Art of disorder: Rio de Janeiro, 2011. The country's fiction and music thrive on cultural cannibalism. Photo: David Alan Harvey/Magnum
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The full Brazilian: fiction by Michel Laub and Daniel Galera

Two of Granta’s 20 “Best of Young Brazilian Novelists” examine Brazil’s Afro-European heritage and waves of migration from the Old World.

Diary of the Fall
Michel Laub; translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Harvill Secker, 192pp, £14.99

Blood-Drenched Beard
Daniel Galera; translated by Alison Entrekin
Hamish Hamilton, 408pp, £16.99

In a now-famous essay of 1928, “O manifesto antropófago”, Brazil’s leading modernist poet Oswald de Andrade defined Brazilian culture as anthropophagic, or cannibalistic, “eating” other forms of literature and music from Europe and Africa. The observation holds good for bossa nova, the dance beat that electrified Brazil in the early 1960s. Having poached from Chopin, West Coast jazz and African samba, the music had a hushed intensity of emotion that the bossa-novista songwriter Chico Buarque, for one, put to good use in his novel Spilt Milk (2009), a typically Brazilian mishmash of influences ranging from memoir to adventure to political diatribe.

With the World Cup final due on Sunday, Brazilian culture remains in the news and continues to be fashionable. Michel Laub and Daniel Galera, two of Granta’s 20 “Best of Young Brazilian Novelists”, dilate interestingly on their country’s Afro-European heritage and the waves of migration from the Old World: Russia, Germany, France. In his fifth novel, Diary of the Fall, Laub draws on the history of Jewish settlement in Brazil and on Jewry’s place in Latin America in general; Galera, in Blood-Drenched Beard, cannibalises from American noir and the counterculture Tropicália movement of 1960s Brazil, which mashed up literature with film and music.

Laub’s novel tells of a schoolboy prank that goes grievously wrong at a Jewish school in Porto Alegre in the 1980s. A non-Jewish pupil there, João, is left crippled after his classmates throw him in the air for his birthday bumps but then allow him to hit the floor, leaving him with a broken back. The headmaster summons the parents of the boys involved but nothing comes of the investigations, and João remains in a wheelchair.

In pages of melancholy, spare prose, Laub explores the nature of the crime and its aftermath. “For me, everything begins when I was thirteen, at João’s birthday party, when I let him fall,” the unnamed narrator confides. The story is overshadowed by the spectre of Auschwitz and the moral and material ruins of post-Nazi Europe. The narrator’s grandfather, we learn, settled in Brazil at the war’s end, having escaped from anti-Semitic Europe and the death camps in Poland. Everyone on his side perished at Auschwitz; Brazil was his salvation.

Diary of a Fall is, among other things, a meditation on Brazil’s polyglot immigrant cultures and mixed bloods and ethnicities. The Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector (who likewise emerged from the world of eastern European Jewry, with its sidelocks, kaftans and Talmudic mysticism) has certainly influenced Laub. The interest he shows in the sorrows and derision suffered by European Jews recalls Lispector’s debut novel, Near to the Wild Heart, published in 1943 to clamorous reviews. Like Lispector, though Laub has Jewish European ancestry he claims Brazil as his spiritual home, and the place where the Portuguese-language writer in him was born.

The novel repeatedly alludes to Primo Levi’s celebrated account of surviving at Auschwitz, If This Is a Man, and is suffused with a sense of saudade: “yearning” or “nostalgia”. (The Portuguese word is often used to describe the melancholy restraint of bossa nova.) Laub’s is a fine, complex piece of writing that examines questions of guilt and responsibility for crimes large and small, and how, if possible, to atone for them.

Just as bossa nova reinterpreted the slave rhythms of samba to suit Rio’s more affluent white tastes (toning them down, cleaning them up, much as Elvis had done with rhythm and blues), so Daniel Galera reinterprets American crime fiction and B-movie noir for knowing, postmodernist tastes. A strong smell of “spilt milk” (to use Buarque’s formulation) hangs over Blood-Drenched Beard as its narrative twists round half-remembered family feuds and hatreds.

An old man has been brutally murdered in Santa Catarina State in southern Brazil. His killer or killers were never bought to book back in 1969 but now, forty years on, his grandson sets out to see if justice can be done. Accompanied by his pet dog, Beta, he works in Santa Catarina as a PE instructor and swimming coach while conducting private investigations. Bar tenders, Rastafarians, pet shop owners, pharmacists and pot-smoking restaurateurs are asked if they knew his grandfather and why he might have been killed.

A picture emerges of an irascible, knife-wielding loner of a man who seems to have carried on with the local women and incurred the wrath of their pimps and keepers. For his troubles, he is stabbed repeatedly in a darkened dance hall one night and left for dead. Some say he has often reappeared since then as a Banquo-like ghost. We cannot even know for sure if he is dead.

The narrator’s quest is hampered by his peculiar inability to remember human faces. He suffers from a rare “neurological disorder” known as prosopagnosia, and so is constantly apologising for not having recognised people. As he travels round the Brazilian south seeking answers, he continues to confound people and their physiognomies as he struggles to stay steady on the case.

The semi-tropical landscapes of southern Brazil are rendered vividly throughout in their sultry golds and greens; the region’s samba, reggae and hip-hop rhythms are nicely evoked, too, and the story namechecks post-bossa nova urban singers such as Antônio Carlos Belchior and Raimundo Fagner along the way. Galera’s is an absorbing if somewhat arch novel that radiates a sense of unease and menace. I found myself constantly absorbed by it – but now for that football.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?

Kyle Seeley
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For emotional value, Emily is Away – a nostalgic instant messaging game – is this year’s best release

If you want to express your lingering teenage angst, there’s no better option.

Every now and then, a game is released that goes beyond what it may look or sound like. It goes straight to the pit of your insides where you thought you had no soul left, and jolts you back to life. Or at least it attempts to. This year, it's Emily is Away.

Firstly, anyone and everyone can virtually play this thing as it’s a crude Windows XP simulator displaying an AIM/MSN messenger client and can run on the PC equivalent of a potato. And it's free. It’s a short game, taking about 30 minutes, in which you play a person chatting away to your friend called Emily (who could be more), choosing from a set list of pre-selected instant messages.

Each chapter takes place in a different year, starting in 2002 and ending in 2006.

You’re instantly smacked with nostalgia thanks to the user screen of Windows XP and a fuzzed out background of Bliss, which was the default wallpaper in the operating system, and probably the most widely seen photo in the world. And your ears aren’t abandoned either, with the upbeat pinging sounds reminiscent of how you used to natter away with your personal favourite into the early hours.

The first chapter starts with you and Emily reaching the end of your last year in high school, talking about plans for the evening, but also the future, such as what you’ll be studying at university. From this early point, the seeds of the future are already being sewn.

For example, Emily mentions how Brad is annoying her in another window on her computer, but you’re both too occupied about agreeing to go to a party that night. The following year, you learn that Brad is now in fact her boyfriend, because he decided to share how he felt about Emily while you were too shy and keeping your feelings hidden.

What’s so excellent about the game is that it can be whatever you wish. Retro games used the lack of visual detail to their advantage, allowing the players to fill in the blanks. The yearly gaps in this game do exactly the same job, making you long to go back in time, even if you haven't yet reached the age of 20 in the game.

Or it lets you forget about it entirely and move on, not knowing exactly what had happened with you and Emily as your brain starts to create the familiar fog of a faded memory.

Despite having the choice to respond to Emily’s IMs in three different ways each time, your digital self tries to sweeten the messages with emoticons, but they’re always automatically deleted, the same way bad spelling is corrected in the game too. We all know that to truly to take the risk and try and move a friendship to another level, emoticons are the digital equivalent to cheesy real-life gestures, and essential to trying to win someone’s heart.

Before you know it, your emotions are heavily invested in the game and you’re always left wondering what Emily wanted to say when the game shows that she’s deleting as well as typing in the messenger. You end up not even caring that she likes Coldplay and Muse – passions reflected in her profile picture and use of their lyrics. She also likes Snow Patrol. How much can you tolerate Chasing Cars, really?

The user reviews on Steam are very positive, despite many complaining you end up being “friend-zoned” by Emily, and one review simply calling it “Rejection Simulator 2015”.

I tried so hard from all of the options to create the perfect Em & Em. But whatever you decide, Emily will always give you the #feels, and you’ll constantly end up thinking about what else you could have done.