Yasmina Traboulsi is a new author with an extraordinarily fresh voice. Or rather voices, for she speaks through a whole community of sellers and dwellers in the square of Salvador de Bahia, on the tropical north-eastern coast of Brazil. She maps the community, first in their "little Africa" that has conserved the religion, drums and dress of Dahomey since the days of slavery, then as it disperses south to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the "octopus megalopolis" of Sao Paulo.
Some characters fare better than others, measured against the only valid standard, their dreams. A look at recent Latin American film titles reminds that life's a bitch and that people there live in the belly of the beast, or in the lion's mouth. These residents are far more influenced by the ubiquitous soap operas that involve mass absenteeism when the heroine weds, and mass mourning when a kid dies of Aids. Here, too, no account is taken of age and ability, virtue and vigour, in the cruelly arbitrary distribution of favours and disasters.
Sweet sweet-seller Sergio, already parenting his siblings aged seven, is doomed in their defence. Ze and Manuel, young HIV-positive rent boys, experience – in perhaps the most shocking section of the novel – heart-rendingly horrific prison conditions. Maria Aparecida, the former carnival beauty queen, enfolds her similarly ageing customers in a bosomy embrace. Young Ivone makes it to Sao Paulo and really does – by a somersault of episodic plots – succeed in getting taking in by Olympia, soap queen extraordinaire. Meanwhile Pious Teresa, who minds the convent and "used only to watch religious programmes... agreed to bend the rules because the end of the world is nigh and this programme proves it". Meaning video footage from Sao Paulo's police helicopters, documenting "murders, rapes, kidnappings, trafficking, shoot-outs".
"Live blood for the viewers" has been foretold by seer and fortune teller Mama Lourdes and worried over by the charitable priest Padre Denilson back in Bahia. More sinister, perhaps, is the Gringa – the fairy-tale foreigner whose presence intimates tragedy. What saves the cavalcade from becoming a cast of grotesques is not only the way their accounts bring the force of life on the margins home to readers, but the style and shape of the whole. Traboulsi orchestrates her chorus of voices to blend in a finale of phenomenal emotive power.
Bahia Blues is predictably bracketed with Paulo Lins's City of God, which it little resembles. It is far more in tune with the writing of the prolific bahiano author Jorge Amado, whose protagonists lead similarly extraordinary lives. Not that Traboulsi belongs to any of the cities she writes of so forcefully and intimately. She has a Brazilian mother; a Lebanese father; a Parisian education; and a London address. Polly McLean's translation from the French is a tour de force.
Amanda Hopkinson is director of the British Centre for Literary Translation, Norwich
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