JoĆ£o Almino, The Book of Emotions – Review Essay by Greg Mullins

JoĆ£o Almino, The Book of Emotions. Trans. Elizabeth Jackson. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.
Greg A. Mullins
Lusofonia and its futures/ Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies 25/Review Essay
Tagus Press at UMass Dartmouth, Dec 2012-Jan 2013

Lusofonia and its futures/ Portuguese Literary and Cultural Studies 25
Review Essay
Tagus Press at UMass Dartmouth, Dec 2012-Jan 2013

JoĆ£o Almino. The Book of Emotions. Trans. Elizabeth Jackson. Champaign, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2011.

Greg A. Mullins

JoĆ£o Alminoā€™s The Book of Emotions, newly available in English thanks to a superb translation by Elizabeth Jackson, is narrated by a blind photographer. The trope of the blind prophet or poet is ancient, but a blind photographer is assuredly a very contemporary invention. What truths might such a figure convey to a society that seems to have lost its way amidst the tumult of images that through their superficiality and ephemerality distract our attention even from the social and political realities they purport to represent?

The Book of Emotions is Alminoā€™s fourth in a quintet of novels set in Brasilia, which together comprise a tender tribute to the flaws as well as the fortitude of the cityā€™s inhabitants. The septuagenarian Cadu narrates this installment of Alminoā€™s quintet, telling a story of the early twenty-first century from the vantage point of the year 2022. In his early fifties, when he still had his sight, Cadu was carried to Brasilia in the wake of the implosion of his relationship with Joanna, one of the great loves of his life. For a little over a year he kept a photo diary; twenty years later he remembers those photographs so sharply that he is able to select among them to assemble a ā€œBook of Emotions,ā€ so named because each photograph represents an emotion he either experienced at the moment he snapped the shutter, or that he felt when he was photographed, or that overcame him when he viewed the developed image.

In Alminoā€™s The Book of Emotions we do not see photographs but rather read Caduā€™s description of them. Thus, we are located in a position contiguous with the blind photographer. He works through memory; we work through imagination. The common ground upon which we meet is the territory of both emotion and interpretation. Cadu describes the composition and the context of sixty-two photographs, on occasion pinning a specific emotion to an image but more typically allowing the emotional truth of the image to emerge circuitously. He is not a fully trustworthy narrator, and the legacy of Machado de Assis is, in this sense, persistent and influential. We may take his glosses with a grain of salt, for Cadu interprets his photographs and indeed his life choices in self-flattering ways, even when he feels remorse. He has devoted his life to art rather than commerce, to beauty rather than realism, to vengeance rather than justice, and to erotic passion rather than fidelity. His life path is strewn with broken hearts including, at times, his own. He considers the loss of sight late in life a blessing in many respects, because it frees him from attachment to the beauty he sees when he looks in the mirror, as well as the beauty he finds in women.
A blind photographer is not as oxymoronic a figure as it at first appears. A photograph freezes a single instant in time, as particles of light reflect off objects and are captured by film or a CCD chip. Having lost his sight late in life, Caduā€™s visual memories are also frozen in time: when he reencounters Joanna in old age, he imagines her forever youthful. Movement and change happen through time. The frozen moment defies movement and change and promises eternity. Crucially, for Cadu, beauty and sensuality operate under a similar temporality, for ā€œPleasure isnā€™t measured by time but rather by intensityā€ (130). In this sense, Cadu is the perfect hedonist and the perfect photographer.

If Cadu is rendered comical by his romantic troubles and his bumbling efforts to derail the career of his nemesis Eduardo Kaufman, the novelā€™s playful engagement with temporality nonetheless opens serious reflection on visual and textual art, memory, imagination, and social dislocation at the beginning of the twenty-first century. We learn that in 2022 Brasilia will have suffered even more from the social inequalities, poverty, violence and crime common in Brazilā€™s major cities today, that corruption will continue to flourish in government, and that social and political meaning will continue to be mediated by facile images that bounce across the screens of our virtual lives. In the face of all this, The Book of Emotions invites us into an interior and profound space in which the art of photography is celebrated, ironically, with the absence of photographs. Unlike W. G. Sebald, who unsettles our confidence in the inventedness of fiction by including photographic reproductions in his novels, JoĆ£o Almino reinforces our confidence in our own visual imagination by not including photographs in this novel. As we come to understand the sixty-two photographs that comprise The Book of Emotions, we find common cause with the blind photographer precisely in the capacity of narrative to plumb the depths of human experience and the capacity of readers to think and feel their way up through those depths to solid ground. This extraordinary novel offers a lyrical homage not only to the art of photography but also to the art of living.

Greg Mullins teaches comparative literature at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He is the author of Colonial Affairs, a critical study of colonialism and sexuality, and is currently writing a book about the absorption of human rights law in the cultural practices of ordinary life. He can be reached at mullinsg@evergreen.edu.


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