Gerard Elson speaks to Brazilian novelist Tatiana Salem Levy about English-language translations, ‘national’ literature and the preservation of knowledge.
The narrator of Tatiana Salem Levy’s The House in Smyrna (2015) lies on a bed in a room, its walls plagued by mildew; her body, by livid sores. Her limbs are withered. The profound weight of depression bears down upon her with the force of a boulder. She’s a bedridden Atlas, prematurely wizened by an exotic disease.
Or is she?
A great pleasure of reading this first novel by one of Granta’s Best Young Brazilian Novelists lies in attempting to chart the interplay between memory and fantasy, narrative fact and nested fiction, which Levy so deftly sustains throughout the book’s 150-or-so lithe and surprising pages.
That the borders between these hinterlands should be so porous is not what’s surprising. Rather, it is Levy’s sureness of hand in keeping the reader guessing as to the veracity of what they’re reading at a given moment that impresses.
Her light-footed narrative alternates between the first- person of the prostrate protagonist, attempting to write away her pain from her musty bed in Rio de Janeiro; her imagined dialogues with her deceased mother; the story of her communist parents’ exile in Portugal during the Brazilian military dictatorship; her addresses to a sexually dominant – and ultimately violent – former lover; her grandfather’s migration as a young man from Turkey to Brazil; and her own pilgrimages to the foreign regions that backdropped her family’s long saga of displacement.
Like her narrator in The House in Smyrna, Levy, now thirty-seven and living in Lisbon after years of calling Rio de Janeiro home, is the child of Turkish Jews who emigrated to Portugal, fleeing Brazil’s engulfing military government.
The novel, released in English translation early in 2015, was first published in Portuguese when Levy was twenty- eight. She has since written two more novels, Primos (2010) and Dois Rios (2011). Whether either will be translated for the Anglophone world is currently unknown.
A PhD in Literature and the recipient of both the São Paulo Prize for Literature (2008) and the English PEN Award (2015) for The House in Smyrna, Levy is friendly, funny and articulate when we speak over the phone, despite conversing in a language she claims to use ‘terribly’, her infant son sitting in her lap.
KYD: Let’s begin by addressing the Australian connection to The House in Smyrna: how did you become involved with your English-language translator, Alison Entrekin, who is Australian by birth but now lives in Brazil?
TSL: Because of Granta. Alison translated my short story. She’s a very good translator; she works a lot with the writers. She put a lot of questions to me, and even helped me make initial contact with my editor at Scribe in Australia. I think it’s fantastic, her way of working. We made a lot of small changes to the book, and I always say to her that everything I write is better in English than it is in Portuguese because of her! We did a different edition of the book.
In Brazil, there is no editor of a book in the sense that there is in the English-speaking world: someone who intervenes in the text and gives very strong opinions about certain phrases or sentences, or about the plot itself. We didn’t change the plot for the English translation, of course. It was too late for that! But we cut a lot, changed words and other things.
For example, the parts where the mother speaks to the daughter are in italics in the English edition. In Portuguese, they’re between brackets. It was her opinion, along with the editor, to change these parts into italics. You work on every translation in this way, for whichever area you’re looking at.
I was very involved in the process, and I got very good feedback, mainly in England. It was really nice. It won the English PEN Award. Then there were a lot of reviews in the English newspapers.
KYD: I’m interested to learn more about your experiences of working with translators. Is your highly engaged way of working with Alison Entrekin unusual?
TSL: Actually, the only real relationship I’ve ever had with a translator was with Alison; with the others, I didn’t have anything similar to this. Now someone is translating the book into Croatian. They’ve sent me some emails asking some questions. The other translators didn’t speak to me.
KYD: Do you find it easy entrusting your work so fully to a translator, knowing you may have no involvement at all in their process?
TSL: I always trust the translator. When the book is published, I don’t care too much about it. It’s in the world; it doesn’t belong to me anymore. Since I’m not very attached to it once it’s done, I’m not worried if the translator is choosing the exact right word or not. Maybe it’s weird to say that? But it’s what happens. Because usually when a book is being translated, I’m working on another one.
KYD: The House in Smyrna was first published almost ten years ago. It’s a long time to be still discussing the same novel.
TSL: It’s very good to have your book born again, years later. I think when it’s published in English especially, the book gets a new life. Because then publishers in many other countries become interested. It’s just how it works. It’s hard to be translated into English from Portuguese. It’s not very common.
KYD: I’m aware of just three Brazilian writers of your generation whose books have received English translations: yourself, Daniel Galera (Blood-Drenched Beard, 2015) and Michel Laub (Diary of the Fall, 2014).
No doubt I’m showing my ignorance in this, but as an Anglophone reader, when I think of Brazilian literature, the only names that leap to mind are Jorge Amado, Clarice Lispector and Paulo Coehlo.
TSL: Now Clarice Lispector is getting very famous in America.
KYD: There’s been a real groundswell of interest in her work both here and in the UK these past few years, too, where her work has been published under Penguin’s Modern Classics imprint. One thing I find interesting about your work, and what I’ve read of your contemporaries, is the emergence of a new internationalism, a very strong intellectual engagement with the world beyond Brazil. Whereas a writer like Amado, for instance, has always struck me as a very entrenched ‘Brazilian writer’.
TSL: I think it’s one of the main characteristics of my generation of Brazilian writers. We are young as a literary nation, as are you in Australia. Before this, Brazilian literature was always concerned with the formation of our nation. But now we are not worried about looking to other countries. Now there is a freedom about this. Brazil is built, in a way. Now, we can travel, we can address other things not particular to Brazil.
It doesn’t mean that we are no longer writing Brazilian literature. Maybe before we felt that to write Brazilian literature was only to talk about Brazil. But we still write in Brazilian Portuguese. Because of this, and because our main life experiences are from Brazil, the way we see the world is always through a Brazilian gaze. Also, writers now travel a lot more than ever before. I think it’s expected that this is reflected in our books.
KYD: With the advent of affordable international travel, the same thing has happened in Australia. Whereas the dominant Australian literature of previous generations was very insular, often looking to the bush or the outback, or only to our cities and suburbs for its settings, the newer generations of Australian writers are turning an Australian lens on other regions and cultures as a way of both understanding the world at large, and Australia itself.
Of course, when we talk about ‘Australian literature’ what we are really discussing is the tradition of the oppressors, the Anglophone colonisers. Thankfully, our literary landscape is finally beginning to diversify, if not exactly apace. Increasingly, our literature seems to reflect the real heterogeneity of Australia’s population, the wealth of stories and worldviews that should all be called ‘Australian’.
Which brings me to another interesting facet of your work: in both the novel and the stories of yours I’ve read, your primary narrators feel ambivalent about Brazil. Is this something you have in common with your characters?
TSL: Once I was giving a speech in Germany with two other writers, and the subject of the roundtable was Rio de Janeiro. Before the event I was thinking, ‘Why do I have to speak about Rio de Janeiro? It’s not the main subject of my literature!’ Then I realised that all the main characters of my novels leave Rio, and they also come back.
I think that Rio is a place, a city, from which I love to leave, but also a place to which I love to come back. It’s the perfect setting for a narrative like this. Every character does this in my novels! The only character who doesn’t leave Rio is the mother of the twins in my second novel, which is not yet translated into English. And she goes mad – she goes crazy!
I didn’t realise it until the day I had to speak about Rio. I think this is also my relationship with Rio, with Brazil, even if it’s mostly unconscious. I really can’t stay in Rio without eventually leaving it. Otherwise, I would go crazy! [Laughs.]
KYD: One element of The House in Smyrna that I found striking was your narrator’s occasional penchant for a kind of Gothic expressionism – especially in those sequences when she’s confined to her bed by her crippling melancholia. At one point she says she can ‘smell the worms preparing for the final banquet’, with the meal of course being her own moribund body. Is Gothic literature an interest of yours?
TSL: Actually, no. What would you call ‘Gothic literature’? It’s not a word we use very often in Portuguese when talking about literature.
KYD: In this instance, I’m thinking of Edgar Allan Poe. TSL: Ah, okay. Yes, I did think about Poe. But Poe’s writing
is much more than any classification like that.
KYD: It isn’t unusual in Latin American literature, is it, this interest in the material aspects of death, even putrefaction? I only have to think of Amado’s great novella, The Double Death of Quincas Water-Bray (1959): when a popular vagrant is found dead one morning, his friends steal the corpse at the wake to take him out for a final celebration.
TSL: I know the book. I have read a lot by Amado, but not this one. Is it melancholic?
KYD: No, this one is carnivalesque. In your book, too, the Gothic component is actually quite funny, and becomes more so as things unfold. The narrator’s morbid visions are offset by interjections from her dead mother, who’s very pragmatic. She’s always telling her daughter, ‘Don’t be so dramatic! You know it really isn’t as bad as what you’re writing!’
This comic tension lend the novel a wonderful lightness. After the first couple of pages, a reader would be forgiven for thinking they might be in for a much bleaker read than they really are.
TSL: Humour is important – at least in my way of seeing life. But sometimes, I think I’m not able to put the same humour I feel in my daily life into my literature. When I write, I think I’m more dramatic than I really am. So sometimes, I need this mother figure to say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous!’
I think maybe I’m becoming less dramatic in my writing; each book is a little bit less so. I’m becoming better at incorporating the mother into my work. But it’s important to laugh about how dramatic we can be, no? If we dwell too much in our troubles, it becomes intolerable.
Can we go back a little?
KYD: Sure. What would you like to readdress?
TSL: Talking about Brazilian writers of my generation, not writing only about Brazil. The only problem about this is that all the publishers in other countries expect that we will write about Brazil! If we don’t write about Brazil, in general they don’t want to translate us.
It’s difficult sometimes to find a place in foreign-speaking countries. They expect us to be another Jorge Amado, but we don’t want to be another Jorge Amado: we don’t live in the same period of time, so we’re very different. Does it happen to Australian writers, too? Maybe not; I suppose it’s not such an ‘exotic’ country.
KYD: [Laughs.] Perhaps only to a Brazilian does Australia seem un-exotic!
But it’s an interesting question. I’m not sure. Of course, the expectation from non-Anglophone readers of what constitutes an ‘Australian novel’ might well hark back to outmoded ideas of hardscrabble living in the bush and outback, rural romances, drovers, bushrangers – that kind of thing. When I’m travelling abroad, it’s not exactly the first thing I’m interested in on entering a bookstore: which Australians are here in translation?
What you say, though, is very dispiriting. As a reader, it’s troubling to learn that a publisher’s sole interest in translating a novel for a foreign market may hinge upon its providing an adequate amount of – what? Armchair tourism? In your experience, has this held true even when dealing with small literary publishers?
TSL: It’s sad, but it’s how it works. While publishers might think Brazil produces very good literature, they also want something that shows Brazil to the world, not how Brazilians see the world.
KYD: Let’s discuss the question of cultural inheritance as it pertains to The House in Smyrna.
Once she reaches Turkey, the novel’s narrator feels guilt about the relative absence of the culture and traditions of her Turkish-Jewish roots from her life to date. Clarice Lispector was born to Lithuanian Jews who fled to Brazil during the fallout from World War I, and it’s now commonplace to cite her as being ‘the most important Jewish writer since Kafka’. As more Brazilian writers are translated into English, I think the stories of the various waves of Jewish exiles who fled to Brazil throughout the twentieth century will come to hold more and more interest to Anglophone readers.
TSL: It’s not a huge Jewish community in Brazil, but I’d say it’s quite an important one. It’s not like in Argentina, where there’s a very big Jewish population.
In Brazil, there are a lot of Jewish writers. Some write what we call ‘Jewish literature’, some don’t. Moacyr Scliar (The Ballad of the False Messiah, 1976, The Enigmatic Eye, 1986), who died in 2011, was the most important writer of Brazil’s Jewish literature. But if you take the Granta anthology, for example, I think about seven of the writers are Jews. Which is a lot, in a group of twenty. I think it’s quite expressive of our literature.
Brazil is a country built by immigrants from all around the world. Everyone has a grandmother or grandfather who came from another place. In many cases, we lose a lot of our origins: we become Brazilians. Italians in Brazil, for example, don’t have a ‘Little Italy’. They become Brazilians, then that’s it. Though there is a very strong Japanese community, keeping the Japanese culture alive.
There’s a Jewish community who keep the traditions, who only marry other Jews, things like this. Then there are Jews like me! I was not raised in a religious family. So Jewishness for me is books, history, and the stories I’ve heard from my family. But mainly the relationship with books.
What I learned when I was very small, which is very Jewish, is that you can lose everything, but you’ll never lose your knowledge. Which explains why so many Brazilian Jews are writers and attached to books. We’ve grown up hearing about the diaspora, where everyone had to leave everything behind. But if you read a lot, you could keep this with you and take it everywhere. This is maybe the strongest inheritance I have from my family’s Jewishness.
KYD: Each of your works that I’ve been able to read feel deeply embedded, in one way or another, in your own history and experience. Each of these has also been largely relayed in the first-person. What endears you to this perspective?
TSL: Like The House in Smyrna, each of my novels has different narratives and perspectives. Though that book has more than the others. Actually, when I started writing that novel, it was entirely in the third-person. After a few months, I realised it was not going very well. So I decided to try the story in the first-person, to make it feel more personal.
Everything I do is very personal. It doesn’t mean it reflects my life exactly, or how I am. But I am very engaged with the world, and I think that is reflected in my literature. My second novel is about twins, a brother and a sister. The novel has two parts: the first is the sister, the second, the brother. They are both told in first-person. In fact, all my novels began being written in the third-person. It’s like I don’t learn from the last experience!
In the third book, though, I decided to go right through to the end in the third-person, though it’s not a typical third- person in that book. It’s similar to the third-person used by Cristovao Tezza in his book The Eternal Son (2010), which is also published by Scribe in Australia. It’s a fake third-person, we’re always with one character and see the world from their point of view.
KYD: So it’s written from close to the seat of their consciousness?
TSL: Yes. KYD: The term we use for that in English is ‘free indirect
TSL: Ah, in Portuguese it’s the same!
KYD: Do you ever find yourself distrustful of certain novels authored in the third-person? I do. I’m reminded of a comment I once read by Alberto Moravia, who suggested the third-person projects a ‘bourgeois point of view’ – this totalising, genteel perspective of which I think we nowadays have just cause to be very suspicious of as readers.
TSL: It depends on the third-person viewpoint. There are actually a lot of ways of writing in the third person, no? Maybe this is the case with the old, ‘realistic’ way of doing it that was popular in the nineteenth century. It was perfect for that time, but not for now.
Because now we know there is no one voice that can know everything about everybody from everywhere. Sebald, like Moravia, also said he didn’t believe in contemporary literature written in the third person.
But I don’t agree with these general claims, actually. Each novel, and each writer in the time that they are writing, needs something different. But I think it’s a very good exercise to begin a novel in first person, then change it into third person, or do the opposite. The book will never be the same if you do this. It’s always worked very well for me.
Original illustration by Guy Shield.