For me, reading in Portuguese is a bit like watching the world go by through an extremely dirty window. I can make out the general shape of things moving into and out of the frame, their colours and their size, but the detail is lost. People’s genders and ages remain uncertain, and events tend to come as a bit of a surprise, because everything building up to them has been concealed underneath a layer of grime.
I took two years’ worth of language classes while I was a student, but I never spent any decent period of time in a Portuguese-speaking country, and since then Spanish has elbowed out much of what I learned. There’s a wonderful scene in Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station that often comes to mind as I try to wade my way through a short story or an essay written in Portuguese, in which the protagonist tries to flirt – in a language he has only recently started to learn – with a girl at a party:
She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full. […] Then she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish.
This is exactly how I feel when I read in Portuguese: as though I have to hold multiple possible versions of the narrative simultaneously in my mind, letting it morph from one nebulous shape into another in the hope that one of them will eventually swim into focus. It can be frustrating, sure, but once I relax into it there is something enjoyable, as Lerner puts it, about ‘dwelling among possible referents’, letting them ‘interfere and separate like waves’. I carried out this exercise on a couple of the stories in Amora, a short story collection by the Brazilian writer Natalia Borges Polesso, first peering dimly into the Portuguese to see how much I could figure out before looking at the English version, in this instance translated by Julia Sanches. Whenever I do this, the moment I eventually look at the translation is always intensely satisfying, like having someone finally come and wipe the window clean. (‘Oh, they’re cousins, not lovers!’, etc.)
I find myself repeatedly drawn to Sanches’s translations. I remember weeping copiously as I read her first, Susana Moreira Marques’s Now and at the Hour of Our Death, on a lonely Friday night a few winters ago. That book convinced me of her excellent taste, so my ears pricked up when I saw her name attached to Borges Polesso’s stories. Because if I want to read outside my own limited linguistic repertoire, I have to rely on a translator to do for me what Lerner’s character cannot: choose between all those possible referents, pin down the story’s details, give it clarity, logic, and a consistent voice. I want to know that I’m in good hands. Thankfully, in Sanches’s, the voices in Borges Polesso’s stories about love between women have an ease and naturalness that is entirely convincing (and besides, it’s hard not to admire someone who manages to work phrases like ‘bald-faced skank’ and ‘ass bandit’ into her translations).
Amora contains thirty-three short stories, split into two sections. The first section, ‘Big and Juicy’, takes up almost two hundred of the book’s 220 pages, making the second, ‘Short and Tart’, seem like something of an afterthought. This latter section is made up of prose-poems, impressionistic fragments written mostly in the first person. Some, like ‘Molotov’, pack a serious punch despite their size, but many of them read more like half-finished sketches. The real meat of the collection is undoubtedly in ‘Big and Juicy’.
Intimacy is right at the heart of Amora. And you’ll find every kind of intimacy imaginable, from the thrill of a passing fling to domestic rituals borne of long co-habitation. All the voices are female, but their perspectives are many and varied: there are high school romances, young professional couples, an illicit relationship between a married professor and her younger student. There is a lovely tale, ‘Marília Wakes Up’, about an aged couple fearful of being left alone with their failing bodies, and another, ‘Aunties’, about two would-be nuns who finally get married after living together as ‘friends’ for sixty years. But the book’s centre of gravity is teenage girls trying to figure out how they feel about their bodies and other people’s. Borges Polesso excels at depicting youthful experience: the paralysing embarrassment of tripping over in front of an ex at school, the excitement of that first taste of alcohol (‘You take a sip of cachaça, your life becomes hot like an infernal summer afternoon’), and those first, heady, sexual experiences (‘urgency undressed us and swallowed up the night’).
The protagonist of ‘First Times’ meets a boy who introduces himself as ‘Luís Augusto Marcelo Dias’, and for whom she develops feelings that are ‘inversely proportional to her physics grades. She was bad at physics.’ When she finally sleeps with him, she is left disappointed, and feeling just as virginal as before. With heterosexual sex turning out to be such a let-down, the protagonist considers the possibility of something different: ‘the unmentionable thing’, which turns out to be a tryst with her friend Leticia in the back of a stranger’s car. Poor Luís Augusto Marcelo Dias Prado doesn’t understand why she ran out on him (‘He was a good person, despite his name’). The tone here is light and amusing, as it often is in Amora, but this is the first of many stories that draw out the connections between lesbianism, shame and secrecy. Elsewhere, in ‘My Cousin’s in Town’, Bruna’s girlfriend is uncomfortable admitting to her same-sex relationship; when push comes to shove, she panics and introduces her girlfriend as a cousin temporarily staying in her flat. That same shame takes on a darker aspect in ‘Boots’, which negotiates depression resulting from feelings of alienation and difference; the sense of being ‘completely disfigured. Covered in bulky, disgusting sores that never heal. That will always cause disgust’.
Often children are better able to accept and adapt to the existence of homosexual relationships than adults are. In ‘Flor’, a young girl shows extraordinary kindness to a neighbour whose sexual orientation provokes both fear and disgust in the girl’s parents. In ‘Como te extraño, Clara’, teenage Rafael watches his parents’ marriage break up after his mother cheats on his father with a woman. One evening, Rafael asks his mother if Clara will be moving in with them: ‘It will take a moment for Fernanda to make sense of his question. He’ll try to help by saying, “Clara, Mom, your girlfriend,” with unusual ease.’ This untroubled attitude stands in stark contrast to the deep-rooted homophobia and casual racism displayed by certain adult characters elsewhere in the collection.
Many of the characters in Amora, though, are simply contending with the regular trials and tribulations of relationships. (It’s rare to be immersed in an all-female world, and rarer still, perhaps, for that world to be presented as entirely normal.) For instance, ‘Bite Your Tongue’ and ‘Renfield’s Demons’ depict the emotional repercussions of infidelity from the perspective of the cheater and the cheated-on, respectively. The latter, one of the collection’s strongest pieces, has a touch of the surreal about it, as its grieving protagonist, plagued by ‘demons’, self-medicates with sleeping pills, swinging in and out of a catatonic state for days. Eventually she ventures out to a costume party where she is bitten by a woman dressed as a vampire. In her delirium, ‘she dies, wakes up. Dies again.’ Yet this isn’t overwhelmingly a gloomy book; quite the contrary. There is a lot of love in Amora, as the title suggests: hands held in the playground, routine care work, inside jokes, little acts of unlooked-for kindness.
Reading Borges Polesso is like listening to someone telling anecdotes over a meal or a drink, with all the warmth and looseness that entails. Her stories feel spoken and fresh, almost testimonial, and although there is a lot of charm in that register, it does mean the author sometimes misses an opportunity to build tension. Often a story goes on for just two or three lines too many, scooting straight past what could have been a powerful climax to end on a line as trite and flat as ‘We spent the rest of the day together’. Nonetheless, I’m grateful for these stories of urban women half a world away, and for the translator who helped me peer through the window into their lives.
ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR
is a researcher, editor, and literary translator based in Mexico City. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London. She is Reviews Editor at Hispanic Research Journal and writes regularly about multilingualism and contemporary Latin American literature, including for publications like the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and The Irish Times. Her translation of Bruno Lloret’s Nancy is published by Giramondo Publishing.