Ricardo Lísias’s “Evo Morales” (tr. from the Portuguese by Nick Caistor) is the fourth story in Granta 121: The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists. For an overview of the issue and links to my reviews of its other stories, please click here.
Before I read “Evo Morales” I read the tiny biography of Lísias in the magazine. He has written one short story collection and four novels, and his work has been featured in Granta em português twice. I was surprised, then, to find the first few pages of the story strangely off. The concepts felt stretched, the encounters a bit too coincidental, for a writer who at such a young age is relatively established. Here is how the story begins:
The first time I had coffee with Evo Morales, he had not yet been elected president of Bolivia, and I was a long way from winning the title of World Chess Champion.
Yes, this is the real Evo Morales, and according to the story he became president of Bolivia a couple of years after this encounter, so this first encounter was sometime around 2003 or 2004. It’s a brief encounter, and as the narrator says, neither has made their name yet. Still, a few years later, when they run into each other again, Morales remembers the chess champion, and they seem to strike up a slight friendship, the kind you might strike up with someone you run into while travelling but at no other time.
Our narrator goes on to train and prepare for his chess tournaments, hoping he might run into Morales again (it’s kind of like good luck). He’s a lonely person. In fact, he took up chess in an effort to get out of his shyness, as if chess doesn’t just make such things worse. He seems to have adjusted to life, though:
Once you get used to it, being alone is no longer sad. It’s like feeling cold, for example: you simply have to get used to it. Those with experience know the ideal (both for the cold and for loneliness) is to slip under the duvet until you fall asleep, or, on the contrary, get up and move around.
Despite the simplicity (so far), I was engaged in the story. I remember stopping reading and wondering just why I was still interested. Nothing much was happening. Most passages were simply about the next chess tournament or the next flight, during which the narrator hoped to run into Morales again; passages like the one above, the one about loneliness, are few and far between. Even now, thinking back, I can’t quite say why these early pages kept me engaged. It must have been the inkling that something was off, that our narrator was not all there, even if at the time I wondered if it was just shoddy writing.
I started to understand that things were not all as they seemed when the narrator starts to refer to Morales as his “best friend.” The story itself suddenly becomes epistolary and, until the end, we read letters the narrator has been writing to Morales. He’s becoming increasingly unhinged. Loneliness and chess . . . and Evo Morales.