Let me get right to the point: Sergio Y. vai à América (Sergio Y. Goes to America – I love this title) is one of the best books I've read in a long time. I gush to everyone I meet about its captivating characters and story. Great literature travels well and this one already has its bags packed. This book was kindly sent to me by Companhia das Letras shortly before I went to Flip, and I actually finished it back in July. So why's it taken me so long to review it? This is one of those books that hits you hard, lingers in your head for days, weeks, leaves you wanting to say so much, but not knowing quite where to start. It's also hard to talk about without revealing a pretty major spoiler, which ultimately I've decided not to reveal here. If you're reading this and you can't read Portuguese, don't think I'm being a cruel tease. It's just all the more reason to pressure your friendly neighborhood publisher to snatch this one up for English publication!
Armando, the narrator, is a psychiatrist, one of the best in São Paulo. He's a sophisticated, older man who prides himself on his strong professional reputation and patient success rates. One day, a troubled high school student named Sergio is referred to him for therapy. Sergio comes from a well-to-do, loving family and wants for nothing, but feels incredibly unhappy. Armando deems him an interesting patient, and agrees to take him on for regular appointments. One day Sergio abruptly ends his therapy and Armando never hears from him again. Armando more or less moves on with his life, until running into Sergio's mother at the deli counter in the grocery store. She thanks him for everything he did for her son, and informs him that Sergio is now happily living in New York and about to open his own restaurant. Spoiler!, spoiler!, spoiler!... and Armando discovers he somehow failed to see a rather important piece of Sergio's puzzle. He grows obsessed, setting off like a detective to discover where he went wrong, defeated by the feeling that his professional ability has been questioned, wondering whether he truly helped Sergio, despite significant evidence to the contrary (including statements from Sergio himself).
This book hooks you from the first page, and by the time the aformentioned spoiler is revealed, it's impossible to put down. There's also a fascinating parallel story about a Lithuanian immigrant, Adriana Zebrowskas, who as far as I can tell is fictitious, but adds a great sense of reality and memoir to the story. The chapters are short and the writing is clear, elegant and direct and moves along at nice clip. As one reviewer put it, it's almost as if the author wanted to avoid the reader going back to read something twice.
Sergio Y. vai à América deals with some pretty heavy stuff, touching on themes of identity, the search for self, memory, death, depression, exile and gender. Yet, ultimately, it's about transformation and the search for happiness, and the freedom to choose which paths we take in life. Surprisingly, I was left with an overwhelming sense of hope.
More about the author:
Alexandre Vidal Porto was born in São Paulo in 1965, and spent part of his childhood in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará. He hold a Harvard law degree and in his career as a diplomat lived New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, Brasília, Washington DC and Santiago de Chile. His first novel, Matias na cidade was published in 2005. His second novel, Sergio Y. vai à América won the Prêmio Paraná award for best novel in 2012. He currently writes a weekly column for the Folha de São Paulo newspaper and was a regular contributor to the now defunct Bravo! magazine. Alexandre is represented by Lucia Riff at the Riff Agency. Visit his website (including lots of information provided in English) here.