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.

November 2019 Summary

November has not been the best month for a happy reading frame of mind. Budgets and hassles and events to put on at work. French exchange student to host and ferry around. Court case stress, a settlement that leaves me teetering on the edge of poverty and a growing realisation that a financial settlement does not mean an end to bullying by the ex. So I might be excused for finishing just five books this month, of which only one was a #GermanLitMonth (or Germans in November) read, and abandoning a couple of others.

I needed a change from my usual rather dark reading fare and escaped in the pages of two ‘feel-good’ reads: The Star of Lancaster from Jean Plaidy’s series on the Plantagenets (featuring mostly Henry IV and V) and the sly irony of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Martha Batalha (review to follow imminently).

For German Lit Month, I read the moving blend of History and herstory which is Julia Franck’s Mittagsfrau. I then got a chance to see the author in a lively event at the British Library celebrating the launch of the Riveting Germans magazine and 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The remaining two books were by the same author; I read them with a professional editorial eye, to see which might be most suitable for translating and publishing in the UK and the US. Two very different books by the talented and versatile author Bogdan Teodorescu: a domestic noir entitled Liberty and a political thriller about the sudden death of an investigative journalist Nearly Good Lads (English titles to be confirmed).

There was one further literary event this month, which filled me with a rosy glow of contentment for at least a few days, namely the charity Write-A-Thon in Windsor, which allowed me to spend a whole day reminding myself just why I love writing so much, in the company of other passionate writers.

Finally, in the last two days of the month, I managed to squeeze in two plays. Stray Dogs at the Park Theatre is a drama about the choices faced by Anna Akhmatova during Stalinist times – will she collaborate with the ruthless autocrat in order to save her son? Sadly, Akhmatova’s son never forgave her, believing that she cared more about her poetry than for him and that she had not worked hard enough for his release.

The poster for the 1979 Maximilian Schell film rather predicts the finale…

The second play is another not so cheery but reliable stalwart from my Viennese life: Tales from the Vienna Woods by Horvath, performed by this year’s final year students at RADA. The jaunty background music and farcical moments contrast with the rather stark messages around women trying to survive in a patriarchal, Catholic world.

WWWednesday, 13 Nov 2019

Roughly once a month, I manage to take part in this weekly Wednesday meme, hosted by Sam at Taking on a World of Words

The three Ws are:

  • What are you currently reading?
  • What did you recently finish reading?
  • What do you think you’ll read next?

However, thinking how my reading always reflects either my current preoccupations or moods or even the things I am running away from… I thought I would extend this into a kind of ‘diary’. What am I reading and why? What do I expect to get out of it? What is my state of mind as I read books simultaneously, especially when they contradict each other?

Currently reading:

For #GermanLitMonth I decided to do my own personal Germans in November reading session. However, for some reason I’m not feeling it this year and am struggling to get any reading done in German. Perhaps the anniversary of 30 years since the fall of the Wall made me melancholy rather than celebratory, as I thought of all the missed opportunities and how since then the world seems to have become more divided than united.

Perhaps it’s the choice of books.

Julia Franck’s Die Mittagsfrau is an exciting enough read – it starts with the abandonment of a child by his mother, but then we go back in time to find out the mother’s back story. Let down by family and fatherland, hurt by trauma and inability to relate to others after repeated disappointments, the book does not excuse the mother, but certainly makes her three-dimensional rather than a monster. I am enjoying the crisp language and lyrical but unsentimental descriptions of childhood impressions, but oh my goodness, the subject matter is grim!

The second German book is also about a mother but we jump forward to 1967, with Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries. We follow Gesine Cresspahl, a fairly recent German immigrant to the States, for a year in her life. Each diary-like entry contains some headlines from the New York Times, which she likes to buy and read every single day, but also thoughts on her current life with her young daughter (who is becoming more American every day) as well as her family history during the rise of the National Socialists. I initially joined the weekly readalong organised at Mookse and Gripes, but have fallen behind. I expected the ‘one entry a day’ reading method to be completely appropriate, but perhaps it is too little and makes me feel too detached from the book? On the other hand, when I try to binge read, it is such a dense work that I risk suffering indigestion.

By way of contrast, I am really enjoying the third book I am reading at the moment. Bogdan Teodorescu’s Nearly Good Lads is political crime fiction with a great satirical edge. Although it takes place in Romania (and is sharp and witty, making fun of certain Romanian foibles and political or social scandals), there is a lot there for readers in other countries to relate and enjoy. I am very excited about potentially translating this book in the near future!

Finished reading:

I’ve been a bit slow with my reading, since I had a lot of paperwork to look at and a lot of emotional stress with going to court for the divorce settlement last week. There was an initial moment of euphoria on Wednesday evening, when I thought that at last everything was finished and I could move on. However, just like Brexit, this is just the end of the beginning, there will still be many things to sort out over the next few months, plus I am beginning to wonder whether it was worth fighting so hard to keep the house.

Appropriately enough, the book I read last week was a domestic thriller by Bogdan Teodorescu called Liberty. A successful female doctor, married to a surgeon, has a book dedicated to her, although she doesn’t know the author at all. Worse still, the book, though fictional, seems to mirror her life but accuses her of being a slut and comes close to pornography in many instances. It is so accurate in some of the non-sexual descriptions that even those closest to her, family and friends, even her husband, believe that she has indeed done those dubious deeds. So who is out to destroy her reputation and why? An indictment also of the macho Romanian society, where a married man is encouraged to have multiple affairs if he is successful, while a woman is shamed for it.

Reading next:

I realise that all of my German reads are rather dark and melancholy, so I might have to delve in something more cheery in the immediate future. The bright yellow cover of The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao by Brazilian writer Martha Batalha (transl. Eric M.B. Becker) attracted me, as did the story of a talented musician turned housewife who attempts to introduce a bit of fun and creativity into her humdrum life and finds her long-lost sister in the process. I believe there is a film adaptation too, which won the Un certain regard prize in Cannes this year, although it seems to be more haunting in depiction of female resilience than the comic delight I am hoping for.