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.