#WITMonth: Socorro Acioli

I’m sticking predominantly to Brazilian women writers this month, as the Women in Translation Month coincides with my Brazilians in August. The first of the authors is new to me. Socorro Acioli writes mainly children’s (or YA) literature, and this book The Head of the Saint, translated by Daniel Hahn, illustrated by Alexis Snell and published by Hot Key Books, seems to be targeted at the YA market. This does surprise me somewhat – although I know YA readers can be quite sophisticated, the subject matter here (all about poverty and corruption, religion as the opium of the masses, marriage and gender expectations) does not seem to hold much appeal for that kind of audience. It’s the first of Acioli’s books to be translated into English, and the reason that they were brave enough to do it has perhaps something to do with the fact that she developed the story for it while attending a writers workshop hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez some years ago.

Samuel is a young orphan, with ‘a thin, hungry body, almost a shadow’. He has been walking for days, ten hours a day, barefoot, nearly starving, because he has promised his recently deceased mother to go the town she originally came from, find his grandmother and father, and light a candle at the feet of the town’s patron saint. [There is a fashion in Brazil for giant statues on hills outside towns, like the statue of Christ in Rio.]

This is St Francis rather than St Anthony, and in a different location, but it gives you an idea of what we are talking about.

The problem is that when he reaches the god-forsaken town of Candeia, his grandmother chases him away, the giant statue of St Anthony has lost its head and the town appears all but abandoned, because the saint is believed to be cursed.

Samuel finds shelter from a thunderstorm in the head of the saint, which has rolled down to the bottom of the hill (although we will soon find out, in a very funny story, that it had not ‘fallen off’ but was a construction error and never made it to the top of the statue in the first place). He is bitten by dogs and unable to move for a while, so he believes he is starting to hallucinate when he hears voices singing and praying.

It turns out that a small group of women do still believe that St Anthony can help them to find their true love and get married. Samuel and a boy from town whom he befriends, Francisco, set out to make those prayers come true. Lo and behold, they get more and more requests, the saint’s reputation is transformed and Candeia starts to come alive again. This continues even when it’s discovered that Samuel was the person behind the ‘miracles’ (although some of the miracles are never fully explained, they just seem to happen as people start feeling more positive about things).

There is more to the story: Samuel finding out about his family background, and his quest to find the mysterious voice who fills his ears with a dream-like song in a language he doesn’t fully understand. There are funny moments – the origin of the name Madeinusa, for example – and poignant ones: families abandoned, men cheating, corrupt mayors, hired men to beat up people. Yet through it all, Samuel holds steadfast to the promise he made to his dying mother.

The book is described as ‘charming and heart-warming’, and it does have some similarities with Jorge Amado’s depiction of life – cheerful and energetic, despite the deep social inequalities. There is also something of the practical, straight-talking characters from Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series there. But, as with nearly all Brazilian literature I’ve encountered, magic and dreams and surreal situations are only a heartbeat away.

11 thoughts on “#WITMonth: Socorro Acioli”

      1. I was just about to ask how you think your boys might respond to something like this, but you’ve answered my question already! Maybe it’s not so much the subject matter that might not appeal but the context (and tone) of the story? I could imagine teenagers being interested in stories involving poverty and corruption in a dystopian setting, but possibly not here. My goddaughter’s brothers can’t get enough of the apocalyptic stuff…

  1. You might be underselling teenagers…
    One of the most popular books in the school library was Parvana by Deborah Ellis which was about a girl who dressed herself as a boy in order to support the family under the Taliban. Kids told me that they liked reading about people their age who managed to solve real world problems. They knew about those problems, you see, from the media anyway.
    Ellis also wrote a book about drug overlords somewhere in Latin America, and the kids liked that one too.

    1. Yes, maybe, or maybe I am just thinking of my own two. But, you see, I think they would be interested in reading about children having to live with drug warfare or the Taliban. In this one, the story was a bit more… diffuse.

      1. I agree, it’s hard to know. There are teenagers who genuinely like what “everybody else” likes, those who are faking it because they want to join in, those who are faking it because they want to be left alone and not bullied, those who don’t give a stuff and like what they like and to hell with everyone else, and those who don’t know what they like. The complicated thing is that the same teenager can be all of those types at different times!

  2. You know, it’s funny you’d have mentioned surrealism, Marina Sofia. I was thinking of how much this sounds like magical realism, and I can certainly see the influence of Márquez – or at least a similarity. Really interesting approach to telling a story, and one I’ve always wished I could do (but have never been able to).

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.