Her Mother’s Mother’s Mother and Her Daughters by Maria José Silveira (Brazil) tr. Eric.M.B. Becker

Just brilliant.

What a perfect way to navigate through 500 years of history of a country, without ever getting bogged down in the detail, to follow the lives of daughters, a matrilineal lineage, whose patterns are affected if not dictated by the context of the era within which they’ve lived.

An omniscient narrative begins with the daughter of a native tribeswoman, who leaves her village and family on the arm of a Portuguese ship hand, and moves to the many generations living on sugarcane plantations, to the era of daughters of wealthy business owners living off the profits of those ancestors; from the bitter to the sweet, the uncaring to the revolutionary, five centuries of women, interlaced through stories.

Each chapter follows one young woman and though some of their lives are short-lived, they at least give birth to one daughter, even if some don’t live to raise them. Though unlikely in reality that so many generations would all produce at least one daughter who survives long enough to reproduce, this construct provides the framework for telling the stories, weaving together the historical threads, allowing only us as readers to see what they often don’t, that they are, that we all connected if we look back far enough, or inside deep enough.

Translator Eric M. B. Becker, the winner of a 2014 PEN/Heim Translation grant, produces an excellent translation. By leaving particularly Brazilian terms such as “emboaba” and “cafuzo” untranslated, Becker manages to make readers of English understand the untranslatable within its context. The novel maintains a casual, dreamlike quality, as if the narrator were telling these stories to a friend. Each character is given their own original voice, emotions, and musicality. If some syntax feels unexpected, it is almost always for the benefit of sound.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

Their stories are grouped into five parts:
A Shortlived Romance – Inaia (1500 – 1514) and her daughter Tebereté (1514 -1548)
Desolate Wilderness -six daughter descendants, the slave years (1531 – 1693)
Improbable Splendour – five daughters, the commercial trading years, accumulating wealth (1683 – 1822)
Vicious Modernity – four daughters, revenge, jealousy, naivety, the elite upper classes (1816 – 1906)
A Promising Sign – three daughters, working class, equality, human rights, exile, freedom (1926 – present)

There are so many stories, it is difficult to retain them all and remember them, and for this it’s necessary to slow-read this book to really take in the breadth of storytelling, which implicitly tells the greater story of a country’s evolution, growth, pain and development. But what better way than to inhabit the lives of one family and follow them over the course of time, recalling the fates of each character and the essence of the life they lived, was enabled or disabled by the time they lived through.

The narrator makes an appearance from time to time, like the hand that threads the needle, they are threadbare and unintrusive, like a pause in reading to make a cup of tea, they don’t disturb the reader, if anything we are comforted by the presence.

I absolutely loved it, I read this because I seek out works by women in translation to read in August for #WITMonth and finding a book like this is such a joy, for it gives so much in its reading, great storytelling, a potted history of Brazil, a unique multiple women’s perspective and an introduction to an award winning author, the writer of ten novels, this her first translated into English.

The variety of their personalities, and the pain, beauty, and strength they display shows that genetics alone does not make a person who they are. In this book, the characters’ environments form them, from the people with whom they interact to the great changes taking place in the pulsing heart of Brazil itself.

L. E. Goldstein, Harvard Review

I wrote most of this review back in August last year, and as you know, I wasn’t capable of sharing anything for some time after that. I passed the book on to a wonderful friend who came to be with me during that time, and for that reason too I’m unable to share any quotes.

It was one certainly of my favourite reads of 2019. A real gem.

Thank you to Enrico for his excellent review that made me get my own copy of the book to read. Read his review, it’s more of an incisive literary criticism that looks at the challenges of writing a novel like this and how Silveira overcomes them.

 

Family Heirlooms by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares

My first read of Brazilian literature, read while the World Cup Football was playing out, though I admit to watching very few of the games, and none after my 11-year-old son left for a holiday with his Grandparents, no longer here to insist I stay up and watch the game with him. But Brazilian literature, why yes please!

Family HeirloomsFamily Heirlooms was written by Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, translated by Daniel Hanh. Born in 1930 in Sao Paulo, she wrote both fiction and non-fiction and was the recipient of many literary awards including the highest honour, the Jabuti Prize for this novella, now available for the first time in English.

It is the story of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a widow whose nephew Julião is acting as her secretary, though not entirely trusted by his Aunt and especially after the news he brings her in the opening pages about her family heirloom.

The family heirloom brings back the memory of her husband, the judge, who brought it to impress her and her family. It is symbolic of their relationship, an item of great beauty and admired by all, though deceptive, multi-faceted, rarely seen for what it truly is.

Pigeon blood ruby

Pigeon blood ruby

Regardless of the deception, Maria maintains her honour, dignity and the illusion of her marriage long after her husband has departed. She uses her naiveté as a tool for her own survival, for as long as she continues to live with the perception of normalcy, so it continues to reign in her life. Like the emperor in his new clothes, she wears her heirloom with pride.

Maria reminds me a little of the mother figure in Carmen LeForet’s Nada, attempting to retain her bourgeois respectability despite evidence to the contrary, though she never allows us to feel sorry for her, for she makes of her situation exactly what she wishes it to be and insists that everyone sees it her way too. She is indeed a survivor.

An enjoyable, thought-provoking read of illusion, deception, acceptance and survival.