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?

Picture: STAVROS DAMOS
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Jonathan Safran Foer Q&A: “I feel like every good piece of advice boils down to patience”

The author on delivering babies, Chance The Rapper, and sailing down the Erie Canal.

Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novels “Everything Is Illuminated” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close”, and the nonfiction book “Eating Animals”. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

What’s your earliest memory?

Falling asleep on my dad’s chest on a swing at my grandparents’ house. But the memory is a bit suspicious because there is a photograph and I remember my mum taking it, so I guess I wasn’t really asleep.

Who are your heroes?

The only person I have ever been nervous to meet, or whose presence felt larger than life, is Barack Obama. I don’t think that makes him a hero but there are many ways in which I aspire to be more like him.

What was the last book that made you envy the writer?

Man Is Not Alone by Abraham Joshua Heschel. It’s a meditation on religion – not really organised religion but the feeling of religiosity and spirituality. I can’t believe how clear he is about the most complicated subjects that feel like language shouldn’t be able to capture. It really changed me.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

There was a period of about two years when my kids and I would go to an inn every other weekend so maybe the inns of Mid-Atlantic states? I’m not sure Mastermind would ever ask about that, though, so my other specialism is 20th century architecture and design.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I would be very happy to return to my childhood in Washington, DC. In a way, what I would really like is to be somewhere else at another time as somebody else. 

What TV show could you not live without?

I really like Veep, it’s unbelievably funny – but I could definitely live without it. Podcasts, on the other hand, are something that I could live without but might not be able to sleep without.

What’s your theme tune?

I don’t have a theme tune but I do have a ringtone, which is this Chance The Rapper song called “Juice”. Every time it rings, it goes: “I got the juice, I got the juice, I got the juice, juice, juice.” I absolutely love it and I find myself singing it constantly.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

It isn’t really delivered as advice but King Solomon says in the Bible: “This, too, shall pass.” I feel like every good piece of advice I’ve ever heard – about parenting, writing, relationships, inner turmoil – boils down to patience.

When were you happiest?

I took a vacation with my two sons recently where we rented a narrowboat and sailed down Erie Canal. We were so drunk on the thrill of hiring our own boat, the weather, the solitude, just the excitement of it. I can’t remember being happier than that.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

An obstetrician. No obstetrician comes home on a Friday and thinks: “I delivered 20 babies this week, what’s the point?” The point is so self-evident. Writing is the opposite of that. I managed not to fill any pages this week with my bad jokes and trite ideas, flat images and unbelievable characters. Being a part of the drama of life in such a direct way really appeals to me.

Are we all doomed?

We’re all going to die. Isn’t that what it is to be doomed? There is a wonderful line at the end of Man Is Not Alone, which is something along the lines of: for the person who is capable of appreciating the cyclicality of life, to die is privilege. It’s not doom but one’s ultimate participation in life. Everything needs to change.

Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel “Here I Am” is published in paperback by Penguin

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem