Art of disorder: Rio de Janeiro, 2011. The country's fiction and music thrive on cultural cannibalism. Photo: David Alan Harvey/Magnum
Show Hide image

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?

Photo: Warner Bros
Show Hide image

Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated

Judging the actual speaking and acting the from teen icon.

When it was announced that Harry Styles had been cast in Dunkirk, most people assumed it was a Drew Barrymore in Scream sort of deal. A big name, who would be plastered over the posters, front and centre at promotional interviews, but given a barely-speaking part and probably killed off in the first five minutes. Not so! Not only does he not die early on, Harry has a very significant amount of time on screen in Dunkirk, and even more surprisingly, a lot of that time involves actual speaking and acting from the teen icon. In this action-heavy, dialogue-sparse film, he has more lines than most.

Of course, the most normal human response to this revelation is to list every single time he speaks in the film and evaluate every moment on a line-by-line basis. So here it is. Every single line spoken by actor Harry Styles in the movie Dunkirk, evaluated by a very impartial Harry Styles fan. Let’s go.

Obviously, this contains spoilers for Dunkirk.

“What’s wrong with your friend?”

It’s the first line, but it’s a goody. So nonchalant; so effortless; breezily accompanied by a mouthful of toast and jam. Curious, friendly – but with dangerous edge. A lurking threat. A shiver of accusation. This sets up Alex as a normal, if self-assured, bloke who also wants to be sure you’re not about to get him killed. A very strong debut – the kind of line that, if you didn’t know better, would make you think, “Hm, who’s this charismatic young guy”?

A cheer.

Solid 8/10 cheer, believe this guy has cheered before.

“You can’t leave us! Make some room!”

It’s only been ten minutes, but things have really kicked up a notch. Raspy, panicked, desperate, this line left my heart jumping for my poor sodden son. A triumph, and certainly one of Harry’s best lines.

“Hey!”

Here, Alex yells “Hey!” to get the attention of other soldiers, which turns into louder, repeated cries for their attention. I can find little wrong with this “Hey”, and indeed later “Hey”s, but I would not nominate it for an Oscar. This “Hey” is just fine.

“What’s that way?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know what is that way. (It’s a boat.) 7/10.

“S’grounded!”

Alex has delivered the last three shouts with exactly the same intonation. This is good because normal people do not opt for variance in tone when desperately yelling at each other across the beach. I also appreciate the lack of enunciation here. Great work, Harry.

“’ow long’s that?”

I believe that Alex does not, in fact, know how long it will take for the tide to come in. (It’s about three hours.) 7/10.

“Poke yer head out, see if the water’s come in”

Alex is ramping things up a notch – this is authoritative, even challenging. Excellent pronunciation of “aht”, more great slurring.

“Talkative sod, aren’t ya?”

A big line, important for the growing hints that Alex is mistrustful of the silent soldier in their group. And yet not Harry’s absolute best. A little too much forced vowel for me.

“For fuck’s sake!”

Oh my God, we’re here now boys. It’s begun. The water’s not come in. Forget the high-explosive, Alex has only gone and dropped a bloody F-bomb, and Harry’s performance is actually stressful. What an about-turn. Delivered with spitting fury; the “for”, if there at all, almost inaudible; a dropped box clanging to the ground for extra impact. We know that Harry ad-libbed this (and a later) F-word, and this spontaneous approach is working. A truly superb go at doing some swearing. 10/10.

“Yeah but ’ow long?”

I would describe this delivery as “pained”. A little groan of fear hangs in the back. This is, as they say, the good shit.

“Why’d you leave your boat?”

This whispered anger suits Harry.

Some extreme shushing.

Definitely would shush.

“We have to plug it!”

Alex’s heart doesn’t seem really in plugging the bullet holes in the boat, despite the surface-level urgency of this delivery, probably because he doesn’t want to get shot. Nuance. I like it.

“Somebody needs to get off.”

A mic drop of a line, delivered with determined focus.

“I don’t need a volunteer. I know someone who ough’a get off.”

The way his cadence falls and his voice falters when as he reaches the word volunteer. It’s a sad, resigned, type of fear, the type of fear we expect from Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley. Harry’s dropping clues that Alex doesn’t really want to be shoving anyone off a boat to their deaths. But then Alex steels himself, really packing a punch over that “ough’a”.

“This one. He’s a German spy.”

The momentum is building, Alex’s voice is getting breathier and breathier, panic is fluttering in his voice now. I’m living for each and every second of this, like a proud mother with a camcorder. You’re doing amazing, sweetie.

“He’s a focking Jerry!”

Go on my son! Harry’s voice is so high only dogs can hear him now. The mix of fear and aggression is genuinely convincing here, and more than ever it feels clear that you’re practically watching a group of schoolboys with guns scared out of their minds, desperate to go home, who might shoot each other dead at any second. This is undoubtedly the pinnacle of Harry’s performance.

“Have you noticed he hasn’t said a word? ’Cause I ’ave. Won’t speak English: if he does it’s in an accent’s thicker than sauerkraut sauce.”

This is, objectively, the silliest line in this film and maybe any film, ever, and I love it. Never before have the words “sauerkraut sauce” been uttered as a simile, or as a threat, and here, they are both. Inexplicably, it sort of works through Harry’s high-pitched voice and gritted teeth. My personal highlight of the entire movie.

“Tell me.”

Alex is going full antagonist. Whispered, aggressive, threatening. It is safe to say I am dead and deceased.

“Tell me, ‘Gibson’”.

Ugh, now with an added layer of mockery. I am dead, but also please kill me.

“A frog! A bloody frog! A cowardly, little queue-jumping frog. Who’s Gibson, eh? Some naked, dead Englishman lying out in that sand?”

Brexit Harry Styles is furious, and his accent is going a bit all over the place as a result.

“Maybe he killed him.”

Just-about-believably paranoid.

“How do we know?”

This is too close to the delivery Harry uses in this vine for me to take seriously, I’m deeply sorry about that.

“Well, we know who’s getting off.”

I believe that Alex does, in fact, know who is getting off. (It’s the French guy.) 7/10.

“Better ’im than me.”

I agree!!!!!

“Somebody’s gotta get off, so the rest of us can live.”

Empassioned, persuasive, fervent. When glimpsed in trailers, this moment made me think Alex would be sacrificing himself to save others. Not so! He just really, really wants to live. A stellar line, executed very well.

“Do you wanna volunteer?”

Good emoting. I believe the emotion used here is “disbelief”.

“Then this is the price!”

I believe the emotion used here is “desperation”.

“He’s dead, mate.”

So blunt, delivered with an awkward pity. A stand-out moment thanks to my high quality son Harold.

“We let you all down, didn’t we.”

Dahhn. Harry lets us know this is not even a question in Alex’s mind, its a fact. Poor depressed little Alex.

“That old bloke wouldn’t even look us in the eye.”

The weird thing (irony? joke?) here is that the old bloke is actually blind, not refusing to look them in the eye. Slightly bizarre, but Harry rolls with it with this relaxed approach to the word “bloke”.

“Hey! Where are we!”

Good God I love this rousing line. The bell chiming in the background, the violins stirring. There is something curiously British about this line. Something so, “‘What’s to-day?’ cried Scrooge”. Here, Harry is doing what he did best in the early one direction days - being a normal lad from a normal town whose life was made extraordinary even though he’s just, like, so totally normal.

“What station!”

I take it back, THIS is probably my favourite line of the whole movie. Purely because it sounds exactly like Harry Edward Styles on an average day, going about his business, asking what station he’s at. Alex who?

“Grab me one o’ them papers! Go on!”

Now, this, I love. Newcastle brown in hand, f’s dropped, a “go on” barely lacking a “my son”. Put a flat cap on the lad and hand him a chimney sweeping broom - we are in deliciously caricatured Brit territory.

“I can’t bear it. They’ll be spitting at us in the streets, if they’re not locked up waiting for the invasion.”

How rapidly joy turns to ashes in our mouths. One second so elated, with the nostalgic scent of home quivering in his nostrils, Alex is now feeling extremely sorry for himself (fair enough, to be honest). A fine “sad voice” here.

“I can’t look.”

The “sad voice” continues.

“Wha’??”

Hahahahahaha. Yes.

And with this very confused noise Harry Styles closes his debut film performance, which I would describe as extremely solid. Even if I am fuming that he didn’t get to die, beautifully, and at length. Well done Harold.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.