Book review: Occupation, by Julián Fuks

This novel about the plight of migrants squatting in a former hotel in downtown Sao Paolo is poignant, thought-provoking and engaging, writes David Robinson

Julián Fuks

“They tell me you write about exile,” an elderly Syrian refugee says to Julián Fuks, and indeed he does: along with his parents’ struggle against Argentina’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, it was a key subject of his last, multi-award-winning novel, Resistance.

Strictly speaking, the Syrian is talking to a fictional character called Sebastian, but as Fuks occasionally lets the mask slip, I don’t think it matters. Either way, exile took Sebastian’s and Fuks’s parents – both psychiatrists – from Argentina to a new life in Sao Paolo, just as it had taken his/their grandparents – Jews fleeing antisemitism – from Romania to Buenos Aires. And as Fuks has also been a journalist, perhaps it’s no wonder that he/they/whatever is drawn to write about refugees and migrants squatting in a former hotel in Sao Paolo’s city centre.

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Early on, Sebastian mentions his “attachment to hesitation and uncertainty” and he’s not kidding: his father is seriously ill in hospital, but he can’t express his feelings to his mother; he wants to reassure his wife, who is contemplating having a baby, but “words wouldn’t come to my aid.” Writing – his own and everyone else’s – leaves him cold. Yet the Syrian refugee’s tale of the life he left behind in Homs, of imprisonment and loss, has a directness that that cuts through Sebastian’s dithering. He is intrigued, and wants to find out more.

Occupation, by Julian Fuks

So does the reader, and for a similar reason. Already, we have picked up hints of what kind of man Fuks/Sebastian must be: sensitive, emotionally precise, endlessly self-critical. When he interviews migrant squatters in the crumbling 15-story city centre building, and goes on to join the illegal occupation of another block of abandoned offices, there’s an engaging dissonance between style and substance, thought and action. It’s not quite Proust editing the Big Issue, but it’s not too far off.

Occupation is, you will be relieved to hear, far more precise than the 1.2 million words of Marcel’s masterpiece – indeed, none of Fuks’s 41 chapters runs to more than four pages. But even when it moves away from the plight of the migrant squatters, the novel loses none of its appeal, nor does it succumb to the tantric self-indulgence which occasionally besets autofiction. Instead, it is poignant, thought-provoking and engaging. I loved it.

Sometimes, it’s even funny. When, for example, the narrator breaks the news that his partner is pregnant, his father says: “That’s lovely news, Julian, thank you for telling me.”

"No dad, thank you. But here you’ve got to call me Sebastian.”

Occupation, by Julián Fuks, Charco Press, £9.99. Julián Fuks is appearing at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 18 August, www.edbookfest.co.uk

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