Brazilian Rhythms, Queer Longing, and Caio Fernando Abreu: A Literary Playlist
Bruna Dantas Lobato on the Music That Helps Her Translate
When I was in college in Vermont, missing home in Brazil and worried I was losing my Portuguese, my mom mailed me a tattered copy of Caio Fernando Abreu’s 1982 queer story collection, Moldy Strawberries, for comfort. I had read it when I was younger and loved the sexually charged gay scenes where nothing happened—its poetry, its youthful irreverence. I made room for it in between the Henry James and Flaubert novels I had to read for school, and for the first time in a long while I felt like speaking Portuguese was doing more for me than making me a foreigner in America.
I quickly fell in love with Abreu’s voice: his precise, rhythmic, agile, breathless prose, sometimes contrasted with writing so slow and tightly controlled it felt nectar-thick. I dreamed of translating its beautiful sentences, heavily influenced by music and full of references to classical music, jazz, Argentine tango, and Brazilian samba. But the eighteen stories in the book were intimidating, multilayered, polyphonic; I hardly knew where to begin translating. From the beginning? With my favorite story?
I ended up starting with what seemed to be the easiest part at the time: the songs it referenced. I translated the many epigraphs and quotes, and religiously studied the book’s influences, before I went into the text in earnest. I hoped poetry, the affective power of language, meaning, would safely be carried across as my research went on, music as their guide.
I made a playlist of every song mentioned in the book to help guide me through the moods. Elis Regina, Billie Holiday, Nara Leão, Los Panchos, and Dalva de Oliveira sang a mix of melancholy songs in English, Spanish, and Portuguese in the background as I went on about my day. The Brazilian songs are particularly sad, alluding to the dictatorship that would last from 1964 to 1985, but they’re also deceptively upbeat and cheeky, as if sung with a smirk.
The playlist is eclectic and rich, depressing and fun at the same time, the product of the contradictory neocolonial world Abreu grew up in, bursting at the seams with 70s and 80s joy, psychedelia and drugs, decolonization efforts across Africa, the failed promise of communism, military dictatorships in Latin America, U.S. interventions, and AIDS. The book follows suit, humor and heartbreak going hand in hand.
A few of the opening stories in the book come with instructions like “to be read to the sound of” musicians as varied as French composer Erik Satie and Brazilian singer Angela Ro Ro, a sort of musical accompaniment to the stories. Others quote songs by The Beatles, Caetano Veloso, and Carlos Gardel as characters find solace in them.
In “Those Two,” for example, two male coworkers meet in a repressive office environment and bond over their mutual love of old tangos and boleros. They eventually develop a full-fledged romance but remain secretive in public, the lyrics of their favorite songs standing in for any unsaid proclamations of love, saying what they can’t, and adding significance to the story (“sutil llegaste a mí como una tentación llenando de inquietud mi corazón,” or “you came to me like a temptation that filled my heart with restlessness”).
In “The Day Uranus Entered Scorpio,” a depressed man listens to Pink Floyd, whose album Dark Side of the Moon touches on insanity and death (“And balanced on the biggest wave / You race towards an early grave”). In a moment of despair, he looks to the stars for signs of hope but finds a different answer. “Uranus, the guy in the red shirt explained, in my eighth House, the House of Death, didn’t you know I could be dying right now? and he looked relieved,” surprisingly happy it would all be over soon, a twisted kind of solace.
Most notably, the title story is partly inspired by The Beatles’s psychedelic “Strawberry Fields Forever,” about a “hazy, impressionistic dreamworld” where the self gets lost (“Living is easy with eyes closed / Misunderstanding all you see / It’s getting hard to be someone / but it all works out / It doesn’t matter much to me”).
Classical music also plays an important role in this story, which is divided into five movements with tempo and mood markings, much like a suite: prelude, allegro agitato, adagio sostenuto, andante ostinato, and minuet and rondo. While the allegro agitato section moves quickly and frantically with run-on sentences (“A mild-mild sedative, just five milligrams, for you to take three times a day, upon waking, after lunch, at bedtime, glazed eyes, quiet mind, still heart”), the andante ostinato moves slower, with lots of repetition (“The fresh night air lulled the white curtains, like sails from a stranded boat, a ship with billowing sails?”).
The movements give a neat order to the mixture of writing styles, as cues from a conductor in control of the pulse. In this case, I was the one being conducted, playing my instruments in Abreu’s presence. A pianist interpreting a score, the translator metaphor goes.
The influence of these songs especially appears in the rhythm of the prose, which is meticulously marked. When I was further along in the process, I recorded myself reading each one out loud in the original Portuguese, then reading my translations, and compared the sounds, duration, and emotional effect.
I repeated this method until I felt my translations retained the rhythm and drama of each sentence and of the piece as a whole. The translations needed to feel memorable and melodious to me, each character crooning with their distinct lilts, each section with the right speed, while the translations remained cohesive and stylistically consistent throughout.
My partner, a jazz musician, heard me read the translations through the walls each day and started to recognize each one. He didn’t know their titles or what they were about, but he could refer to each one by singing their melodies. “The one that goes…,” he’d say and start singing. When lines from the stories got stuck in my head like a song, and I could sing with him, adding lyrics to his instrumentation, I knew I was done.
“It was raining, raining, raining, and I was going into the rain to meet him, no umbrella or anything, I was always losing them in bars, I was holding just a bottle of cheap cognac tight against my chest, hard to believe it said this way, but that was how I was going through the rain, a bottle of cognac in hand and a wet pack of cigarettes in my pocket,” Abreu writes and then I write in “Beyond the Point”, and then sing around my house. Then I sing the next sentence and the next, until I can recite the whole thing by heart, and move on to the next one. “The shutters open, the benches look like benches, and vases hold flowers in their depths,” we write in “I, You, He.” And, like magic, they do.
Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu, tr. by Bruna Dantas Lobato, is available via Archipelago Books.