The Brazilian front: rich ground for the pioneering reader
Most readers of contemporary fiction would struggle to name 10 Brazilian authors. Novelist João Almino met a group of literature students at Trinity recently to tell us what we’re missing
João Almino: ‘Brazilian-ness is something that appears as a result of the writing process, not at the beginning of the process. If it’s at the beginning, it will put the writer in a straitjacket.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Almino explains references in his work to the novels of Joaquim Machado de Assis (above), regarded by many as the greatest Brazilian writer
‘We buy Brazil’s clothes, we admire its football, we dance to its beats, but the dream-life of the nation – something contemporary fiction creates in a unique and vital way – remains mostly invisible to us, simply because of a lack of translation.”
So said the editor of Granta, John Freeman, when he published his 20 Best Young Brazilian Novelists issue in July 2012. Two years on, the dream-life of Brazil is still largely unexplored territory for Europeans. Most readers of contemporary fiction in translation could name 10 Indian novelists with little difficulty; try the same trick with Brazilian authors, and see how the scoreline pans out.
But there are beacons of light. Recently, Dalkey Archive Press brought one of the authors from its Brazilian list, João Almino, to meet a group of literature students at Trinity College Dublin. They are studying for a master of philosophy degree in literatures of the Americas, and the course ranges from William Faulkner through The Exorcist to Inuit writing in English. The students have also been reading Dalkey Archive Press’s handsome hardback edition of Almino’s The Book of Emotions, copies of which begin to appear from satchels and backpacks as everyone settles at the large round table in the seminar room.
The Book of Emotions is also perched at the top of the very long 2014 Impac longlist. As the founder of Dalkey Archive Press, John O’Brien, writes in his introductory remarks, it is “a very strange book”. The story takes place in a future Brazil, where a blind photographer named Cadu is organising a series of old photographs in his head – a diary, in effect, of his emotions as they were frozen on this or that day.
Almino defends his unreliable narrator with a smile. “He’s not so strange,” he counters, mildly. “I hope the reader will sometimes get angry with him – and sometimes pity him.”
How important is Cadu’s disability, one student wants to know. “It’s essential,” Almino replies. “I wanted this to be a book which is radically about memory. His blindness helps create a radical perspective. The narrator is blind and the reader cannot see the photographs – can only read them, so to speak.”
As well as being a meditation on the nature of love, the book questions our conviction that photographs tell a purer kind of truth than words do. “Today we’re inundated by images,” explains Almino, provoking wry nods around the table. “It really is too much. We’re blinded by images, and this was in my mind when writing the novel. That to see an image . . . you’ll see it better if you close your eyes.”