Monday 26 March 2018

Book review: Saudade, Suneeta Peres da Costa (2018)

Although unfortunately marred by some proofing errors, this is a lovely little novel about an Indian girl brought up in Angola during the colonial period. With a richness of insight and recall that belong to someone beyond her years we are introduced at the beginning of the book to the circumscribed world of a girl aged about three or four, and in successive chapters accompany her through life at different stages of it.

There is the age when she discovers that she is a separate being to her mother. There is the age when she first has to go to school. There is the age when she has her first period. There is the age of her confirmation. There is the age when she finds a boyfriend and makes love with him. And there is the age when political change will take her away from the places that were filled with so many memories.

The book is vanishingly short – I finished it in just a few hours – but the art involved in the telling is rich and deep. You are at one and the same time reading a book and living in the world of a small girl, brought up a Christian, with a father who is a colonial functionary and a mother whose second child, a boy, miscarries. It appears that the mother never recovers completely from this event.

The author is sure of her artistic vision and the way the stories emerge is perfect and absorbing. The imaginative world of youth is given scope to realise many things that otherwise might have been hidden, so that the child can make a credible story out of mere conversations with a school friend, or a chance encounter with a soldier in a cinema can become a source of later experience.

This is a wonderful book that can claim some relationship with the magical realism of the second half of the 20th century, mostly by Latin-American authors. Like the novels and novellas of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, the book is thick with referents and action (Marquez was a journalist before becoming a fictional author). It also uses the ellipsis suggestively to expand the scope of the plausible in a way that reminded me of that earlier work. Here is a scene from chapter one, for example, in which the author talks about a guava the servant, Caetano, brings her mother so that she can make breakfast for the family.
Its skin was green speckled black; it felt cool and heavy and I wondered what would happen if it hit the ground, whether it would split or roll away…
In another scene, the girl is listening as her mother and father talk about a revolt among the Africans known still today as the Baixa de Casanje revolt, and about a German cotton farmer, a client of her father’s, who was killed in a reprisal.
My mother was in the kitchen, standing by the open door and I was playing just outside, turning the large, asymmetrical ears of Crio inside out, watching them flop back when he got bothered with the flies…
De Costa’s use of the ellipsis to point to possibilities that might lie just beyond the actual is suggestive and fascinating. I cannot think of another place in fiction in recent times where I have seen it used in this way. There is something marvellous about this use of a simple orthographic convention to expand the scope of the narrative in complicated and enriching ways, to make the reader think beyond the edges of the intimate story as it is being told, to imagine other possible outcomes where it is used. In the hands of an author focalising her story through the eyes of a child, it fits a pattern set by the rest of the narrative.

The use of the ellipsis furthermore fits the historical backstory of the book, which deals with the diaspora created by Portuguese exploration and global commerce beginning in the 16th century, although it focuses solely on events occurring in the 20th. Things that happen on other continents that lie beyond the horizon are real for these characters in Luanda, the capital of Angola. The family’s origins in Goa, in southwest India, are for example a point of focus in the book, which ends when the girl is repatriated there after her father suicides using a pistol he kept in his office at home.

The novel resembles the classical exponents of magical realism in that it partly relies on such things as hearsay and rumour with their associated implications for character and plot, that are hinted at within the confines of the immediate narrative, to achieve its force.

There is much that is unsaid in the drama that is nevertheless real, such as the rise of revolutionary consciousness among the African inhabitants of the colony, that relies on seemingly incidental details being told at strategic points, making up a complex tapestry of facts that form a completely realised world.

And the end of the book links up with its beginning. In that earlier place, the little girl had kept herself busy imagining the dead who her mother had said would show themselves if they came for her during the night, because they would walk backwards on turned feet. In the book, the child makes herself take care to examine people’s feet so that she will be ready for the creatures if they should appear. At the end of the book, she returns to Goa, to her father’s house, although he is now deceased, thus completing the U-turn the family’s fortunes had traced on the map from the subcontinent, to Africa, and back again.

 “Saudade” is a Portuguese word that has no exact or precise cognate in English but represents a kind of longing or sadness. For me it referred to the lost world of the girl’s childhood in the colony. When I first read the book I imagined it was a memoir but I find online that da Costa was born in Sydney. The book was published in Australia by Giramondo.

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