Brazil is currently in the news because of its presidential election, featuring three major candidates representing various points on the political spectrum. But, as novelist Edgard Telles Ribeiro reminds us in this mesmerizing tale of unbridled ambition and of idealism and friendship betrayed, Brazilian politics looked very different half a century ago. In 1964, a military coup deposed the left-leaning government and received immediate recognition and support from the United States. At the height of the Cold War, the U.S. was nervous about other countries in the Americas following Cuba's path to communism, and the military looked like the best option for preventing this. After a few relatively benign years, the generals in charge cracked down on dissenters and became much more repressive and totalitarian. Many people lost their homes and possessions, went into exile, or simply "disappeared". In addition,, Brazil, with covert assistance from the CIA and Britain's MI6, served as a base for toppling leftist governments in Uruguay and Chile in the early 1970s.
This dark period of South American history is portrayed by Ribeiro through the life of a fictional Brazilian diplomat, Marcilio Andrade Xavier, who uses the acronymic nickname Max. His story is told by a onetime friend and fellow diplomat who tells us almost nothing about his own life or even his name (in the book's final chapter he does sign a letter as "N"). N. meets Max in that fateful year 1968, when both are still in their 20s and working at the Foreign Ministry in Rio de Janeiro. They find that they share an interest in literature and philosophy, and N. becomes part of Max's circle of friends, looking up to his slightly older coworker as a mentor of sorts.
As the years pass and both move on to other assignments, N. becomes increasingly convinced that Max has advanced in his diplomatic career by abetting the repressive government in its agenda of terror and assassination, both at home and in Uruguay and Chile, where he held increasingly important positions. By the mid-1980s, the Brazilian government is in its death throes after twenty years of terror, and N. no longer considers Max a friend. After they have a long, uncomfortable talk at a party where they've met by chance, N. becomes obsessed with learning as much as possible about Max's activities during the late 1960s and 1970s. The story unfolds a la "Citizen Kane" through a series of conversations N. has with people who were around Max at the time, including a Brazilian colonel; Max's ex-wife Marina; and, in 2006, a retired CIA agent living in La Jolla, California, who pulls his "Max" file out of a voluminous collection of documents in his garage.
The picture that emerges is of a man who has one goal in life--personal power and wealth--and is willing to betray friends, family, and governments in order to attain it. He is also extremely adept at deducing who and what (the Catholic church, a wife from a wealthy, powerful family) will assist him in this quest but quickly loses interest when they are no longer useful to him. The CIA and MI6 are well aware of both the advantages and dangers of dealing with a contact like Max, and they give him the very appropriate code name "Samuel Beckett".
Unlike Charles Foster Kane, Max is very much alive and well at the time his life is being examined by N. Thirty-five years after their first meeting, Max has a top diplomatic post and has become a champion of human rights, winning adoration and pride from his two children (their mother never had the heart to tell them about the very different Max of their early childhood).
Edgard Telles Ribeiro has published seven novels and numerous short stories, but, not surprisingly, he was also a career diplomat. Is Max based on someone he knew or perhaps a composite of several people? In any case, this beautifully written story of an era most people outside South America have forgotten certainly transcends any particular time and place.