In a 2010 essay for The New Yorker called "Face-Blind," Oliver Sacks described his experiences as a sufferer of prosopagnosia, a neurological condition that inhibits a person's ability to recognize faces. He writes of sometimes not knowing the close friend or family member before him, or even not recognizing himself in a mirror. The most mundane moments in daily life can prove disorienting for the sufferer – not to mention off-putting for the friend who goes unacknowledged. Then it can get weirder still, as Sacks once found out at a restaurant. "Sitting at a sidewalk table, I turned toward the restaurant window and began grooming my beard, as I often do. I then realized that what I had taken to be my reflection was not grooming himself but looking at me oddly."
In a lesser writer's hands, the condition of face blindness might become an overly convenient character or plot device – the new amnesia. But in Blood-Drenched Beard, the first novel translated into English by the young Brazilian writer Daniel Galera, the dissociative implications of prosopagnosia are expertly woven into an intensely disquieting postmodern gothic. (Disclaimer: I selected an excerpt from Galera's novel for inclusion in a magazine I formerly edited.)
As the novel opens, Galera's nameless protagonist, a face-blindness sufferer, has been summoned to visit his ailing father, who, with a pistol on a side table, announces he's going to kill himself the next day. "At my last checkup," he says, "the doctor stared at my tests, then looked at me with a woeful expression as if he were disappointed in the whole human race." No longer able to enjoy the many pleasures he spent a lifetime indulging, father asks son that he accept his decision and, as though it's the best advice he could give, badgers him to read more Borges.
The father also tells the story of his estranged father, the protagonist's grandfather – a mean, knife-wielding gaucho who for years menaced the residents of Garopaba, a sleepy fishing village in Brazil's south. Until, that is, one night at a dance when the lights went out, and came back on moments later with the gaucho dead on the floor and punctured with dozens of stab wounds. The killer was never found. Because, they said, it was the whole town that had killed him.
In the wake of his father's suicide, and nursing some other great hurt – we gradually infer that the protagonist's girlfriend has left him for his own brother – the protagonist packs up his belongings and moves to Garopaba. Now a popular beach destination, it is down-shifting into the offseason. He rents a cottage right on the water and gets a job as a swimming instructor at a local gym. Though he succeeds in making a few friends, at times his face blindness causes tension with locals who mistake his confusion for insolence. More troubling yet: He is the spitting image of his grandfather, who has been cast in the years since as a kind of catch-all mythical bogeyman for whatever evils befall the town.
Not surprisingly, inquiries into his grandfather's death unnerve the locals. The cop who investigated the murder tells him, "If no one remembers, then it didn't happen." There is some mystery, too, about what happened to the body. Stubbornly, he persists; letting his beard grow long and unruly, he becomes a walking reminder of the much-hated gaucho. He does this purposefully, though without ever considering why, becoming progressively more lost in two labyrinths – the mystery surrounding his grandfather, the other his deteriorating mental state.
Throughout, Galera richly captures the ennui of the off-season, a time when dead penguins occasionally wash up on Garopaba's beaches ("No one touches them, not even the vultures"), and his prose has a beguiling quality that manages to feel both sparse and expansive. With an eye for what Georges Perec would call the "infra-ordinary," one imagines stories-within-stories as Galera surveys the goings-on in the town. Occasionally, some of the densely descriptive sections might demand patience from the reader. But this mode of heightened focus also enriches the novel, as though imitating the very strategy that the protagonist employs to compensate for his face blindness – which is to consciously memorize as many other aspects of a person as he can, such as their voice, a defining mark, a piece of clothing or their gait. "He catalogues with renewed amazement the countless ways in which the world can be unveiled by his senses," Galera writes of his protagonist during a happier moment. "Nothing but faces are lost."
Although they're quite different stylistically, Blood-Drenched Beard demonstrates some narrative affinities with the work of Haruki Murakami. To wit: the quest-like narrative of an alienated male-protagonist-cum-amateur-detective pressed to solve some riddle of ontological or deep psychological consequence; the eerie, possibly supernatural concurrences; and extended passages of dialogue composed of rather earnest-seeming philosophical debate. (Both can also be guilty of overtelegraphing at times.) But I say this more to compare tropes, even to compliment, than to quibble. Galera's English-language debut, following his inclusion in Granta's The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists in 2012, establishes him as a singular talent from whom we can expect much more in the future. (The novel also carries a bit of a burden: During a visit to Sao Paulo last year it felt like every editor, writer and publisher in town was cheering for its international success, hopeful that a commercial breakthrough for Galera might pave the way for more interest abroad in Brazilian literature – which unlike the country's music, design, architecture and film has rarely travelled very successfully.)
It merits noting that the Borges story the protagonist is told to read by his father, The South, provides Blood-Drenched Beard with a sly metafictional framing, though Galera is careful not to oversell it. The Borges tale tells of an aging, solitary librarian recovering from a bout of septicemia who travels to his rarely visited country ranch to convalesce. During a stop along the way the librarian is harassed at a bar by three local roughnecks and agrees, much out of character, to a knife fight outside. Stepping out into the street, and surely to his end, Borges writes: "He felt that if he had been able to choose, then, or to dream his death, this would have been the death he would have chosen or dreamt."
In Blood-Drenched Beard there is a similarly fatalistic, compulsive drive toward some subconsciously idealized death. And its plot, it would appear, is a reverse-engineered variation on a family legend Galera's own father once told to him, shared here without explanation or context in the form of a two-page prologue. Borges once suggested an alternate reading of The South, that the dull librarian might have still been in his hospital bed merely imagining his violent, heroic end. (Recall that Borges was, by vocation, himself a librarian.)
Too often, the overbearing influence of Borges has become a trap for generations of South American writers who overemulate the master's work to their detriment. Somehow, Galera has taken up the spirit of Borges – that studious fascination with the interpenetration between reality and science, myth and literature – and transported us to a marvelously dark and perplexing labyrinth entirely of his own making.
One-time Rio de Janeiro resident Chris Frey is the founding editor of Hazlitt magazine, Monocle's Toronto correspondent and author of the forthcoming book Broken Atlas.