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.