If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre

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If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre

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Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An unlikely investigative collaboration between an old man and two young boys provides the setting for a murder mystery, swathed in a socio-political commentary of Brazil in the early 20th century. Fortunately the story is what drives it, and the characters are real enough to care about. Worth the read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 318 Date: May 2013
Publisher: Doubleday
ISBN: 9780857521323

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If I close my eyes now, I can still feel her sticky blood on my fingers This slow, strangely captivating novel starts with a memory.

12th April 1961, the radio news is full of Yuri Gagarin's first earth orbit and two boys who'd had ambitions to be Tarzan, to be engineers, or medical scientists curing all diseases, suddenly had a new possibility: maybe they could be astronauts. Brasilia had been inaugurated less than a year earlier, but whichever of us got to be president was going to transfer the capital back to Rio. We were twelve. It was a different country. A different world.

On that sunny spring day, two twelve year boys have bunked off school and pedalled their bikes to the lake. It was a time of innocence and hope.

Eduardo José Massaranni lives with his parents. His father works for the railways and his mother is a homeworking seamstress. She has lunch on the table for his school-time break, and happily feeds his best friend Paulo. The family are not exactly rich, but Eduardo has a dictionary – a sure mark of social class. He looks words up and writes down their meanings for his friend.

Paulo Roberto Antunes isn't so lucky. His mother is dead and he has her dark skin; his brother is older and crude and fixated on what he will do to all of the women who will naturally adore him; his father beats him mercilessly; he has learned to live with it. But the pain of it, a deep un-identified shame festers within him. Castigated by one parent for having the tainted blood of the other, his low self-assessment is no surprise. He saves all of the pieces of paper from Eduardo, squirrels them away like treasure.

Such are the contradictions of early adolescence. Two boys, reading dirty mags, bunking off school, but still knowing the power of education and wanting it, wanting it to take them somewhere from where they are now. And, in their own obscure way, soaking it up.

That sunny day would prove pivotal to the rest of their lives. That day, 12th April 1961, which our narrator decides not to check but rather choose to believe was a Tuesday, they went to the lake. Larking around, they stumble, quite literally, over the body of Dona Anita. She has been brutally murdered and mutilated.

Not content with an early confession to the crime, they launch their own investigation, only to find that someone else is on a similar trail. They find their lot cast in with that of a strange old man who they find climbing over a wall late at night…

The search for who Dona Anita really was and why she was killed and by whom is the plot that drives the tale forward. The back story that draws you into caring about any of it is the early 20th century history of Brazil, through its dictatorships and military junta and emerging democracy.

As is often the case with reading novels in translation, part of the appeal is the uncovering of how little you know of those other countries, other worlds. With the best will in the world our education systems are limited by the time available and can only teach us so much of what went on where and when, and there will always be more focus on the things that directly affected our own country than on those with less direct impacts. One of the joys of reading fiction, is that there are other was to learn a little of the rest. Snippets that will stay in our minds as they relate to fictional characters, but that illustrate real events. References to real events that prompt us to go look it up as I was often exhorted as child.

The back-story is not just much back-story. It permeates the whole of the book, but it's rarely explicit – except for those moments when Eduardo slips into melancholic pondering of how the world really is. With an adult character this could easily come across as laying it on a bit too obviously, but as adolescents we can be unbearably pretentious and philosophical.

Having the lad pacing out his bedroom to compare its size with that of the hovel of dying old lady; watching him note his possessions, mentally listing them against the lack of anything seen in the adobe hut… how could they live so wretchedly, couldn't her granddaughter have done something…or was she not allowed to…or was she angry for having been abandoned, or for her black heritage when she wanted to be white. And how many more like that were there? All of this only works because of his age, because at that age all we have are questions and more questions and no answers at all.

Then again, as one of the characters later makes explicit, a head full of questions is better than one full of answers.

If I Close My Eyes is a hard book to define. It's explicitly a murder mystery. It's also a political story about corruption and cover ups. The Catholic Church comes in for its own share of condemnation. It's about lies intended to hurt, and those intended to avoid hurt. It's an exploration of the complication of the world: the fact that bad people do much good alongside their evil. And that some good people do harm.

It's also about unlikely friendships and the endurance of bonds that might be thought as broken.

The first couple of chapters are off-putting, particularly as we're forced to spend some time with Antonio – Eduardo's rather vile older brother – who adds so little to the plot that you wonder why we had to meet him. Much later it becomes evident that is purpose is to show us prevailing attitudes. He's a conduit for common thought. Once you get into it though, it's very easy to get caught up and need to see where it goes. The first hundred pages or so were a bit of a trial; I read the remainder in a single sitting.

Half-a-star dropped for not grabbing me straight-away, but recommended all the same!

For more fictional insights into Brazil, try The Seamstress by Frances de Pontes Peebles

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Buy If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy If I Close My Eyes Now by Edney Silvestre at Amazon.com.


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