Book of the month: Dina Salústio

Firsts are a recurring theme on this blog. This month’s book of the month is a case in point. Not only is it the first novel by a female author to be published in Cape Verde, but it is also the first full-length work of fiction by a woman from that nation to be translated into English.

Such publishing events can be both positive and problematic. On one hand, it is exciting to think that the voice of someone from a previously ignored group can now be heard in the world’s most published language; on the other hand, the unreasonable pressure of requiring one novel to carry the weight of an entire community can have a warping effect on our reading. If we’re not careful, we can lumber the writer in question with unfair expectations, forgetting that they are just a person who decided to write a story, and that they probably never thought of themselves as speaking for their gender, nation or ethnic group. A single story, as the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie so eloquently argues, never gives a complete picture.

So what to make of this latest first, The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar? How to detach it from the political baggage that comes with the accident of its time and place of publication and translation, and take it on its own terms?

At first glance, the novel seems as though it will be relatively straightforward. The premise, though complicated, contains lots of familiar tropes: a traditional village community (Serrano) under threat of development, a young woman forced to confront a difficult past, family secrets, a curse, the tensions between city and country, modern habits and old customs, now and then.

But when you start to read, it quickly becomes clear that the novel does not conform to many of the conventions of its form – or, at least, the anglophone Western version of it.

For one thing, although many of the elements of the story sound familiar, their handling is not. Realism and myth crash together in a strange and jagged interaction that sees the modern, urban world of microwaves, therapy sessions and business deals grate against ancient rites, hearsay and magic. A death certificate shows that a man has been poisoned by strange thoughts; apparently infertile women go to the city for ‘pharmaceuticals’ that turn out not to be quite what they seem; and the mysterious madwoman of the title makes predictions that play out on city streets, as well as in the rural dreamscape of the village.

This stark juxtaposition is reflected on the linguistic level, with translator Jethro Soutar often reaching for words from diverse registers to capture the story’s massive range. At times you can almost feel the narrative straining with the effort of containing all Salústio wants to say, breaking out into a series of surprising digressions, many of which yield some of the book’s most joyful passages. The small section about the unusual role of cats in Serrano, for example, is as pleasing as it is unexpected, while the various explorations of the role of magic in women’s lives put me in mind of another first book by a woman – Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane’s The First Wife, translated into English by David Brookshaw, which I sent to Donald Trump in celebration of World Book Day a few years back.

As with many books that draw on traditions beyond Western literature, the pacing and structure of The Madwoman of Serrano make it a challenging read for those used to the mainstream output of the anglophone publishing industry. Flashbacks nests within flashbacks, repeated memories create an impression of stagnation at points, and, while a number of major events are dealt with in a handful of sentences, it takes central character Filipa several chapters to cook a turkey.

It would require a more knowledgeable reader than me to unpick the threads of all the different influences at work in this book. While the influence of the Western tradition seems evident to me in the shadowy figure of the detective, who appears in the final quarter to tie up many of the loose ends (sometimes rather abruptly), I have no way of knowing what local storytelling techniques may be at work.

As a result, the reading experience felt patchy. At times I seemed to know exactly where I was and what was going on, only for the author to pull the rug out from under my feet with a swerving digression or unexpected turn of events on the following page.  There were numerous episodes that felt rather loosely plotted or underprepared, with catastrophes often arriving out of the blue to scatter characters’ plans.

However, this response may say more about the expectations that my largely Western literary diet has ingrained in me than it does about this book. Steeped in a tradition built on the assumption that human beings have a relatively large degree of control over their safety, health and happiness, I am used to stories that function with a high level of causality, where the course of events can be traced logically, each human action leading to the next. But such neat storytelling may seem naïve, unrealistic or flawed in parts of the world where life is more precarious and where disaster lurks much closer to the surface.

It’s for this reason that it’s important that publishers persist in broadening the kind of text that is available in the world’s most published language and continue to bring out firsts such as this. While The Madwoman of Serrano won’t be an easy or perhaps even a satisfying read for many English speakers, it tugs at the preconceptions we all carry about how books work and what stories do. It may be that this novel has as much to teach us about Western literature and reading habits as it does about writing by women in Cape Verde.

The Madwoman of Serrano (A louca de Serrano) by Dina Salústio, translated from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar (Dedalus, 2019)

Postcard from my bookshelf #3

This month sees the first blind selection from the nearly 200 applications I have received so far for this project. I used an online random-number generator to make the pick and counted down the comments until I arrived at the corresponding entry.

This was from Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs, who told me the following:

Couple years ago a friend told me about your blog and since then I have kept thinking, what a nice challenge! I love the idea because I love to read about other cultures, to learn, to grow, be open minded. I for sure wants to start with reading of the world but not in one year. I fear that is not possible for me, I read about 80 books per year. And I fear that I will not be able to read books from all countries that might not be translated in Dutch or English.
And I also like to pass on the books. I cleared out over 100 books and gave it to free library. So I have space for new books 😉

First of all, I have to say that I think Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs is being rather hard on herself here. Reading 80 books in a year is pretty good going by most people’s standards. Many of the readers engaged in international quests I’ve heard from are taking a number of years to work their way through their intended lists, so I don’t think Introverted Blahs and Hurrahs (or IBH, as I’ll call her from now on) has anything to feel bad about on that score. In fact, I know an author who wrote a book about reading 52 books in a year, so she’s well ahead of him!

From her blog of the same name, I learned that IBH lives in the Netherlands and – to my delight – that she has recently posted about her intention to travel the world through books. It was a joy to see another curious bibliophile setting out to explore the rich world of books and to witness her beginning to grapple with some of the questions that I had to wrestle with during my adventure, such as how you categorise books by authors with dual nationalities or by people born in one place but living in another.

Knowing that this reader was keen to access literature from all over the planet gave me lots of ideas about what I might choose for her. But before I get to that, there’s another title I would like to recommend.

This isn’t the book I’ll be sending, but it’s one I think IBH would enjoy if she hasn’t already read it: Quiet by Susan Cain, who has also given the TED talk embedded below. As a fellow introvert, I found the book hugely informative and helpful, and would recommend it to anyone who ever feels overwhelmed by the noise and pressure to be heard that so often characterise life in much of the English-speaking world.

 

Quiet is not a translated book, however. Instead, as my Postcard to IBH, I wanted to choose something that would help her tick off one of the nations less well-represented in the anglophone publishing world.

There were a number of worthy candidates. I could, for example, have chosen the recently published Baho! by Roland Rugero, the first novel from Burundi to be translated into English, or Abdulaziz Al Farsi’s strange and intriguing Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs from Oman.

After much deliberation, however, I decided to go with a title I haven’t mentioned on this blog since I read it for my original quest in 2012: the funny and irreverent Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida from Cape Verde. Pleasingly, this has also been translated into Dutch, so I could have sent IBH a copy in her native language, but as this intrepid explorer is clearly more than capable of tackling the book in English, I decided to stick with the version I read.

I hope you enjoy it, IBH. Happy literary travels!

If you’d like a chance to receive a postcard from my bookshelf, visit the project post and leave a comment telling me a bit about you and what you like to read. The next recipient will be announced on April 15.

Cape Verde: where there’s a will…

There can be few more fertile topics for a story than the reading of a will. For writers such as George Eliot and Henry James — to name but two — revealing how a deceased character has distributed his or her belongings is fraught with possibilities for drama, intrigue and dastardliness.

Often such scenes form the foundation for satire on the hypocrisy of families and the hollowness of human relationships, as professions of love and loyalties are stripped away to reveal naked greed. But it’s rare that these lampoons once rigged up are then dismantled to reveal the depth and subtlety that Cape Verdian writer and lawyer Germano Almeida achieves in this slender book.

Teetering on the grotesque at points, the narrative begins with the shock revelation that Senhor Napumoceno da Silva Araújo, a staid and respectable businessman in São Vicente, has left his warehouse empire to his previously unheard of lovechild rather than the nephew whose hard work and innovation helped him build it up. The discovery comes at the end of the reading of the 387-page will the tycoon has left to explain himself, and upon which the rest of the book is largely based.

What follows is a riotous, witty and at times anarchic account of da Silva Araújo’s life, which straddles the archipelago’s break from Portuguese rule in 1975. Told in a lively voice that roams in and out of characters’ thoughts, dipping between registers as it goes, the novel reads like a good gossip with the town’s best storyteller — one who has an eye for the ridiculous and makes no bones about dishing the dirt on his contemporaries’ ‘hanky-panky’ and hollow airs and graces.

Occasionally the fluid structure can make the narrative tricky to follow. Zooming between the near and distant past, with dialogue represented in the midst of the description as a kind of half-digested reported speech, and paragraphs that often stretch over several pages, the text has a breathless, chaotic feel.

Almeida knows what he’s doing though: pulling together the threads like a craftsman erecting a ship in a bottle, he reveals da Silva Araújo’s character in all its wistful complexity. The ending is extraordinarily poignant. Vulnerable, pathetic and yet somehow noble, Senhor da Silva Araújo quietly assumes the stature of the tragic hero — drawing on a legacy that stretches back to Miller, Shakespeare, Sophocles and Aeschylus, and yet is all his own.

The Last Will & Testament of Senhor da Silva Araújo by Germano Almeida (translated from the Portuguese by Sheila Faria Glaser). Publisher (this edition): New Directions