Brazilian Bildungsroman

Crow Blue, by Adriana Lisboa, (Bloomsbury USA), 240 pages

I love reading literature in translation. I’m no expert on languages, but it’s interesting to think about how particular sentences might have been phrased in the original or how well the translator has done at finding a style in the new language that reflects the author’s style in the original. My most recent novel-in-translation read is Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue, translated by Alison Entrekin. Although Lisboa now lives in the U.S., she is Brazilian by birth and writes in Portuguese.

At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I want to say that Crow Blue reads like a novel in translation in the very best sense of that term. The voice is engaging and consistent and unlike anything I’ve read from U.S. authors. Lisboa has written the kind of book one can “chew” on, and Entrekin has rendered it luminous, sometimes dream-like prose.

The novel’s plot can be outlined quickly, Evangelina (Vanja), born in the U.S. to a mother with dual citizenship, has been raised in her mother’s native Brazil. When Vanja is twelve, her mother dies, and Vanja determines to track down her birth father, who she knows nothing about. For a first step on her journey, he moves to Colorado to live with her step-father, the man actually listed as her father on her birth certificate. With his help and with the companionship of a young Salvadoran immigrant neighbor, she begins her search.

The book is written in first person, with Vanja, now twenty-two, narrating her search. Her voice is precocious, but not in the sassy, impatient sense that the word might suggest. Her precociousness is quiet and reflective. She sees her own world more richly than one would expect from a child of her age, and her precocity extends to her understanding of others: “Fernando [her step-father] came across as being exactly what he appeared to be. Which could mean two things: that he was exactly what he appeared to be. Or that he was a talented liar, the worst kind—the sort that lie to themselves, with so much conviction and effort that they end up believing it, and when they tell other people their lies they think they are actually telling the truth.”

Not long after that, she muses, “the future was (and is, and will always be) a mutating thing, the fruit of successive forks in the road, and I was already beginning to suspect that making plans was an embarrassingly useless habit.”

Vanja interweaves the tale of her search with memories of her mother and with stories recounted by Fernando, now a guard at the Denver Public Library, but originally a Brazilian guerrilla trained in China, and later a London bartender. The pace of the novel reminds one of a children’s game—three steps forward and two steps back—repeating herself occasionally as she shifts ground.

Crow Blue is coming-of-age novel, but one that expands that tradition, with an inner journey as thoroughly articulated as the outward one. For anyone with a reflective bent, this book will prove a deeply satisfying read.