Book review: All Dogs Are Blue, By Rodrigo Souza Leao (Trs by Stefan Tobler and Zoe Perry)

The brilliant chaos of a frenzied mind

Daniel Hahn
Saturday 24 August 2013 21:47
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At no point in this firecracker of a book do we really know what’s going on – not with any certainty, anyway. We’re in a Brazilian insane asylum, shackled to one of the inmates, who raves – paranoid, delusional, fragmented – at us for 90-odd pages with barely a pause to draw breath.

He is obsessive, repetitive, insistent, returning compulsively to the same details: the cricket he swallowed as a kid, his toy dog (the same blue as the Haldol pills his doctors prescribe him), the day he saved a house from termites, the implanted chip that allows him to be controlled by the CIA and the KGB. He is constantly horny, somewhat scatologically inclined, and highly literate. He’s also energetic and bracingly funny, and as a fictional character, bounded within the pages of a book, he’s fine company indeed. In the real world he would be heart-breaking.

Having smashed up his mother’s house, the narrator now finds himself consigned to this little cubicle, getting bayoneted by the nurses with injections, taking (or not taking) the blue pills, and submitting occasionally to electroshock therapy. He passes his time observing the antics of his fellow inmates; receiving visits from his family; thinking about one particular nurse (and/ or various other people) to fuel his masturbatory fantasies; and making conversation with Rimbaud and Baudelaire, two inhabitants of his imaginary world. (Rimbaud’s the easier friend, even if you do have to fight off his advances occasionally; Baudelaire can be a bit of a grouch.) Sometimes he knows for sure that they’re figments of his delusion; but they’re also absolutely real to him (he misses them when back on his meds), and as a result they populate the story as real characters for us.

A book like this is all voice – it fails or succeeds by the strength, consistency and sheer irresistibility of the narrator’s voice, his ability to grab readers by the sleeve, saying, Listen to me, I have something to tell you … and somehow making you do as he says. Part of the praise here, then, is due to the book’s translators, the creators of this perfectly modulated bit of high-propulsion English prose. It could so easily have flattened out in the translation, or else stretched into something too shrill, too flashy. But it’s just right – poetic in the detailed carefulness of its craft, but also direct, uncomplicated, unfussy.

All Dogs Are Blue is neither easy nor reassuring. The narrator’s sense of chronology shifts and collapses, and, however lucid he is, the edges between his reality and fantasy are often disorientatingly blurry. But he carries you confidently along, discouraging you from stopping to notice just how bleak it all is – himself, the asylum and his world beyond. It’s the brilliant chaos of a frenzied, unfettered mind, locked away, he says, with the rest of the hospital’s “human debris”. It only adds to the pathos to know that the author died in a psychiatric clinic soon after this book was published.

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