Escapism with Satirical Bite: Martha Batalha

It has been a horrible couple of weeks to follow a few anxious years, so I was in the mood for something light and escapist, and the promise of this bright yellow cover was something I couldn’t resist. Brazilian writer Martha Batalha’s novel The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao (transl. Eric M.B. Becker) might be set quite a few decades back (in the 1940s-60s) and in a macho culture such as Brazil, but it will bring a wince of recognition to women everywhere.

Euridice is the daughter of Portuguese immigrants growing up in 1940s Rio. Although she is bright, talented and ambitious, the only career path which seems open to her is to marry and be a good wife and mother. She certainly doesn’t want to rebel and be disowned by her family like her older sister Guida. So she marries the very conventional Antenor, raises two rather ungrateful children, gets bored and frustrated… and tries to find creative outlets for her talents. She becomes a fantastic chef and writes a cookbook. She learns to sew and becomes a hugely popular seamstress. But every time she finds a new way of expressing herself, her family and her gossipy neighbourhood crush her dreams. But Euridice doesn’t give up – and when her long-lost sister reappears, the two of them manage to find a way of life that suits them both.

This potentially serious subject matter is treated with much humour and sly, sassy irony. Whole families or lives are deftly handled in just one paragraph of wry description. There is a delightful air of fable about the story, and so many archetypes parade through its pages. Perhaps there is a tendency for some of the secondary characters to become caricatures, but this merely adds to the enjoyment of this quick, fun read. Yet it’s not just fun and games – it has quite a bit of satirical bite to it.

I amused myself by comparing the fictional characters with people I’ve met in my life.

For instance, this one sounds like my Greek ex-father-in-law:

That man, she knew, was a good husband. Antenor never disappeared for days and never lifted a hand to her. He brought in a good salary, complained very little, and conversed with the children. The only thing he didn’t like was to be interrupted when he was listening to the radio or reading the newspaper, when he slept until late or when he took a nap after lunch. And as long as his slippers were set parallel to the foot of the bed, his coffee was nearly scalding, there weren’t any fatty bits in the milk. the children didn’t run through the house, the sofa pillows were arranged the right way, the windows were closed no later than four o’clock, no racket was made before seven in the morning, the radio was never too loud or too soft, the bathrooms smelled like eucalyptus and he never had to eat the same dish two meals running, he didn’t ask too much.

In the following paragraph, it sounds more like my own marriage (not through lack of trying to change things, I might add):

Antenor’s familiarity with the house was almost nonexistent. He had no idea what was in the refrigerator or kitchen cabinets, much less the kitchen sink… Everything else was everything else, and everything else was the domain of Euridice. Antenor was there to bring a paycheck and to dirty plates and rumple sheets, not to know how the clothes were laundered or the dinner made.

The incompetent doctor from a privileged background, although rooted in the history of slavery in Brazil, nevertheless sounds a lot like some of the politicians we see today, especially Trump:

Despite having rejected his family, the young man retained the haughtiness of his caste. He thought he could do with his studies what his ancestors had done with Brazil: he thought that money could buy his diploma and arrogance would bring him knowledge. His grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been made barons and landowners for much less. Graduating with a medical degree would be the fulfilment of a dream, and with the Monteiro Godoys, dreams were transformed into reality with a snap of the fingers, followed by vast sums of money to buy possessions and to buy off people, along with a few swords, rifles, and whips to accelerate the process.

Of course this is escapist literature: although it starts out from a similar premise to Tales from the Vienna Woods, with a girl very much expected to meet the needs of the men in her life, it ends on a much cheerier note. Whether that is because of the setting or because the author couldn’t resist injecting a contemporary note in a story that is set several decades ago, it felt good to read about women emerging victorious for once.

She Works Hard for the Money…

donna-summer_she-works-hard-for-the-money
Cover of Donna Summer’s single ‘She Works Hard for the Money’.

No, I clean no other toilets than my own. I only stand on my feet all day on the days when I deliver training courses and run through airports to catch my flight. I don’t usually get my bottom pinched by drunk customers, though the occasional leery look down my shirt is par for the course. I may be up all night because of jet lag or because I suddenly have to change my course at the last minute, but I don’t have to do night shifts. So I make no claims to be working as hard as the average single mother on a minimum wage job.

I also know how to count my blessings. The children are older and can do many things for themselves. I get paid reasonably well when I do work, even though the gaps between those moments are sometimes too long. Yet the precariousness of this freelance existence is brought home to me every time I fall ill or have a less than stellar experience of business travel. Let me give you an example:

I have a contract for a piece of work which pays the fixed sum of 500 euros for a day of classroom training plus a follow-up virtual session of half a day. Sounds quite good, right? Luckily, in this case, the sum was fixed in euros rather than pounds, so I am going to see a bit more £££ for my effort: 450 at the current exchange rate (which may change by the time I am paid, usually a month or two after the event).

However, that rate does not take into account the following:

  • 1 two-hour meeting with the client, 3 one-hour teleconferences, numerous emails and many hours of course design – all unpaid – I estimate about another 3-4 days of work at least.
  • While some of my travel expenses are paid for, it does not include compensation for the cancelled flight and airport parking from the previous week, when I was too ill to attend the initial course, so I am out-of-pocket to the tune of about £100.
  • For 7 1/2 hours of training, I spent 15 hours travelling, contending with flight delays and massive queues at airports. Bear in mind, this was in Europe and for a relatively short flight, but I occasionally have courses in Asia and the US.
  • Luckily, I have supportive friends who looked after the children while I was away and another friend in Geneva who housed me overnight, but if I’d had to pay for all that, the course money would probably not have covered my expenses.

This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, 'cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone... (lyrics from Beautiful South)
This could be Rotterdam or anywhere, Geneva or Rome, ‘cos Rotterdam is everywhere, everywhere alone… (lyrics from Beautiful South)

  • I’ve never been able to eat on the days when I deliver workshops, plus, as I age, I discover my body is less and less able to cope with the strain, the strange sleep patterns, the jet lag, the negative feedback. I usually end up with a migraine during or after such events, and am prostrate for a couple of days afterwards.
  • I don’t even get much satisfaction out of it, as quite often I cannot structure the course whichever way I please (despite the many hours of discussions and design efforts, I am only the lowly trainer-deliverer), so I’m often between a rock and a hard place when expectations are not met, the client is dissatisfied and the training provider goes on the defensive.
  • This is, to all intents and purposes, a zero hours contract: I have no idea when my services will be next required. I get sudden requests for help at short notice that I have to turn down because of the difficulty of making childcare arrangements. Flexibility may be wonderful during the children’s holidays, when I can be mostly at home with them (albeit often preparing materials or doing teleconferences). Not so wonderful however, when you have no income for 1-2 months at a time, then only a dribble the third month. Also, I have no proper pension or other form of security, no insurance, no security of any kind.
  • This is the kind of job that single people or those without children excel at. Or else those whose families are extremely supportive (or who have a Teflon nanny whom they pay in gold nuggets). Even so, I have friends who have whittled their savings account to zero during lean years (and counted themselves lucky that they did not have children to support).

This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.
This is very often the only place I see in all of my exotic locations.

By this point, that nasty, suspicious little noisy wren is turning somersaults and screeching in my ear: ‘Is it worth it? Can’t you do anything else?’ But of course I’m told everywhere that it’s too late to change career to something more bookish, that I’m over-qualified for a more administrative role, and over-specialised to do a more senior generalist position. While any other in-house training role will require just as much travel.

So forgive me this fest of self-pity. I’m actually trying to highlight a plight for many single mothers out there, regardless of what level of income they are at. Both single and ‘coupled’ mothers in many households I know have been doing the work of both parents anyway, organising complicated childcare arrangements for the times when they travel (plus handling all the laundry, housekeeping, school meetings, medical appointments and homework upon their return home), but (unlike me hitherto) there often isn’t even a reluctant someone there who could, if pushed and nagged and reminded daily, take the kids earlier one day for a school trip and maybe even remember to pack their passports or lunches.

Yet the corporate world has nothing but disdain and impatience for this ‘lack of focus’ and punishes women’s careers accordingly. The divorce courts allow more compensation for wives of millionaires who haven’t worked a day of their lives, rather than the very real loss of earnings of working women who have tried to find a balance and do the best for the sake of the family.

After all, nobody asked them for this sacrifice, right?

Acceptance Speeches and Gratitude

JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.
JK Simmons receiving his Oscar, photo by John Shearer by AP Photo.

Warning: this post is incredibly loud and extremely personal. Viewers of a more generalist or nervous disposition should skip ahead to the next book review.

I heard that, with small exceptions, the Oscars ceremony on Sunday night was overly long and dull. I was never planning to watch it and was only mildly interested in the winners. [I have only seen 2-3 of the films across all nominated categories, most of them on airplanes, such is my social life]. But I struggled downstairs with a terrible migraine, so got to see live reactions on Twitter to the music, the surprise awards, the speeches.

Ah, the speeches! Some of them were political, rebellious, personal, memorable…  good for them. Typical acceptance speeches, of course, are all about gratitude, acknowledgement and thanks to collaborators and supporters. ‘I thank my parents, my spouse, my children, my dog…’

What to do, however, if those nearest and dearest are not at all supportive? I’ve written about it before. I’ve written a poem about it from the point of view of the supportive (and hitherto neglected) spouse. I’m not going to repeat myself. I don’t want to whine. I’ll just share with you a collection of anecdotes. Some of them are personal, some of them have been told to me by others. I suspect there is a glint of universality in most of them.

I really, really want to become a writer. All my teachers tell me I have talent. — What a waste of your intellectual capacities! You could do so many other things. Do that as a hobby, once you have got a good job under your belt, such as medicine or economics.

I did get to study what I was passionate about: languages and then anthropology. I even briefly got to work as an academic, but … it’s not like social sciences are real sciences, right? Surely an academic job in real science takes precedence. Why don’t you find a nice portable job, that you can take with you wherever you have to go to follow your husband?

This consultancy job is taking off, and you may be paid three times as much as your spouse, but it’s not really conducive to family life, is it? If you want to raise happy children, shouldn’t you find something more part-time, more flexible, even if it’s lower paid?

Patricia Arquette's rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.
Patricia Arquette’s rousing speech on gender equality. Photo from the Daily Mail.

Oh, come off it, being a trailing spouse isn’t that bad, is it? So you had to quit your job, but just look at your lifestyle in what is considered one of the most livable cities in the world! You can meet your lady friends for coffee and lunch, you can go to the gym, or, better still, explore the lovely nature surrounding you. You’ve got time on your hands, such a luxury! Lonely – psha! You can Skype your friends and family anytime. Anyone would envy you!

What do you mean, you want to start your own business? But who is going to handle all the organisational things this family needs? After all, you’re the only one who can speak the language…

What do you mean, you want to cut back on your work to focus on your writing? Writing will never pay the bills. If you’re not the next J K Rowling, you might as well not bother. Focus on your real job – just don’t travel so much with it. I can’t handle the kids all day – there’s very little time to do anything while they are in school.

OK, sure, honey, I’m supportive. When are you going to finish that book? Why are you wasting time on poetry? What have you been doing all day, why are you so tired? When are you going to get your book contract? Why should I go to the parents’ evening instead of you, so you can write –  haven’t you had enough time during the day?

Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.
Marion Cotillard in 2008. Photo: Digital Spy.

This past weekend I had good news. After years of unseen labour and cold showers, I had very positive and personalised feedback about my writing from editors and agents at a conference organised by the Geneva Writers’ Group. They encouraged me to keep going, to finish my second novel as quickly as possible and to send it to them. Yes, I know there’s a long, hard road still ahead of me, that there are no guarantees. But it’s that first step, and so much better than I had ever allowed myself to hope for.

I come home in a disbelieving, golden haze, basking in their warm words. I open the door very nearly breathless, eager to celebrate with my loved ones, bring out the bugles, roll out the red carpet, open the champagne. Instead, I don’t even get the question: ‘So, how did it go?’

I’m realistic about the attention span and degree of empathy of little boys. In my exuberance, I pour out my joy regardless… but soon get bogged down in dinner questions, homework completed, cooking, setting the table and preparing schoolbags for the first day back after the holidays. I get to hear about levels completed on Super Mario Galaxy during my absence, while the older ‘child’ barely raises his head from his phone to listen to my anecdotes about the day. I expect to be brought down to earth by family commitments and daily life – but not necessarily a ball and chain weighing me down just as I am soaring.

Finally, at supper, I open a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé that I’ve been keeping for special occasions and say, ‘Here’s to me!’ as we clinked our glasses.

‘Oh,’ replies my supportive spouse, ‘Why you?’

 

This is whom I’m going to mention in my acceptance speech:

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