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Entries in Brazil (3)


The Shape of Bones by Daniel Galera

First published in Brazil in 2006; published in translation by Penguin Press on August 15, 2017

The Shape of Bones reads like a collection of related stories that follow a group of characters in Brazil, but the stories eventually shape themselves into a novel. Each episode/chapter has a title and most can be read as a discrete story. Each is narrated by Hermano. The developing story in the present interweaves with memories of Hermano’s past.

The episodes in the past are set in Esplanada, a city in Northeast Brazil. They give shape to Hermano’s life. For example, “The Urban Cyclist” is Hermano as a ten-year-old boy who rides his bicycle at high speeds on the tricky pavements of suburban streets. The story tells of Hermano’s encounter with an old woman who explains the blood that is spilling from his knee after a tumble. Other cycling stories make clear that Hermano craves attention and is jealous of friends who receive more accolades than he can manage. The memories serve to establish Hermano’s character and to fix the city of Esplanada firmly in the reader’s mind.

Hermano’s memories of the past involve the people he hung with, the ones he liked and those he regarded as threats. The first story that features Bonobo is about a collision and its dangerous repercussions on a soccer field. In later memories, Bonobo becomes an important (but not well liked) figure in Hermano’s life, someone Hermano envies for the wrong reasons. Bonobo is eventually involved in the key dramatic moment that defines Hermano’s past, a moment that changes to suit Hermano as he retells it.

Other episodes reveal additional stages of Hermano’s life. In one, we see Hermano’s high school insecurity as he attends a girl’s birthday party, unsure whether he wants to dance, hesitant to make eye contact with girls, unable to intervene when another boy at the party is giving a girl a hard time. Cowardice is a recurring theme.

In the present, we discover that Hermano is a cosmetic surgeon, married with child, the completion of a goal-driven life. Most of the episodes set in the present take place minutes apart from each other. They tell of Hermano’s plan to join his friend Renan on an expedition to climb a mountain that has never been climbed. Each episode is titled with a time (such as “6:08 a.m.”) and each is told in long paragraph, which I imagine is meant to give them a sense of onrushing immediacy. That doesn’t work very well, since the content is often too contemplative to justify the form.

How are we to understand Hermano? I’m not sure we can, because Hermano does not understand why he has suddenly chosen to become “a solitary renegade deserting all ties to his life to seek something in his origins.” He has made a sudden, fateful and impulsive decision that will change his life for no obvious purpose. He is a quixotic character, perhaps in the grip of self-delusion. He briefly fancies himself a hero although he’s really kind of a dick. But maybe he’s just changing in a belated reaction to the dramatic moment that took place fifteen years earlier. The past always catches up to the present no matter how quickly we try to run from it, and that might be the ultimate point of The Shape of Bones.



Brief Space Between Color and Shade by Cristovão Tezza

First published in Brazil in 1998 and revised in 2013; published in translation by AmazonCrossing on August 19, 2014

Tato Simmone is a painter in Curitiba who exists on the monthly allowance he receives from his mother, an art and antiques dealer in New York. He has little interest in his mother, or in his father (who resents not receiving a similar allowance), or in the half-sister he hopes never to meet again. A year earlier, he had an ambiguous encounter with an older woman who now writes to him from Italy -- pages from her lengthy melancholic "testament" appear during the novel at regular intervals -- but the only significant friend in his life, a painter who was also his mentor, has just died.

At his mentor's funeral, Tato meets Richard Constantin, an art dealer with a shady reputation. He also meets a woman Constantin describes as a vampire. She can no longer suck the life out of Tato's mentor and seems intent on latching onto Tato as a substitute. Tato gives some of his time to the woman but never bothers to learn her name, referring to her only as "the vampire."

The novel's scattered moments of intrigue begin after the funeral, when Tato discovers that someone has broken into his home. On a later occasion, an unseen burglar in his studio punches him in the eye, yet nothing is taken. Threats he does not understand are left on his answering machine. As Tato ponders that mystery, another pops up. His mother, his father, the Italian, and Constantin all have a puzzling interest in a bust by Modigliani -- or is it a fake? And if it is a fake, why are the interested parties so interested in it? I would have been happier with this novel if it had produced more satisfactory answers to those questions. Instead, the abrupt ending leaves many questions hanging in the air. The novel is like an unfinished painting (the kind that Tato most often produces).

Tato is clearly not a happy guy. Transfixed in the composition of a painting, Tato experiences "a powerful illusion of forgetting, which, if I give in to it, I would call happiness." Tato's pompous and judgmental personality is so grating that it is difficult to work up any sympathy for him. Like his Italian friend, Tato seems intent on being miserable and prefers to wallow in self-pity rather than pursuing happiness. Still, he derives a measure of happiness by engaging in pretentious discussions of art and literature and love that seem designed to impress more than to illuminate.

Brief Space is a novel of lush prose employed to tell a story that is too often tedious. Gorgeous sentences unfurl but, in the end, say too little that I found meaningful. Tato's narration of his self-obsessed life is occasionally interrupted by communications (in the same voice) from Tato's self-obsessed mother and from his self-obsessed Italian friend, but those characters made me want to kill myself. Tato at least indulges in unexpected behavior when he tries to steal the Modigliani, but there are too few of those interesting moments to offset all the tiresome angst.

On several occasions, characters in the novel compare painting to literature. If I were to make that comparison, I would describe Brief Space Between Color and Shade as surrealist. In the last several pages, the artist and works of art conflate, as if the artist is inhabiting the art. What do those pages mean? I could guess, but your guess is as good as (probably better than) mine. There are many ways to interpret a work of literature, just as there are many ways to interpret an abstract painting. If you like the kind of novel that is open to interpretation, Brief Space is a novel you might enjoy. I generally admire that kind of novel, but Brief Space left me so perplexed (not entirely in a good way) that I don't know how to feel about it. I'm therefore recommending it with reservations but with the recognition that a discerning reader might find more value here than I did.



Spilt Milk by Chico Buarque


First published in Brazil in 2009; published in translation by Grove Press on December 4, 2012

Spilt Milk begins with the rambling narrative of a hospital patient, Eulálio Assumpção, speaking to a girlfriend who, it soon becomes clear, is present only in his imagination. Assumpção is old -- he says his life has become "unbearably long, like a fraying thread" -- although whether he is actually one hundred years old, as he sometimes believes, is not entirely clear. Assumpção's connection to reality is tenuous. At times he believes his long-dead parents will be coming to rescue him from captivity. Other times he believes his daughter is arranging his discharge. Some days he is convinced he will not survive the night and asks for a priest to perform the last rites; other days he thinks he is being kidnapped.

Assumpção lives in his memories but his memories are indistinguishable from his dreams. "Memory is truly a pandemonium," he says, yet by rummaging around all sorts of things can be found. His memories resist chronology or any other order; they are called to mind by free-association. Whether those memories are reliable is another question. Assumpção recognizes that his memories have increasingly become memories of memories, copies that degrade each time they are reproduced. The reader is left to sort out truth from falsity in the confusion that is Assumpção's life in recollection.

With a minimum of well chosen words, Chico Buarque sketches Assumpção's long life and the colorful lives that surrounded him: the father ("the most influential politician in the old Republic") who took him whoring and introduced him to cocaine while he was still a child; the mother who wears tragedy well; the relatives who are misfits, criminals, and victims; the wife who taught him the true meaning of desire; the daughter whose husband leaves her during her pregnancy; the great-grandson born in prison, or perhaps in an army hospital, depending on how Assumpção remembers the story. Of course, whether we should accept these characters at face value is doubtful. Does Assumpção really have a great-great-grandson named (as are all his male descendants) Eulálio, "already a strapping young man of my size," who set fire to his school and stole jewelry from Assumpção's home so he could buy the latest mobile phones and phosphorescent tennis shoes? Not knowing quite what to make of Assumpção's stories -- no matter how confidently Assumpção tells them -- is part of the novel's appeal.

Assumpção's strongest memories are of his wife Matilde, his first and irreplaceable love, yet even here his account of their relationship is confusing and marked by contradiction. Assumpção was a jealous husband; whether that jealousy was founded is, like so much else in this novel, never clear. Assumpção believes Matilde abandoned him, although the timing and circumstances of that abandonment change each time Assumpção recalls them, as does Matilde's eventual fate. What shines through as trustworthy are elemental emotions: Assumpção's desire for Matilde and his despair at her loss. His life was full when they were together. After she left, the story of his life "would consist of many pages and little ink" -- empty pages. Perhaps his malleable memories of his daughter and of the offspring of his offspring are just an old man's last attempt to put words on the page.

Buarque's evocative prose captures the Copacabana of Assumpção's youth like sepia-tinted photographs. Still, it is the poignancy of Assumpção's life -- a long transition from privilege to poverty and perhaps, in the end, a life not entirely lived -- and the stark contrast of his memories of Matilde that make Spilt Milk memorable.