Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares
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|Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Simon Regan|
|Summary: Peter Bush's translation of Tavares' lavish Portuguese bestseller ably brings the author's lush descriptions and evocative setting into the English language, but can feel stilted at times. Equator excels as an immaculately researched social portrait of turn-of-the-century colonialism, but is less successful as a political thriller and romance.|
|Buy? Maybe||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 384||Date: July 2008|
|Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC|
In 1905, São Tomé and Príncipe (a pair of tiny islands off the west coast of Africa) represent Portugal's smallest overseas possessions – exporting only cocoa and a little coffee. However, this places the islands in direct competition with British companies in Nigeria, Gabon, and the West Indies, making the colony a tactical lynchpin in Portugal's dealings with the other European powers. Working on the plantations is an unimaginably grim fate for anyone; toiling from dawn to dusk every day in constant risk of dysentery and malaria. To replace the numerous fatalities sustained every year, fresh workers are shipped in from Angola under a contract viewed by other colonial powers as little more than slavery.
When socialite and abolitionist intellectual Luis Bernardo is summoned by the King and asked to become Governor of the region – charged with persuading the British Consul there that Lisbon is dedicated to stamping out slave labour – he quickly perceives an opportunity to prove the superiority of his moral politics. But the plantation owners aren't going to reform such a profitable arrangement without a fight, and the new Governor quickly realises just how hard his mission is going to be.
Equator as translated from Miguel Sousa Tavares' Portuguese original by prize-winning linguist Peter Bush is a difficult novel to classify. The tale of a metropolitan Lisbon intellectual plunged into a world almost beyond his comprehension, where his modern ideals can do more harm than good, has echoes of a social morality tale. But it's also the story of the Equator itself, and the passion and madness it invokes in those foolhardy enough to make it their home. On top of that, it variously presents itself as a travel novel, a romance, and a political thriller. The scope of Equator is unquestionably ambitious, but as a result it often feels a little out of focus.
Tavares has a distinctive authorial voice, rich in vivid description and with an evocative atmosphere. The climate, landscape, and diet of his equatorial setting are painted in bold, arresting colours – so much so at times that it can seem jarring to the flow of the narrative. Bush is restrained in his translation, leaving us enough 'flavour' of the original Portuguese to feel appropriately immersed without drowning us; whether he has struck the correct balance will depend on the reader's sensitivities. Where Portuguese grammatical conventions have been allowed to remain the effect is poetic, but can also be somewhat difficult to interpret.
Throughout, Tavares endows his protagonists with a realistic range of personality traits – Luis Bernado, the British Consul David Jameson and his wife are believably drawn and their interactions are some of the most authentically constructed in the book. Background characters, however, tend to suffer from a degree of one-dimensionality, falling at times into well-worn stereotypes. If a local dignitary opposes the new Governor's reforms, he is inevitably ugly, or at the very least shifty looking – and of course, the womanising Bernado never meets a woman he doesn't find attractive. Some of Luis' exploits feel a little like wish-fulfillment; for instance when Tavares has him decide, on a whim, to represent a pair of runaway slaves in the courtroom (enabling the author to display his own legal nous).
If the author's eagerness to show off his multidisciplinary knowledge is one of Equator's shortcomings, it is also one of its greatest strengths. Tavares' dedication to historical accuracy can be seen in the comprehensive list of sources he cites and the acknowledgements he makes to the various foundations and historical archives that assisted him in documenting this complex chapter in Portuguese history. Whilst Equator is obviously a fictional story (no Governor of São Tomé and Príncipe has ever borne the name Luis Bernados), it is very much rooted in the socio-political climate of the time, with rumblings of the Portuguese Revolution of 1910 and the Great War present in the background. As a result, the politics of the book feel authentic, even if the actors are somewhat stilted. If you harbour an interest in turn-of-the-century colonialism, Equator will likely prove a fascinating insight into the social and political dynamics of the period, but may not be quite so appealing to a wider audience.
If this book appeals to you then we think that you might also enjoy Touching Distance by Rebecca Abrams.
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You can read more book reviews or buy Equator by Miguel Sousa Tavares at Amazon.com.
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