If any proof were needed that picking up a book by a writer from a similar background as one’s own is not necessarily comforting, and may indeed be distressing, here it is. I picked up this short novel because Suneeta Peres da Costa, the Australian-born author of Homework, is of Indian Portuguese origin. (Her family is originally Goan, mine Mangalorean.) Yet upon finishing the slight volume of fragmented single paragraphs, which read almost like poetry, I was left with the headache one gets from using lenses with the wrong prescription. Every one of the lives briefly sketched in Saudade, from the girl narrating to the family and friends around her, would prefer to be somewhere else. The blurred sense is that life is constantly far away, rather than clear and present.
What is this feeling? It is not quite homesickness, because that is linked to a specific place, or the idea of a specific place. It is not quite saudade either, with all the connotations of melancholy, yearning and longing that this word conjures up. The feeling da Costa evokes is alienation, emptiness, almost nausea, cloaked as it is in sublime prose. Here there are double, triple, quadruple displacements. Where another writer would reach for a thread to draw together the anecdotes of displacement, however, da Costa’s writing never forces a reckoning with the circumstances whose effects she describes so well. It does not matter that such a reckoning would always only be partial; the attempt itself would be a transformative act. Yet the moment never arrives.
A false memoir, the structure of the novel is another displacement. As an Australian writer, da Costa imagines the story of an Angolan girl whose family has come to Africa from Goa, and that facing political events must now set off again. The girl’s family left Goa as it was becoming independent from Portuguese rule, to start anew in Angola; now this country is also embarking on the process of independence. Where is home? Where to go? This is a story of the aftermath of Portuguese empire, which like the British empire more familiar to English-speaking readers, was successful in transforming people into detritus, rubble left by enthusiastic, internationally-wielded mallets.
Or so it would first appear. A writer might work to rebut this idea, to make her people live, to tell the human stories behind the big data. The idea behind da Costa’s novel is a good one, and she does share anecdotes. Yet her characters never truly come to life. “Evocative” and “impressionistic” are the easy terms that spring to mind while reading her prose. Yet what do these terms actually mean? At one point the narrator offers brief thoughts on what it is to write, to be someone on the outside looking in. The reflection comes as a response to the girl’s lover, Miguel:
He said that I had a vivid imagination and should become a writer. I said that I preferred to live in the world, rather than in words on a page. I preferred to be intimate with things, whereas it seemed a writer had always to be apart, sequestered, even hidden from it, to observe the world so closely. He seemed hurt. How easy it was, I thought, to be close to someone and yet feel out of joint with them and the world…
To be a writer is another form of displacement, da Costa seems to suggest. If we take as a given the world she has created, the world in which people find meaning in their lives via the cultures and histories of their countries, she is right. But what if this did not have to be the case? What if identity were not fastened in such a precarious way to pre-made constructions, which can so easily be demolished, leaving people homeless, in a permanent in-between? What if there were ways to construct a self that did not long resignedly for distant times, places and cultures but actively built a new world, creating a reality and community of one’s own making?
Saudade reads quickly, due to its lyrical prose. Image after image is generated, and abstract ideas are avoided. This results in waves of comely description; I picked up plenty of details about expatriate life in Angola. Yet there is not much to cling to. If the turned feet, porridge with molasses, oil slick, thin blue aerogrammes, moringa leaves and wind off the Atlantic are striking, it is due to their exotic placement, not any fascination with their meaning as such. There are saris, bruxas, paise, funje, chole, kohlapuris; there are broad depictions of death, desire and dreams likewise painted in local color. “The moist, unmoving eyes of the mackerel gleamed from the marble cutting board,” da Costa writes at one point. These embalmed scenes, written in precise prose, seem at times like the gleaming eyes of mackerel on a writer’s cutting board.
Many books of poetry load on descriptions of beauty without a grander message. This in itself is not strange. Yet the “not-saying” suggests something further here. The fundamental passiveness of the book mirrors the plight of the people depicted, shifted about the world like so many floating grains of pollen on the wind after the flowers have been pulled up by a mercilessly efficient gardener. Saudade is a very beautiful book that offers no claims, suggests no fixes. It is the sound of a voice that speaks with a complete avoidance of emphasis, aware it is clinging to nothing.
At one point the girl “coming of age” has a conversation with her lover, in which he recites her some Pessoa. “I had heard it before and it was not the words of the poem so much as the sound of his voice which I suppose stirred me…” she says. Perhaps it is just this bleak voice in the book that dizzies, produces a feeling of estrangement, makes one long for more argument and stronger conviction. The speaker is submissive. Mere melancholy with little to mitigate the lethargic sense of a drift into tragedy is, to me, distressing; but of course this may be part of the point. Saudade is worth the time it takes to read, but it does make one ask: What use is an identity based in constant yearning for what historically was, if no ideas are offered about how to live after the last caravel has sailed?