After leaving Evelio Rosero’s war-torn Colombia, my Booktrotting tour takes a rather loopy road through South America to Brazil-via-Colorado, with Adriana Lisboa’s Crow Blue.
As soon as I left the well-behaved density of downtown Denver, along came that enormous solitude to crush everything in existence. A solitude imposed by the space. A solitude of disperse atoms, of things out of stock on supermarket shelves.
Reading Crow Blue by Adriana Lisboa was something of an odd experience. The story is one of two halves: on the surface it’s about the thirteen-year-old Vanja, who leaves Brazil after her mother’s death and embarks on a road trip across Colorado and New Mexico in search of her biological father. But running parallel to that, weaving in and out of each chapter, is the story of Vanja’s stepfather Fernando and his involvement in Brazil’s communist guerrilla uprising in the 1960s and ’70s.
As such, Crow Blue was a good choice of book with which to get to know Brazil, even if most of the “present” narrative takes place in the US south-west. For starters, before reading this novel I didn’t even know Brazil had a communist guerrilla past, or that the country had any claim to a chapter in the Cold War – barring the Bay of Pigs, most of my Cold War conceptions come from the gloomy Eastern Europe of John le Carré novels.
Of course, I can hardly claim to be an expert on the Araguaia Guerrilla War after reading just one book – especially one that only dedicates half of its 228 pages to the topic – but Lisboa covers enough to give even a complete novice a decent grounding. Not only does she follow Fernando through his guerrilla training in Maoist China to his desertion of the cause in the wake of the Brazilian government’s brutal crackdown on the insurgents, but she also adds in the particulars that Vanja finds out later in life – generals’ names, key dates, the government’s favoured tortures, etc – thus adding scope and detail to Fernando’s personal focus.
The second strand of the novel, Vanja’s search for her birth father, doesn’t focus on any particular episode of history like Fernando’s does, but Lisboa still uses it to say a lot about her home country, and especially about the ideas of national identity and “Brazilianness”.
Migration is a big theme in Crow Blue. Vanja is a migrant herself, of course, and the irony of a girl born in Albuquerque, raised in Rio de Janeiro, and looking for a place to belong in Denver, Colorado is never quite lost on her story. Nor is she the only case of her kind: her neighbour Carlos is an illegal immigrant from El Salvador who considers himself a Coloradan native, and her stepfather Fernando has obviously settled in Colorado only after passing through Brazil, China and the UK first.
With such tangled roots for everyone involved, it’s natural that Lisboa would work into her story the questionable idea of nationality. Most of Vanja’s memories of her native Brazil are tinged with feelings of pride: her mother’s insistence that Portuguese is the world’s most beautiful language, for example, or Vanja’s rapture over Pelé and Brazil’s 1970 World Cup win. She also constantly compares Brazil favourably to Colorado – where Colorado’s vast, mountainous plains are to her oppressive in their openness, she remembers Rio de Janeiro as close, intimate, a place where “people are always bumping into one another” and hugs, not handshakes, are the greeting of choice.
And yet, as proud as Vanja is of her Brazilian heritage, she freely admits throughout the novel that it is not a place she feels she can call her home. To Vanja, home is where she makes it, not where she was born or where her passport was issued, and as such she is free to admire Brazil without being blind about it. After taking Crow Blue as a taster, I’d certainly love to delve further into Brazilian literature and see if this question of national identity is a common theme or unique to Lisboa – it certainly wouldn’t surprise me at any rate to meet this theme again, given Latin America’s patchy history of conquest and conflict.
The next book on my list is the last of my Latin American leg – Betrayed by Rita Hayworth, by Argentina’s Manuel Puig.