'Blood-Drenched Beard': A beautiful tale of life along the Brazilian coastline
February 8, 2015 12:00 AM
Daniel Galera, author of "Blood-Drenched Beard"
By Carlo Wolff
“Blood-Drenched Beard,” Daniel Galera’s exploration of family, is part mystery, part travelogue and part sociology steeped in magical realism. No matter which part this gifted Brazilian stresses, his work feels tidal, like the ocean it features so heavily.
“Blood-Drenched Beard” raises questions that may be unanswerable. And if it seems choppy at times, particularly when it comes to the family plot-lines, it also feels natural and rounded.
By Daniel Galera Penguin Press ($26.95).
Translated from the Portuguese with grace and swing by Alison Entrekin, the novel plays along the Brazilian coastline, blending the geographical and the psychological. It is a journey into self, a narrative of rich characterization, startling detail and psychedelic sweep.
The unnamed narrator is a swimmer and physical education instructor. He makes connections easily but doesn’t remember faces; it’s an unusual physical handicap that stuffs his head with history yet makes it difficult for him to picture people or develop lasting relationships.
Nevertheless, he’s self-sufficient, fearless and driven to find out what happened to his grandfather, said to have been murdered by a group of villagers over what he’s not sure. His father, too, meets a bad fate. Semi-anchored in the beach town of Garopaba, our passive but persistent hero does all he can, no matter how hostile the townspeople, to discover what happened to his grandfather, a gaucho with a rotten reputation.
Along the way, he makes friends like the bibulous Bonobo, who always has his back, and endears himself to his students. He has a love affair with Jasmim, a sensuous waitress as leery of bonding as he is.
And he prolongs the life of Beta, the dog he inherits from his father. Beta is among the most memorable characters. She’s certainly the most full-bodied, even after an accident that would have killed a less sturdy animal. Here, Beta’s master visits her in recovery, reminiscing about how his father treated her:
“She followed him everywhere like a shadow. If necessary, she’d lie for hours in front of a restaurant or shop until Dad came out. Dad wasn’t the affectionate sort, and he never picked her up or let her lie on his lap or anything like that. He had a gesture of affection that I’ll never forget. He’d give Beta three or four slaps on the ribs with a force that sometimes seemed excessive. At times it would make her skittle sideways and she’d echo like a small drum. It was obvious that she liked it, something between the two of them. Private codes between close companions always seem somewhat eccentric to anyone looking on.”
The slaps detail is typical of Mr. Galera’s writing: precise, virtually audible, easy to visualize. So is the sentence about private codes. Like others strategically placed in this organic work, it shows Mr. Galera’s ease with interpretation, deepening the meaning of the action.
There is rich dialogue, too. “I know I must sound mad, but talking about things messes everything up for me,” the cautious Jasmim says after spending the night with our man. “As soon as you give something a name it dies.”
Mr. Galera touches on issues including politics and ecology, as in this passage about the beaching of whales: “Something is enticing. Maybe that’s why they get beached for no apparent reason. Because the sea is limitless. That’s the terror of the ocean. It is the opposite of the womb. I think the whales experience this terror.”
All begins to come together during a trip into the interior that reveals what happened to the narrator’s grandfather. It’s rainy. It’s dangerous for both the narrator and Beta. Its markers include shelter with a pair of feckless hippies, daunting geography, and the encounter with a shadowy figure who evokes Don Juan, the shaman Carlos Castaneda celebrated in several books in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The narrator ends that trip wiser, sadder and more resolute. What he experiences there enables him to confront his demons, if not conquer them. This curvy novel ends on a wan, suggestive note, perhaps presaging more family affairs for Mr. Galera to explore.
Carlo Wolff is a reporter for the Cleveland Jewish News.
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