Translated from Portuguese by Helena Cavendish de Moura with Andrew Michael Brown
Published in a bilingual edition by Casa Forte Press
Lula Falcão is an award-winning journalist, political advocate and writer. His criticism of the current President Jai Bolsonaro has landed him on the list of “intellectuals to be watched”. This is the first of Falcão’s work to be translated into English.
In these minimalist and slightly surreal stories, Falcão depicts dictatorial leaders, a diminishing middle class, and looming catastrophes (either environmental or health-related, or both).
Passengers on board a cruise liner are kept in the dark about the calamity that has overtaken the world around them; in a city without electricity and light, people struggle to survive as buildings and streets stretch and move; and the leader of a country carries on governing, even though there is almost nothing left of him physically.
I found these stories intriguing. They are short, but Falcão can convey a lot with a few strokes of his pen: he takes you into his world where things don’t always make sense, and you share his characters’ sense of disorientation.
His first story, Sea of Mud, begins with a sense of dread:
“The ship propels away from the earth that dissolves into the ocean and behind us, we can see the sludge from the bow and stern. On the radio, on their latest contact, they communicated the existence of a phenomenon, still unnamed.
“The authorities’ main concern was to avoid panic, but that was two days ago. It remains unknown whether there are authorities still left on the continent or whether there even is a surviving continent.”
The captain decides to keep the passengers in the dark, at least at first: after all, they are on the ship to have a good time, so why worry them?
The cataclysm that might destroy everything familiar could refer either to environmental devastation or even the pandemic. (Although Helena Cavendish de Moura in her introduction says that avalanches of mud mixed with toxic waste did actually seep into the Atlantic.) Decision-makers believe that nothing can be done to avert the catastrophe and so keep important information from people. In any case, people will eventually find their way to a new normal.
Falcão also writes about the disappearance of the middle class in Brazil: several of his protagonists have had decent jobs but are now unemployed and penniless. As the narrator in The Envelope says, “Poverty has short legs. The poorer we get, the longer distances become, our ability to arrive anywhere decreases.” In Existence, machines take over jobs that have been done by humans and start to reproduce themselves, evolving into more sentient beings. In Doralice, a man who is now on the streets, finds half a million dollars in a trash can, which could change his life—but does it?
Falcão saves his most trenchant criticism for corrupt governance and dictatorships. In The Man in the Box, a politician’s body dissolves, leaving behind just enough of him to fit into a lidless box. The man feels no pain, just an embarrassment at being “a layer beneath nakedness” and demands a lid with holes in it, so his voice could still be heard. His rotting body still gets a seat in the Senate.
In Rifles (the only story to be translated by Andrew Michael Brown), a man is put to death for criticizing the government, a move supported by the man’s mother, who sees it as a way to make people respect authority and traditional values.
One of the most moving stories, however, is Looking for Carmen. The narrator is searching for his friend Carmen, who has disappeared. He cannot find her and tries to keep her alive in his memory, remembering the things that made her who she was. It is a portrait of absence, a reminder of the hundreds of people who “disappeared” after the 1964 military takeover.
This collection is an unusual one and short enough to encourage re-reading, which I think helps to really appreciate the writing. And having the translation and original in the same edition will reward people who can read both languages. I am looking forward to seeing more of Falcão’s work translated.