#WITMonth: Brazilian Literature – Patricia Melo

Patricia Melo has been on my radar as a crime fiction writer for quite a few years now, but it’s not always easy to get hold of her books, even though she has been translated into English to what the publishers call ‘rave reviews’. (She has been published by Bloomsbury and Bitter Lemon Press, incidentally.)

Lost World, translated by Clifford E. Landers, is not strictly speaking crime fiction, but more of a noir road trip. Which, as I’m beginning to find out, is a recurring motif in Brazilian novels. I’ve also reviewed Perfect Days by Raphael Montes, and The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy, and there too we have the mingling of past and present, a search for someone or something, a running away from or running towards… and ultimately finding one’s self, even if that self is not very nice at all.

Maiquel is a retired contract killer. He’s been on the run and living under the radar for ten years, and managing to chug along relatively comfortably, because, according to him…

In Brazil… there’s no shame in having an arrest warrant out against you. It’s all the same, poor, rich, white, the hotshots, I mean cabinet members, council me, bigwigs, everybody’s got one. Brazilians are like that, real scumbags. It’s part of our culture to steal, to play dirty. It’s like being a hold-up victim: sooner or later everybody is.

He briefly shows up for his Aunt Rosa’s funeral, who leaves him her house and money, and realises that she was his last living relative… except for his daughter. His former girlfriend Erica ran off with his baby daughter more than ten years ago and he becomes determined to find her. With his aunt’s money he can now afford to pay a private detective to try and trace them.

His mission of revenge is not as simple as it sounds. Erica ran away with an evangelical preacher and has by now become quite a prominent figure in the church herself. They have guards, loyal servants, several homes and the ability to disappear suddenly over the border to Bolivia. Maiquel chases after them in an often hilarious but more frequently violent cat-and-mouse game. Along the way, we see him casually ‘dispose’ of people, treat women appallingly, behave erratically, but we also witness him getting beaten up, and rescuing and looking after an ugly dog in quite a touching manner. Melo keeps her main character deliberately ambiguous. Often infuriating and making stupid, rash decisions, he nevertheless sometimes has the air of a lost child, confused by the world around him and making cynical jokes as a coping mechanism.

This starts making sense when we discover more about his earlier life:

The first thing my father taught me was that I was invisible. And the second was that I was worthless. And that nothing mattered. He taught me in his own way, without saying a word, just with his eyes, while everything around us rotted. A can of worms. I learned fast.

He reluctantly allows himself to be helped in his quest not just by his private investigators and their friends and families, but also by a string of lonely women, which makes Maiquel meditate about love in the short, incomplete sentences that the author uses when she tries to convey his inability to articulate things.

And soon she’d disappear. Like all the other women… I’d never see Lucia again. Deep down, it doesn’t matter what you do, no one is left. Everything ends. They end it for you. They put things in the way. Life itself Or nothing. It just doesn’t work. You yourself try to destroy it. Because the hard thing isn’t loving. It’s seiing it through. Moving ahead. Living together, every day.

I should add that Maiquel does not always express himself like that. There are times when he is remarkably fluent, with wry humour, and his train of thought is mirrored in long sentences. Still, I think that Melo is trying to mimic his uneducated, unfiltered but nevertheless interesting take on life. This is a psychological journey for him as well. We watch him emerge from the chrysalis and at times it’s a painful process, which he doesn’t quite know how to describe.

So he is certainly not quite such a fast learner as he claims he was in his childhood, especially when it comes to the lesson that the past is the past and cannot be undone. That he has missed his opportunities and his ‘lost world’ or ‘lost family’ are nothing but an illusion.

I’d just like to point out the difference between the English and Portuguese language covers. The English cover has nothing to do with the story, and seems to be simply cashing in on readers’ impressions of Brazil (the beach, the skyscrapers, the poor children). The Brazilian edition at least shows you the protagonist is a grown-up man with a gun… but paused, waiting, blurry, losing himself at the edges.

In conclusion, this is a gritty and often graphic read, a condemning portrait of present-day Brazil, with a sad throb running all the way through it. Not as good as other books by Melo that I’ve read, so I wouldn’t perhaps recommend starting here. Perhaps try Inferno, heartbreaking because the main protagonist is a little boy.

Theatres, universities and exhibitions: a busy week

Are you sure a week is only seven days long? This past week must have included at least ten or eleven days… I am completely exhausted, even though there have been quite a few pleasurable activities.

It all started off with a trip to the theatre. The Omnibus Theatre in Clapham is located in the converted local library (which I hope still exists somewhere, but has merely moved to another building). I saw a hugely energetic and entertaining production of Othello set in contemporary London. Not all ‘modernising of Shakespeare’ works well, but this one certainly did for me. You can find my review here.

The following day my older son and I set off for a mother/son road trip to visit universities in the north of England. He is planning to study Law and it certainly helps that Law Schools seem to be housed in spanking new, purpose-built shiny buildings, rather than the poky cellars or attics to which Anthropology or Modern Languages departments seem to be relegated. (She said not at all enviously). Leeds was vibrant and lively, but perhaps a little too much of a big city for my boy. At first, York was not a big hit with him: the original West Campus with the brutalist architecture of the 1960s disappointed him. However, then we went to the newer East Campus, where the Law School is located.

University of York’s sustainable, edible and wildlife friendly campus utterly charmed me
In the foreground you can see the floating meeting room pods, where I could quite happily sit and write for hours…

Of course we spent some time in York itself, and I foolishly agreed to race my son up to the top of the tower of the York Minster. I’m still living with the breathless consequences of that!

Even half-dead, I could still admire the glorious view from the top!
And the view towards the Minster from the City Walls is just unforgettable – and so green!
This bird-like structure is Durham Law School. This was my son’s favourite from this trip.
Another beautiful city, another magnificent cathedral, but this time I was wise enough not to go up to the top of the tower.

Durham was the only proper Open Day that we attended – us and a few tens of thousands of other prospective students and pupils. It was busy and sunny and hot, but then quietened down considerably in the evening. I was somewhat annoyed that my son ‘chose’ his college by name alone (ironically, a prime example of 60s/70s architecture that he had pooh-pooed in York).

Last but not least, we stopped in Nottingham on the way back. Another beautifully green and calm campus, it went straight up into third place on my son’s wishlist of universities.

The famous Tower which is part of the University of Nottingham’s logo.

What about the mother/son bonding on the road trip? In terms of intellectual pursuits and rational questions, I really enjoyed discussing things with him. However, even though I’ve tried hard to emphasise heart as well as head, create a safe space to discuss and display emotions, there is not much going on in that department. Is it a boy thing? Is it a teenage thing? Is it a ‘boring old out of touch mother’ thing?

Back in the office, I not only encountered the deluge of emails and tasks to complete, but also one enjoyable appointment: the launch of the latest exhibition at Senate House Library. Writing in times of conflict will be open from the 15th of July to the 14th of December at the library (entrance is free). Small but perfectly formed for piquing your interest to explore further, it is divided into four main themes: Writing for Peace, Writing in Wartime, Writing from Exile and Writing in Protest. There is something for everyone here: starting from the League of Nations through to pacifists, a letter from Virginia Woolf describing the bombing of Sussex, pictures of bomb damage to Senate House itself (which was notoriously the Ministry of Information during the Second World War and inspire Orwell’s 1984), a short film about Anne Frank, the Greenham Common protesters, right up to the present day, including Extinction Rebellion flyers.

The Nazi Black Book for England includes over 3000 names of people deemed ‘dangerous’ by the Nazis, whom they would have imprisoned or exterminated at once if they’d invaded.
More recent protests such as the Occupy Movement or anti-Brexit and anti-Trump campaigns by the Left Unity group.

#WITMonth: Lucy Fricke’s Middle-Aged Thelma and Louise Story

Although I am tagging this with #WITMonth, German author Lucy Fricke has not been translated into English, even though she is no writing newbie. The novel Töchter (Daughters) is her fourth and I’d heard quite a rumble of excitement about her previous one, Takeshi’s Skin. I had Daughters shipped over from Germany following rave reviews not only in the German press but also on the blog of Kaffeehaussitzer, who always keeps me abreast of the German publishing scene. So let me be upfront about it: I enjoyed it, but didn’t think it deserved quite such high accolades.

It is a road trip novel about two indomitable female friends, who at some point describe themselves as Thelma and Louise, except they are neither young, nor sexy, and not even oppressed. Martha and Betty have been friends for 20 years, ever since they first moved to Berlin. Both of them come from broken homes with disappearing fathers, and each of them has developed a different mechanism for coping with the trauma. Martha has married and is trying desperately to conceive via IVF before her 40th treatment (after which IVF is no longer available in Germany). Meanwhile, Betty avoids any commitment by being the proverbial rolling stone and rents her flat out in gentrified Kreuzberg via AirBnB while she travels.

Martha’s father, Kurt, with whom she has reached an uneasy truce in his old age, suddenly announces that he has a terminal illness and has made an appointment at a Swiss clinic to curtail his suffering. Could she please accompany him on his final journey? Martha, who has been unable to drive after a horrible accident some years previously, and who thinks this is a terrible idea anyway, appeals to her friend Betty. So the strange trio set off in Kurt’s clapped-out old car and this grim-sounding road trip soon takes on farcical proportions.

Author photo, credit Dagmar Morath.

As they wind their way through crappy hotels and appalling petrol station snacks, they are subjected to Kurt’s anti-feminist rants and then a sudden change of plan. Before he dies, Kurt would like to see once more his very first love, whom he lost to an Italian man on the shores of Laggo Maggiore. Betty has her own agenda for going back to Italy, since she bears a certain nostalgia for her Italian ‘Dad’, the one man from her mother’s endless collection of ‘uncles’ and ‘step-dads’ who was ever nice to her as a child.

While the themes of the story can be easily identified as friendship, parenthood, forgiveness and death, and the final message is the somewhat trite ‘you need to find joy in life itself’, this goes a bit further than typical chick lit. There is quite a bit of self-mocking going on, for one:

We spend three, four decades talking about men and then we talk about illnesses. What a waste of life!

Secondly, the story is (refreshingly) not about finding the perfect man and partner, but about making peace with fatherly imperfections and moving from being a daughter to being a full-grown woman. Beneath the comic moments and sharply satirical observations, there is an underlying sadness. The author also lampoons the road movie she is imitating in the book:

It’s not as if a road trip is necessarily full of surprises, the promise of love or sex or crime at every road station. That only happens in films and books, a coming of age story on the fast lane. In real life, things happen slowly. In real life, we spend years grieving over a single heartache, while on the big screen any loser, any clown can save or destroy the world within a couple of days, as long as he (sic!) believes in himself and his power.

Scene from Maren Ade’s film ‘Toni Erdmann’.

I think the reason this has been so rapturously received in Germany is perhaps that there is not much of a literary tradition there for Bridget Jones style humour. I actually liked it more than Bridget Jones, mostly for the social satire aspects. However, among the worthy, dramatic German women filmmakers such as Margarethe von Trotta and Helma Sanders-Brahms of the New German Cinema period, there has always been a bit of a comedic tradition with directors and writers such as Doris Dörrie and, more recently, Maren Ade. I think this book fits in that slot – and can easily imagine it filmed (and perhaps improved in the process).

 

Deep Down Dead: The Road Trip to Hell and Back

deepdowndeadDisclosure required: I’ve known Steph Broadribb under her online username Crime Thriller Girl for a few years now. She blogs, reviews, tweets and goes to literary festivals, all in the name of crime – so clearly a woman after my own heart! – and has now written a feisty action thriller Deep Down Dead, to be published by Orenda Books on the 5th of January. However, liking a person in real life (or even online life) is not an automatic guarantee that you will like their writing. And I am not a huge fan of action thrillers, or so I told myself…

However, this is an action thriller with a difference: it is written by a woman. So, although we do have lots of page-turning action and fights and dangerous moments, there are also moments of tenderness, doubts, genuine warmth. This is an action thriller with heart and compassion, combining the darkness of film noir with a family story and the ruggedness of a Western.

Female bounty hunter Lori Anderson is clearly related to VI Warshawski or Kinsey Milhone, or such no-nonsense, kick-ass female heroines, but she is also a single mother to a rather ill nine-year-old girl. The medical bills keep lining up, the cancer may come back at any time, so Lori is desperate to take on any job, even those she should steer well clear of. One suspiciously well-paid job involves her bringing JT, her former mentor (and lover) back to Florida. It sounds straightforward enough and, when her childcare arrangements fall through, she ends up taking her daughter with her on a three-day road-trip across several states which ends up veering completely out of control. She hasn’t seen JT in ten years – could he have turned into a criminal in the meantime? Or is he indeed hunting down a paedophile ring, as he claims? The Mafia gets involved, so does the police, and soon they are on the run.

stephbroadribbWe follow Lori and JT in this entertaining and non-stop gruelling journey, with plenty of kidnapping, violence, shooting, car chases, and my own personal highlight: running amok through a theme park. As the stakes get higher and higher, we ask ourselves: are these two bounty hunters using such unconventional methods to cover their own asses, or are they really going to achieve some form of justice? They keep going in spite of the constant menace from all parts and their injuries, but they are not superhuman (as they might be if this were written by a man, perhaps). The author describes all the pain and difficulties the main protagonist endures in quite graphic detail.

There is a danger perhaps that this kind of cat-and-mouse hunt of a novel could become repetitive, but Steph Broadribb just manages to avoid that, adding a new twist to every scene of capture or escape. What I really admire is her ability to absorb and render the American idioms, twang and way of life so believably (the author is British, although she did live for a while in the US). What we have here is all the swagger and tension of a Western: who is going to blink first, who is going to be slower on the draw?

Perfect escapism for this time of year and a great start to my holiday reading.