Vanessa Barbara’s “Lettuce Nights” (tr. from the Portuguese by Katrina Dodson) is the sixth 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.
Besides being a novelist, Vanessa Barbara is also a journalist and translator, recently publishing a translation of The Great Gatsby. This piece is an excerpt from a novel, and, though pleasing in some ways, it shows. That said, again, it’s a novel that I’d like to get my hands on some day, preferably in a translation by Katrina Dodson who here gives us a translation rich in varied emotions.
I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that this very short piece is the first bit of the novel, though it begins with an ending. Ada and Otto had been married for fifty years when she died, unexpectedly. It’s a sad opening, but the overwhelming feeling isn’t bitterness (though that comes); rather, we feel the richness and good will of the life Ada lived. Despite her old age, it simply doesn’t seem possible that her time has come. It’s a life that is seemingly incomplete, even her chores are seem to be crying, unfinished:
When Ada died, the wash hadn’t dried yet. The trousers’ elastic waistbands were still damp, socks swollen, T-shirts hanging the wrong way out. A rag was left soaking in the bucket. Rinsed recycling bins in the sink, the bed unmade, open biscuit packets lying on the couch. Ada had gone away without watering the plants.
Now, it’s not just the household objects that mourn her passing. Ada was a powerful force in the neighborhood, a friend to everyone, helpful, involved. The whole neighborhood mourns her death for three days. Otto himself is not so loved. Though he and Ada had become so alike in manner and interests, it’s clear that he followed her. Now that she’s gone, he doesn’t like the neighbors. He doesn’t like to go outside. Of course, at least a part of this is the natural result of his mourning; he doesn’t like to be reminded of her absence by the things they loved together. But we also know that Otto was always more internal than Ada, which leads to this pieces intriguing end, and a novel’s intriguing beginning.
One after another, the sounds, smells and sights of the neighborhood found their way into his living room (blender, Roach-B-Gone, mad dog), and he passed the time assembling these pieces into stories to tell.
This is one I hope we get in English sooner than later.