Tale of settled scores


Adriana Lisboa’s meditation on unspoken moral codes and the role of women in Brazil is an elegant way of dealing with a hard subject


Symphony in White
Adriana Lisboa, translated by
Sarah Green
2010, Texas Tech University Press
192 pages

Reviewed by Georgina Jiménez

WHAT THE author intended to be a combination of painting and music in words ended up turning into an interesting series of meditations about generational gaps, family dynamics, unspoken moral codes and the role of women in modern Brazil.

Four generations of them, from the blue-eyed and stern Otacília; to the emotionally warm Great-Aunt Berenice; docile-demure-submissive-well-mannered Clarice; her curious and rebellious sister Maria Inés; and Maria Inés’ oblivious teenage daughter Eduarda.

Adriana Lisboa has composed a beautifully crafted tale about searching and finding for which she was awarded the José Saramago Prize in 2003.

At 40 something, Maria Inés looks back to the time when she and her eternal accomplice tried to grow a money tree in a forbidden quarry, and realises that her marriage now is not what she ever imagined it would be. It is Christmas, but she looks ahead to the changes a New Year will bring.

Circular narrative

Lisboa’s circular narrative takes the reader to an idyllic farm in Jabuticabais, southern Brazil in the 1960s, where nothing ever happens to dreamy-eyed children, except for marriages, producing more children. That is, until mother decides that 14-year-old Clarice, her oldest daughter, is big enough to study in Río. The night before Clarice leaves, as she kindly saves an old white dress of hers for the little sister whom she will miss, her best friend is brutally murdered. Clarice’s memories of that farm will remain tarnished for the rest of her life.

Nine year-old Maria Inés, in contrast, is too curious and blunt for her own good, and has what can be perceived as a very exaggerated imagination and a certain amorality in her scientific conclusions. She is clearly too much to bear for the generation of her hermetic and detached parents. She imitates Clarice’s submissive ways yet resolves to abandon the restrictive confines of the farm. What she ignores is that she never fitted the landscape anyway and, much to her mother’s relief, she, too, will be sent away.

Both sisters undergo a catharsis while in the big city. The pale and pristine Clarice becomes a sculptor, and spends there the best days of her life. Clarice’s short break will end in a predictable marriage to a neighbour in Jabuticabais. Later, Maria Inés will become the muse of Tomás, a budding artist who, at first sight, falls for the girl with the flowing dress from James Abbott McNeil Whistler’s Symphony in White. Eventually, the muse will dissolve from the predictability of love and old conventions, travel to Venice, turn into a doctor and live within the peaceful white marble walls of wealth.

With Otacília’s death, however, the stillness of the sisters’ life will be shattered, and the provincial palour of the farm will fall away to reveal its ugly, true colours.

The book has the melancholic intensity of Brahms’ “Opus 40” for horn, violin and piano, which for the purpose of the novel harmonically encompasses how some generations rewrite stories, while others uncover them. Its portrayal of men as mere passers by, the pieces of a puzzle and clues for discovering the real events in the lives of the women, complement fittingly the main characters’ soul searching.

Lisboa’s capacity for dealing elegantly with hard subjects is cleverly matched by the poetry in her descriptions. The reader can feel, like one listening to a musical piece, the tempo of the story, an achievement that derives from the author’s own knowledge of music (she is a trained singer and musician). She also reveals much empathy with the stories of each character as a youngster.

What is less clear is whether the fleeting references to atrocities committed by the military dictatorship intend to mirror the events in the novel. If the author’s real intention is to discuss the individual’s self-censorship in the face of brutality, she fails.

Nonetheless, what Lisboa does master is the creation of lovable and despicable characters, and a fluid prose so intense it can be likened to the flight of a butterfly at the edge of a cliff.

Georgina Jiménez is a freelance Mexican writer

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