Found in Translation: Simon Willis enjoys a Portuguese novel of exuberance and desolation
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, March/April 2013
ENGLISH TITLE THE WORD TREE
AUTHOR TEOLINDA GERSAO
ORIGINAL TITLE A ARVORE DAS PALAVRAS (1996)
ORIGINAL LANGUAGE PORTUGUESE
TRANSLATOR MARGARET JULL COSTA
This is the only one of Teolinda Gersão’s 12 novels available in English, and it has just been chosen as the best novel translated from Portuguese in the last three years. You can see why: it’s as acute about childhood as it is about adults, and the writing is as sensuous as it is sad.
Amélia has left Portugal for pre-independence Mozambique, escaping her family and a failed relationship. She answered a newspaper advert from a man who “seeks a decent young woman aged 25 max”. He promised her beaches with pale sand. She got a lonely life as a dressmaker instead. The section of the novel dedicated to her is the most moving in the book, a series of pin-sharp revelations of envy and isolation. She wants to join the elite, and buys perfume she can’t afford. In the sizzling African heat, she dreams of owning fur coats to give the world she left behind a slap in the face. As a portrait of a desperate colonial it’s worthy of V.S. Naipaul.
But Gersão does youthful exuberance as well as she does middle-aged desolation. Amélia’s daughter Gita experiences things, as children do, in a sensory cascade. “Yes, everything in the yard danced,” she says, “the leaves, the earth, the spots of sunlight, the branches, the trees, the shadows.” Hers is an open-hearted, child’s-eye view, of the kind that sees pain as clearly as pleasure. “Go away and never come back,” Gita says of her mother. Amélia’s resentment is the worm in the apple. Gersão’s skill is to make the apple sweet and the worm sympathetic.
The Word Tree Dedalus Books, out now
Simon Willis is apps editor of Intelligent Life