I started reading Geovani Martins’s The Sun on my Head in English, but within minutes I was sending emails, trying to get hold of a copy in the original Portuguese. Not because I found Julia Sanches’s translation faulty, but out of a burning curiosity. The prose was absolutely mad — Brazilian slang words I wasn’t familiar with, alongside what looked like 1950s AAVE, hybrid Portuguese-English swearing, and phrases that felt endearingly close to the ones I heard at school in London in the 2000s (‘[n]ervous and embarrassed, I felt like a real space cadet for wanting to drop acid at two in the afternoon’). Eventually, I read the two editions side by side, quickly and in awe.
The Sun on My Head is a collection of thirteen ‘contos’ (stories or tales) which tell the stories of a loose cluster of men living in the periphery, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro. The contos move between the first and third person, using the past and the present tense; every page of the book is deftly, defiantly, joyfully oral. You feel you are being spoken to directly to by these various men in various states of inebriation. They appear in all stages of life: as children in ‘Bathroom Blonde’ and ‘The Mystery of the Vila’, in old age in ‘The Blind Man’, but most often as young adults on the cusp of something.
Everything happens and nothing happens: bodies are disposed of, women seduce and help kill cops, people work shit jobs for shit pay, and get high with their friends. Martins documents lives lived in proximity to death, masculinity forced to construct itself in the tight spaces between the armed military police and armed drug dealers, and the euphoria that comes from feeling both freedom and danger at the same time. The book is full of the humiliation and alienation of work (particularly brilliant in ‘TGIF’, which as the acronym suggests, takes place on a Friday when the narrator has finished work and gets paid). Although the stories tend to focus on the lives of men, Martins is more courageous than the male writers who have chronicled this world before him: he documents machismo, and the people that it hurts, without trading in it.
At some points, a whole life passes by in a few pages; at others, we are held, close and still, in the action of a few minutes. Martins’ depiction of events in real time recreates, on the one hand, hilariously relatable moments – like the contorting social paranoia that descends when you’ve smoked too much weed – and, on the other, terrorising experiences specific to the favelas of Rio. In this speeding up and slowing down time, his narrators give us a glimpse of their lives. For me, this is the very best of the short story form, born of the winding Latin American way of telling life stories that I grew up with.
Sanches’s extraordinary, reeling, translation is a patchwork creation, drawing from disparate Englishes — and Portuguese — to create an entirely new linguistic texture. She makes no attempt to ‘domesticate’ Martins’s text, or disguise its translatedness. At first, it felt strange to me, having grown up in London, to read familiar Brazilian words rendered in US English (‘mom’, ‘motherfucker’, and so on). But by retaining Martins’s slang-filled Portuguese and refusing to sit neatly within any single dialect of English, Sanches’s translation is courageous. Together, Martins and Sanches force the reader to acclimatise to Martins’ characters (to feel the sun on their heads), not the other way around. Invoking the old metaphor of translation as travel, the reader must go to this text. But not to leer voyeuristically, as tourists, at Latin American experiences of poverty and violence and drugs. That’s not what The Sun on My Head is about.
Martins does not decontextualise violence — he shows it is part of the Brazilian body politic. Although the landscape he depicts is uncompromisingly, unapologetically local, it bears knowing traces of the history and geopolitics that shape it. His characters snort coke with gringos in ‘The Trip’, work all day to buy big-brand trainers in ‘TGIF’ (‘[o]n the first night after I bought myself a pair of Nikes, I even wore them to bed’) and at night they dance to the baile funke that you can sometimes hear played in Dalston. Even eleven-year-olds are aware of the sway certain languages have: ‘[w]hat André really wanted was to learn English, ‘cause everybody says it makes you rich, and also because of video games’. In other words, subject this text to the white western gaze and it will stare right back.
Although the biography on the inside flap of the English-language edition refers to Martins having been ‘discovered’ (I read this, as you can imagine, with my eyebrows raised), he is not an ingenue and, clearly, writes from a place of political and historical literacy. On his Instagram, Martins has posted using the hashtag #VidasNegrasImportam — Black Lives Matter — about 19-year-old Pedro Gonzagas, who died after being suffocated by a security guard in a shopping centre in Barra da Tijuca in Rio earlier this year. Another post shows a flag with the logo of PT, the Brazilian workers’ party (of the impeached president Dilma and the imprisoned president Lula) flying over Vidigal in Rio. More recently, Martins posted an image with text reading, ‘Average Joe thinks that approximately 338 years of slavery in Brazil had no aftereffects but 12 years of PT annihilated the country’ (my approximate translation).
Martins rarely announces the skin colour of his characters, but there is no doubt that he is writing about black and brown Brazilians. The streets his characters race down are the streets of Marielle Franco, the black left-wing local politician, who was assassinated a year ago; the walled and gated condominums they stare into are much like the one shared by Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and the militia responsible for the murder of Franco – with whom the Bolsonaro family has been linked. Activists have long described the violence which targets black Brazilians as a genocide, with its roots in slavery. Black Brazilians make up 75 per cent of homicides in the country, but only half the population. In 2017, 49, 500 black Brazilians were murdered.
The Sun on My Head is explicitly preoccupied with leaving a mark on the world in the face of violence. In ‘Bathroom Blonde’, when little André, so excited to go to big school, is taken aside for hazing, he expects to be sexually abused. Instead, André is asked to stand in the bathroom and summon the ghost of a girl who killed herself after being raped there: ‘Bathroom Blonde, Bathroom Blonde, Bathroom Blonde, Bathroom Blonde,’ he says. It’s not the only story that ends in a name. In ‘The Tag’, new father Fernando, a graffiti artist and tagger, is taken for a thief in the middle of a job. To avoid being shot, he announces (and denounces) himself: ‘He ditched the spray can, waited a few seconds until he heard the clang confirming his message had been delivered, then yelled: “I’m a tagger!” and felt alive.’ He crashes on to the roof of a next door building, and we aren’t told what happens to him next. The story concludes with a one-word sentence, his tag: ‘Loki’. ‘The Mystery of Vila’ closes with Ruan, a child going in secret to hear black elder Dona Iara, practitioner of syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion Macumba, tell stories of Ogum Iê, originally of Yoruba mythology. And ‘Padre Miguel Station’ ends when a young man runs from the shots of an AK-47, and these words: ‘I watched my friends moving further and further from me as I lost speed, thinking to myself “Someday I will write this story”’.
Martins has written something masterful and kind, oral and literary, stretching time between the present and the generational. With beauty and generosity, Martins tells us about the world we live in.