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Book Review: Blood-Drenched Beard

By (January 16, 2015) No Comment

Blood-Drenched Beardblood-drenched beard cover

by Daniel Galera

Penguin Press, 2015

The unnamed young narrator of bestselling Brazilian author Daniel Galera’s novel – bear with me now – Blood-Drenched Beard faces a few big surpises right at the outset of the book’s story. His grubby, depressed father announces that he plans to kill himself, for example, and he reveals that his father, the narrator’s grandfather, was murdered in the small seaside fishing village of Garopaba – and also, incidentally, that he, the father, would appreciate it if the narrator would look after Beta, the dog the narrator’s father has kept and loved for years (apologies for the convolution – actual character names must be temporarily out of fashion in Brazil).

It’s a lot to take in, and Galera further complicates the picture by afflicting his narrator with prosopagnosia, a rare neurological condition that prevents the narrator from recognizing the faces of people he knows. There’s no point to this; it’s just a gimmick, and it’s a gimmick that Galera himself forgets so often in the course of the book that you don’t know whether to snicker or fume.

Soon enough, the young man – with Beta in tow – is road-tripping to Garopaba in order to find out what really happened to his grandfather. This gives Galera many opportunities for lyrical descriptions of idyllic seaside life with its easier, simpler rhythms – opportunities that he sometimes squanders in a somewhat plodding monotone (one presumes it’s dutifully translated by Alison Entrekin) that’s tough to grip:

He goes back to the Beetle parked near the entrance and lets Beta out. He returns with her to the restaurant and sits in an armchair on the front veranda. Dirty glasses and empty cans left on the tables indicate that a lot of people have already been there and gone. Beta sits next to the armchair, and he stares into the surrounding vegetation to forget the monotonous vocals of the rappers, who don’t seem to have the energy to keep up with their rhymes. His cell phone rings. It is Laila, a former student from Porto Alegre who is now his friend. He doesn’t find out why she is calling so late because the roaming charges gobble up his credit in seconds.

Garopaba naturally turns out to be a murky place beneath its sunny, unhurried exterior, and our narrator gradually uncovers plenty of secrets about his grandfather (there’s also, intensely predictably, a tragedy involving Beta, although in general the book’s portrayal of the dog-human dynamic is quite insightful). On the strength of this, the book’s last third is considerably stronger than its first two thirds, although the whole thing could have benefitted from a stern editing from front to back.

Some of Galera’s many digressions are very enjoyable – in fact, given the book’s slight tendency to bloat, those digressions are often the hand-holds a reader needs in order to keep going – as when our narrator, for no particular reason, contemplates the intrusive, busybody nature of the ancient Greek gods and goddesses:

Imagine what things would be like if real life was like that. Gods announcing in advance that you’re going to win a battle, survive a shipwreck, be reuinted with your family, avenge your father’s death. Or the opposite, that you’re going to be defeated or suffer terrible things for many years before you get what you want, that you’re going to lose or even die. And they go into detail, saying exactly how, when, and where, then fly off on the wind and leave the mortal there with the obligation to fulfill or carry out whatever has already been decided up on Olympus.

Galera can often manage a very appealing admixture of dreamy imagery and sharp real-world relationship drama, and that admixture ends up making – bear with me now – Blood-Drenched Beard a memorable reading experience, if a frustratingly unfocused one. More English-language translations of Galera’s work would be much appreciated.