BY JOSHUA MASEROW
In July 2015, Brazilian author Daniel Galera (@ranchocarne) retweeted this from FT (@fucktheory): “To love – truly love – one’s own insignificance is one of the human condition’s only eternally radical ideas”.
This sardonic, post-humanistic epigram may very well be a bellwether to the ideas underlying Blood-Drenched Beard (Barba Ensopada de Sangue), the first novel of Galera’s to be translated into English. The narrative is dotted with folks who don’t quite fit into the world they find themselves in. They are mostly unhappy and alienated; none more so than the central presence – an unnamed, jilted 20-something man who suffers from prosopagnosia (a condition which renders its owner incapable of recognizing other people’s faces from one moment to the next) and finds fleeting solace from the crushing weight of having to go on existing by doing loads of running and swimming (while his name remains forever hidden from view, he goes by the sobriquet, “the swimmer”) in a sublime Arcady of glorious coastlines, unspoiled beaches, mineral blue seas and dense jungles.
While the agonies of his life are slowly leaked to the reader – the love of his life, Vivian, left him for his intellectual brother, his aspirations to be a world-beating triathlon tanked, he can barely recognize anyone and so struggles to build meaningful, lasting connections with people – they pale in magnitude to the viscid misfortune with which the novel begins.
Our gormless, passive anti-hero meets with his father in their home town of Porto Alegre, in the south of Brazil. Father tells son of his his intention to unshackle himself from the trauma of having to live in an absurd world. He wishes to end his own life (and he follows through). Yet on the way to this dizzying revelation, pappa felo-de-se opens the tomb of family secrets: his boys’ estranged, knife-wielding, gaucho grandfather was murdered by the inhabitants of Garopaba (“Everyone killed him; that is, no one person killed him. The town killed him”), a beatific, summery, coastal town that once served as a port for whaling ships.
With his father dead and his father’s aging hound, Beta, by his side, Galera’s hapless protagonist sets out for Garopaba. He desires answers about his grandfather’s mysterious passing, his burial site, catharsis (that ever slippery desideratum) and a reprieve from his crippling solipsism.
Despite the gauche title (translation gone wrong?), the stilted dialogue, and the over-stated, hoary literary symbols (ocean = the unknown; running = freedom; a tempest= emotional tumult), Galera’s novel deftly plays polarities against each other. Genre fiction and literary insight, depth and surface, restraint and excess, loneliness and intimacy, violence and compassion, reality and dreams, phenomena and numina, interact with remarkable nuance in bringing to life an ethic of belonging fundamentally at odds with Man’s hegemony over planet earth.
The swimmer is an active, champion athlete, yet he does nothing to prevent his father’s suicide. The swimmer is unnamed, unbaptised, while the dog, Beta, is named, and identifiable. Our protagonist has facial amnesia yet kindles intense connections with others. He is a visual identikit of his grandfather, yet lacks the gaucho’s patent aggression and hostility. His friend, Bonobo, an avowed Buddhist, carouses, drugs and whores around. The descriptions of nature and bodies are rich, rococo and sensuous while the dialogue is often flat and cumbersome (Given Galera’s prowess as a translator of the likes of Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace into Portuguese, it is hard to believe this is an unregarded error). These and other quirks – the novel’s troubling asynchronies – give Blood-Drenched Beard texture, intrigue and intensity.
The pith of Galera’s novel is a gesture towards a new way of being in the world, one that takes cognisance of the blasted future modernity’s continued conquest of people, nature and animals and heralds that something must give. For this it is worth reading.
Blood-drenched Beard is published by Hamish Hamilton.