As if under the muffled atmosphere of a tense game, the storyline of Sinuca embaixo d’água (2009, ‘Underwater snooker’, not translated yet) circumscribes an absence: the white ball that moves the others and drives the game forward.
Antonia, the main character, is at the heart of the story but never directly shows up in the book: from the beginning, we know that she died in a car accident, under circumstances that are not very clear. Her absence, however, lends to the plot its core: gradually and from different perspectives, the remaining characters disclose to us Antonia’s multiple facets.
Under the agglutinating effect of affection and pain, seven narrators, much like players around a pool table, circumscribe the gap left by Antonia. In soliloquies and alternating chapters, like the balls in the game, they disclose what happened before and after the car accident. The narrators, as players who take turns after each move, pass the cue stick to each other, as they tell us what they know about Antonia. The narration in first person evolves in stream of consciousness, making use of colloquial language, with strong marks of orality, punctuated by a discrete lyricism.
Each chapter is narrated by the character who gives it its title. In the foreground we have Camilo, Bernardo and Polaco, the most frequent narrators – the ones most strongly touched by the lack of Antonia. Camilo, her brother, is a rebellious, inconsequential boy with some strong self-destructive tendencies and an obscure sense of guilt; he is permanently on the margins of the world around – and on the margins of himself. Bernardo, Antonia’s friend, is a poet who likes Jazz and studies Literature. He may have fallen in love with Antonia, and is obsessed with the accident: he is constantly trying to understand how exactly it happened. Finally, Polaco, a man who fled from the countryside under nebulous circumstances, owns a decadent bar which serves as a meeting point for the characters, on the shores of a dirty lake, near Antonia’s family home.
We also have four peripheral narrators (Helena, Gustavo, Lucas and Santiago). They act as players who, waiting for the next game, hang on around the pool table. Their narratives set the background of the story. Helena is a journalist on duty at the night when the accident happened; Gustavo is an intern at an advertising agency; he is involved in an educational campaign on traffic accidents. Lucas is a boy who lives near the scene of the accident. Finally, Santiago is an outsider who unexpectedly shows up in the city.
All characters, to a greater or lesser extent, will have their lives touched, re-signified, or completely altered by Antonia’s death. In this vein, the book explores two interwoven temporal axes: the before and after the accident. Antonia is only known to us through the remaining characters’ mosaic of the perspectives: she is dimly evoked from trivial objects (a weathervane, a photograph). The gap she leaves in the story is the direct source of the action of the characters – as if she were the white ball in a game of narrative alternations that, by being played underwater, is doomed to failure. We all get to know Antonia, but we will never truly know her.
The book’s strongest point, for me, is the aesthetic elaboration of a fragmented, discouraged, lost generation. As in a pool game, we find ourselves locked in the narrators’ minds. They rarely talk to each other: the narrators are locked in their inner monologues, as if they were drowning. The writing style is lean, dry, almost rarefied – so as to slowly increase the characters’ emotional intensity without ever becoming too dramatic.
The book’s sole downside, to me, lies in one detail: although each character’s pain is unique and untransferable, their voices are sometimes intermingled and confused. Although the different perspectives can be easily identified for each one of the narrators, their voices resemble each other. The language used does not vary greatly from character to character, and some linguistic resources (such as the use of parentheses) are used interchangeably. If the chapters were not headed by the name of the character who narrates them, it would be hard to discern between the narrators. Their voices are not fully recognizable. This book’s polyphony is not to be found in language, but in the different points of view that are conveyed about one and the same event – the different wounds this event has left open.
In Underwater Snooker, the characters seem like abyssal fish – creatures subjected to the pressure of a block of water that alters their movements. Internally and externally, they travel through the rubble, through the remains of what happened: the plot is made from the objects brought to the sand after the shipwreck. The narrators are bricked up by ruins of the past – as well as by the ruins of Polaco’s bar. Like those who dwell in memory, they walk barefoot on a flooded ground strewn with broken glass. With their fragmented narratives, they offer us the sharp shards with which the book is made.
“It’s like taking your skates off after hours rolling about and finding that your feet and the ground no longer understand each other. You want to glide, float past people and things, but you can’t. So you think, OK, let’s get on with it, walking it is, one foot after the other please, but even so it takes a while to come together, because you’ve still got your skates on, in a sense. The brain says Walk, the feet say Skate. And if someone should come across you on the street they’d probably think: poor lad’s got a big problem! Which is why I am increasingly less fond of people and more of Antônia, who used to say that the world was like a crowd fresh out of the opticians, still under the effects of the dilating drops: the eyes filled with more light than they can take, and so all we see is a haze. More light, more darkness.” – Carol Bensimon, Sinuca embaixo d’água, tr. Anthony Doyle, excerpt here
About the book
- Companhia das Letras, 2009, 137 p. Goodreads
- This book was not translated to English yet
- My rating: 4 stars
- Interview with Bensimon about this book (in Portuguese)
- This review was first published in Portuguese here
- I read this book for the Spanish and Portuguese Reading Months, hosted by Stuart and Richard