By: Gisele Firmino
Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: Outpost19 (March 1, 2016)
Reviewed by: Vickie Fang
It’s a cliche of historical fiction writing that if major historical events are portrayed, then the main characters must be the people who drove those events. Gisele Firmino’s charming new novel, The Marble Army, turns that cliche on its head, ignoring the dictators who oppressed the people of Brazil in the 1960s and focusing on the family that is left behind when a teenage boy is “disappeared” for his small protests against the military regime. The regime itself — its leaders, rivals, rationales — appear not as they would to historians, but as they would to the ordinary victims of the time, as a series of catastrophes, dimly resented, not even remotely understood.
The novel begins in a mining town where the narrator’s father works in the mines as a supervisor. The new regime sends “the General,” along with an armed guard, to oversee the change in ownership. The men, who have known nothing except mining, are lined up and given the opportunity leave or to work for the new boss. It is far from an easy decision.
Some of the miners posed as if they were about to have their portraits taken, hoping their faces, their already nostalgic eyes, would tell each of their stories for generations to come. Some held on to their tools as if they were mementos they should never part with, while others hooked their thumbs through their belt loops, on a desperate attempt to look tough. After a day’s work in side the mine, the men were covered in black dust, creating the illusion of a uniformed army, or that of slaves, depending on who was watching.
This sense, of uncertainty, of the hope of strength and the uneasy realization that they may already be defeated, permeates the book. After their son disappears, the mother lives in hope, which looks very much like denial, while her husband takes the opposite approach. She would leave snacks outside his bedroom window, in hopes he would pass by some day and not resist. I’m pretty sure my father was convinced that he was dead, although he wouldn’t dare say it. It was an objectivity he always said ran in the Fonte family, but I saw it as hopelessness. There is a scene of near desperation in the Andes. Guerrilla training in the Andes. Except no one really knew what they were doing. Most days they just fought among themselves. Even something as innocuous as seeing a young soldier wearing a fairly commonplace Sao Jorge pendant sparks fear that the man has killed the missing son and taken his necklace. (I)t seemed pretty clear that he didn’t seek protection, but instead he carried it like a trophy, a proof of his dominance, a reminder of his power.
In this world of dread and confusion, the family attempts to carry out what is left of their life. They move away from the mining town when the father leaves his job, then move again when their child disappears. The younger brother grows up, goes to college, and, like his parents, tries to hold on to his sanity by sacrificing for the rest of his family. He also tries to emulate his brother by spray painting his brother’s message, They Can’t Shut Us Up, although what it is he or anyone else actually wants to say is not particularly clear. This is a book of great, inchoate yearning.
It is also a marvelously realistic and effective book of details. We know what the dirt near the mine smells like, where to get fresh parsley for dinner, the importance of wiping down the moist walls every day during the hot and humid period that begins in December. Most delightfully, we learn how a small, overlooked thing can lead to a marble army. Read about how Firmino incorporated scenes of daily life with her research into her nation’s past in this interview with Ellen Birkett Morris.