenth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
I’m of two minds about this piece. When I was just about finished with it, I really despised it as a lousy, preachy, black & white piece of political fiction. But the last paragraph did a lot to salvage it. I read it again, still thought it was way too simplistic, but this time I realized that simplicity might just be the key to the final paragraph’s power.
The dinner of the title is a rather gothic affair. When the story begins, our protagonist Sebastian stands in a hall like a zoo animal, though on my second reading, after learning more about the setting, he looks more like a man in an Edward Gorey sketch.
Ensconced in the entrance hall that grows more and more claustrophobic, Sebastián is an adult, fully grown, a respectable and solemn man.
Respectable and solemn, but now he is like “an adolescent reincarnated with all his insecurities, all his fears renewed.”
Sebastián is from Brazil — some time in the past, his parents moved their from Argentina (much like Fuks’ own past) — and he’s visiting his aunt in Buenos Aires. She’s an older woman, shriveled and haunting, sitting shadows. She’s the reason Sebastian is feeling claustrophobic and more like a timid adolescent.
As they sit for dinner, the aunt launches into a tirade about Cristina Kirchner, the current president of Argentina (since 2007), and wife of the preceding president Néstor Kirchner, who died in 2010.
‘That woman. You know who I’m talking about,’ and Sebastián can feel the fury in her voice. ‘That woman took over the Casa Rosada, only to ruin everything in an act of petty, foolish vengeance. Sure, now she’s rich, she got very rich, she and her husband who didn’t die soon enough, but at what price did they build their fortune in the dirt-poor valleys of Patagonia, working as lawyers with who knows what authority? Now they take vengeance on those who once spurned them, persecuting our former leaders, insulting their political enemies merely for their own pleasure, and in the meantime restricting our freedoms and the freedom of the press.’
This old aunt is a relic from Argentina’s dark past. We enter the shadows to see her, and we almost feel that if Sebastián can just get back out into the sunlight all will be well. But before he does this, he feels he needs to stand up for the progressive present:
As frail as those officers might appear today, there is a symbolic importance in punishing them.
Out of the corner of his eye, Sebastián sees an old man in uniform sitting along the wall, one of the now-persecuted remnants from the old regime. Only, Sebastián notices, he doesn’t look terribly frail. On the contrary.
Hi aunt continues, “It’s the same in Argentina as it was in Pinochet’s Chile, or Franco’s Spain: a systematic effort to exaggerate the negative aspects.” I was frustrated by this time, and this statement kind of pushed me over the edge. For me, this statement, along with Sebastián’s righteous indignation, made this story too black and white. That’s not to say there was anything untrue here, but it was uninteresting as a piece of fiction.
The last paragraph, as I mentioned before, did a little bit to alleviate my frustration. It shows that, despite Sebastián’s courageous speech, he still feels the old man’s hands firmly on his shoulders. Calling out the best of gothic fiction, it reminds us that the past is not dead, it’s not weak, it’s barely in the shadows, and it’s about to come out.