#WITMonth: Fernanda Torres

My foray into Brazilian women writers continues apace with an author who has been recommended by many other Latin American authors (at the Hay Festival panels, for instance). Fernanda Torres is an actress, scriptwriter and novelist. Her debut novel The End is a witty depiction of beach bum culture and machismo, and it has been translated by Alison Entrekin for Restless Books in the US. However, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t reached this side of the Atlantic.

Ciro, Neto, Alvaro, Silvio and Ribeiro are five aging Carioca friends, who have either grown up together or got to know each other at university. The book has an interesting structure: we enter the minds of each one of the five in reverse chronological order of their death. We see them old and decrepit, hear their regrets, witness their deaths… and then get to see and hear what their wives, their sons and daughters, their friends their doctors and their priest thought of them. We get a flashback into their lives and their friendship, their marriages, their divorces, their affairs, their triumphs, regrets and disappointments. We see many of the same events, the parties, the seductions, the quarrels, the missed opportunities through five different pairs of eyes – and quite often from the point of view of their long-suffering wives.

For these are clearly men of the older generation, who expect to get away with anything. Ciro is the charismatic Don Juan, emulated by all, but is the first to die. Neto is the only one of them who tries to be faithful to his beloved wife Celia (and she tries to remove him from his circle of friends) – but is left a widower and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself after that. Ribeiro spent his whole life on the beach, proud of his good looks, terrified of aging. Now he’s resorted to giving volleyball lessons to old ladies and stuffing himself with Viagra. Silvio is addicted to sex orgies and drugs and cannot stop himself from carrying on with his friend’s girlfriend, even though he is married. Alvaro is the one who survives them all and he has become a grumpy old man. Modern life and habits only annoy him.

I don’t separate my trash, I don’t recycle, I throw cigarette butts in the toilet, I use aerosols, I take long hot showers, and I brush my teeth with the water running. Screw mankind. I won’t be around to see what happens. I haven’t voted in theirteen years, I’m not responsible for the tragedy around me.

Alvaro is impotent: both literally and metaphorically. And of course he blames others for his predicament. His is the first story and in many respects his monologues are the funniest. We’ve all met Alvaros like that.

It was women who made me lose interest. Nagging, snivelling, needy. Women love to blame their own unhappiness on the next person. I never let them drag me in. The minute they get one sign of life from you, they shoot off a three-page monologue in your ear. Boy, can they talk, they never get sick of yakety-yakking… I don’t like women. Truth be told, I don’t like anyone. I did like Neto, Ciro, Silvio, and Ribeiro, though. Men don’t talk. We each say something idiotic, we laugh, we drink, and there you have it: a great night.

Men’s friendships seem puzzling to me at times. I have male friends who are excellent friends and who can talk about anything, including their feelings. But very often I look at the friendships based on drinking beer, playing video games and watching football matches, while avoiding anything but the most superficial exchange of information regarding their personal lives and I wonder. Replace beer with cachaca and qualudes, video games with beach life – and you have that mysterious default of life itself, shared experience, growing old together even if you don’t have much in common, which Fernanda Torres manages to capture with what feels me to like great authenticity.

There are plenty of laughable, cringe-worthy moments to divert readers. But, as we get to see the other perspectives, the satire acquires additional layers of depth and the comedy turns into tragicomedy. Are all of these men losers who deserve their come-uppance, or are all of our lives full of mistakes and bad choices?

The famous wave pattern of Copacabana beach, about which Alvaro says: ‘Stupid mosaics. They’re everywhere. Pour some concrete over the top and send on the steamrollers!’

A book soaked in the atmosphere of Rio and Copacabana beach (which appears in the very first paragraph), yet with universally recognisable ideas of masculinity and looking back at life with regret.

#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.

Summer Reading Plans

I have always failed miserably at initiatives such as the Twenty Books of Summer, but this year I’m going to try something different. I really enjoyed focusing on French history and on the Paris Commune in May, so I think I will attempt more of this country focus. A different country every month (while still allowing some breathing room with other reads in-between). I am tentatively selecting some books for each country, but will allow myself the freedom to suddenly swerve in a different direction (although still of the same country).

Never mind US and Russia, let’s jump straight to the most picturesque city in one of my favourite countries.

Honestly, it’s not Trump’s visit this month that inspired me, but I suddenly realised that I so seldom read any American authors (other than perhaps crime fiction). So I will make a more concerted effort to look at some of them in June: I have my eye on Ron Rash, David Vann, Sam Shepard, Laura Kasischke and Meg Wolitzer.

After so much Americana, I have no doubt I will be tempted to swing the other way and get a sudden craving for all things Russian, so July will be my month of Russian authors. Two Olgas, a Yuri and the diaries and letters of Bulgakov are on my list. I also really want to catch up with the TV series Chernobyl, as I still remember the events of that year (we were pretty close to the Ukraine and panicked at the time).

August is Women in Translation Month and I have already decided I want to dedicate it to Brazilian women this year. Clarice Lispector (a re-read of Agua Viva and a more detailed read of her complete short stories), Patricia Melo’s Lost World and Socorro Acioli’s The Head of the Saint. By the by, I might also dip that month into some Brazilian male writers, such as Chico Buarque and Milton Hatoum, or some of my new acquisitions in May.

If this initiative goes well, I might keep it up beyond the summer and venture further afield, to countries I have hitherto left unexplored. Of course, I still have a few countries to contend with on my #EU27Project…

#WITMonth: Beatriz Bracher – I Didn’t Talk, transl. Adam Morris

This book, which I received as my title for July for my Asymptote Book Club subscription, ticks a lot of boxes:  #WomeninTranslationMonth, #TranslationThurs, an abiding interest in Brazil and a secret (or not so secret) hankering for what might be called ‘dictatorship literature’, i.e. literature about living under a dictatorship. It is something I can relate to very easily, and am always curious to see how much of the experience is the same, regardless of where you are in the world, and how much is country (or dictator) specific.

The story is outwardly simple: In present-day Sao Paolo, Gustavo is a professor (and former school principal) who is now retiring, selling the old family home and moving to the countryside. He must clear out all the papers and personal belongings in the house. Meanwhile, a young woman called Cecilia is writing a novel set during the years of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964- 1984) and would like to hear his stories and impressions about that period. The problem is that Gustavo has been feeling guilty all his life about the part he may or may not have played in the death of his friend and brother-in-law, Armando. Both he and Armando had been arrested and tortured by the police in 1970, but only one of them survived that ordeal. Over the years, Gustavo has been trying to convince everyone around him (and even himself) that ‘he didn’t talk’ under torture, but it turns out that he was so tangential to the protest movement that anything he might have talked about would have been useless information anyway.

So Gustavo, who is by nature disorganised and forgetful, tries to make sense of the jumble of memories, his own papers and those of the rest of his family, of the ghostly apparitions of his parents, his friend Armando and his wife Eliana. There is a sharp contrast between the private man who felt he was often invisible or cast into second place in his family life and the much more opinionated Gustavo the teacher and school principal. His riffs on education and politics are among the most interesting digressions in the book. He claims he is reluctant to generalise but is quite trenchant in his opinions.

I really distrust this excessive formalization, disconnecting us from the world. Government bodies suffer from an absence of reality, not a surfeit of it… They think they are prevented from thinking by the crushing demands, the excesses of the world. But it’s the opposite… small strategies for specific cases.

Gustavo also knows his Portuguese literature and likes to bring in long quotes to support his theories. We catch brief glimpses of past moments when he started to doubt himself (hiding the fact that people are actually buried in cemeteries from his daughter, but that her mother is not buried in Brazil, for instance) but then he remonstrates with his memory, he adjusts and examines, ponders and reinterprets until he finds justification in everything.

Author photo from AuroraEco.br

Yet his memories are challenged by his brother Jose’s writings. Jose grew up in the same household, in the same circumstances, and yet his life took a very different trajectory, he is gay and became a very different type of character. Gustavo feels betrayed and excluded in the conversations he has with his brother and in those fragments of his brothers’ memoirs that he reads. Jose (and his younger sister Jussara) remind him of the period when he was at his weakest, but perhaps also reinforce his impression that he was always the outsider, that he never quite fitted in or made himself understood.

Those were confusing times, every utterance cut short, everyone suspected, I was always half-dirty and disheveled, returning to the home I’d left four years before… it was I who was the stranger there and everywhere else.

A chorus of voices assault Gustavo and he argues with some, talks over others, sighs and cries with the rest. The very words ‘voice/speak/talk’ appear with almost obsessive frequency throughout the novel. Gustavo tries to regain the upper hand and perhaps he does, in a way, because on the last few pages, he remembers – as if in a dream – a conversation he had with his father shortly before his death. And that conversation casts the whole story in a different light. This is the story he wants to tell, he decides.

What the author tells us, however, is that in the end, there is always going to be a discrepancy between private and public truth, between different personal interpretations of the past. In the end, your story is what others make of it.

 

 

#WIT Month: Clarice Lispector

Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.
Lispector at the time of the publication of her first novel.

I don’t usually post something on a Saturday, but I’m so far behind in my Women in Translation Month reviewing, that I feel I have to.

As a student in my early 20s I went through a period of infatuation with Clarice Lispector. I had always admired Virginia Woolf and here was a Brazilian writer equally at ease with the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but upping the ante when it came to passion and candour. Being very Latin in fact, compared to Woolf’s cooler Anglo-Saxon attitudes.

I have not reread her since, but WIT Month seemed like a good time to revisit her. Near to the Wild Heart is her debut novel (translated by Alison Entrekin) but this time round it left me not quite fully satisfied.

It’s the story of Joana, an eccentric little soul growing up with a kindly but absent-minded father after the death of her mother.

The child was running wild, so thin and precocious… He sighed quickly, shaking his head. A little egg, that was it, a little live egg. What would become of Joana?

When her father dies, she goes to live with her aunt and uncle, which proves unbearable for all concerned.

‘She’s a cold viper, there’s no love or gratitude in her. There’s no point liking her, no point doing the right thing by her. I think she’s capable of killing someone…’

She is sent to boarding school, grows up, is regarded as somewhat of an enigma by those around her, marries the conceited and shifty Otavio, who continues his affair with his old lover. Joana has misgivings about marriage itself, about tying herself to any man (thoughts which would have been revolutionary in Brazil at the time the book was published in 1943)

Otavio made her into something that wasn’t her but himself… how could she tie herself to a man without allowing him to imprison her? How could she prevent him from developing his four walls over her body and sould? And was there a way to have things without those things possessing her?

Finally, Joana finds the courage and determination to strike off on her own after a period of loneliness and abjection. At first she turns to God.

My God I wait for thee… come to me… I am less than dust and I wait for you every day and every night, help me, I only have one life and this life slips through my fingers and travels to death serenely and I can do nothing and all I do is watch my depletion with each passing minute…

But then she realises that the power comes from within and the book ends on a hopeful note.

What was rising in her was not courage, she was substance alone, less than human… Throngs of warm thoughts sprouted and spread through her frightened body and what mattered about them was that they concealed a vital impulse, what mattered about them was that at the very instant of their brith there was the blind, true substance creating itself, rising up, straining at the water’s surface like an air bubble, almost breaking it…

Of course, I have simplified and tried to give the narrative shape and linearity where there is none. Rather, it’s all about ‘illuminations’, moments of consciousness in Joana’s life (and occasionally other characters). There is much of the animal nature of Jinny, the flanks breathing in and out from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, a tremendous physicality.

nearwildheartYet Joana also ponders on the nature of words such as ‘never’ and ‘everything’, she is in a state of constant questioning, a swirling intensity of raw emotions, half-formulated thoughts, openness to experience but also (over)analysis of each new experience. There are some similarities to Anais Nin and Elena Ferrante, but the work this most reminded me of was the Diary of Marie Bashkirtseff. Joana has the same breathtaking belief in her own genius, shows the same inscrutable character to outsiders, is in equal measure puzzled by the slipperiness of the concept of (her own) identity and yet wields it like a blunt instrument to manipulate others.

Reading a chapter at a time, there are nuggets to treasure but it was all too much for me when reading it in one go. (Although the impressionistic technique in The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway still works well for me now.) This is something of a young person’s book. I’m glad I read it at the appropriate age but it did not resonate with me as well a couple of decades later. I guess I’ll have to go back to her other works, especially her short stories, and see whether they can rework their magic on me once more.