Friday, 1 February 2019

Book Review: The Republic of Dreams by Nélida Piñon times immemorial people have been dreaming and telling stories. Ancient myths and legends are part of the cultural heritage that shapes our view of the world and helps us to cope with life. But as we grow older the longing to live our own adventures and to weave our own legends grows. Determined “to make the Americas” thirteen-year-old Madruga, the central character of The Republic of Dreams by Nélida Piñon, left his native Galicia and arrived in Brazil in 1913. By the early 1980s, he is head of a numerous family and of a profitable group of companies, but almost lost his beloved grandfather’s ancient Galician legends. When his wife announces that death is coming for her, he and all the people who are integral part of their lives look back on the memorable events, joys and tragedies of seventy years thus start a new – Brazilian – legend. 

Nélida Piñon was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in May 1937. The daughter of Galician immigrants studied journalism at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro and worked for different Brazilian magazines. In 1961, she made her debut as a novelist with Guia-Mapa de Gabriel Arcanjo (tr. The Guidebook of Archangel Gabriel) followed by Madeira feita cruz (1963; Wood Made into Cross), Fundador (1969; Founder) and Tebas do meu coração (1974; tr. Tebas of My Heart). It was her erotic novels A casa de paixão (1977; tr. The House of Passion) and A força do destino (1977; tr. The Force of Destiny), though, that made her known to a wider public. Nonetheless, the author’s greatest literary success to date are the novels The Republic of Dreams (A república dos sonhos: 1984), Caetana’s Sweet Song (A doce canção de Caetana: 1987), and Voices of the Desert (Vozes do deserto: 2004) that all have been translated into English and other languages. She also wrote two memoirs, namely Coração Andarilho (2009; tr. Migrant Heart) and O Livro das Horas (2012; tr. The Book of the Hours), short stories, non-fiction, and a children’s book. Nélida Piñon lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

On a Tuesday in the 1980s, Eulalia decides that her time is near to leave The Republic of Dreams and her family to find eternal rest with the Lord. Only she knows that probably she would have entered a Catholic convent, hadn’t Madruga visited their native village in the Galician mountains in 1923 and charmed her with his blue eyes. As his wife she followed him to Rio de Janeiro where he had settled down ten years earlier after having secretly left his parents’ miserable farm and his grandfather’s mesmerising legends to set out for weird and wonderful Brazil with money lent from his uncle. Unlike his lifelong unworldly friend Venancio, who has his age and whom he had met boarding the English ship that took the boys of thirteen away from Spain, already in his twenties Madruga owned a thriving small business thanks to his unwavering resolve, his eagerness to learn and his great skill in dealing with people, but he felt far from having “made the Americas”. While he worked hard on enlarging his company and on securing his place in Brazilian society making forget his immigrant status, Eulalia bore him six children and retreated ever further into her own world made of religion and the legends of Galicia. Madruga is hard on his children although he gives them everything that money can buy. His eldest sons and the younger daughter’s husband readily take on roles in the group of companies, while the older daughter Esperanza and late born Tobías rebel. Unwilling to submit to the traditional female role model, Esperanza even has herself thrown out of the family mansion and gives birth to an illegitimate daughter called Breta who after her death in a car accident in the 1950s becomes Madruga’s pet grandchild and the family chronicler…

Told from alternating perspectives, mainly from those of eighty-year-old Madruga and his writing granddaughter Breta, The Republic of Dreams unfolds the saga of a Brazilian family with Galician roots against the backdrop of twentieth-century history including not just the almost constant political turmoil shaking Brazil, but also the Spanish Civil War and the following Franco regime as well as World War II in Europe. In addition, the ancient tradition of shaping reality into tales, if not into timeless legends, and the power of dreaming as a refuge from dire existence get much room in the novel. The result is a very complex, sometimes a bit confusing portrait of three generations living in Brazil which would be incomplete without the side glances at their family back in Spain. The frame plot covering the time until Eulalia’s death and her funeral is strictly chronological whereas the memories – like in real life – seem to follow random associations and often show just one family member with amazing psychological depth and realism. Fragmented and incomplete as many sentences are, even the author’s style reminds of the arbitrary workings of a mind. The language is powerful and permeated with impressive images that made reading a delight.

Although it took me quite a long while to get through the nearly 700 pages of The Republic of Dreams by Nélida Piñon, it was a thoroughly engaging pleasure to read this unusual family saga from Brazil. Not even for a single moment I was tempted to give up on the voluminous tome although I wouldn’t precisely call it a page-turner, either. What I appreciated most in it was the succeeded mix of an immigrant’s success story and the historical as well as social study of a country struggling to patch together a sole national identity from an incredibly mixed heritage. The diversity and authenticity of every single character surrounding the family patriarch fascinated me a lot as well. It’s a pity that the Brazilian novel is so little known outside its country of origin. In fact, it deserves being read much more widely and therefore I gladly recommend it.

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