The unnamed island in Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew could be any number of countries in Central or South America, countries where right-wing despots dictated daily life for their subjects. The dictators bore the seal of approval from the powers in Washington DC. It didn’t take much thought for cash-strapped regimes to learn that if one declared oneself “anti communist” in the paranoid era where communists were purported to hide under every bed, and one’s own excesses in defense of capitalism could be excused. Residents of those countries learned the chilling lesson that “Silence is Health.” As long as a dictator declared the dead and the disappeared to be leftist terrorists or communists, the United States could be counted on to turn the other way as it approved another shipment of arms.
But when those dictators were deposed or when they died, and a nascent democracy put down roots in the scorched earth, how did those who had lived through the previous regime go forward? In an earlier poem, “The Wailers in Estadio Nacional,” (published in her collection of poetry, The Next Country) Idra Novey writes of a concert performed by Ziggy Marley and the Wailers that takes place in the Estadio Nacional, the football (soccer) stadium in Santiago, Chile. In the days following the CIA-backed overthrow of the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende, thousands were rounded up by the troops loyal to the new dictator, Augusto Pinochet. Many who entered the stadium were never seen again. Novey marks the moment when Ziggy Marley dedicates the first song to democracy and she observes “the grind and slip of hips along the pocked wall,” the dancers’ bodies moving against a wall that bears the evidence of the torture and slaughter conducted within.
Those Who Knew is Novey’s brilliant evocation of recrudescence — but of what? — on an island nation ten years after the end of decades of dictatorship. On the surface, democracy is flourishing and arts culture, the renaissance of theatre, writing, dancing, and nightlife is at full tilt.
But for “those who know,” evidence that the bad times of the past exists, if they could just find a way to bring it to the surface.
In our current days in America, the #MeToo movement has brought to light many instances where powerful men used their position to sexually harass, and in some cases, sexually assault or rape, women or men who worked for them and who possessed little power to consent or say no. And while those stories have sparked a national conversation, what these incidents have made clear is that much of this behavior had been ongoing for years. Earlier victims did not speak up, or received cash payments not to disclose, and these men were surrounded by men and women who said nothing about what they knew. Are the silent complicit in the abusive men’s behaviors? The next time someone is harassed, are they complicit for not warning that person?
Novey’s novel begins one week after Maria P.’s death has been declared an “accident” by investigators. Maria had been the promising scholar who was serving as an aide to rising-star senator Victor. Years before, Lena had dated Victor when the two were at university. But when Victor became violent toward her, Lena left the relationship. But she never reported the violence when it occurred, and now, years later, she is watching as Victor rises to political prominence. Prior to Maria’s death, Lena had worried for the young woman, concerned that Victor’s past behavior might play out again. When Maria is run down by a bus, Lena suspects that Victor had the woman murdered.
As Novey pulls the narrative back beyond its initial focus on Victor and Lena, she introduces the reader to other people who knew parts of Victor’s story or they are one of the few people who Lena has confided in. Each of them, therefore, possesses knowledge, and as the novel spins out from the island to the streets of New York City, Novey shows readers what it feels like to live with guilt whose provenance is not clear.
Lena’s family had ties with the former regime, so she struggles with whether the information she has about the charismatic Victor will be judged by her family name and assumptions about her motivation for coming forward.
Novey the poet produces prose that sings on the page, and her playing with the novel’s structure provides readers with different ways to access the information. Her ability to convey the maelstrom inside Lena’s head makes it real for the reader. In one passage, after Lena journeys to America, Novey writes of romance unburdened by Lena’s past.
“To kiss a man who understood none of the connotations of her country had been like a vacation from herself. She had felt relieved of her own gravity, from the continual pressure of having to decide how much self-recrimination any given conversation required.”
The release of Novey’s novel was planned months in advance, and yet, its timing feels as if it must have been ordained to come out in the immediate aftermath of the Kavanaugh hearings. We were all witnesses to what happened to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford when she came forward with her knowledge of Justice Kavanaugh. She had been trepidatious of the reaction to her testimony, but the reaction ended up being much worse than she could have imagined. She received death threats against herself and her family because she shared her experiences with Brett Kavanaugh when they were in high school together. Lena’s dilemma has played out recently here, so readers will have much to think about as they read.
Over the weekend of October 28th, Brazilians went to the polls. They elected Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right candidate whose campaign platform harkened back to the days of dictatorship that ruled Brazil in the past. The Guardian reported that, “Over nearly three decades in politics, he has become notorious for his hostility to black, gay and indigenous Brazilians and to women, as well as for his admiration of dictatorial regimes, including the one that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985.”
Reading Those Who Knew after Bolsonaro’s election may feel the coolness of its shadow over their reading. The return of the “anti communist” to Latin American politics, coinciding with the release of Novey’s novel, is yet another way that Idra Novey captures the zeitgeist.