The Book of Emotions by João Almino

The Book of Emotions (Brazilian Literature Series) BY João Almino. Dalkey Archive Press. Hardcover, 200 pages. $19.
The cover of The Book of Emotions (Brazilian Literature Series)

Brazil’s capital city, Brasilia, conceived by modernist architect Lucio Costa, was built in the late 1950s on what had been an unpopulated desert. Costa envisioned a city in which urban design enabled the existence of an ideal society, a utopian notion that deflated when confronted with reality. Brasilia’s once futuristic archways now slouch toward violent suburbs riddled with decay and corruption.

Novelist and former diplomat Joao Almino may be the poet laureate of Costa’s failed vision. Disappointment flickers in the background of his novels, all of which deal with attempts by a shifting group of characters to live inside Brasilia’s broken shell. Isolated by that city’s architecture, Almino’s characters wander its parks and stare across its artificial lakes, caught between hope and frustration, incompleteness and failure.

Almino’s The Book of Emotions, newly translated by Elizabeth Jackson for Dalkey Archive Press, is narrated by Cadu, a photographer and onetime womanizer. First published in 2008 by Editora Record, it’s set in an unspecified future. An existentialist in the manner of Clarice Lispecter, Almino writes from the confines of his narrator’s consciousness in a blunt, unadorned prose. Almino’s narrative style, in which elements of plot drift like smoke through a character’s fragmented thoughts, has led Brazilian critics to cast Almino as heir to Machado de Assis. Indeed, in the The Book of Emotions, we find a dog named Quincas Borba, after Machado’s novel of the same name.

When we meet him, Cadu is blind and living alone with his dog—this one named Marcella, after a former lover. At the suggestion of a friend, Cadu decides to reprise the photographic diary he kept after leaving Rio twenty years earlier and compose “a scrapbook of my incomplete, sentimental memories from a period in which I could see, and saw too much.” Deprived of his eyesight, he constructs the book from memory, selecting photographs out of his digital archives with the help of his young assistant. Like the blind Cadu, we never see the photos, and are left with only his words to grasp their content. “Like the buttons on a radio that skip right to the stations with the best reception,” Cadu writes, “my memory jumps to things that still make my heart beat.” Cadu’s photographic memoir (which he calls the Book of Emotions) is set within his diary of the present, an account of the monotonies of old age.

Cadu’s Book of Emotions begins in Rio, opening on a photograph, taken from above, of a man getting into a car. It is, obliquely, a photo about Cadu’s lover Joana, who has refused to marry him and left him for the corrupt politician in the picture. In response, Cadu flees to Brasilia, a city he sees sentimentally: “Brasilia aroused the rustic fields with green caresses. I rediscovered it in the sensual and audacious of wide-ranging poetry…” There, he reunites with Ana, a former flame, falls in love with another woman, Aida, and plots schemes for revenge against the politician. Meanwhile, events central to Almino’s earlier novels—a suicide, a kidnapping, a murder—float past, set against the crime and violence of a de-modernizing, and disillusioning, Brasilia. As Cadu too finds his dreams frustrated, his loss of idealism pitches him into a struggle over whether art should represent reality.

“Through my photographs,” Cadu writes, “I want to take possession of something just for myself. Like planting a flag in virgin territory.” Though Cadu persists in thinking his dreams are as real as the politicians and slums of his documentary photographs, only the latter bring him any measure of success. In his frustration, he composes two series of photographs for an exhibition that documents what Cadu’s brother describes as “an idea of the search for happiness.” One is of women’s pubic hair ordered by color, density, and shape; the other of flowers intended as an homage to the city. The exhibition, however, is a failure.

Almino’s own photography, visible on his website, resembles Cadu’s descriptions of his own. Almino’s photos are evocative in their abstraction—the same can be said of this novel of invisible images. And like Brasilia, Cadu’s “Book of Emotions” ends on a note of unfulfilled desire, a vacillation between hope and despair. The book’s last photograph is an old, ethereal image of Joana. And although “every photograph is proof of a meeting,” the blind photographer writes, it is also “an invisible window through which we see the object of our emotion.” The Book of Emotions recreates this process: it builds a window through which we can watch the life and death of dreams.

Jenny Hendrix is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.