This week at Recommended Reading, PEN America offers an excerpt from Brazilian author Noemi Jaffe’s novel Írisz: as orquídeas, which is remarkable for many reasons, one of them being that this is so far the only opportunity to read part of the Portuguese-language novel in English translation. Jaffe’s narrator, Írisz, has fled to Brazil from Hungary after the failed Hungarian Uprising of 1956. In her new country, she works at a botanical garden where she writes unconventional reports on newly discovered orchid species, reports in which the orchids serve as a door into contemplations on freedom and imprisonment, communism, the loved ones she left behind, and even metaphor itself.
This narrative structure is interesting in that nothing really happens. All of the action is in contemplation, which makes for a rather ponderous and cerebral story that in a lesser writer’s hands could bore the reader to sleep. Jaffe, however, sustains the reader with the beauty of her prose, which in his introduction the translator Eric M. B. Becker calls “captivatingly precise, with slow-building lyrical movements that are expertly grounded by a vaguely grim, often pained, tone,” a quality that Becker seems to have faithfully maintained through his translation. The prose has a musical movement to it and at times seems to crescendo, and in these moments the rhythm of the sentences combined with the lyricism tilts into more prose poem than short story. Take this excerpt, in which Írisz addresses her revolutionary boyfriend who she left behind in Hungary:
Imre, wherever you are, free yet imprisoned or imprisoned yet free, on the loose, in a cell, in another woman’s room, in an abandoned house off some back road, in Austria, where you’d never run, because you can’t handle so much as pronouncing the word run (which doesn’t need to be a dirty word; it’s man’s destiny to run and even staying behind, in many cases, is to run away), because for you words always mean only one thing and you can’t see that they really mean many — hear me out, in whatever way you can: with your hands, with your eyes, with your fingers. The word I said to you when you couldn’t decide whether you would come with me or not was szia, that same word I repeated time after time and whose meaning you always pretended was so discernible, but which I saw made you stifle a laugh, that same laugh of yours each time I kissed your fingers, your nose, your earlobes, the hairs on your head, your hip bones, and you felt embarrassed but excited at the same time. Szia is a word that means both “hello” and “goodbye.” I said szia because, in some way that even I didn’t quite understand, I wanted you to help me decide which one I meant.
Jaffe’s lyrical style pulls the reader along like a boat on a tide from one internal reckoning to the next as Írisz tries to justify to herself her decision to leave. In the process, Jaffe explores what is owed between lovers, between mother and daughter, between daughter and absent father, between anyone, and interrogates the makeup of a life and the building of identity. Jaffe’s observations invite the reader to think deeply along with her narrator about subjects like truth and fact. For instance, in this scene, after Írisz lists some of the narratives she’s created to explain her father’s abandonment—he was an important translator working for the government, he tried to come back but her mother wouldn’t let him, he joined the circus—Írisz is fully aware of the fiction, and also appreciative of it:
I know that these thoughts are ridiculous. But it’s easier to imagine something ridiculous instead of a plausible and mediocre story that will make me even more of the realist you always made sure I became. I know the depth of my immaturity, but I need to tell stories about things and create other ways for these things to become real. I can’t stand it when people think things are facts and that facts never change.
Throughout the excerpt, Jaffe’s narrator acknowledges the self-indulgent quality of her introspections and her insistence on seeing metaphor in everything, and she also defends it. The way Jaffe plays with metaphor, setting it up and then cutting it down before setting it up again, is fascinating to read. And in the end, Jaffe somehow turns even metaphor into a metaphor:
Martim gets irritated with this frenzy for drawing comparisons between orchids and the world around me. He says he understands how easily they lend themselves to metaphors, but that he finds it all too facile and pointless. I disagree. They suddenly appeared in my life, for whatever reason — fate, coincidence, some combination of the two, necessity, or cheap poetry. And if I’m in the state I’m in, why can’t I find recourse in metaphor to learn more about these orchids and find a way to explain things to you, to Imre, and even to myself?
The excerpt is a necessary read, and any Portuguese-speaking readers should immediately buy the full novel, which hasn’t been translated into English (yet). Luckily for those of us locked into English, though, Jaffe’s novel What Are the Blind Men Dreaming? will be released by Deep Vellum in English this August.