Chance literary encounters

My (too short) vacation this year did not have any literary connection. So imagine my surprise when I met this little man:

The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation. I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean. Thus you can imagine my amazement, at sunrise, when I was awakened by an odd little voice. It said:
“If you please– draw me a sheep!”
“Draw me a sheep!”
I jumped to my feet, completely thunderstruck. I blinked my eyes hard. I looked carefully all around me. And I saw a most extraordinary small person, who stood there examining me with great seriousness.

Let me back this story by saying that husband and I, while we don’t have “our song”, we do have “our book”, and it’s Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. A couple of weeks ago, we were vacationing in Madeira and we were lucky enough to see our book transformed into wall and door art. All the important details were there. The fox:

“To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world…”

The lamplighter:

The fifth planet was very strange. It was the smallest of all. There was just enough room on it for a street lamp and a lamplighter. The little prince was not able to reach any explanation of the use of a street lamp and a lamplighter, somewhere in the heavens, on a planet which had no people, and not one house. But he said to himself, nevertheless: “When he lights his street lamp, it is as if he brought one more star to life, or one flower. When he puts out his lamp, he sends the flower, or the star, to sleep. That is a beautiful occupation. And since it is beautiful, it is truly useful.”

The sheep, the baobab, and the snake:

“Oh! I understand you very well,” said the little prince. “But why do you always speak in riddles?”
“I solve them all,” said the snake.
And they were both silent.

And more still:

The painting was part of an art project transforming walls and doors in historical Funchal into art pieces. You can find more about the project The arT of oPEn doORs here and more pictures of this painting by Francisco J. V. Fernandes and Maria Luisa Freitas Spinola (to be seen at the following address: Travessa do Pimenta, 7) here.

Quotes taken from this online version of The Little Prince (translator not stated).

Books: Alice Vieira

Alternate title: if you are looking for Portuguese, look no further

Flor de Mel
Ursula, a maior
Editorial Caminho paperback,
115 pages
Editorial Caminho paperback,
166 pages

Why I read them
It’s all Alex‘s and Nymeth‘s fault, for making me aware of Vieira. And it’s Vieira’s own fault too, for being such a good storyteller that after Os olhos de Ana Marta, I was ready to buy and read all of her books. Especially those that came recommended.

On reading
I won’t say much about the contents, except that both books tell the story of young girls in a difficult familiar situation and how they deal with it. I won’t say more because I’d give away something, and I do think that the way the stories are told, detail by detail and mystery by mystery, is part of what makes these books interesting — again, it’s Vieira’s narrative technique that makes them worthwhile. Yet at the same time these stories are always so sad… that I still feel they’re more suitable for an adult audience.

The Portuguese aspect
When talking about Vieira, Alex and Nymeth wondered why her books have never been translated. Three books in, I am still convinced that they are way too Portuguese to work for a wider audience. It is hard to put my finger on a specific reason, but the society they describe feels different from anything I (as Italian) have experienced in my childhood, and even if no specific places are ever mentioned, it is definitely not a universal setting. I don’t think I could appreciate this books as much if I had never lived in Portugal. Oh, and now that I come to think of it — maybe that sadness is also very Portuguese. Not that the Portuguese I know strike me as particularly sad, but they are famous for fado and saudade, after all…

If you have read Flor de mel, I have a question for you: who is the blond woman? Because I discussed this book with my husband, but we don’t agree on the outcome, and I felt cheated at not having a real answer to the book’s mystery, but maybe I just missed a major detail.

Book: The Eyes of Ana Marta


The book: Os olhos de Ana Marta (The Eyes of Ana Marta), by Alice Vieira

The edition: Portuguese (original) version, as published by Caminho, 156 pages

The story: a house where some rooms are closed forever, a mother who feels she’s not of an age to be a mother anymore (and whose mysterious illness makes it difficult to approach), a father who has forgotten how it was like to be a child. This is Marta’s life, so since early childhood she retreats to the kitchen, where the old housemaid-turned-nanny Leonor takes care of her, feeding her affection and stories. But the mysteries will not remain mysteries forever.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: this is probably the book that went faster from the moment I knew about it (thanks to Alex), to my wishlist, to my TBR (thanks to husband), to read, and now reviewed. And while I don’t usually read children books, I have to admit that this was every bit as good as Alex and Nymeth claimed. (Although, there is an issue that disturbed me, but you’ll have to read the “spoilers” part to find out what it is.)
Mainly there are two things that make this book so good. One is its tenderness. Basically the book is the world as it is seen through the eyes of a child, with imagination pouring over reality through every detail. In this aspect it reminded me a lot of O meu pé de laranja lima. (I am sure that there are other children books that are just as sweet, and more widely known, but they don’t come to mind right now.)
The book’s second asset is its narrative technique. It makes a great job of foreshadowing, of building up tension and mystery, of hinting at something that you don’t discover until the very last pages. I had seen this technique mastered so well in only two novels before, and loved them both to bits: The God of Small Things and Hasta Siempre, Mujercitas (which is another one that has never been translated into English and I can’t understand why). I didn’t expect to find it so well done in a children book.
Bottom line: this book is a little gem.

The part with spoilers: as I mentioned, there was an issue that disturbed me a lot, in the same way that the relationship between the twins in Her Fearful Symmetry disturbed me. Basically, the great secret in this family is that it functions on an extremely morbid basis, i.e. parenting a child to take the place of another. I’m not sure I agree with presenting such a model in a book whose intended readers are children.
Also, I have a question for my Portuguese readers: do you consider “Marta” and “Ana Marta” to be completely different names? I cannot understand how, on the basis of “you cannot even mention the name of Ana Marta” one would go on to call the second daughter Marta. It just does not click for me.

Language & writing: I feel very lucky in that I read Portuguese and was able to read this. You may have heard that Nymeth and Alex are supporting the idea of translating it for a wider audience — I don’t think it would work. I found this book to be extremely Portuguese and I guess it would not work half as well in translation.

Random thought: why are children book covers always so uncomfortable these days?

Read this if: if you are in the mood for something sweet and tender, read this. If you liked O meu pé de laranja lima, you’ll like this all the more. Of course, you need to read Portuguese to access any of the two.