Brazil and South-America in Pauline Melville’s Eating Air

We present a comment on the new novel Eating Air by Pauline Melville.  Melville is among the foremost Guyanese writers, winner of the Guyana Prize, the Whitbread Prize and the Commonwealth Writers Prize.  This review by Miguel Nenevé, Visiting Professor in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Guyana, is another work with an interest in the links between Guyanese and Brazilian literature.

By Miguel Nenevé

In a letter before the launching of her latest book,  Eating Air, Pauline Melville  told me that  this new book of hers  was coming out. The novel, she said, was set this time in England and not in South America as was her highly acclaimed  The Ventriloquist´s Tale.  As a South American ,  and as an admirer of her lit-erary works, in some ways I would have liked to have seen  more about Brazil and South America in her work.  However, on reading  Eating Air, I realized that South America is present from the beginning to the end of the story, sometimes with great clarity, and sometimes in the subconscious concerns of the characters.  In this novel South America is almost a place  of exile,  a space of renovation or at least a place where the main character Elissa Vries, who is known as  Ella, goes to gain strength and to grow as a professional.  The  407 page novel  offers readings from many different perspectives, but I would like to focus a little  on the South America that I have found there.

In the prologue the narrator says about Ella: “I first met her in Paramaribo in the eighties.” He  further comments:  “her skin was the colour of crème de cacao.”  Later in the book  we learn that  Ella was born in  England. She was born in King’s College Hospital, Camberwell, but because her father was  Surinamese, she develops links with the South American country.  Her father  “had come from Surinam via Holland to work as a clerk for a Dutch sugar company.”  He also had brothers and other relatives in Suriname. The South American country  becomes a sort of escape for her in time of trouble . The first time she goes to Suriname is when she is still a child and her mother gets ill while her father was in the hospital with tuberculosis. So “it was arranged for Ella’s uncle to take her back to Surinam until her mother was well again.”

In South America,  Ella has the  opportunity to experience a very  new and different life. Pa Tem or Uncle Pa, as Ella called him, was very different from her father:  “Pa Tem looked more African, he spoke both English and Dutch Creole” while Ella´s father had a lighter Amerindian colour.”

The narrator describes Ella’s arrival in South America:  “They disembarked at Paramaribo on a Carnival weekend and the city shook its old bones in readiness to greet Ella with its salt-laden trade winds well laid out grass-edged streets.”  At first, the environment, the food and the weather made Ella feel unwell:  “The heat and wind which carried strange stagnant smells made her nauseous.”  When her aunt (Tanta) asks her to play in the grass, Ella retorted that  it was not grass, it was leaves.  However, she realizes, little by little, that this new place also means dance and  freedom. She loves to see the dancers and she loves the “physical freedom of running around all day naked apart from the panties.”

The time Ella lives in Suriname, is the period during which the army suppressed the independence movement. The soldiers killed Amerindians and took whatever they wanted from people in the village. The narrator also gets the opportunity to recover a little of the history of the country mentioning the Plantation Roorak where there used to be a leper colony many years ago.  This mention reminds the reader that leprosy was very common in colonial Dutch Guiana as it was throughout the West Indies.  Lepers were arrested and sent to the government colony or asylums. When Ella returns much later to Suriname, she has the opportunity to see with critical eyes the oppression the natives were subjected to. It is in this time that the narrator mentions a massacre when a dictator, supposedly related to the Dutch HCB bank, “shot up the whole village.”

Melville, therefore, gives the reader a slight view of South America. First Suriname, where many people in the novel, such as the narrator himself, have roots. It was Papa Bones, the narrator´s  grandfather,  who had advised  him to leave Suriname and go to England: “You must leave. Go to Europe. Don’t go to Holland. Holland has too much connection with us here in Surinam. Our old colonial masters. England is your best bet.”  So, like the narrator, the protagonist Ella returns to Suriname as a place of rest or refuge as was the case on her first visit to the region.

Brazil is another country to which Ella escapes when the atmosphere of Europe becomes too heavy for her. However, it is important to observe the reasons for which she departs for Brazil.  Ella had lived her adolescent days in Europe, in the 1970s, at a time of radicallism, the fight for freedom, and to “extermin-ate capitalism.”  Trotskyites, and people     from different parts of the world infiltrated themselves with the British Labour Party and also involved students who took to the streets of European cities, such as Paris. The news at the time was, “The Vietnam war protests, the bombings in Ireland and London, the sombre warnings of growing unrest over the Industrial Relations bill,” and so on. It was in this    atmosphere that she grew up, and after much dedication to her dancing classes, became a successful dancer at the Royal Ballet. The    reader feels the heavy air, impregnated with tensions related to the coal miners marching on the centres of power.

Opening in the present day, the narrator invites the reader to visit that period, 30 years before, to recollect facts from a special period of Universal History. The narrator further affirms that to be on the safe side he  had “ to present truth as fiction.”

So, besides Ella de Vries,  Eating Air  presents  a wide variety  of characters such as    Victor Skyhnard, who is a dreamer and writer of plays for the theatre. There is  Vera Scobie who, as a successful actress, helps Victor to publish his work. The reader also meets  Vera’s son, Mark who is living  in exile following his involvement in the Red Brigades, and Hector Rossi, who has aged and feels  the need to give up the “rebel” idea and live a more normal life.

Eating Air suggests that in the present day, the early generation of revolutionaries is tired and somehow fusty  and they need another kind of life. The radical behaviours of today’s rebels are manifested in Islamic militants who have an uneasy relationship with her atheistic characters of the 1970s. Melville somewhat satirizes the “revolutionaries” who seem to have lost a cause, a direction, or a reason and a path to follow.

Before  leaving for Brazil, Ella meets and marries a young Scotsman, Donny, who turns out to be extremely  impulsive, impatient and has a fiery temper.  He gets involved in crimes helping revolutionaries to explode buildings.  It is in this environment that Ella gets  involved in a crime, and the atmosphere becomes  gradually heavier, more difficult and  suffocat-ing for her. South America seems to be lighter, more flexible, altogether  better and during  this time it works as a kind of refuge. Through an agent she manages to get a contract with a dance company in Rio de Janeiro. It is here that  the reader has a glimpse of the Brazilian city which, although it is  not  the political capital any more,  remains the cultural capital of Brazil. The narrator shows a little of Rio de Janeiro, even Rua do Ouvidor (which is misspelled as Rua da Ouvida). The latter was at one time   very famous and present in the novels of  Brazilian  writers  – Machado  de Assis, for example .

Ella dances for  “Ballet Rio,”  and travels to other Brazilian cities.   She performs, for example, in Manaus  at the very famous Teatro Amazonas, which was built during the rubber boom.  Brazil proved very beneficial for Ella.   She finds  a  “new quality in her dancing,”  which reflects, perhaps, the mood of South America at the time. By dancing  Ella reveals herself as a wild bird, full of hate:  “She bears her arms in frenzy, attacked, fought and    whirled.”  During her stay in Brazil she gets to know the Peruvian Juliana who is connected with the revolutionary group,  Sendero Luminoso.  However this is just a mention, nothing more about that Peruvian rebel group is explored.

Therefore, the narrator offers brief glances of South America   in 1970s and 1980s. Maybe the reader may miss something more about the period when the countries such as Brazil were under a military regime, but the mention of it is a suggestion for further research.  It was a time when the army inspired  repression and fear. It was also a period  of guerillas and  strong students’ movements  against dictatorship.

What is important to argue here, is that Eating Air  offers a foretaste of South American legends, culture and history which lead us to think that the narrator is somewhat inviting the reader to go back and research more on the forgotten or neglected history of the region. Perhaps it is worth mentioning that Melville herself was a dancer and was also involved in the 1970s political situation in Britain, and was also concerned with South American oppression.

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