Monday, 5 August 2013

'All Dogs Are Blue' by Rodrigo de Souza Leão

It's been a long time between drinks, but today I've finally got around to reviewing another book from great indie publishers And Other Stories.  It's another of their South American finds, this time from Brazil, and like Down the Rabbit Hole, it's a fairly short read.  It seems even shorter because of its compulsive nature - this is one you race through in a blur...

All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão (translated by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler, e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a semi-autobiographical tale of time spent inside a mental institute.  An overweight schizophrenic is locked up after trashing his parents' house, and in a confusing stream-of-consciousness monologue, we learn a little about how he's ended up there and a lot about what happens within the asylum's walls.

From the very first paragraph, the reader is shown what to expect from Souza Leão's madness:
"I swallowed a chip yesterday.  I forced myself to talk about the system that surrounds me. 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."
(And Other Stories, 2013)
Our friend is a little bit paranoid and obsessed by the idea that he swallowed a chip (which may have developed from the cricket he swallowed when he was a child).  There's a lot more to his madness than that though.

After an initial stint in solitary confinement, he wanders around the asylum accompanied by his (imaginary) friends.  Baudelaire is a calm fellow, but (unfortunately) he's not always around.  Rimbaud, on the other hand, can usually be relied upon to provide the writer with some company, even if he is a tad more aggressive than his fellow French poet.  An interesting point here for non-French speakers - Rimbaud is pronounced in English as 'Rambo' ;)

We occasionally get to see the effect of the illness on the speaker's family, especially his mum and dad.  While they seem to want the best for their son, he certainly feels a little betrayed by their decision to have him committed:
"He says I'll get out when I'm better.  I move towards him and kiss him on the face.  Is it the kiss of Judas?  Will I betray my father in my madness?  And what if two men came now and crucified me upside down.  Could the cross bear the weight of this lard-arse?"
However, in rare, lucid, moments, he is able to put his delusions aside and recognise the truth, accepting that there was something very wrong with his life:
"I cried because I was thirty-seven years old and living like a teenager."

One frequent theme of All Dogs are Blue is religion, with several mentions of beliefs, of both Christian and less orthodox varieties.  It's seen as something that keeps the people happy, even if it messes with their heads at times:
"Religion nowadays just fucks with people.  I think they knew there were a lot of alcoholics in here.  Religion isn't just the opium of the people.  But it's what keeps the people happy.  It's a sad thing when a nation needs religion to lean on.  It's worse than a lunatic who's been cured, but who will always need the support of another person to be happy.  Better to be an incurable lunatic."
In view of later events, this is an interesting viewpoint.  You see, when he eventually leaves the institute, he decides to immerse himself in religion - but not as you might expect.  Our lunatic decides that those who think that a bit of religion, football and music make everything alright in the world are the real crazy ones...

All Dogs are Blue, as mentioned in my introduction, is a work you race through, a real one-sitting book.  It's a story which gives you a flavour of Brazil, albeit in small glimpses through the bars on the institute's windows, but it's also a slightly unsettling glimpse into the writer's own problems.  It fits in very well with the rest of And Other Stories' back catalogue - edgy and ever-so-slightly bizarre. 

A nice addition is an introduction by Deborah Levy (the publisher's success story of the last couple of years) in which she explores some of the book's central themes.  She describes Souza Leão's blue dog as a rare breed of the more common black dog of depression, but it is also used as a link back to his 'normal' life, his childhood, before things went wrong.  Sadly, the writer never got to enjoy his success - he took his life the year All Dogs are Blue was published...