A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
First, let us admire the magnificent name of this famous Brazilian novelist: Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares. It’s like her prose: elaborate, decorative, exotic, elegant. She is an award-winning author in Brazil and worldwide, and now that I’ve read this, I’ll read anything else she’s had translated into English, and I wish I had discovered her earlier. While reading Family Heirlooms in between other life tasks (working, eating, sleeping), I was able to ignore my loathing of ebooks because I wanted to finish the story so much. Frisch & Co have not converted me to ebooks, but they have certainly persuaded me that a tremendous piece of writing will transcend the uncomfortable, physically awkward, anti-social, electricity-reliant and charmless process that reading a novel on a screen usually is, for me.
Family Heirlooms is a novella, rather than a novel: two hours of reading in total, but it dips the reader instantly and completely into the world of the Brazilian middle classes. We are at some time in the twentieth century when sailing to Europe was the right way to take a honeymoon, and jewels could be lost in Switzerland without noticing. Maria Bráulia Munhoz is the elegant and shy young wife of the esteemed and aspirational Judge Munhoz, who respects her at all times, and tells her that the pigeon’s egg ruby on her engagement ring may or may not be fake. At least, they know it’s real, but she must wear the copy except on those special occasions to impress her family who revere a jewel so valuable that their daughter cannot wear the real thing in public. Judge Munhoz has a young male physiotherapist-secretary with whom he performs strenuous exercises in the half-dark of his office, and for whom he is always buying little presents from their friend Marcel de Souza Armand, the jeweller with part-French ancestry.
Judge Munhoz’s respect and trust in his young wife is complete: she comes from one of the very best and richest Brazilian-Portuguese families, but she is too shy. He instructs her to visit their friend Marcel, to take a lunch with friends, to get out of the house occasionally. Maria Bráulia does visit Marcel, very often, in different secret locations in the city, usually in the afternoons. He talks to her learnedly and passionately about the nature and secrets of his gift of the cabochon ruby that, many decades later, when Maria Bráulia is a widow, she hides in random and scattered places in her room, and handles only when she is alone. In her old age she is assisted in her business affairs by her devoted nephew Julião Munhoz, who is going a little bald on top, a little fat around the waist, and has a plan with his girlfriend and their accomplices to strip Aunt Bráu of her jewels for their own private projects. Dõna Bráu’s devoted maid Maria Preta knows about the cabochon ruby, that Maria Bráulia has not yet shown her nephew, but who knows about the secret safe? And how much does Maria Bráulia know, or care, about her nephew’s plans?
This is a marvellous story, very well translated. The elaborate sentences carry the voices of the characters in naturalistic conversational speech, even if they’re talking alone in their heads, so reading Family Heirlooms is to be told a story by an entrancing set of voices. Unmissable, and a wonderful introduction to this author.
Zulmira Ribeiro Tavares, Family Heirlooms (Companhia ds Letras 1990; Frisch & Co, 2014), ebook, $2.99.