Nov 25, 2016
Layers of History, Reality, Identity: Eight Books from Brazil
After the Summer Olympics, the international public’s image of Brazil is split between the celebration, medals, champions, scandals, and romance of the recent games and country’s recent political upheaval, in the form of the president’s impeachment and of the high-profile money laundering investigation Operation Car Wash. Reconciling both sides of the narrative is complicated for Brazilians, but it can be even more so for foreigners trying to make sense of what’s going on. There’s more to Brazil than sports and politics—there are mysteries and wonders and, above all, a constant search for identity in a huge, complex, and often contradictory country. Here are our favorite works by contemporary Brazilian authors that expose the layers of the country’s history, reality, and identity.
The House in Smyrna by Tatiana Salem Levy, translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Scribe, 2015)
A young woman lies in her Rio de Janeiro bed, suffering from a harsh and mysterious illness, and decided to take up an offer from her grandfather: to go to Smyrna, Turkey, and find the house he left when he migrated to Brazil years before. The non-linear narrative traverses time and space, from her grandfather’s migration to her parents’ exile in Portugal under the Brazilian military dictatorship in the 1970s, to the protagonist’s ongoing difficult love affair.
The Body Snatcher by Patricia Melo, translated from Portuguese by Clifford Landers (Bitter Lemon Press, 2015)
Written by one of the biggest names in Brazilian crime fiction, Melo’s eighth novel, The Body Snatcher, takes readers to Corumbá, a small town in Pantanal, which borders Bolivia. The narrator, a depressed telemarketer who just lost his job, witnesses a plane crash on the banks of the Paraguay River, finding a kilo of cocaine next to the pilot’s dead body. What could be a thriller about being on the wrong place at the wrong time becomes a tale of corruption and a deep dive into the complexities of the South American drug trade.
A Window in Copacabana by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza, translated from Portuguese by Benjamin Moser (Picador, 2006)
Yet another crime story, this time set in the most famous neighborhood in Rio: Copacabana, known for its beaches, history, and shady tourist traps. Espinosa, chief of Rio’s 12th Police Precinct and mystery writer Garcia-Roza’s favorite protagonist, investigates the execution of three cops over a few carioca summer days in the underbelly of the city.
Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera, translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Penguin Books, 2015)
An unnamed gym teacher loses his father and seeks solace in Garopaba, a small seaside town in the south of the country where his grandfather was murdered many years ago. The protagonist tries to deal with his own grief and to figure out what really happened to his grandfather, but a neurological condition that keeps him from recognizing faces turns everything stranger, more awkward, and, it turns out, more dangerous.
The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (Delacorte Press, 2016)
Samuel is fourteen, orphaned, and homeless, walking through Ceará in a pilgrimage to find his long-lost grandmother. In the ghost town of Candeia, his final destination, he finds himself living inside the giant hollow head of an unfinished statue of Anthony of Padua, the patron saint of marriages, listening to the women who pray for true love and, sometimes, answering their prayers.
Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa translated from Portuguese by Alison Entrekin (Bloomsbury, 2014)
Thirteen-year-old Vanja loses her mother and decides to leave Rio de Janeiro to move in with her stepfather, a former communist guerrilla now living in exile in Colorado. The connections between Brazil and the United States and the memories of war and military dictatorship are the throughlines of this moving coming-of-age novel.
Diary of the Fall by Michel Laub, translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa (Vintage Books, 2014)
Three generations come together in Diary of the Fall: a Jewish man whose life was changed by his involvement in a teenage prank gone wrong at age thirteen; his father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, obsessed with every memory he’s still able to grasp; and his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor with a dark, weird, secret diary. Like many writers on this list, Michel Laub explores issues of family, identity, and the narratives we tell about ourselves.
Rilke Shake by Angélica Freitas, translated from Portuguese by Hilary Kaplan (Phoneme Media, 2015)
To finish up, a bit of poetry in the form of the winner of Three Percent’s Best Translated Book Award for poetry in 2016. The poems in Rilke Shake, as the punny title suggests, review the canon in fun, unexpected, and sometimes poignant ways—a welcome reminder that Brazilian writing isn’t always about Brazilian identity.
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