In the final blog exploring the novels chosen for this year’s And Other Stories Portuguese reading group, which met last week, Lucy Greaves explores the last book to be published during the life of the great Elvira Vigna.
In Elvira Vigna’s 2016 novel Como se estivessemos em palimpsesto de putas (As if We Were in a Palimpsest of Whores) stories are told second-hand, embellished, gaps filled and motives imagined.
The book is a one-sided conversation, one in which power and gender are ever-present but mentioned only obliquely, sitting in the silences. The narrator – an under-employed designer – listens, drinking whisky from a plastic cup, while João – hired by a failing publishing house to drag it into the digital age – tells story after story about his exploits with prostitutes. That they are his exploits is pertinent, because the women he fucks are merely extras in his one-man show. He seems to have chosen the narrator as interlocutor/listener firstly because she shares a flat with a prostitute, so João imagines her being part of a world she knows little about, and secondly because he assumes she is lesbian and is thus able to project his macho views onto her (the way he sees it, she’s more man than woman).
The narrator fills in the gaps in João’s stories, picking out the scant details of prostitutes and of his wife Lola, and imagining them into being as humans with fears and motives and desires. She inserts herself in the corner of scenes, filing silences left by João, picking up inconsistencies, and looping back to previous incidents, adding further details. All of this is done critically, sarcastically, powerfully.
In this way, Vigna builds up the palimpsest of her title. She renders visible the process of storytelling with someone retelling what has been told to them, filling in gaps, imagining other perspectives.
Just as João’s stories leave gaps and silences, so does Vigna’s language. Her short sentences end abruptly, and are often followed by a direct contradiction. Negatives abound: people, events and places are often described by what they are not. Language here is slippery, approximative, untrustworthy, inadequate – as, perhaps, it always is when we attempt to communicate. As such, the novel is both colloquial and highly literary: it entirely eschews easy categorisation.
Ultimately, this is a novel about interpersonal relationships. While sexual politics is present throughout, this is not a moralising novel, and the political comes through the personal. Vigna doesn’t theorise – about sex work, for example, or patriarchy – and refuses to give her readers easy answers. In leaving her own gaps in the narrative, she draws readers into another layer of the palimpsest. It is impossible to remain passive while reading Vigna’s work.
This, very sadly, is Vigna’s last novel as she died in summer 2017. With her death Brazilian literature lost one of its most original voices, and this full weight of this loss is still to be felt as her work was not celebrated as much as it ought to have been. Very little of her writing has thus far made it into English – only a handful of short pieces – so in the English-speaking world we have not perhaps lost her yet. We are only just making her acquaintance, and it is surely time to add another layer to this particular palimpsest in the most attentive and generous way I can think of, through translation.