Recently, I was looking (as you do) for something short to fill up an evening, when I remembered a book I had hanging around electronically. A quick look on my Kindle, and I’d found a novella from Frisch & Co., digital specialists in translated fiction. The fact that it was translated by Daniel Hahn, a man who never seems to be out of the translated fiction news at the moment, also seemed to be a sign. So, it’s off to Brazil we go, for a tale of marriage, old age and precious gems – none of which are exactly what they were thought to be…
Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares’ Family Heirlooms (e-copy courtesy of the publisher) is a short novella centred on the figure of Maria Bráulia Munhoz, a judge’s widow living out her remaining days in her apartment. When her nephew comes to lunch, he arrives bearing bad news as the ruby ring he was given to have assessed at the jeweller’s has turned out to be made of glass…
The nephew leaves Maria to digest her disappointment at the news; however, things are not quite as they seem. You see, the old woman is not quite as surprised by the news as she might be. As she retires to her bedroom to rest and think, the reader discovers that the story of the ruby is actually a rather complex affair…
Family Heirlooms is a rather short work, almost a one-sitting book, and fairly easy to read, but there’s a lot more going on under the surface than appears at first glance. The swan of the cover photo is a table ornament in Maria’s apartment, and it’s emblematic of the civilised calm on the surface of her life with lots of frantic paddling beneath. The novel focuses heavily on surface versus reality, whether that pertains to actions or appearances:
“With her social face once again on show, the other one, the strictly private one, recedes, as happens every morning, and is immediately forgotten by its owner. A face that, being so rarely seen by others, assumes the same modesty as her shrunken body; bringing it into the daylight, holding it up on her neck as though it were the most natural thing in the world (which in fact is precisely what it is now), displaying it to someone else, even someone with whom she is on intimate terms, such as her nephew, would seem to her an act of the most absolute and unforgivable shamelessness.”
(Frisch & Co., 2014)
Even with her nearest and dearest, the idea of revealing her true self would never cross Maria’s mind, and this reluctance to open up to the world is a trait which is explored in depth throughout the story.
The plot, at least what little there is of one, hangs on the story of the ring (a device which a Victorian author could probably have made a six-hundred-page novel out of…). It begins with a present from Maria’s husband before their marriage and is confused by the creation of a copy for everyday use – except that before too long, nobody is quite sure which is the real and which is the fake (or, indeed, whether there were ever two rings in the first place).
In truth, though, the story of the ring is merely an opportunity for Maria to look back at her life and contemplate the rigours of an undemanding married existence. Having once thought that marriage would bring a change to her monotonous days, she discovers that life as a married woman is simply filled with different disappointments. Her husband, the judge, is not the life partner she might have wished for:
“Judge Munhoz paced back and forth in his study, back and forth, but he couldn’t make up his mind whether deception or decorum had been more important in his life.”
With the judge balancing both qualities, with work and his private secretary, Maria is left to find solace in her friendship with the jeweller, Marcel de Souza Armand, a relationship which is implicit and understated – and which brings us back to the jewel.
The family heirloom of the title may be the jewel, but (as Maria’s maid Maria Preta explains to her visiting niece) there are far more important things in life:
“Goodness, if I’ve got to explain everything I know, ten years won’t be enough, not even a whole lifetime! And everything about manners, about good breeding that I want to pass on to you, all of that! As Dona Chiquinha used to say, these teachings are family heirlooms too. We inherit them, they’re passed down from mother and father to child.”
Not that the maid is referring to the lady of the house when she thinks about manners. There’s a vast difference between how the lady of the house sees herself and how she is seen by others…
The story is nicely written, and one of the strong points is the writer’s observational skill, with a careful, cinematic eye for the actions of the protagonists. In addition to the paragraph on Maria’s second ‘face’, there are many excellent quirky details, such as the comical look of the nephew when clasping his aunt’s hands or the jeweller’s resemblance to a portrait of Queen Victoria, an observation which forever plays on poor Maria’s mind once her husband has made it.
In the end, though, it’s the story of a woman and her days, and Ribeiro Tavares compares Maria’s life to the history of the ruby. She suggests that in the attempt to guard something precious, Maria has, in fact, wasted both her life and the precious gem, and the still atmosphere of the apartment appears to confirm this notion. Family Heirlooms, as noted, is a fairly sedate book, but it’s certainly a story which makes you think. The moral, if there is one, is that life is definitely for living, not for hiding away like a jewel you’re scared of losing…