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The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara – Is there something strange in Otto’s neighborhood?

November 3, 2020 9 comments

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara. (2013, Brazil) Not available in English. French title: Les Nuits de laitue. Translated by Dominique Nédellec. Original title : Noites de Alface.

The Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara is a book I picked on a whim in a bookstore, because the cover caught my eyes and and also because Zulma is a good publisher. It sounded like a unique book, a clever blend of eccentricity, tenderness and mystery. And it is. Quirky is the best adjective I can come up with.

Ada and Otto had been married for fifty years when Ada died suddenly. They didn’t have any children and after half a century of constant companionship, care, animal documentaries, puzzles, cooking and ping-pong, Otto is on his own. They have lived in their neighborhood for ages and we soon get acquainted with their lovely and funny neighbors.

There’s Nico, who works at the local pharmacy and is obsessed with side effects of medications. He keeps reading all the explanatory leaflets and marvels at the oddest side effects he can find. There’s Aníbal, the crazy postman who sings at the top of his lungs and randomly delivers mail. There’s Iolanda and her crazy chihuahuas and Teresa the typist and her three dogs. And last but not least, there’s Mr Taniguchi, an old Japanese who believes that the war in the Pacific isn’t over. It’s an eccentric neighborhood where people look after each other.

Otto is trying to find a new normal without Ada, who was beloved in their community. She loved Milanese cauliflower dishes and she generously spread that love in her street, making random deliveries to her neighbors. When Otto started to suffer from insomnia, she cooked lettuce herbal tea, thinking it would help. It didn’t. Now Otto’s insomnias taste like lettuce and he hates any leafy vegetable.

Otto is a grumpy old man and he used to leave all the socializing to Ada. Now, he just wants to be left alone in his home and bury himself there until death comes and gets him. His neighbors have other things in mind and soon Otto suspects that they’re hiding something from him.

It’s hard to describe Barbara’s novel. It’s fun, light and bubbly. At the same time, Otto’s pain is palpable. He lost his wife, his best friend and his window to the world. The quotidian needs to be reinvented without Ada and Otto holds on to small tasks and his notes-to-self are often amusing:

Il se leva et, en trainant des pieds, alla se brosser les dents et se laver le visage avec deux types de savons antibactériens –l’un éliminait 99.8% des bactéries et l’autre 99.7%. A eux deux, ils feraient donc mieux qu’exterminer les micro-organismes nocifs : sa peau afficherait un solde créditeur. He got up and, shuffling his feet, went to brush his teeth and wash his face with two different anti-germ soaps –one killed 99.8% of germs and the other 99.7% Between the two, they’ll do more than eliminate toxic micro-organisms: his skin would show a credit balance.

Vanessa Barbara takes us to each house and tells us about each neighbor, their past, their dreams and their goals. Meanwhile, a series of events make Otto suspicious. He doesn’t know if something’s wrong or if it’s just a conspiracy to bring him back among the living. And you’ll need to read the book to find out whether he’s right or wrong.

The Lettuce Nights is written in a witty tone, Otto making quirky remarks and remembering Ada’s habits with fondness. It’s a bit like The Elephant Keeper’s Children by Peter Høeg as it has the same texture of fun, quirk and thoughtful musings on love, life and death. Jean-Pierre Bacri would make a perfect Otto as he rocks the combination of snarky and oddly fragile. Now that I think of it, it’d make a great French comedy film.

An entertaining read.

The Alienist by J.-M. Machado de Assis – An absolute must read.

September 9, 2018 37 comments

The Alienist by J.M. Machado de Assis. 1881 French title : L’aliéniste. Translated by Maryvonne Lapouge-Pettorelli.

In The Alienist, Machado de Assis takes us to a small Brazilian town, Itaguai. Simaõ Bacamarte is an alienist, a scientist and a researcher. He decides to set up a madhouse to treat mental illnesses in his town. It will be Casa Verde (The Green House) and he convinces the town’s council to support the project.

Bacamarte is one of those scientists only interested in science, certain that scientific reasoning can lead to no wrong and blindly following their thinking to absurdity. Doubt is an alien word to him. Science is his ultimate goal, he is selfless in his endeavors in the sense that he doesn’t want to make profit from it, he’s certain his acts are a blessing for humanity. As we all know, hell is paved with good intentions.

What his cartesian and rigorist mind doesn’t see is that the starting point of his work is flawed. Which are the criteria to assess someone’s mental health? He doesn’t really question this part because he’s certain that he knows whether a person needs to be interned.

Soon, one criterion leading to the other, the whole town ends up in Casa Verde. But some will retaliate and see the opportunity to overthrow the town council and take power in Itaguai.

I have never read such a French novella written by a foreigner. Bacamarte and Itaguai would have been great in a post French Revolution Candide. The Alienist is something that Voltaire could have written if he had lived through the mad times of the 1790s. In 100 pages, Machado de Assis castigates scientific bullheadedness, makes a comedy show of how politicians take advantage of a context for their own profit and how easy it is to turn quiet people into a revolutionary mob.

And all along, a thought nags at us: what is mental illness? How do you define it? How does a doctor know when to confine someone to a mental institution? There’s a lot to say about a society by the way they treat their madmen and who they consider “crazy”. The Alienist shows how too much tinkering with criteria can lead to dictatorial decisions, how thin the frontier is between being on the right side and landing on the wrong bank. It also pictures very well the authority mechanisms that make a population unable to talk back to a figure of authority. Here, it’s Bacamarte and his scientific superiority whose power is increased tenfold by his philanthropic behavior. How bad can he be if he does it for the wellbeing of others?

And there’s the final question: is Bacamarte crazier than his patients?

On top of it, The Alienist is a comedy of mores. Bacamarte is friend with the apothecary Crispim Soares who is a total dimwit. The conversations between the two reminded me of the ones between Homais, the apothecary in Madame Bovary and Charles Bovary himself. The dynamics between the two is reversed, though as Homais leads Charles’s way while Soares is in awe of Bacamarte. Machado de Assis makes fun of the prominent citizen of Itaguai, shows their cliques and how fast the public opinion shifts from one side to the other. Flaubert also has this caustic vision of the French society of the time and Madame Bovary is very cheeky novel that demolishes French pillars of society (Church, State, Men of Power) through the ridiculous example of Bovary and Homais.

The rhinoceros on the French cover of the book is not a coincidence or a strange whim from the publisher. We read The Alienist with the same incredulity and dread that we read Rhinoceros by Ionesco. Of course, Rhinoceros was written in 1959 but it describes how a population reacts to a new phenomenon that stuns them, that takes a lot of power and ultimately changes their quotidian by instilling fear in everyday life and how quickly they adjust and collaborate. Anybody can be declared crazy by Simon Bacamarte and this is also a great opportunity to get rid of unwanted relatives or neighbors. People bring supposedly crazy people to Casa Verde.

This is an absolute must read. It’s as if Machado de Assis had captured a sample of humanity and put it in a snowglobe for our observation. It is firmly rooted in a strong literary heritage and raises a lot of questions about sanity, imprisonment, mass movements and imposing a dictatorship.

My French edition comes with a fascinating foreword by Pierre Brunel. Many thanks to the publisher Metailié because it doesn’t happen often enough and it’s very enjoyable.

I’ll end this post with a message to French translators: Please stop translating names and changing the spelling of places, unless it’s a very common name like Londres. It’s irritating. We are educated readers, we know that a Brazilian character is not named Simon, that a German man is Ludwig and not Louis. Stop it. Plus, it messes with my blogging, I have to research all the names to write up my billets in English.

And, last but not least, see Tony’s thoughts about The Alienist here.

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