Monday, 14 July 2014

'The Book of Rio', Toni Marques & Katie Slade (eds.) (Review)

The World Cup is about to end (disappointingly) for Brazil, but with the Olympics taking place in Rio in 2016, it's not like the eyes of the world will be leaving the country for long any time soon.  Realising this, Comma Press (still on a high from Hassan Blasim's IFFP victory) have taken it upon themselves to introduce Anglophone readers to the city with the big statue.  How?  Through literature, of course ;)

The Book of Rio (edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade, review copy courtesy of the publisher) is another of Comma Press' excellent city guides, short-story collections helping readers to familiarise themselves with foreign shores.  This one contains ten short stories by Brazilian authors, each of which looks at life in Rio from a slightly different angle.  From Copacabana to the favela shanty towns, there's something for everyone here (even if football is conspicuous by its absence!).

Cesar Cardoso's 'Spare Me, Copacabana' (translated by Ana Fletcher) is the first story of the collection, a monologue from a party girl, which tells of her (and Copacabana's) faded glory.  The idea of women trading favours for pleasure (and more) also comes up in Patrícia Melo's 'I Love You' (tr. Daniel Hahn).  This one is a short, nicely-written story in which an escort gets caught up in a domestic squabble, all the time checking on how her friends are getting on at a nightclub.  The wonders of the smartphone age :)

Things get a lot more serious on the pleasure front in 'Song of Songs' by Nei Lopes (tr. Amanda Hopkinson), a story which takes the reader into the world of carnevale.  Lopes introduces us to a man running one of the many carnival organisations, showing us the grit and politics behind the glamour.  This is a tale about business, sex and money - and keeping it all in the family in the worst possible way...

Of course, it's not all fun down Rio way, and several stories look at those less fortunate inhabitants of the city.  In Luiz Ruffato's 'Lucky was Sandra' (tr. Jethro Soutar), a girl dreams of escape from the suburbs, determined to make a go of her life.  However, what goes up, must come down, and it's not long before Sandra ends up back in her old neighbourhood - whether she's better or worse off is hard to say.  Another sob story is João Gilberto Noll's 'Something Urgently' (tr. Sophie Lewis), where a boy from a criminal family is old before his time, doomed to a life on the margins of society.

Crime is also evident (from a distance) in Sérgio Sant'Anna's 'Strangers' (tr. Julia Sanches).  One of my favourites from this collection, the story has two strangers inspecting an apartment at the same time - and noticing some suspicious holes in the walls.  This one has it all, bullets from the favelas, sex in the afternoon and the joys of an uncertain, dangerous life.  A reflection on life in Rio?

Like many developing cities, Rio is changing at a rapid pace, but this brings uncertainty and danger for the workers bringing this change.  Domingos Pellegrini's 'The Biggest Bridge in the World' (tr. Jon S. Vincent) details the experience of an electrician on a major project, a... well, read the title ;)  It's a gig that's certainly well-paid, but money's not everything:
"Let's see some hustle, boys, let's see some hustle, because we only have three weeks.  Let's see some hustle because we only have two weeks.  One of the guys who worked with me, Arnold, fell asleep on his face on the seventh day, with his mouth right next to the end of a high tension cable.  He left the bridge and went straight to the hospital and never came back."
'The Biggest Bridge in the World', p.27 (Comma Press, 2014)
A real bridge of sighs, this grand project shows the price of progress (and might remind readers of certain projects which were implemented for the World Cup...).

Of course, traditions are important too, especially in an impersonal modern society.  While João Ximenes Braga's 'The Woman who Slept with a Horse' (tr. Zoë Perry) is thankfully free of bestiality, it does detail the struggles of an unhappy career woman looking for meaning in life:
"Andréa wanted to be everywhere, because she never wanted to be anywhere.  She especially did not want to be at home.  If she actually thought about it, she would realise that she didn't even want to be in her own body." (p.87)
Modern life being rubbish, Andréa attempts to spice things up by hooking up with a man involved in a native religion - but is she in over her head?

This malaise is also evident elsewhere.  In Marcelo Moutinho's 'Decembers' (tr. Kimberly M. Hastings), a man sees his grandfather through different eyes at three points in time, leaving him wistful for the past he never knew.  Finally, 'Places, in the Middle of Everything' by Elvira Vigna (tr. Lucy Greaves) gives us a melancholy piece to finish off with.  It's a story about a woman, her lover, a lot of rain and very little hope.  In fact, it's the perfect story to reflect the mood of the country after the events of the 8th of July...

The Book of Rio is a great collection, but (of course) it's a mere glimpse of what the city (and Brazilian literature in general) has to offer.  My only quibble with the book is that it's a tad on the short side, with most pieces being fairly brief.  Still, that's a minor concern, and the book is well worth checking out, leaving the reader with lots of names for future reference.

And if you like the sound of this kind of trip, you should definitely check out Comma Press' website.  You see, while today's post has concentrated on a Brazilian metropolis, there are plenty more literary holiday destinations for the discerning reader to discover in their series of city- and country-based collections.  So, where do you want to go today? ;)