Book review: Crow Blue, By Adriana Lisboa, trans. Alison Entrekin Other Carnivals: New Stories from Brazil, Edited & translated by Angel Gurría Quintana

As the spotlight falls on Brazil, its fiction writers are starting to shine in the global arena

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Visitors to Snape earlier this month will have found the Suffolk village overtaken by things Brazilian –food, music, Brazil-inspired art and, most important, a whole troupe of Brazilian writers. The occasion was FlipSide, a UK counterpart to the celebrated FLIP literary festival in Brazil. There was even sunshine. One of the writers to appear was Adriana Lisboa, whose novel Crow Blue – her first to appear in the UK – provides a vivid challenge to anyone who believes that a country as vast and complex as Brazil can be reduced to a few familiar markers (football, carnival, samba, caipirinha…).

Get this book at the discounted price of £10.99 from The Independent Bookshop or call 0843 0600 030

Lisboa's protagonist, Vanja, is only 13 when Crow Blue begins, and living in Rio. When her mother dies, she sets about tracking down her father, an American whom she has never known. She sheds her possessions, and off she goes. Much of the novel covers a single American road trip taken by Vanja with her mother's ex-husband (Fernando, a Brazilian former guerrilla, now a security guard in Lakewood, Colorado), and Carlos, a nine-year-old Salvadorean boy who has befriended her. Their unlikely travels take them from Lakewood to Santa Fé, then deeper into New Mexico, in their quest for Vanja's father and her roots.

Lisboa is excellent on tiny details – the significance of little objects, fleeting instants that change us. Moments in conversations, or the wonder of Vanja's first snowfall, are touching and sometimes mesmerising; but Lisboa is not sentimental, and Vanja isn't, either. With its fresh and instantly familiar voice. Crow Blue tells the human story of a migrant experience, but there's no self-pity in Vanja's sense of dislocation. Her story may be full of warmth and love, but she is also insightful, practical and forthright. There's a fine sense of rhythm and tone, rendered with vibrancy and precision by Alison Entrekin.

Lisboa is one of the 12 writers whose work appears in Other Carnivals, an elegant little anthology also launched at FlipSide (designed with beautiful silhouette artwork by Jeff Fisher). Lisboa's story, "That Year in Rishikesh", is inspired by George Harrison and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". Among the best of the rest are Tatiana Salem Levy's "Lost Time", a moving and subtle story about a burial without a body in the dark years of Brazil's military rule; and Cristovão Tezza's "The Cut", a brief and powerfully sensual tale of the extraordinary in an ordinary haircut.

There's also Bernardo Carvalho's "The Language of the Future", in which a student of Chinese is detained at airport security. In his introduction, Ángel Gurría Quintana is quite clear that "it is not the purpose of fiction to make us understand a place", but these stories help to fill in that picture. Variety is the order of the day here – ably served by Gurría Quintana in his role as translator, moving deftly between the dozen quite different voices.

Since the publication last year of Granta's Best Young Brazilian Novelists, British publishing seems to have woken up to the rapidly strengthening scale and scope of contemporary Brazilian fiction. Crow Blue and Other Carnivals come quickly in the wake of Rodrigo de Souza Leão's dark, lunatic All Dogs Are Blue (translated by Stefan Tobler and Zoë Perry), Nick Caistor's translation of Edney Silvestre's potent and thought-provoking mystery If I Close My Eyes Now, and Alberto Mussa's The Mystery of Rio (translated by Alex Ladd): a clever and colourful story following a murder in the Rio de Janeiro of 1913.

At least a dozen more Brazilians will be following Lisboa into English over this winter and spring. Among them will be brilliant novels by Granta picks Daniel Galera and Michel Laub, translated by Alison Entrekin and Margaret Jull Costa. One of the pleasures of this new wave of Brazilian literature in English is that readers here will have ample opportunity to witness very fine writers like Entrekin and Jull Costa flexing their translation muscles.