The Book of Emotions
João Almino’s The Book of Emotions is the prototypical Dalkey Archive book. Not that all of Dalkey’s books are the same, but there is a certain set of criteria that a lot of their titles have—and which Almino’s novel has in spades:
- It’s a book about someone trying to write a book.
- The main character’s life didn’t turn out the way he had hoped.
- The protagonist has mental or health issues.
- The narrative works by illustrating the strangenesses of the character’s way of thinking.
From Mulligan Stew to At Swim-Two-Birds to The Journalist, this is a set-up that runs through a lot of Dalkey’s titles. In this case, Cadu, a former photographer is constructing a memoir about his life in Brasília out of some of his old photos. The text alternates from his personal “current moment” experiences (which mostly revolve around trying to set up his goddaughter while sexually crushing on the girl helping him organize his photo files) and the text of his book, entitled “The Book of Emotions.”
If you’ve never read the “Letters to the Editor” from the back of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, you really should. A good number of them are quite hysterical, generally featuring a decrepit old man whose life has unraveled. In the case of The Book of Emotions, the aforementioned photographer is still pining away for Joana, the woman he loved who left him for a corrupt politician. Not that our protagonist doesn’t have his share of women—it seems like he’s slept with everyone—but that never seems to work out either: the boy he fathered doesn’t know him and is in prison, the woman he marries dies tragically young, etc.
This is true of most every book in the world, but in keeping with the sad sack people who write into RCF with their problems, Cadu is blind and pretty much bed ridden. His best days are behind him, and he’s trapped with just the memories of his life, loves, and pictures. Which brings up the fourth key aspect to a “typical” Dalkey book . . .
A perfect example of this is Iceland by Jim Krusoe. Or any of the Toussaint books that Dalkey has published. Actually, to be honest, you could throw a dart at a wall of Dalkey titles and whatever you hit will likely feature a quirky narrator whose prose illuminates all the bizarreness of his mind. And The Book of Emotions falls into that general grouping, with the one difference that, although the entire text consists of Cadu’s thoughts and reactions to what goes on around him, the book doesn’t quite come together with the panache and humor that is evident in the examples above. There is something intriguing about The Book of Emotions, but unfortunately, it’s not the narrator’s voice.
What I like about this book is its overall structure—the parallel times, the numbered sections each centered around a particular (unseen) photograph—and the fact that it’s set in 2022 in Brasília and is part of Almino’s “Brasília Quintet.” (Five Seasons of Love, which is available from Host Publications features one of the characters from this novel, and the forthcoming Free City is part of this series as well.) There are some moving moments in this book, but on the whole it’s a relatively sterile, exacting depiction of a man’s life and missed opportunities.
Unfortunately, I feel like Almino’s prose in Elizabeth Jackson’s translation falls a bit flat. There’s something too precise or rote . . . too straightforward in a way that is lacking and fails to really replicate the inner workings of the narrator’s mind:
When Joana and I discovered that we couldn’t have children, we didn’t undergo the tests to determine whose problem it was. That impossibility was a blessing: we didn’t want to have children. However, it was unlikely the infertility was mine because many years before in Brasília another woman had conceived my child.
That “another woman had conceived my child” is just so stiff . . . One other example of where I think the voice in this book falls short from one of the sex scenes:
We traded the most crude and vulgar exchanges, I used the foulest profanities I knew and yelled whatever else I could to shock her. Marcela wasn’t to be outdone. She dominated that rich vocabulary better than I did and she wasn’t intimidated, as if she’d had experience with phone sex.
This isn’t to write off Almino—I think he’s one of the most interesting Brazilian writers working today, and I’m looking forward to reading more of his titles. (Especially Where to Spent the End of the World.) I just went into this with high hopes—see list above and my belief that this would be a very Dalkeyish Dalkey book—and came to see the prose as something I had to trudge through, more out of a sense of duty and abstract interest in the plot than because I really enjoyed it.