Less a resolution, more a desire to be more mindful, I started 2014 determined to read more women authors, both in translation and untranslated (of which there are plenty to keep us all occupied in the latter category). De gados e homens(published by Editora Record, 2013) was my first Brazilian book of the year, and I am in love. I downloaded this 120-odd page book an hour before setting out to the airport for a weekend in Madrid, and had finished it by the time the plane landed. On the train home back to London I'd already downloaded three of her other books, and have since read her short collection of short stories, Javalis no Quintal e outras estórias. I can't get enough of Ana Paula Maia. Hopefully this is a sign of things to come on my conscious quest to read more women writers, and Ana Paula hasn't just set an impossibly high bar.
De gados e homens or 'Of Cattle and Men' (sidenote: I'm not entirely sold on this title, it feels gimmicky, but I suppose there is something Steinbeck-ian in the writing) is the story of Edgar Wilson, a protagonist who appeared in her previous trilogy that concluded with Carvão animal. Edgar is a former coal miner and now works at a slaughterhouse somewhere in the wide open spaces of Brazilian cattle country, where he lives in shared accommodation provided by the ranch. Although convinced his true calling lies in hog farming, he diligently and skillfully performs his duties (his craft?), slaughtering cattle to be sent to the nearby hamburger factory (though a hamburger has never touched his lips). The act of carefully putting the cattle to sleep before they reach their bloody end is an almost religious experience for Edgar, filled with important ritual.
One day, the cattle on the ranch begin to act strangely, and start to drop dead under unusual circumstances, some surreal, fantastical, even biblical. Edgar and the other employees are left guessing, wondering what (or who) could be behind the dark events. You're not quite sure if this is the apocalypse, or just a prank. Meanwhile, the owner of the ranch, Milo, is losing precious money on the dead livestock and the impoverished inhabitants of the surrounding area give thanks to the heavens for the much-needed (and free) food.
The slaughterhouse, the town, and all the characters are fictional. That includes Santiago, who arrives on the ranch from Finland, where he slaughtered reindeer in a ski mask; Burunga, who earns a healthy side income running bets on how long he can hold his head under water; and Bronco Gil, the mysterious wrangler with a glass eye. Yet no matter how far-fetched, they are all still entirely plausible. While reading I kept thinking: she gets it. She gets human beings and fiction and reality, and how you represent humans and reality in fiction, and not just the bored, upper class city dwellers populating so much of contemporary Brazilian literature. She gets rugged, hardworking, everyday men (aside from a mention of a character's ex-wife and a brief interaction with an eager animal rights activist, there are no female characters in the book) working in an unforgiving industry and in unforgiving surroundings.
Brazilian literature's typically light hand when it comes to editing often means reading things that feel almost there, but are frustratingly rough around the edges. In De gados e homens, every word feels in its right place, strung together into powerful sentences with surgical precision. Her prose is stark and direct. This is visceral, testosterone-fueled writing that hits you in the gut; there's no real heart in this book, and I'm not sure if you could even say it has a soul (though the topic does come up). In the span of a few paragraphs, Edgar Wilson shows the reader a profoundly tender side, then the depths of coldness and evil. In many places it feels like a Cormac McCarthy novel (and not just because of the bolt pistol), but I also found myself laughing out loud on nearly every page. What I also found fascinating about this book is Ana Paula's ability to create vivid, cinematic images through text. Her wikipedia entry cites Tarantino, the Coen brothers, and Sergio Leone as influences, and she has written scripts for both short and full-length films. It would make an excellent movie, and I really hope this is picked up for a screenplay.
Here is Editora Record's booktrailer:
Well, well... who knew Edgar Wilson was such a beefcake? Not exactly the way I pictured him while reading, but the Brahman cattle and rolling hills are on the mark.
A bit more about the author:
Ana Paula Maia hails from the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro, where she studied theatre, computer science, and media studies, and played in a punk rock band. De gados e homens is her fifth novel and her short stories have appeared in various anthologies. She has also written screenplays, and her adaptation of a novel by Mexican writer David Toscana is currently in filming. Her work has been translated into German, French and Serbian, and she blogs here. She is represented by the Anja Saile literary agency.