With his wife expecting a child, a young graphic designer named Benjamim Kremz returns to his hometown of São Paolo to try to uncover the details of his family’s murky past. He never knew his mother—she died in childbirth—and his father, Teodoro, was committed to a mental hospital when he was young. Scarcely has Benjamim’s quest to understand their relationship begun when Raul, one of Teodoro’s oldest friends, drops a bombshell. “Your mother, Elenir, was married to your grandfather and had a child by him,” Raul tells Benjamim, before explaining that his half-brother (which is to say, uncle) died before leaving the hospital, a trauma that abruptly ended Elenir’s relationship with Benjamim’s grandfather Xavier.
This scandalous revelation comes not at the conclusion of the Brazilian novelist Beatriz Bracher’s new book, Antonio, but at its outset. Rather than some maudlin twist that might explain the family’s dysfunction, the story of how Benjamim’s father and grandfather came to love the same woman represents just one of many mysteries surrounding the trio’s lives, mysteries that compound as Benjamim continues to interview the people who knew them best. What drove Teodoro to abandon his family in São Paolo in favor of a farm in the Brazilian hinterland? Why did Elenir sleep with her old flame’s son?
The family’s history is described to Benjamim in fragments, through a series of conversations with his grandmother Isabel, as well as Raul and a close friend of his grandfather, but the Rashomon effect created by their three differing perspectives is not the focus of Antonio. Instead, Benjamim’s effort to make sense of his family history by wrestling a mass of conflicting anecdotes into a coherent narrative leads him inexorably back to the black box of his father’s madness.
In her version of events, Isabel makes a distinction between “folk tales,” in which each character is merely “a device that makes the story work,” and a story that is “authored,” where “the characters have names, they develop.” An “authored” story, Isabel says, is “the work of a single person and not the collective work of a people.” That distinction seems self-evident, but Bracher muddles it deliberately in Antonio by using three narrators, each of whom offers a conflicting perspective on the Kremz family. This makes the book feel neither entirely like the work of a single author nor like a folk tale, propelling it into a liminal space that allows Bracher to address her real subject: the enduring violence, misogyny, and racism of Brazil’s hierarchical society.
The story of the Kremz family traverses many of the fissures that characterized 20th-century Brazil (and are hardly less evident today). Xavier is the scion of a well-to-do family in São Paulo and is educated as a lawyer during the booming 1950s. But rather than embrace his birthright as a member of the São Paolo professional class, which is suddenly flush with money, he commits himself to a series of failing artistic ventures. Teodoro strays even further from the nest, fleeing the city in 1977 and reinventing himself in provincial Minas as a crass, guitar-strumming farmhand. That both men would fall for Elenir—an indigenous orphan from the interior—is treated as indicative of their aberrant spirits. As one of Xavier’s law school classmates puts it, “Xavier and Teodoro, through eroticism, adrenaline, or boredom, opted for contact with the lower classes.”
However transgressive the father and son might appear to other upper-crust Brazilians, their behavior remains indicative of a system that subjugates women and minorities at every turn. One of the stories Raul tells Benjamim is about a boat trip down the São Francisco that he and Benjamim’s father took in their early 20s along with two young women who responded to Teodoro’s macho affect by competing for his favors “like they were women in a harem.” Teodoro dismisses them as “skin, tits, pussy,” then justifies his sexism by castigating the two women in the manner of the callous city folk who treat rural Brazilians as similarly disposable, like a “wet lime, a hand rolled cigarette.”
This perspective is wielded like a weapon, never mind that Teodoro himself is an obvious hypocrite—the misogyny he espouses is no more reflective of the rural life he’s adopted than of the prejudices of his own urban upbringing. By the same token, Elenir’s training as a doctor doesn’t stop Benjamim’s male interlocutors from describing her as a passive, indigenous beauty who “looked like a doll,” nor do Isabel’s accomplishments as a scholar save her from the unwelcome task of nursing Xavier when he falls ill and eventually dies. “I never had the patience for taking care of people,” she tells Benjamim. “A sick man is so needy—it’s hell.”
Whatever mythologies we invent about ourselves are quickly dispelled by violence. At the last stop on the boat trip, Teodoro and his “harem” fall into conversation at a bar with an old villager with a rotten tooth who cozies up to one of the women. When he tries to kiss her, she recoils; the group gets up to leave, and the villager responds by smashing a bottle over Teodoro’s head and assaulting the woman. He beats her up and tears her underwear before Teodoro catches up with them; in the ensuing scuffle, Teodoro gets knifed and then crushes the villager’s head with a stone. Suddenly, the so-called rustic misogyny that previously provided an erotic charge to the group’s dynamic has taken on a horrifying aspect as just another excuse for men to brutalize women.
Teodoro survives the knifing, though not the societal stresses that it made manifest. He retreats to Minas and ends up hospitalized in a rural clinic, in a ward overseen by Elenir. Soon after, she dies in childbirth and Teodoro returns to São Paolo with Benjamim, still a toddler. Though only a few years have passed since Teodoro left the city, the traumas he has experienced have left him disconnected from the world around him. Consequently, after the ailing Xavier dies, Teodoro is hardly able to assume the patriarchal void. Instead of caring for Benjamim or helping Isabel keep the house in order, he amasses collections of pistachio shells, doll heads, and old photographs, arranging them according to some unfathomable scheme. He also writes obsessively, speaking aloud whatever he is scribbling. “Insanity,” says Raul, “means that someone can no longer discern reality, and begins instead to create a private reality, one that only he can see.” Teodoro’s private reality becomes the place where Benjamim’s inquiry ends: the madness he knew intimately as a child, and that none of his interlocutors can hope to illuminate. The young man may have hoped to learn enough about his family to prevent its darkness from absorbing his soon-to-be born son—a child who will be called Antonio—but he is stymied by the fact that the story he is learning is neither “authored” nor a folk tale; it is reality, and therefore impenetrable.
Few would argue with the contention that it is impossible to explain the motivations of a person gone insane. But by grounding Antonio in Teodoro’s madness, Bracher makes a broader argument that the logic of his doll head display is no more legible than a 45-year-old doctor’s decision to knowingly endanger herself with a pregnancy. By the same token, Bracher treats the unpredictability of human behavior not as an innate trait, but as an inevitable response to a society whose norms are snobbery, machismo, and cruelty.
At Antonio’s conclusion, Benjamim has garnered many more details about his family but no answer to the questions of motivation that linger in the wake of their behavior. No matter how many perspectives one can muster on a subject, when the subject is so firmly irrational as a human mind, no explanation will ever quite suffice. “My head feels so hollow,” Isabel tells her grandson on her deathbed. “Only stories interest me now, explanations are starting to seem too boring, too unreal.”