Your second novel, originally published in Portuguese in 2001, borrows its title from James Whistler’s painting Symphony in White, No. 1: The White Girl (1862), which grows in importance and offers new perspectives on the characters, as the novel unfolds. As suggested by this artifice, the combination of painting, music and literature sets the tone to the novel: a symphony of silences, absences and violations.
The main characters, Clarice and Maria Inês, are two sisters who grew up on a farm near Jabuticabais, a small town in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Raised in a harsh environment of imposed silences and limits, these two girls share an inviolable secret, an unforgivable violation, a contained pain and many sharp hatreds. The plot follows these sisters from the blank page of childhood until the many erasures of late adulthood. Their life stories are told in a fragmented and lyrical way. As Whistler used musical correlations in his paintings, you compose your Symphony in White with musical themes and scenes that repeat through the novel. This Symphony invites the reader to color in the gaps, the blank spots, and to supply the notes as the plot moves along.
The narrative moves forward and back, in a piecemeal fashion. In each excerpt, the third-person narrator follows one of the characters in a puzzle that is slowly assembled, in a disorderly manner. Clarice, the older sister, is a sweet and submissive girl, who is always looking for approval. Maria Ines, on the other hand, is her opposite: strong-willed, fearless and fierce, she fights each of the limits and silences that are imposed on the two girls.
In the mid-60s, in order to complete her secondary education, Maria Ines leaves for the big city, Rio de Janeiro, where her aunt lives. Once there, she immediately engages in a clandestine relationship with Thomas, the guy who lives across the street from the place where she’s staying. Thomas’ parents are exiled political activists, and he dreams of becoming a famous artist. When, by chance, Thomas sees Maria Inês through the open window of her apartment, the girl’s image conjures up for him the dark-haired woman in a white dress represented in Whistler’s painting. The boy inevitably falls in love for her.
At the time the story begins, these characters have passed the age of 40, and are about to meet again after a hiatus of about 30 years. A devastating secret has put an end to the sisters’ childhoods and their closeness to each other. The narrative, told in non-chronological order, interpolates reflections and fragmented memories. Lisboa demystifies, page by page, the seemingly idyllic childhood of Clarice and Maria Inês. Gradually, in a mixture of family saga and coming of age, we are presented to adultery, rape, suicide, drug addiction, guilt, lust, crimes and punishments.
Gathered around the protagonists Thomas, Clarice and Maria Ines, other small characters help to set the scenes: Otacilia, the girls’ mother, who is a frustrated woman whose health is fragile; Afonso Olimpio, the girls’ old father, who constantly “drank in alcohol his loneliness”; João Miguel, a rich second cousin; Ilton Xavier, the neighbor worker; Lina, a friend who had been raped; Berenice, the girls’ great-aunt, a lonely woman who lives in the big city. The plot, pacing between Jabuticabais, Rio de Janeiro and Venice, extends from the 60s to the late 90s.
You make discreet allusions to music, the visual arts and literature throughout the novel. White is the emblem of a breach: a gap in time, that, incommunicado, robs memory of its color, reverts to its beginning, turning itself as blank as a page. In opposition to all the references to blankness (the memory that is scraped “with a thin blade” and nonetheless imprisons the characters), on the other hand, we have the figure of a multicolored butterfly, that is recurrent in the text: the butterfly that plunges fearlessly into the abyss of the quarry, near the farm, whose access had always been restricted to the two sisters. This recurrent image of a ‘butterfly flying over the abyss’ summarizes also the juxtaposition between the restrained and delicate writing and the violent events that are being portrayed through it.
The quote by Marguerite Duras transcribed in the novel’s epigraph also gives the plot its crude tone: it’s useless to cry, and rightfully so, one needs to cry. Each in its own time, all the characters suffer a crack, “as a faulty dam”, “as wall plaster.” “Death in Venice” by Thomas Mann is also alluded in the novel, which adds another layer of meaning to this story of unfulfilled desires. As a final layer, the sisters’ lives reflect the political chaos going on in Brazil at the time, during the period of military dictatorship: the political repression is mirrored in the stifling atmosphere of the girls’ family. You subtly unravel unspoken moral codes, and explores the role of women in Brazil during the 60’s and 70’s.
The very structure of the book resembles that of a piece of music, with inserted themes repeating themselves. As in a symphony of voices, the personal story of each character represents a different musical instrument, which sometimes overlaps the other, sometimes is swallowed by it. The many intentional silences give your writing a raw quality: the meanings inbetween the lines reminded me of the interval between notes, in a game of chiaroscuro in which some facts are left in the shade and some remain under a merciless sun. Almost nothing really happens; and everything does happen. The attempt to “(…) to see all the words that are not said” permeates the novel’s images and events: the lack of dialogue, the prohibition of speech imposed on the girls, the inability to communicate. Silence may as well be sometimes the only possibility to reveal what can not be revealed otherwise: ‘something noiselessly broke inside her’.
Some of the cracks and gaps that punctuate your writing are expressed in oxymorons: the “eloquent silence”, the “noisy stillness,” the “excessive vacuum”. The narrative rhythm is modulated by similes and repetitions of words, images, scenes, and themes. Rhymes, childhood songs and tongue twisters are used as a litany of pains, and mimic, in turn, the trauma experienced by each character. Your writing displays a melancholic intensity that mirrors the flight of a butterfly at the edge of a cliff.
The novel’s structure switches between complementary perspectives and entangled voices, shifting in time and filling in, one by one, the pieces in this family puzzle. Some images and scenes are revisited again and again, from different points of view, and the reader’s perceptions of the characters change throughout the reading. Perverting the temporal sequence of events, you emulates the diffuse and brittle path of memory that builds each character’s coming of age process. Pain remains, but constantly changes its place inside. In Symphony in White, each of the characters inhabit, in its own way, the chiaroscuro between what was and what might have been, this space between remembering and forgetting, and between experienced pain and remembered pain: a space that is as a pale mark left in a shared wall.
By the way, I read both the original (Sinfonia em branco) and the translated versions (Symphony in White), and I think the translator Sarah Green did a great job.
Thank you for writing this book, Adriana. Send my compliments to Sarah.
“Thomas remembered her. The love. Where could it be?
Love was like a pale mark left by a picture that was removed after years living on the same wall. Love produced a vague interval in his spirit, in the transparency of his eyes, in the aged painting of his existence. One day, love yelled inside him and inflamed his gut. Not anymore. Even the memory was uncertain, fragmented, pieces of the skeleton of a prehistoric monster buried and preserved by chance, impossible to reconstruct into a whole. Thirty years later. Two hundred million years later”
– Adriana Lisboa, Symphony in White
About the book
- Texas Tech University Press, 2010, transl. Sarah Green, 208 p.
- Original title: Sinfonia em branco
- First published in 2001
- My rating: 4 stars