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.]
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.