‘A city behind a city’ [book review]

A review of The Book of Rio, edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade

Rio de Janeiro is a city of many faces. This is something Toni Marques makes abundantly clear in his introduction to The Book of Rio, one of the earlier titles in Comma Press’s wonderful ‘Reading the City’ series. Often fondly imagined by outsiders to be a sun-drenched metropolis filled with beautiful people who spend their lives celebrating Carnival and relaxing on Copacabana beach, Rio is, Marques tells us, anything but paradise. Even for the reader familiar with the other sides of Rio, such as favelas, there is a lot to learn about this misunderstood city – and literature, of course, is the perfect place to begin.

Comma Press - The Book of Rio

Collecting ten stories by Rio’s foremost authors, brought to us by some of the English-speaking world’s most prominent translators of Portuguese, The Book of Rio dives into ‘a city behind a city, a place where anything goes’, shedding light on the ordinary lives that play out on its stage. By turns gut-wrenching, amusing and astonishingly perceptive, this is the kind of book that throws open a door on a new kind of understanding for a place the reader may – like me – never even have been. Until I read these stories, Rio was to me a fabled city; now, though I’ve still never set foot in it, it seems altogether more real.

The Book of Rio deliberately seeks out stories that undermine classic stereotypes about the city and its residents. The opening story, Cesar Cardoso’s ‘Save Me, Copacabana!’ translated by Ana Fletcher, offers a glimpse of the sordid underworld that borders the iconic beach; ‘Song of Songs’ by Nei Lopes, translated by Amanda Hopkinson, delivers a troubling portrayal of Carnival, which proves to be first the making and then the breaking of characters whose livelihoods are bound up with it.

The themes echoing through these stories and many others – that things are not necessarily what they seem on the surface; that it is all too easy to put a cinematic gloss on life, turning a blind eye to elements we don’t wish to notice – are beautifully wrapped up in the collection’s closing story, Elvira Vigna’s ‘Places, in the Middle of Everything’, which has been sensitively translated by Lucy Greaves. Here, a woman looks back on significant changes wrought on her life, in particular the end of a relationship; as she does so, she continually views herself from the outside, as though she is a character in ‘a B-movie, where it’s always dark and rainy’. Even a taxi ride becomes occasion for an evocative out-of-body observation of herself, a passage that also uniquely captures the surreal feeling of driving through a city by night:

‘In the taxi we seem like marathon runners, at least from the waist up. Sweat pours down our faces, and we overtake buildings and people, lampposts and dogs on either side. There’s no sound in this world of ours; the car windows are closed.’

Our narrator’s detachment from both herself and the city around her is a feeling shared by many other characters in The Book of Rio. Brief moments of connection – often in the form of sexual relationships, as in ‘Strangers’ or ‘The Woman Who Slept With a Horse’; at other times merely familial, such as in the haunting story ‘Decembers’, in which a young man looks back on his collapsed relationship with his once-beloved grandfather – are incredibly fleeting, a characteristic often underpinned by the reserved language in which they are narrated. The result is a haunting sense of loss, a grief for something intangible, which the reader cannot help but share. As Marques puts it in his introduction, this is a book about ‘blending and not blending’: the characters populating its pages are irremediably caught up in the fate of their city yet feel themselves pushed away by it. In much the same way, the reader is invited into Rio – and irrefutably left an outsider.

It would be a far stretch to deem any of these stories ‘happy’ – most are tinged with bitterness, regret and resignation – yet they do not make Rio seem an unlikeable place. On the contrary, the city seems incredibly alive – rough, yes, and raw in its emotions, but filled with people who, by dint of their extreme situations, know what it is to live; who, like the narrator in ‘Places, in the Middle of Everything’, know that ‘the important thing is just to keep running’. Even the surrealism of stories like Domingos Pelligrini’s ‘The Longest Bridge in the World’, translated by Jon S. Vincent, is believable thanks to its sharply drawn characters; whether sympathetic or not, every one of the figures in this book is somehow recognisable. And this, it would seem, is what makes Rio what it is. However it may appear on the surface, whatever troubles may lie beneath, it is, more than anything, a very human city.

With masterful translations by the likes of Daniel Hahn, Sophie Lewis and Julia Sanches, to name just three, The Book of Rio is an essential companion for anyone interested in Brazilian literature and, more generally, the way fiction can be strongly informed by place. This is the genius of the Comma Press city series: not only do its short-story collections transport us to far-flung destinations, they also help to showcase bodies of literature that are wholly unique, each one recognisably belonging to a specific urban landscape. Darkly mesmerising, unfiltered and poignant, the stories in The Book of Rio leave a new and lasting impression of a city both cruel and beautiful, as shady as it is glittering – a city we can’t help but become hopelessly lost in.

The Book of Rio, edited by Toni Marques and Katie Slade, is published by Comma Press and available in digital and paperback. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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