Fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown

Nowhere People
by Paulo Scott
translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

I’ve subscribed to And Other Stories for a few years now, and I tend to know little or nothing about the books they send me before I read them. I mean, I could read the blurbs, or the e-mail newsletter I get every month, but I’m going to read them anyway so why risk spoilers?

And I’m glad in this case I had so little idea of where it was going. Which leaves me with some difficulty when it comes to writing a review. Not that the plot is hugely twisty turny, but it does cover a large span of time, and much of what happens later is the result of something I don’t want to give away.

The book opens with Paulo, a Brazilian law student and activist, driving along a highway in torrential rain and spotting a poor indigenous girl at the side of the road. Stopping to give 14-year-old Maína a lift sets in motion events that reverberate through two decades of relationships, politics and activism.

Continue reading “Fresh from the experience of an invisibility hitherto unknown”

To gather together human debris

All Dogs Are Blue

All Dogs Are Blue
by Rodrigo de Souza Leão
translated from Portuguese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler

This is a short, sharp shock of a book. It deals with serious, scary stuff but manages to be funny, exciting and superbly readable, as well as powerful and enlightening.

The story is narrated by the inmate of an asylum in Rio de Janeiro, fluidly moving between fact and hallucination, lucidity and paranoia. His imaginary friends are Rimbaud, who he considers reliable, and Baudelaire, who is not. Lots of things seem to happen in the course of 100 or so pages, but it’s not always possible to know what is real and what is imagined.

“I swallowed a chip yesterday…There was an electrode on my forehead. I don’t know if I swallowed the electrode with the chip. The horses were galloping. Except for the seahorse, who was swimming around in the aquarium.”

The narrator switches between his own thoughts and reported speech with no punctuation or other indication, so it can sometimes be confusing who is being referred to. But then very little of this makes absolute sense. It is quite literally the rantings of a mad man. Which can be tough or sad, but can also be beautiful or insightful.

“I had moments of lucidity. They were few, but I had them. Sometimes the drugs they used work. But there are people who don’t get better, even with the medicine. What good is hospitalisation, then? To gather together human debris.”

The blue dog of the title is a toy dog that the narrator remembers from his childhood and misses. In her introduction to this translation, Deborah Levy argues that the blue dog is a version of the black dog of depression, which adds an interesting element to its appearances in the narrator’s memories and rants.

Another element that’s hard to forget when reading this book is that it’s semi-autobiographical. Souza Leão died in 2009 in a psychiatric clinic, after years struggling with mental illness. It really brings home the message that despite the comedy and outright craziness, this is the story of a human being, a man who is intelligent and artistic but who reduces his father to tears and forces his mother to admit she doesn’t want him to come home.

“I had my first attack at 15. At 36 I’ve still got problems. Wonder what the next problem will be? I’m a walking problem. It rains and I cry. I cry and it rains.”

Aside from the occasional morose moment, the tone stays light and witty throughout the darkest and the strangest scenes. And it does get pretty dark and pretty strange.

This was the only fiction of Souza Leão’s published during his lifetime, but I understand that more has been published since and I hope that it all finds translators as good as this.

Todos os cachorros são azuis published 2008.
This translation published 2013 by And Other Stories.

Source: I’m a subscriber to the publisher.

Challenges: This counts toward the 2013 Translation Challenge.

A thriller without thrills

Southwesterly Wind
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
translated by Benjamin Moser

This highly acclaimed novel is the third in the Inspector Espinosa series, set in Rio de Janeiro. Quotes on the book jacket compare Garcia-Rosa to Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler. I really really don’t agree.

It may be a style thing, it may be poor translation, but I did not get on with this book. I would have abandoned it if it wasn’t so easy to read. Easy but not good. There was a lot of clumsy phrasing, sentences that seemed like they could have been clever or funny if written differently. The plot was odd but predictable, the policeman’s actions unlikely and the ending not nearly as ambiguous as Garcia-Rosa would have us believe.

The story centres around Gabriel who was told by a strange fortune teller at his 29th birthday party that he would kill someone before his next birthday. As the big three-oh approaches, his paranoia gets increasingly bad and he goes to the police. Inspector Espinosa is intrigued but doesn’t know what he’s expected to investigate – no crime has been committed. Yet.

Of course, eventually crimes do happen that may or may not be related, there are shadowy characters and beautiful women, and there are many detailed descriptions of the city of Rio, which was one part of the book that I did like. That and Espinosa’s friendly neighbour, a young girl called Alice who wants him to get a dog so that he doesn’t get lonely. That was a sweet subplot.

There seemed to be an attempt to add something spiritual to the usual thriller fare. There was a lot of talk about psychoanalysis and religion and the effect of the southwesterly wind. But it wasn’t fully explored and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the novel.

The main problem, though, is that it takes a while for stuff to start happening and yet I felt no suspense. I thought that it was obvious there would eventually be a dead body that could possibly be linked to Gabriel and before that had even happened I had figured out the ending. None of the characters beside Espinosa had any real fleshing out. I am frankly baffled by the awards and praise Garcia-Rosa has received. Maybe his previous two books were far better?

Originally published in Brazil in 1999 by Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, under the title Vento sudoeste.
This translation first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Company.