João Paulo Borges Coelho (b. 1955) was born in Porto, Portugal, but moved with his family to Mozambique as a child. After completing his studies in Mozambique and the United Kingdom, he became an African History teacher at the Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, Mozambique, and is a visiting teacher at my former faculty, the Faculty of Letters of the University of Lisbon. How very nice. A late bloomer, he published his first novel, As Duas Sombras do Rio, only in 2003. His second novel, As Visitas do Dr. Valdez, came out a year later. And a decade later I read it.
What to say about As Visitas do Dr. Valdez? It’s not a terrible novel, it’s merely one of those novels the world doesn’t really need. One of the many uninspired, insipid, unimaginative, timorous, banal novels written by people who think the novel was a teleological process evolving towards Madame Bovary, and having reached that stage, it needed not change ever again because it was the epitome of biological perfection, like the sturdy cockroach. You can nuke it with Kafka and Borges and Nabokov and García Márquez, and the bastard will not die! Novels like this constitute the lion’s share of what crams the shelves of bookstores – because like the cockroach it deploys thousands of eggs at one feel swoop – as opposed to the shelves of your house, because you’re a discerning reader and only buy what’s excellent, quirky and challenging.
A cosy little drama, it begins in Mozambique in 1907, with the arrival of Ernestino Ferreira, “self-titled major only because he arrived as a white soldier assigned to the Mucojo Military Outpost.” He arrives to make his fortune, but after meeting the gorgeous Ana Bessa, he widens his goals to add marriage to them. But Ana is in love with a German, who does not reciprocate her love. She loved; she was not loved. Ernestino, a poor judge of psychology, thinks that he can make her envious by courting one of her daughters instead. “With this gesture the major intended to make his beloved reconsider.” But Ana accepts immediately, oblivious or indifferent to his feelings for her, sighing for her Aryan Adonis, and the major marries Amélia. Amidst a few detours, micro-stories that flesh out the lives of a few supporting characters, the novel progresses towards the relationship between Sá Amélia and Sá Caetana, her estranged sister. Once upon a time they were rich and lived on Ibo, an island that acts as a heaven safe from turmoil. “On Ibo island, where she grew up, there were no cats. Any time her mother, Ana Bessa, named them, populating any fantastic story with a load of them, she imagined them tender and green (for some reason mother had never given them colours, or she had without Caetaninha, impatient and unruly child, retaining them). She saw cats later, of course, cats of almost every colour cats have: black, white, brown, yellow. But the cats she now embroiders are the green cats of her youth. Imaginary cats. Happy cats that play in the warmth of that final sunray trying to reach with their furry claws to the miniscule and infinite particles carried by it.” Caetana was the favourite child and Amélia grew with envy. Eventually Sá Caetana marries njungo Araújo, Ernestino’s helper, and the sisters drift apart. And then tragedy strikes. “When Dr. Valdez arrived in Ibo, in 1940, Ana Bessa had just died without the sea delivering the person she was waiting for. She died looking at the horizon, seated in a wicker chair. Sá Amélia, widow already and now orphan, became even lonelier in the big mansion of the late Major Ferreira., away from her sister Caetana who lived in the Big House, on the other side of the island, married with njungo Araújo and with her own family to look after. By then the roads of life had already separated both sisters, so that the older remained there, between her loneliness and her fear.”
Amélia starts developing dementia, losing touch with reality. Her only relief was the visits from Doctor Valdez, but he died in 1959, even though the disease in her mind stopped her from realizing it. “One day the evil reached her head which, as we know, commands the rest. The great transformation that occurred in her started here. The strands of intuition that she had left eroded, no longer useful. Fear journeyed outside the old lady, in its stead replaced by indifference. (…) An indifference sealed against reason, unreachable through understanding, of one eating fruit as if one were chewing straw, automatically. Of one who’s stopped hurting because one looks at pain and doesn’t recognize it.” Receding inward, unable to take care of herself, her sister, freshly widowed herself, returns to care of her, filled with remorse; remorseful because she was the favourite daughter, remorseful because she thinks she abandoned her. Deciding never to leave her again, they move away from Ibo into a new place, taking Vicente, their black servant, with them. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had already served the Bessa family.
Together the three try to build a new life. “In this solitary verticality wherein no-one faced the world alone every day a predictable future, a serener present was built.” Sá Amélia continues to live in her unreachable inner world; Vicente, going through a micro-Bildungsroman within the novel, struggles between loyalty to her mistress and his African roots; Sá Caetana, ever vigilant, tries to maintain the household organized, afraid of the changes in her world.
Sá Caetana decided that the three would live there like someone living on an island. Tenaciously preserving their space, ignoring the unknown sea that surrounded them. Watchful, even the cockroaches moving stealthily by the kitchen’s corners caused her suspicion. They seemed different than the ones she knew, more dissimulated. She killed them with increased fury. The water was less salty than the old and known well water. The electric light too white. The bread likewise. And even when intimately she didn’t find flaws in things and people, she laboured for a while in the certainty that she’d end up finding them.
Not that these flaws allowed her to justify everything she’d left behind. These were days when looking back bothered her. She then thought that everything that so far had seemed eternal, safe and changeless, was in fact fleeting and fragile. And she rebelled against that false past in which she had trusted so much, which now emerged like a tricky mirage, a prolonged illusion. Those were the days when she suffered the most, impossible to find in the present or the past her place. Besides her devotion to God, so natural it hardly deserved a mention, the anger of those days was placated by her taking care of her sister.
Her only moments of respite from the grim reality of being her sister’s nurse and full-time maid come when she receives letters from Cosme Paulino, Vicente’s father, a former servant secretly in love with her, who writes titbits about Ibo. Unfortunately nothing can seem to shake Sá Amélia from her inertia, science can’t provide solutions, so her sister concocts a charade to entertain her: she gets Vicente to dress up like Doctor Valdez and pay them visits, to bring some peace of mind to the invalid.
Vicente gets into the character of Dr. Valdez and uses the role to perform outside his servant role, incurring in the ire of Sá Caetana, who thinks he’s too insolent. “The nerve of that boy, trying to take advantage of the situation. Now he even wants to give me advices on how to take care of my own sister.” Of course since this is a nice, little story, not meant to upset anyone, the ladies obviously start treating Vicente like a real person. And the black servant even proves to be a predictable repository of wholesome wisdom:
“You must agree at least, doctor, that Amélia has far less responsibilities than me!” she declared, almost shouting. “She can lose herself in a past is sealed to me. I, on the other hand, must be watchful in the present so that this family may survive.”
But regrettably even on this point Dr. Valdez refused to give her reason:
“You’re wrong, Sá Caetana. You say you live to keep your sister alive but it’s Sá Amélia, without knowing, that keeps this family working.”
If she died the servant would no longer be necessary. If she disappeared Sá Caetana would be left alone. This sounded like a definite conclusion. A threat.
Certainly there are tragedies, small ones, like the novel’s ambition, but programmed to milk the situations for all the sentimentality they’re worth. How can we, for instance, not cry when Cosme Paulino, the faithful and suffering servant of Ana Bessa and Sá Caetana, for whom he only wanted the best in the world, is murdered by Portuguese troops who mistake him for a dangerous revolutionary harbouring rebels? Or when Sá Caetana touches Vicente’s face before boarding an airplane taking her back to Portugal? But it’s alright because this one of those novels where tragedies build character and impart important lessons. From the flea-sized tragedies jumping up and down the novel’s pages all the figures emerge stronger and better. Vicente learns to become independent, and the old ladies learn to respect their servant, and the reader is left with that warm feeling that although Vicente was not nicely treated, even so the ladies needed him more than he need them. In other words, this is like some African Driving Miss Daisy. It’s full of very important messages. When our children are finally living in Utopia and historians get together to write the history of the events that led to its triumph, rest assured a footnote will be devoted to this magnanimous novel.
As Visitas do Dr. Valdez is pablum; in fact I’ve just had an epiphany: this is literary fiction! This is Portuguese-language literary fiction. I finally read literary fiction. Literary fiction is the sort of novel designed to make lazy readers feel good with themselves. It has all the trappings of real literature without its demands. It’s serious and dark but in acceptable doses, it has elaborate language but not so much that it veers on experimental, it's sophisticated but not enough to make the reader pine for an Agatha Christie, and all the characters learn tremendous moral lessons and "grow as people," because that's the kind of stock phrase literary fiction loves. Don’t doubt it, these are rounded, tragic characters, like torn condoms. And there’s oodles of hope in its pages, homespun philosophy, generous pleas for a better mankind. It’s so nauseating I don’t wonder how anyone could finish it, I wonder why anyone could even begin to write such a novel.
Did the world need this book? The world doesn’t need books at all, we all know that, but were there to be a downward scale from least to most useless, this book would be at the bottom. James Wood would probably approve of it, though. That’s not a compliment, by the way.