American publishers often hear the grousing that we bring out vanishingly few novels in translation. While I think things are getting better thanks to the inspired work of outfits like Dalkey Archive, Europa and New Directions, and while I know that in fact some of my own defining editorial experiences have been with fiction in translation, including W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz and Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind, let’s face it, there’s some truth to the problem. Not that it’s a mystery as to why. We’re a fairly monolingual lot, or at least I certainly have no faith in my literary discernment through the haze of my schoolboy French and Spanish. Publishing debut fiction, period, is hard enough, and falling in love is everything. How do you know?
In the case of Daniel Galera’s Blood-Drenched Beard I had some help. First, John Freeman, then editor of Granta and a reader of beautiful taste, curated a Granta “Best of Young Brazilian Novelists” issue, and he led the issue with a story that was in fact the first chapter of this novel. It made the skin on my arms stand up: a father has called his son to his side to say that he’s literally sick to death of his lingering illness and is going to end his own life; and so he needs his one obedient child to look after his beloved old dog. Our narrator cycles through emotions from incredulity to outrage to sorrowful acceptance. And then his father drops his final whopper: his own father didn’t die of natural causes in the beach town of Garopaba: he was murdered, in effect lynched by the town. Oh, and, we figure out soon enough that our narrator suffers from face-blindness – he is incapable of remembering who people are by sight.
So begins one of the wildest, coolest, slinkiest, most moving existential mystery novels you’ll ever experience. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read. If there is a love triangle in this novel, it is between a man, his dog and the ocean, and “oceanic” is the word that comes to mind to describe its power. The novel’s protagonist is isolated from other people in such a way that every human connection touches us to the quick. And the novel builds to a furious climax that left me reeling. Talking sweepingly about national characteristics of prose invites ridicule, usually deservedly – what do “Americans” write like? – but at the same time I have to say that there is a sensuous musicality to Galera’s voice, a velvety toughness, both sophisticated and laced with physical menace, that, while it’s certainly all about the genius of Daniel Galera, somehow also makes me feel connected to the novel’s setting in the way only very special fiction can. Part of the credit goes to the great talent of translator Alison Entrekin, translator of City of God, and of Chico Buarque, and many other Brazilian novelists.
Speaking of translators, another thing that gave me heart was that Daniel himself is one of Brazil’s most famous literary translators, translating Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Jonathan Safran Foer and others into Portuguese. It’s not that this is dispositive of anything in terms of his own fiction in any obvious way, but it’s a good augury on a number of levels.
Our publication also has to do with the trust and friendship Ann Godoff and I feel for Daniel’s Brazilian publisher, the great Luis Schwarcz, the founder and head of one of the world’s most indispensible publishing houses, Companhia Das Letras. Luiz told me in no uncertain terms that this was going to be one of the best novels he’s ever published, and Daniel a truly giant talent. And lo and behold, he was exactly right. I envy anyone the experience of reading Blood-Drenched Beard for the first time.
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