After recently reviewing several impressive Spanish-language works, it’s time to turn my attention to the other part of Spanish- and Portuguese-language month. Today’s choice is an intriguing novel by a Portuguese writer, a story seemingly over in an instant, yet in truth spanning a whole life. As she feels her life ebbing away, a woman looks back at what she’s leaving behind, and these last-minute regrets stretch out to such an extent that we get to see just what kind of woman she is – and what kind of life she’s led…
Dulce Maria Cardoso’s Violeta among the Stars (translated by Ángel Gurría-Quintana, review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) starts with an ending, showing us a woman in her car on a stormy night:
…the position I’m in, head down, hanging by the seatbelt, not uncomfortable, strangely my body does not weigh me down, it must have been a hard crash, I opened my eyes and found myself like this, head down, arms resting on the car’s ceiling, legs dangling, the awkwardness of a ragdoll, eyes fixed, listless, on a drop of water that clings to a vertical shard of glass, I can’t make out the noises around me, I start again, I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home…
p.7 (MacLehose Press, 2021)
After crashing her car and rolling down a hillside, the woman has suffered serious injuries, and you sense she’s unlikely to make it out of this alive. As she hangs there, waiting for someone to come to her aid, her thoughts go to her life so far, forming a monologue told by a woman on her way out.
The first parts of the novel see her remembering recent events, slowly making her way backwards through her day as we learn about the events leading up to the crash and the sale of a property she concluded earlier. However, in the background, lurking behind these more recent memories, are shadows of a further past, the events of her youth. Forced to take stock of her life in her final moments, she wonders what her legacy will be, and what will become of her loved ones.
Violeta among the Stars, running to almost four-hundred pages, is an ambitious work marked primarily by the style. It’s a stream-of-consciousness ramble, and while divided into chapters, it forms another of those single-sentence works. With fragments rolling ever onwards, punctuated by brief phrases that interrupt the main stream momentarily (often clever echoes or interjections from other characters), the text reflects our heroine’s mental state as she hangs helplessly in the wreckage of her car.
If the style stands out, so too does Violeta herself. She’s open when building an image of herself, an obese woman, a travelling salesperson with a liberal attitude to sex, both in her youth and on the road. This comes across in the early chapters where she sets out to pick up a man at a service station, with the protagonist describing herself as a predator, on the search for easy prey among the truckers in the car park.
Gradually, though, there’s a shift of focus, and what ensues is more of a family tale. The story is centred upon her relationship with her nineteen-year-old daughter, Dora, and her parents, wealthy and successful under the old fascist regime. There’s one other member of this ‘family’, however, Ângelo, a man of Violeta’s age who seems close to her and her daughter. To begin with, it’s unclear what the connection here is, but this is just one of the secrets that will be revealed before Violeta reaches the end of her tale.
An issue she repeatedly comes back to is her fraught relationship with Dora, and this is first shown in a tense early scene at a restaurant, where the two sit down for dinner, daggers drawn:
…Dora avoids me, she looks at the art on the wall, we are silent, we don’t know how to speak without hurting each other, we don’t know how to be together without hurting each other, we don’t know what to do with our hurt… (p.89)
Ironically, this mother-daughter antagonism is a reflection of Violeta’s relationship with her own mother, Celeste. Violeta goes on to show herself growing up in the shadow of her overbearing mother, using her sexual appetite as a means of rebellion and to strike out at her mother’s bourgeois existence.
The past is an important part of this story of secrets, in both personal and societal terms. As Violeta reflects on her childhood, we are given hints of her country’s dark past and also of her family’s dirty secrets. Stories of the colonial era, and the dictatorship, are woven into her family’s story, either as anecdotes about an unfortunate family friend or unpleasant incidents on the street, her father’s role in past events brought into question with the change of regime.
It’s here that the writer shines, cleverly showing how the past is always contained in the present, with most scenes working on several levels. We have Violeta (in her car) thinking back to a dinner, to a conversation, but at the same time she’s further back in the past, watching the ghosts of previous events hovering around the table:
…I think I’m allergic to these smells, Ângelo complains, and he gets up to use the toilet without noticing the metal trolley with the curlers and the hairbrushes, he might almost trip over the manicurist with her pink overall sitting on a stool with the nail polish basket perched dangerously on her lap, or slip on the hair curler dropped on the floor… (p.89)
That doesn’t happen because, of course, none of these things are there – Violeta is superimposing images of the restaurant’s past existence onto the present moment…
Despite all this, I’d have to say that Violeta among the Stars is a book I admired rather than enjoyed. While undoubtedly well-written, it’s fairly long, and once you get the hang of where the writer’s going, the story can drag a little. It also doesn’t help that Violeta is a rather unsympathetic character. There’s a definite sense she’s made her bed and must now lie in it, even if that bed may well end up being a morgue drawer.
However, Cardoso’s novel is well worth a try, and with Women in Translation Month just around the corner, it may be one you’ll want to add to your list. It’s a story of history repeating and the dangers of dwelling on the past, a family drama ending in tragedy. It’s also a telling reminder that in an uncertain world, it’s best not to leave reconciliation until it’s too late…