Saturday, March 24, 2018

Chile: Camanchaca, by Diego Zúñiga

I have been intrigued by the area of Northern Chile that surrounds the Atacama Desert, the dryest place on earth, every since discovering that my great grandmother's brother, a Scottish mining engineer, settled there in the late 1800's. So when I read of this book, the author's first novel, I ordered it.

When it arrived I found a very slim volume of a little over a hundred pages, many of which carry only a few lines of text. The book tells of its teenage narrator, living with his mother in Santiago, invited by his father in the northern city of Iquique to visit him and take a road trip with him. The camanchaca is a low sea fog that is the only source of moisture in the desert. The story is told in fragments as if seen through fog, fragmented, elusive and with its outlines blurred.

I found the narrator a somewhat unappealing character - overweight, with bad teeth, uncertain about life. But the writing is compelling, with a sense of mystery about it, which is never quite solved. A quick, but not necessarily easy, read, which I found myself appreciating very much. The author was born in 1987, so it will be interesting to see what path his writing takes in future.

Camanchaca is translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, and published in 2017 by Coffee House Press.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cape Verde: The Last Will and Testament of Senhor da Silva Araujo, by Germano Almeida

I knew little about the Cape Verde Islands before reading this book, apart from the fact that I have a CD of songs by the "barefoot diva" Cesaria Evora, who comes from there. It turns out that the islands are somewhat different to the rest of Africa. They were uninhabited until discovered by the Portuguese in the 15th century. It was ideally situated for the Atlantic slave trade, and its modern population has a mixture of Portuguese, Moorish, Arab and African heritage.

This was an easily readable book. The title character has been single all his life,a comfortably off business man and appeared to be a model of rectitude. But when he dies, he leaves a will of some three hundred pages, which reveals his life story, including the existence of an illegitimate daughter. This is rather unwelcome news to his nephew, who had expected to inherit his uncle's estate.

As the book proceeds, the daughter, Maria da Graca, and nephew Carlos, gradually learn more of their uncle's life, along with the reader. It is a rich picture of a life. The blurb suggests that the book moves along a blurry line between farce and tragedy. But one thing made me uncomfortable about this book - the description of the conception of Maria da Graca. Despite her mother saying "it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't wanted it", the description suggests that she had little choice in the matter, in fact it was uncomfortably close to a rape scene between an employer and a powerless employee. The book was originally written in 1991, and perhaps it didn't seem a problem then, but today this scene is disturbing.

The book was translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser and published by New Directions in 2004

Friday, March 02, 2018

Brazil: The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao, by Martha Batalha

Crow Blue, the first book I read from a Brazilian author, had large parts set out of the country. And when Martha Batalha's newly translated book appeared in our library, it looked intriguing, so I thought I would give it a go.

Euridice Gusmao and her elder sister Guida are two very different people, growing up in Rio de Janeiro in the 1940s, the daughters of Portuguese immigrant merchants. Guida reads womens magazines and styles her sister's hair. Euridice is a talented musician and dreams of fame and fortune. One day Guida disappears. Euridice gives up her ambitions to marry and live the conventional life of a wife and mother. But Euridice is bored. The book tells the story of the various projects Euridice adpots to inject some interest into her humdrum life. And what happens when Guida turns up again with her young son? (But without her husband).

I found the book entertaining and amusing. The reader cannot but feel sympathetic towards the spirited Euridice, and wish that she had lived in more enlightened times, when she might have better fulfilled her potential. For although all her schemes occupy her for a time, ultimately she does not have the means to carry any through to its completion. Perhaps her final project, writing a book, will have a better outcome? We are left to wonder...

The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao was translated from the Portuguese by Eric M B Becker and published by Oneworld Publications in 2017.