Other Carnivals: New Stories from Brazil

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Read 31/08/2016-02/09/2016

Rating: 3 stars

Read for The Reader’s Room Olympic Challenge

I like short stories. In the right hands, they are mini masterpieces, giving you just enough to feel satisfied but not outstaying their welcome. Some short stories give the impression that they want to be something more, but the author has run out of steam. My favourite short story writers are Margaret Atwood, who has the best grasp of the form, and Haruki Murakami, who offers up interrupted insights into his ongoing world, like snatches of conversation overheard on the bus.

Other Carnivals is a collection of a dozen short stories put together to coincide with a South American literary festival in 2013. Some of the stories are better than others, but as an introduction to Brazilian writers, it works well. I’ll certainly be looking for more by Tatiana Salem Levy, Adriana Lisboa and Bernardo Carvalho.

Theirs are the stand out stories in this collection. Carvalho follows the fate of a student of Chinese, an older man who has decided that Chinese is not only the language of the future, it is the devil’s language to learn. Learning Chinese is the frame for a brush with the law, that centres around his mysterious and desperate Chinese teacher, and is written in language as awkward and angry as that found in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. Carvalho’s unnamed protagonist is on a similar plane to Ignatius J Reilly.

Salem Levy delivers a wonderful story about a hidden past, involving a seemingly bourgeois woman and her first lover. Only ten pages long, Salem Levy packs into the tale a lifetime of idealism, love and regret. I’ve read a couple of books recently that have a sub-theme of people jettisoning the ones they love in order to ensure their own survival. This story falls into that category, too.

Lisboa weaves a beautiful tale of memory, about the reliability of how people recall their past, and the secrets people carry with them. Sometimes secrets are shared but the listener doesn’t accept their truth. A boy plays While My Guitar Gently Weeps to his grandmother, who has dementia, and discovers that his grandmother knew George Harrison at the ashram in Rishikesh. Only a photograph of the pair together convinces the boy that the reminiscence is true.

I enjoyed Cristovão Tezza’s story, The Cut, about a teacher who experiences for the first time the joy of a good hair wash before a haircut. Having my hair washed is my favourite thing about going to the hairdresser’s. A good hair wash is like a good massage. I can slip off into my own world while someone makes suds in my hair and massages my scalp. The protagonist goes a step further and falls in love with the woman who washes his hair. It’s easy to fall for someone unknown when they have good hands, and your partner at home doesn’t acknowledge when things are different about you.

Thorn, by João Anzanello Carrascoza, is also worthy of mention. Its dreamlike narrative captures the way events in childhood all rush together while simultaneously stretching on in a languid forever that gives time no meaning. The story contains my favourite lines in the book.

Time passed painfully. Even more so when I opened the window onto the landscape and remembered his words: First you have to see it all at once. Then, then you look at each thing.

The story is about loss. Carrascoza captures the feeling of being cut adrift through the loss of someone significant.

I walked out through the back of the house, my gaze trying to take slow flight. I saw the stone hills in the distance, the grass growing on their flanks, the blue mountains. Without André, who would help me to see that vastness?

The story by André Sant’Anna was interesting. Part of me wanted to laugh at the idiocy of the religious nutcase who was expounding his crackpot theories. Part of me was unsettled by the views he held, given that we live in a world where people with mental health issues find justification in twisted religiosity for the violence they commit and the bigotry they peddle. I read the story quickly. The stream of consciousness style helped, but also the subject matter.

The final story in the book is the longest and the most dull. Reinaldo Moraes has written something incredibly self-indulgent. I know nothing about him. He might be writing ironically, but he comes across as a mortifying bore. If I was at a party and encountered him, I would stab him in the neck with a Biro to let the gas out more quickly.

A hit and miss collection of stories, then. I mostly enjoyed it, and it’s the first Brazilian fiction I’ve read, so that’s something.

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