I first learned about this book thanks to a review from a friend of mine, Manuel Antão. When he commented that this book was one of the first Portuguese transgender novels, I was intrigued. What does a TG novel from 1913 even look like? Not that I’ve actually read a TG novel from any era to compare it with (memoirs, yes; novels, not so much — I should probably do that at some point just on account). But still… how open would something like that be in the prewar era? How open could it be?
Given that I’m looking a 100+ year old novel in translation, it’s best to do some homework so I have some idea of what I can expect. The first thing I discover is that the author, Mário de Sá-Carneiro, is not transgender, nor is there even a whiff of that sort of thing in his backstory. He is, however, known for wrestling with gay sentiments in his writing, which was certainly nothing new, but also something that most people weren’t quite so overt about in their publications at the time, at least insofar as I’m aware. Combine the decadence (that’s the buzzword of this novel) that’s being depicted with the world exploding into war the next year, it’s easy to line up a lot of emotional flailing about that would have led the author to suicide in 1916. But, I had to remind myself going in that at this point, the war had not happened. Everything is all about national pride, forward progress, and a shining era built on the backs of hard labor. The artists and poets and such of this era would have a great deal in common with their Romantic Era counterparts a generation or two earlier. That I can relate to and wrap my head around. Time to dive in and see how this plays out.
On a surface read, this is about a murder that ended a love triangle between a playwright (the narrator, Lúcio), a poet (Ricardo), and the poet’s wife (Marta). We know this up front, along with the confession that Lúcio served 10 years for this crime, which he confesses here that he did not, in fact, commit. He served his time in silence because only in conviction and full service of sentence might anyone believe him later, so strange is his tale. The tale flashes back to the final years of 19th century Paris and Lisbon, what the Parisians know as the Belle Époque. Fin-de-siècle, as it’s known here, meaning “end of the cycle” (or century). How well I know this era, at least from an artistic standpoint.
I don’t know how many of the details I can offer here without outright spoiling this for readers. Can you have spoilers for a novel this old? I personally use the guideline of six months or so without the use of full spoiler tags. But at the same time, the twist at the end what really makes or breaks it, depending on how it affects you. Eh, screw it. I can’t discuss this without spoilers. Besides, it’s not the story itself that makes this worth reading. It’s the writing style.
Let’s talk about that part first. Imagine, if you will, the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock production, the mindset of Rod Serling, and the manic energy / descent into madness of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft himself would have been proud to write something like this, until the hacksaw was taken to his work to excise all monsters. There are no monsters here. Part of me almost wishes there were, because if I’m being honest, I think Sá-Carneiro has had one too many dances with the green fairy down at the Moulin Rouge. That’s how this reads, and that’s what makes the twist at the end work. The story itself is fairly simple. The intensity of the writing is what keeps you turning the page. There were a couple of times, especially early on where I was tempted to just end the torment, but I couldn’t help myself. I had to know where this was going.
I won’t lie; the first third or so of this novel is absolutely banal. And it’s supposed to be. It’s utterly superficial as the art set of Paris tries new and exciting ways to entertain one another. There’s an old saying that sexy uses a feather while kinky uses the whole chicken. This one plucked the chicken first and let it run around screaming its head off, but then everyone had fun with the feathers. The chicken was naked, but that was about it. That’s the first third. It’s a high-level pre-Dadaist happening. That’s the best way I can describe it. Would have been a sight to see though, especially in 1895.
After that, the story itself actually kicks in as a direct contrast to all that back there as Lúcio meets Ricardo, and their friendship begins. As it goes on, we learn that Ricardo doesn’t actually make friends due to some internal emotional cutoffs, and he confesses he wants to be a woman. As the tale progresses, Ricardo returns to his hometown of Lisbon, where in due course he gets married to Marta. Lúcio is invited for an extended visit, which opens the next leg of the narrative.
Marta seemingly has no past and, just as curiously, no present. It drives Lúcio bonkers that she has this cloud of mystery around her. As Ricardo spends more and more time working on his projects, Lúcio and Marta open a comfortable friendship of their own, which turns into a full blown affair, but still she vexes him. What does she do when he’s not there? Does she even really exist when she’s not there? At one point he even sees her vanish before his eyes, so if the narration style wasn’t enough to convince you of unreliability, there’s the first hard evidence of some absinthe being spilled into the pages.
By the time all’s said and done, Marta has pretty much been discovered to have an affair with absolutely all of Ricardo’s friends, and what’s more, Ricardo seems to know and says nothing. This makes Lúcio angry for his friend’s lack of pride, even though he has zero regrets about sleeping with his friends wife. And for her part, she seems to have none either, though she grows more distant and melancholy as the story progresses. Lúcio ultimately bails and returns to Paris, but finds himself back in Lisbon on business some time later, wherein he eventually runs into Ricardo. All due anger and tears come gushing forward, and secrets are revealed. Ricardo explains that because of his emotional cutoffs, he needs tactile sensation to be friends with anyone, to love people before he can feel that love. Marta, he says, is his conduit by which he achieves this. The two of them are one. Through her, he feels everything. So essentially, Marta is explained as a surrogate to homosexual relations with all of Ricardo’s good friends. Ricardo takes Lúcio by the arm and drags him back to his place. Marta is there, and Ricardo aims his pistol and shoots her. She vanishes on the spot. In her place is Ricardo, his revolver smoking at Lúcio’s feet.
In the epilogue, Lúcio explains to the reader that this is why he couldn’t defend himself at the trial. Who would believe his story?
As I finished the book, I had to walk away and think about this one carefully. What exactly did I just read? It’s not a transgender novel, per se. There are suggestions it could be, but wanting to be a woman and being a woman in a male body are two very different things. Of course, we better understand these things today, but maybe it wasn’t so cut and dried back then? It’s not like sexual reassignment surgery was a thing back then. Castration, yes, but that’s about as far as it could go. For my part, I really don’t think this much qualifies on the TG spectrum, and others are more than welcome to disagree with me. I think it’s more about expansion of expectation when it comes to masculinity and the social norms. All of the women in this story are blank slates. Marta and the redheaded American in the beginning of the tale are mysterious because of it, and they are given that air to play with, while the other ladies are just vapid and empty. As much as the spotlight is on the first two, they are there to help define Lúcio and Ricardo by comparison and contrast. There are most definitely homosexual issues that the author and his narrator are clearly wrestling with, and that in itself is rather fascinating to read in an older novel just to see how it’s handled. 100 years on, the shock value isn’t so much there as it might have been in its first publication run, but the manic narrative style more than makes up for that.
All in all, this was an interesting read. Even knowing how it plays out, I’m not certain I could have been prepared for the intensity of the storytelling. That really is the star of the show here. I’m not certain I can claim to have enjoyed reading it, but it was fun to think about after the fact. I’m marking it down as a good experience. It really opened my world, and it was most certainly a change of pace from anything else I can claim to have read lately. It’s good to shake things up from time to time.