Ellen Jones reviews Susana Moreira Marques's Now and the Hour of our Death
Translated from the Portuguese by Julia Sanches (And Other Stories, 2015)
Despite being a small, five-person team and having only thirty books on its list, And Other Stories has made quite a name for itself as a publisher willing to take risks. Already wedded to the task of supporting ‘challenging,’ ‘shamelessly literary,’ and ‘daring’ fiction—most of it in translation—they have become known for their unusual method of sourcing new material from communities of readers, translators, critics, and editors. Their reading groups are a kind of high level crowdsourcing: experienced, knowledgeable, and engaged supporters of translated literature pitch their favourite non-English language books, then come together to discuss them in groups chaired by And Other Stories staff. The groups consider how each one might work in the Anglophone market, and recommend the cream of the crop to the editorial team for further consideration. This method has so far unearthed a number of gems; to name just two examples, Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel’s By Night the Mountain Burns, translated by Jethro Soutar, was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2015, and Juan Pablo Villalobos’s Down The Rabbit Hole, translated by Rosalind Harvey, was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award in 2012.
More newsworthy still is the recent announcement that And Other Stories’ 2018 catalogue will include only books written by women. In this, they are responding to Kamila Shamsie’s ‘provocation’ in The Bookseller, in which she proposed that 2018, the 100th anniversary of women getting the vote in the UK, should be the Year of Publishing Women, as a means of beginning to address the long-entrenched imbalance in publishing, and in translation publishing in particular, identified in her article. Their decision has provoked a range of responses, both positive and negative, and in many ways it is a risk. But it is publishers like this one, willing to do something different and daring, that help keep literature in English alive, open, and diverse. Although not part of the all-women catalogue, Now and at the Hour of our Death by Susana Moreira Marques, translated from Portuguese by Julia Sanches, gives us a small taste of the riches to come in 2018. Like so many other books on their list, it came to the attention of And Other Stories via one of their reading groups. As a debut cross-genre work by a relatively unknown writer, it may have been a risk, but one that will undoubtedly—beautifully—pay off.
In 2011 Moreira Marques, who has won prizes for her journalistic writing, travelled to Trás-os-Montes, a remote corner of north-eastern Portugal, to spend time on a home palliative care project. She accompanied health professionals as they went from village to village helping terminal cancer sufferers to die in comfort and at home, surrounded by their families. By turns confessional and cinematic, the book that grew out of her time in Trás-os-Montes and her conversations with the patients there is entirely unique in concept, tone, and genre, combining elements of travel writing, oral testimony, and philosophical meditation to offer fresh reflections on the universal experience of mortality.
The stories have an inescapable poignancy: ‘Any resemblance between these characters and real people is no mere coincidence, and it is highly likely you know someone in the same situation.’ As translator Julia Sanches points out, the author does not attempt to provide an objective, journalistic account of her trip, but discloses the degree to which it affected her personally, and recognises that the stories she has to tell are likely to resound with readers of every stripe. The title of the book makes it clear that death is not something that happens later, or to other people—it is with us, and with us now. But, nevertheless, the stories are also specific to Trás-os-Montes, where life is about as far removed from that of the author’s, in Lisbon, as is possible—‘the end of the world,’ she calls it. There are very few young people. There is very little tourism. The landscape is peppered with tiny villages linked by long stretches of flat, empty road. In a region that is like ‘an island, but instead of sea, land,’ a village can be ‘like a museum.’ The book, in many ways, is as much about the end of the quiet way of life led by the elderly there—often devout, often impoverished, often lonely—as it is about mortality.
Now and at the Hour of our Death is a slim volume, at just over a hundred pages. The opening section, ‘Travel Notes about Death,’ comprises short anecdotes about patients alongside philosophical musings and snapshot descriptions of the region, poetic in their concision and their symmetry. It serves as an introduction to the second section, ‘Portraits,’ which introduces and transcribes personal testimonies from those affected by cancer. Of course, just because a person is dying or grieving does not mean they are absolved of their flaws, and the author does not shrink from describing their vices as well as their generosity, their patience, and a ‘certain way of demonstrating love.’ One dying man likes to make his wife feel like prey; another fears his maltreated spouse will poison him; a girl takes her anger out on her mother; family members are not relieved to wake up and find their loved ones still alive, but impatient for the end.
Aptly calling the brief impressions that make up the first section ‘vignettes’ (short, illustrative descriptions, or photographs), Moreira Marques draws attention to the importance of visual imagery to her frame narratives. Tinta de China’s Portuguese edition includes images taken by André Cepeda, a photographer who accompanied the author on her trip—only one of which has made its way into the English language edition, as the cover design. But the text hardly misses them. Many passages begin thus: ‘Scene: mother and daughter at the kitchen table,’ or, ‘the house in Figueira was left vacant, a still life,’ or, ‘In the cemetery: a photograph.’ A short passage from the first section offers the powerful image of a long, featureless drive briefly and abruptly interrupted by a hunt: The road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road . . . A bird of prey snatches her kill off the tarmac then flies away . . . The road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the road, the roa In an image at once universal and specific to Trás-os-Montes—a region of empty roads, circled by eagles, in which each long day is the same as the one before—Moreira Marques evokes the randomness and unexpectedness with which cancer can strike. Sanches renders her simple, looping, rhythmic language with great control throughout:There are crosses on the way, marking car crashes. There are crosses on the way, marking people who fell off horses. There are crosses on the way, marking people who died while walking along its edge. The crosses are made of stone, some are very old and others ghostly new. This emphatic, incantatory prose is typical of the book’s first section, and reminiscent of another autobiographical response to the death of someone whose lifestyle is far removed from the author’s own: Jamaica Kincaid’s My Brother. Just as Kincaid deliberately contrasts her tightly controlled literary English with her brother’s uncodified Antiguan Creole, so does Moreira Marques juxtapose her literary Portuguese with the spoken discourse transcribed in ‘Portraits.’ Like Kincaid, Moreira Marques explores the strengths and weaknesses of literary language as a tool for representing death and illness. Metaphors—a journey, borders, war—are considered, only to be pushed aside. A family’s description of their dying father is identified as having ‘something literary’ in it—‘as a matter of fact, the family itself seemed to have been lifted from a novel.’ Fictionalisation is one possible coping mechanism, one means of enduring grief, and indeed of witnessing it. The author offers a ‘survival guide’—not for patients, but for their loved ones, and for the author herself and her readers. Survival techniques include ‘3. Make people into characters’ and ‘4. Don’t stop crying over characters.’ Besides highlighting the volume’s complex relationship with generic boundaries, turning people into characters universalises the stories they have to tell and thus dilutes their power to overwhelm us with their sadness.
And yet, of course, death is not a fiction, and fiction cannot contain death. As the author points out, it is ‘chiefly physical’—‘there is little that is literary about death.’ Other vignettes resort to official medical terminology in order to foreground its physicality, presented as dictionary entries for commonly used words associated with terminal illness: ‘palliative,’ ‘agony’ (‘a technical term’), ‘conspiracy of silence.’ Yet another coping mechanism, the dictionary format attempts to codify and contain the experience of death in order to make it comprehensible. In this, Moreira Marques is following her own advice for survival: ‘think of death in detail. Don’t think of the whole.’ We are left with the sense that death is not something we can control, and especially not something we can predict. We are harshly reminded: ‘Man is not God. Man is not God. Man is not God.’
In ‘Portraits,’ Moreira Marques’s careful experiments with metaphor and image are contrasted with the freshness and authenticity of direct testimony. After a brief introduction to each of the ‘characters,’ we hear them speak in their own words. Paula comes to terms with her own mortality as she undergoes chemotherapy. João and his wife Maria reminisce about their youth in Angola, and each expresses the fear of being left alone when the other dies. Two sisters, Sara and Elisa, react in very different ways to the death of their father. The bracing honesty of these accounts is as deeply affecting as Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name or Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. Beginning in medias res and punctuated by ellipses rather than full stops, the oral testimonies are not so much streams of consciousness as an expertly edited documentary reel—Paula’s is even followed by an epilogue that briefly describes her final days and records the date of her death. In her translation of this section, Sanches pays close attention to the vernacular nature of the testimonies—typically thorny to translate—rendering João and Maria’s unstudied Portuguese as broadly informal American English, so distinct from the language of the opening ‘Travel Notes.’
There is a final, very brief section entitled ‘When You Come Back from the Journey No Healthy Person Wants to Take, You Will…’ The journey, of course, is ‘an age-old metaphor for life and for the end of life,’ but also for Moreira Marques’s physical and emotional journey through Trás-os-Montes, and for our journey through her book. The volume concludes without a trace of despair, offering sincere reflections on what can be learned by coming to the end of those journeys.
Now and at the Hour of our Death is a careful, quiet, unrushed book, and Sanches’s translation brings something into the English language that is entirely unique. I admire And Other Stories for taking a risk on a volume like this one, and have no doubt that in 2018 and beyond they will publish many more unusual, boundary-pushing non-Anglophone women writers like Moreira Marques. I very much hope that other publishers, and especially bigger trade publishers, will join them in their risk-taking.