The Marble Army by Giselle Firmino is a novel about family, loss, and redemption. Set in Brazil during the Fifth Brazilian Republic—a military dictatorship—the narrative roughly spans the years of its rule, from the 1964 coup d’état that marked its inception to the massive Diretas Já demonstrations in 1984 that led to the first democratic elections in over twenty years.
The relationship between brothers Luca and Pablo Fonte occupies the center of the book. Luca, the younger brother, narrates, usually from his own perspective but occasionally through dream visions that explore the perspectives of other principal characters. The trauma of loss is the catalyst that foments these imaginative flights.
The first loss comes ironically on the heels of a ceremony that honors the boys’ father, who is a pillar of their little town and supervisor of the mine that supports it. All the workers and their families come out to rename the main street, “Rua Antonio Fonte.” A sign has been made to make it official. Prominently absent from the ceremony, though, is the governor, a friend who Antonio suspects has been targeted by the new military leadership and has probably fled to Uruguay. This dark omen sets the tone for much of what follows.
It takes a while for the oppressive regime to affect the little mining town and the Fonte family but the poisons of the dictatorship inexorably spread, “like the grayish green mold you’d see on the outside walls of your home, knowing that it will eventually creep into its interior.”
The family moves from the mining town to the city after the mine is taken over by the government. The father’s health declines; the mother becomes obsessive. Pablo, attending university, begins to behave secretively. Luca’s teacher is humiliated before his eyes and carried away by government officers. Later Luca undergoes a terrifying interrogation at the hands of the officers. Almost against his will, Luca is drawn into the resistance, and he becomes fascinated with a slogan he sees painted on walls around the city: “They can’t shut us up!”
An intriguing subplot involves Pablo’s former girlfriend Rita, a spirited beauty and friend of the resistance. After a chance meeting near the university, she and Luca reconnect, sharing their hopes and fears, and Luca becomes infatuated in a troubling way. Their shared past is fraught with pain, especially now since Pablo has been missing for some time.
Luca also struggles with self-respect and his own perceived inadequacies: “For most of my life I felt as though I didn’t really exist, but was close enough to being real that people wouldn’t notice it. The man I should have been just never became a reality. I felt as though I’d just hover over the people I knew, like the undead. . . . I’d hover over the memories I have of them and myself, of this man I should have been.”
The passage of time doesn’t bring relief. Things don’t work out, but years later, as the Diretas Já protests are playing out live on TV sets across the country, Luca realizes that things do work out, but not as he’d imagined or hoped. Peace, redemption, and fulfillment, after years of hopelessness and tragedy, ride in unexpectedly at the end of the procession. Luca has become real and can now fathom a way to move forward.
The Marble Army is a novel haunted by characters who must be very much like the souls who lived through these actual events. Firmino, thankfully, doesn’t dwell on the details of the coup, dictatorship, and all the political ramifications but instead focuses on the effects of authoritarianism on families and individuals and what they must endure to survive, both physically and emotionally. The dreamlike lyrical prose of this novel, rich and lustrous as a cat eye marble, teaches us much about the human spirit, love, and the cost of freedom. It should be savored, and contemplated.