Tag Archives: Portuguese

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer 

This novella arrived while I was sick with Covid. I have had a subscription to Peirene for many years, and this novel, translated from Portuguese, set in Brazil, was up to its high standards. I read it within a day, despite having something of an addled brain due to the virus.

I love being able to access fiction from other parts of the world, and Peirene Press have been an important part of my ability to acquire and read translated fiction. You too could subscribe. The Peirene website is here.

The Love of Singular Men

The Love of Singular Men is a short novel – 170 pages – but full of tenderness, playfulness, rule-breaking and humour. The text is sprinkled with illustrations, some line drawings by the author, some photographs, and other material such as a school report card, or the list of things given by one of the characters. Victor Heringer likes to subvert some classic western literary practices. Perhaps the most striking is his public invitation to future readers, asking them to tell him the name of their first love and, if they chose, their own name. The result is several pages of lists from the responses. It’s a moving way of reminding the reader that there is a great deal of love in the world. At one point Victor Heringer provides a list of classmates and their attributes, or a play script, sometimes incidents are related in the traditional manner. 

The reminder of all the love in the world is welcome, for this novel is set in Rio de Janeiro in the 1970s when life was hard, even in the suburbs. The backdrop is of torture and compromise with evil. One day Camilo’s dad brings home a boy about the same age as his adolescent son.

It was only then I saw his head framed by the rear window. The shaved head of a boy as much a boy as me.
But I had a full head of hair and I wasn’t that coffee-with-watered-down-milk colour. I was red in the summer, and greenish white in the winter. His skull must always have been that same mixture of colours. He looked strong; I was skinny, more breakable, lame. But his eyes looked fragile, like the neck of a small bird, or a puppy that finds itself caught in a rat trap. (16)

The Love of Singular Men concerns two adolescent boys. Camilo is the narrator and born with legs that don’t work well. Cosme, about his age, is the boy brought home by Camilo’s father. As the boys grow older, they become close until they become lovers. It is short-lived but determines the course of the rest of Camilo’s life.

I’d like to say I lived two years in two weeks with my Cosme, but no. Two decades. These things don’t happen. We lived fourteen days. I loved every centimetre of him, but not every minute. In all, there were 20,160 minutes, many lost to school and showers, to lunches. When we were together, still others were lost in silence, with the becauses of silence. Was it because of this or that, was it because I had to do my homework, was it because you don’t like me any more? We said we loved each other, but that wasn’t the same thing it is today. (121-122)

The crux of the novel is a murder, almost senseless, very violent. About half the novel takes place years later. Camilo is now an adult and he invites the grandson of the murderer into his flat. He describes his life, empty of friendships and lovers, dominated by his lost first love, and with meaning and purpose removed.

There are so many contrasts in this short read. Love and violence; able-bodied and physical disability; gender; sexuality; class; ethnicity; adults and adolescents. It’s a heady mix, both in content and in the way it is written.

Victor Heringer

Victor Heringer was a Brazilian writer, born in 1988 who died far too soon in 2018, just before his thirtieth birthday. The Love of Singular Men is his first book to be translated into English. Zadie Smith is quoted on the cover:

Upon finishing it you want to immediately meet the young man who wrote it, shake him vigorously by the hand and congratulate him on the beginning of a brilliant career. But Victor Heringer is gone. He left this beautiful book behind.

The Love of Singular Men by Victor Heringer, first published in 2016 in Portuguese. English translation published by Peirene Press in 2023, translated from the Portuguese by James Young. 180pp

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The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio

What did I know about Cape Verde? Very little, except for an appreciation of their music. I did know that it is an archipelago off the western coast of Africa, and that it was uninhabited until the Portuguese found it convenient for their slave trade. It gained independence from Portugal in 1975. It has a population is about half a million people spread across 10 islands. The national language is Portuguese.

With so little knowledge it was with enthusiasm that I picked up this novel, first published in Portuguese in 1998, and now translated into English. It says quite a bit about the state of African women’s fiction that this is the first translation of an African woman’s novel into English from Portuguese. The publisher, Dedalus, began celebrating the centenary of women’s votes in the UK, by publishing six titles each year by women, many in translation. This one was in the first tranche. It’s an intention to be supported. 

The Madwoman of Serrano

The novel’s location could be anywhere. The village of Serrano lies in a beautiful remote valley but has no name until the midwife tells it to some surveyors and immediately dies. We are not told the name of the city to which the inhabitants eventually retreat. We are everywhere and nowhere.

The men and women of Serrano have very different roles, but their conventions are strong: there are 193 residents, including the midwife (a role that is taken over by another woman as soon as the midwife dies) and the madwoman (who also reappears every thirty-three years in a new body). 

The midwife not only helps the women of the village give birth and dispense herbal remedies and advice, but also initiates the men of the village into their marital duties. Birth rates are poor so she also sends many women to the capital to become pregnant through ‘pharmaceuticals’.

The village is beautiful, well-regulated with customs stretching back for years. But this conservatism comes at a price.

… but it was true that almost everything was considered a threat by the poor villagers, and that any sign of danger became an omen of epic proportions, sending people into hiding, peeking out only as much or as little as their fear or perversity would allow. (106)

This fear had led the villagers to chase one poor girl to her death in the river, and for generations she is known to haunt the valley. 

People would later say that there was little evidence that the Serranoans lived by the same lores that governed human beings elsewhere. The villagers never embraced imagination the way others did; they never looked around corners or sought to conquer new territories; they never explored new means of existence or ways of casting off their shackles. Such things only happened beyond Serrano’s borders. (121) 

Readers expecting a story in the European tradition will be surprised. There is a fair bit of magical-realism, and the timeline of the novel circles and returns so that each episode appears to relate to other episodes.

In essence this is a story of lovers, who must find each other after separation. But it is also about generational love. A further theme contrasts city and village life. 

Jerónimo is a young man who has completed his military service and so he has experience of the city. He returns to the village and takes up his life according to the customs of generations. But he is not happy, even when he marries Maninha, who like so many of the women of Serrano fails to become pregnant. Later he finds Fernanda, a young woman who has fallen from an aeroplane. He takes care of her, and when she produces a child, everyone assumes it is Jerónimo’s. Fernanda disappears to the city leaving her child with Jerónimo. Filipa is brought up in the village until her mutism is considered serious enough to merit a visit to the city, where she stays.

Jerónimo has lost the woman he loved and her daughter. Much of the novel concerns the lives of these three unhappy people, until, despite, knowing so little of each other, are reunited at last. 

I did not learn much about Cape Verde from this novel. Serves me right for trying a little cultural tourism.

Dina Salústio

Born in 1941, Dina Salústio is the nom de plume of a journalist, social worker and teacher. This novel was the first novel by a woman to be published in Cape Verde, and the first to be published in an English translation. She was awarded the PEN Galacia award for lifetime achievement. Her work features the issues experienced by women, which is to be welcomed as so much African post-colonial literature is dominated by men.

The Madwoman of Serrano by Dina Salústio, first published in 1998. The English translation from the Portuguese by Jethro Soutar was published by Dedalus in 2019. 228pp

Related posts

Some thoughts from the translator Jethro Soutar in Brittle Paper in July 2021.

A review from the blog A Year Reading the World in October 2019.

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Filed under Feminism, Learning, Reading, Reviews, translation, Women in Translation

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho

The Women in Translation month, August, on Twitter was a great success. I managed to tweet a link to a different post every day. There are 48 posts on Bookword blog featuring fiction translated from a foreign language. I tweet a link to one of these every Thursday. 

This is the first post about a novel written in Portuguese on this blog. It has an intriguing title, which makes me ask: Who or what are the empty wardrobes? Why are they empty? What is their significance in this writer’s novel?

Empty Wardrobes

The story of Empty Wardrobes is set in Portugal in the 1960s. It follows the widow Dora Rosàrio, and is narrated by her friend, Manuela. 

Even after ten years of widowhood, she still wore black, and, given the long full skirts she wore and the sensible shoes, she looked more like an off-duty nun than what she actually was – a career widow. (16)

Dora Rosàrio’s husband died young and without making any provision for his wife and daughter after his death. Consequently she must beg from her friends and acquaintances. They feel sorry for her, but their sympathies are wearing thin but at last she gets a job in an antiques store. In the 1960s Portugal political life was dominated by the right-wing dictator Salazar, and society was dominated by old fashioned ideas about women, heavily influenced by the Catholic Church. Women ‘s lives were shaped by the supremacy of family and husband. Dora was following the idea that widowhood is more or less the end of days for a woman.

Duarte Rosàrio is elevated to something like a saint by Dora. She even has a picture that she kisses. But we are introduced to an alternative version of Duarte Rosàrio: a lazy and unskilled man with no particular qualities. We should take note of the epithet:

J’ai conservé de faux trésors dans des armoires vides. [I have saved false treasures in empty wardrobes] Paul Éluard 

With the job in the antiques store Dora is now able to support herself and her daughter, but she does not come out of her isolation until her mother-in-law imparts a secret she learned about Duarte at the end of his life. Everything changes. Dora suddenly begins to take care of herself, buy and wear nice clothes and becomes more outgoing. 

The presence of the narrator is not prominent at first, but she gradually muscles in to more and more of the narrative. The narrator, Manuela, has a rich lawyer lover who comes to the antiques shop (nicknamed the Museum by daughter Lisa) and is impressed with the reformed Dora. Eduardo invites her to his house in Sintra where they sleep together. On the way home they are involved in an accident. When Eduardo comes to check on Dora, he meets Lisa and within a week they decide to marry.

The empty wardrobes are perhaps the narrator Manuela and Dora, who both lost their partners? Or else the mother-in-law who spilled the beans, or Lisa who uses everyone despite being beautiful, or the two men in Dora’s live: Duarte and Eduardo. I’m inclined to believe that primarily it was the men who hold the emptiness of women’s lives in their power in Portugal at that time.

Maria Judite de Carvalho

Maria Judite de Carvalho was born in 1921 and died in 1998. This is the first of her novels to be translated into English.

Empty Wardrobes by Maria Judite de Carvalho, published in Portugal in 1966. Two Lines Press published the English translation in 2021. 183pp. Translated from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa 

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JacquiWine recommended this book in January 2022, and I am grateful that she brought it to my attention.

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