CROOKED PLOW (Verso, 276 pp., paperback, $19.95), by the Afro-Brazilian author Itamar Vieira Junior (and translated by Johnny Lorenz), offers a salt-of-the-earth paean to a land where “the blood of history flows like a river.” Life is hard on the Água Negra plantation in northeastern Brazil in the mid-20th century — an endless cycle of drought and floods, the shadows of slavery still hanging heavily on the tenant farmers who eke out an existence. “Suffering was the secret blood running through the veins of Água Negra,” we’re told.
How to break this pattern of squalor and oppression? For Bibiana and Belonísia, two sisters growing up in a family of spiritual healers, different paths emerge. Bibiana will marry Severo, a union organizer “born from the earth,” and move away. Belonísia — who tragically severs her tongue as a young girl with her grandmother’s knife — will remain, a mute witness to her community’s struggles and dreams over the following decades.
One balm for Belonísia will be her faith, a syncretist religion rooted in African spirits, or encantados. Her father, Zeca, in fact, channels the encantados to treat “maladies of the divided spirit — people who had somehow lost their stories, lost their memories, people separated from themselves.”
Bibiana and Belonísia will each get to tell their versions of Água Negra’s story — and so will an encantado itself. And despite the harshness of their lives, there’s a sign of hope: Bibiana and Severo eventually return to help usher in a new era of workers’ consciousness. Even if his book plods at times, Vieira provides a compelling vision of history’s downtrodden and neglected.
Carlos Fonseca, born in Costa Rica and named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2021, writes novels that are elaborate puzzles, with stories embedded in stories. In AUSTRAL (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 207 pp., $27), translated by Megan McDowell, he has created a multilayered exploration of ideas of belonging, language and erasure that moves from a snowy Ohio campus to the Amazonian jungle and northern Argentine desert.
Julio Gamboa is a literature professor who left Central America as a teenager to pursue an education in the United States. Now, in middle age, he finds himself adrift in a shaky marriage and far from home, “losing his language, and the last traces of his past along with it.” But the past is never far behind; soon he is summoned to Argentina to help edit the unfinished manuscript of a long-lost friend, the novelist Aliza Abravanel, who has died after a protracted illness.
But what, exactly, is her final work — and which parts are fiction and which are memoir? “Austral” is full of tales of cultural collisions and trauma, from the failed New Germany colony in the Amazon to a theater project in Guatemala that attempts to excavate traces of the country’s genocide through the testimony of survivors. There are recurring motifs: silent witnesses, madness and loss, private languages and solitary landscapes. The more Julio immerses himself in Aliza’s enigmatic text, the more a tapestry of connections is revealed. “Austral” is a masterly voyage of discovery, both physical and intellectual.
Laura, the narrator of Guadalupe Nettel’s STILL BORN (Bloomsbury, 207 pp., $26.99), is in her mid-30s and completing a Ph.D in literature — or trying to — while balancing other complicating factors: a strained relationship with her mother, noisy neighbors (a single mother and her tantrum-prone son), Mexico City’s rampant sexism and her dormant romantic life.
Actually, long ago she chose a path of independence and solitude over the more conventional route of marriage and motherhood. And she’s not shy in saying so. “For years I tried to convince my girlfriends that procreating was a hopeless mistake,” she explains. “I told them that children, no matter how sweet and loving they were in their best moments, would always represent a limit on their freedom, an economic burden, not to mention the physical and emotional cost they bring about.”
When her best friend, Alina, becomes pregnant — and then gets a devastating prognosis about her baby’s chance of survival — Laura begins to rethink her assumptions, not to mention life’s other essential mysteries. (She has studied Buddhism.) How do you understand an infant’s will to exist or a parent’s sense of attachment? How does one learn to live each day when it may be a loved one’s last?
Nettel, whose earlier work has at times veered toward the phantasmagoric, is all the more haunting here for her vivid realism. “Still Born,” translated by Rosalind Harvey, is a heart-racingly intense journey, for Laura as much as Alina. “Motherhood changes one’s existence forever,” Laura observes, in ways she never could have imagined.
“What does it mean to be happy?” asks Norman Erikson Pasaribu, a young Toba Batak writer, at the outset of his debut collection, HAPPY STORIES, MOSTLY (Feminist Press, 146 pp., paperback, $16.95), translated by Tiffany Tsao. It’s a difficult question, especially for many of his gay characters searching for connections. In modern-day Indonesia, they find little joy, let alone solace or acceptance.
Pasaribu’s motifs run much darker than Fonseca’s: His stories abound in heavy rain, weepy mothers, confessions and crucifixes, loneliness and suicide. Dreams go unfulfilled and the young, like their country, are often unsure which way to turn.
“If you ask me, is any nation — especially a postcolonial one — ever not at a crossroads?” asks one character in “Welcome to the Department of Unanswered Prayers.” “Even more so if you’re poor. Like I used to be. I was at a crossroads and a dead end all at once, every single day of my life.”
Even when Pasaribu imagines the future, as in “Metaxu: Jakarta, 2038,” things look bleak: a dystopian world of flying cars, karaoke bars and erased memories. Pasaribu’s stories vary widely, mixing realism and fabulism, but frequently return to an emptiness at the core. They are far from happy. Pasaribu, like the short-story writer in “A Bedtime Story for Your Long Sleep,” has nevertheless found a way to construct something new out of tales of loss: “I felt that such a story would prove useful someday — a bottomless pit of sorrow-bricks for me to mine, to build my Babel Tower of misery.”
Anderson Tepper is a chair of the international committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival and curator of international literature at City of Asylum in Pittsburgh.