Most level-headed readers know not to judge a book by its cover. However, the adage that springs to mind when confronted with Daniel Galera’s debut novel is not to judge a book by its title. Presumably the original Portuguese title Barba Ensopada de Sangue carries more gravitas or conveys more menace than its English equivalent. Sadly, Blood-Drenched Beard sounds like a 400-page slab of cheap, cheesy melodrama. It might have worked if Galera’s game-plan was artful Tarantino-esque pastiche or full-on surrealist comedy. Instead he plays it straight, producing a candid, trick-free portrait of a young man starting afresh while seeking answers to a decades-old family tragedy in a small Brazilian beach town. Ignore the title and its false promise of heady sensationalism and dive right in.
‘Dive’ being the operative word, for this is a novel the events of which play in and around water and the protagonist of which is a swimming instructor. He remains nameless throughout the book and becomes something of a recluse, but Galera makes a point of recording his every thought and deed to paint a fascinating warts-and-all portrait that renders his character complex and mysterious but also knowable and sympathetic.
The novel opens with him paying a visit to his father and being promptly dealt two body-blows. The first is the story of his grandfather’s death — or, specifically, murder — in the town of Garopaba in the late ’60s. Viewed by the long-suffering residents as a surly, antagonistic old gaucho, he riles them one last time at a dance at the community hall: the lights go out and when they come on again his bloody body lies on the dancefloor with multiple stab-wounds. The crime went investigated, no one was punished for it and the body disappeared.
Barely allowing him time to recover from the shock, father goes on to hit son with his second bombshell: ‘I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.’
The reader snared, Galera jump-cuts to Garopaba in the present. His young man is house-hunting, keen to distance himself from family and friends, several of whom call him and leave messages of condolence. He wanders around with his father’s ailing dog — one he refused to have put down, despite his parent’s last request. It isn’t long before he has settled into an easy rhythm in his new downscaled life by the sea. He makes a friend in Bonobo, a Buddhist able to play ‘geriatric-diaper poker’ for hours on end. He gets a job as a swimming coach in a gym run by a pair called Saucepan and Spatula, starts a running club, and enters into a couple of relationships.
Throughout all this, slyly and incrementally, Galera reveals more about his hero’s situation: his girlfriend left him for his brother in São Paulo; he has been growing a beard since his father’s funeral; and, most intriguing of all, he suffers from prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder that prevents him from recognizing faces. ‘I don’t recognize my own face in the mirror,’ he tells one disbeliever. Instead he is forced to concentrate on attitudes, gestures, and voices. This medical condition is an interesting conceit that prompts awkward laughs (people think he is rude, forgetful, or just plain weird) but also inspires pity, particularly when we watch him up against enemies he is unable to identify.
Those enemies come out of the woodwork when he starts asking around about his grandfather’s mysterious death. It doesn’t help that he is the spitting image of him — his beard not a mask but a recognition tag, transforming him in the eyes of the locals into a younger version of a man they hoped was safely dead and buried. Some profess remembering him but, conveniently, no one remembers his death. ‘If no one remembers,’ a policeman tells our hero, ‘then it didn’t happen.’
Blood-Drenched Beard feels like two novels in one. The first half of the book is chiefly devoted to Galera’s character going about his day to day activities of work and play. In the second he remembers why he moved to the beach resort in the first place and intensifies his sleuthing to make sense of this ‘nobody-knows, nobody-saw-it kind of crime.’ Here Galera ups the pace and the tension. His character learns that his grandfather has become a myth: he is a bogeyman, still alive and haunting the town. Rumor has it he is holed up in a cave in the hills. With newly inherited dog in tow, his grandson sets out to track him down. His treacherous, rain-lashed journey is a heart-of-darkness descent into madness, obsession, and painful self-discovery. Galera keeps the reader riveted, guessing all the way as to whether his bowed and near-beaten truth-seeker has bitten off more than he can chew.
Galera has published four novels in Brazil to great acclaim, and, in 2013, Granta named him one of the Best Young Brazilian Novelists. In addition, he has translated the work of David Mitchell, Zadie Smith, John Cheever, and David Foster Wallace into Portuguese. None of their shadows loom over Blood-Drenched Beard. Indeed, with the exception of several pages containing digressional Wallace-esque footnotes, Galera’s novel feels largely and refreshingly devoid of any Anglo-American creative influence.
Instead, Albert Camus rears his head when we are told that ‘the feeling of emptiness he yearns for is dormant inside him’, or when our ‘existentialist-materialist swimmer’ weighs up free will versus determinism (proving into the bargain he is no ‘thick athlete’). There are also hints of Georges Simenon’s romans durs, his ‘hard’ non-Maigret psychological novels that fuse together raw emotions, moral conundrums, and bleak depictions of humanity. And, closer to home, every now and again Roberto Bolaño’s presence is felt, most noticeably in the scenes that radiate a queasy disquiet: an interview with a retired police chief in a Mafia-run nightclub; the discovery of a murdered, mutilated 16-year-old girl; the desolation of a sleepy seaside town in winter.
Galera excels at turning his purported coastal paradise — ‘the perfect place to be happy’ — into tawdry backwater. Out of season, dead penguins litter the sand: ‘No one touches them, not even the vultures.’ Incessant rain leads to flooding. ‘The light from the lampposts gives an oily yellow hue to the carpet of water moss that covers almost the entire surface of the polluted lagoon. A cloud of mosquitoes hovers over a small rotting warehouse. Huge dogs start to emerge from the vegetation on an empty lot, and he hooks his finger under Beta’s collar as a precaution.’
Holding his dog back from bigger ones is a shrewd move. Less rational and downright menacing is when he reaches out to the attractive Dália and ‘plunges his fingers into her hair, at the nape of her neck, forcefully working them into her taut hair, feeling the roughness of her roots and the resistance of her scalp. He holds her head by her hair in front of his.’ A grim foreboding permeates the novel that, towards the end, is worked into a palpable threat of violence. We approach Galera’s denouement — more a showdown — and wait for the moment his character’s long, unruly beard finally becomes blood-drenched.
Apart from that silly title, Galera also falters with occasional hackneyed phrasing (‘Tears snake down her cheeks again like rain on a window’). And what should be subtle foreshadowing is, once or twice, clumsy signposting. We are frequently reminded of his character’s previous ironman challenges and his expertise and endurance both through the water and under it, and so it comes as no surprise to witness him flung into danger and even less of a surprise to see him utilizing his physical capabilities to extricate himself from it.
Fortunately, these blemishes are few and are easily offset by the novel’s many strengths. Galera’s slow-burning first half fleshes out character and quest and comes larded with long drawn-out set-pieces that on the surface seem to go nowhere but on close analysis are freighted with compacted drama: an encounter at the village fair with a man who had a run-in with the character’s grandfather; a whale-watching excursion on which he becomes captivated by fellow loner Jasmim. That second part wrenches us away from sun, maté on the beach, and gently swaying pitanga trees and throws up its harsh, grainy flipside. Galera’s character comes to realize that ‘There are two possible places for a person. Family is one. The other is the whole world. Sometimes it isn’t easy to figure out which one we are in.’
Despite its omnipresence, Galera doesn’t go in for lavish descriptions of the sea. At one point ‘the ocean flaunts its infinitude,’ which smacks of Herman Melville in miniature — say, ‘the new dusky moors of ocean’ in Benito Cereno. Elsewhere, though, Galera’s non-littoral imagery can be striking. His young man’s father has a bulbous nose, ‘shiny and pockmarked like tangerine peel.’ During a car ride, ‘Figures such as cows or cyclists come to life in a flash and go back to being specters in almost the same instant.’ Cold nights, we are told, ‘torture the summer with a slow death’.
Blood-Drenched Beard has at its center a fascinatingly headstrong character, one who swims perfectly but flounders on land, who strives for connection with his grandfather while cutting himself off from family — and one we root for despite not knowing his name. If Galera’s other three novels are this potent and absorbing, and if his able-bodied translator Alison Entrekin can be persuaded to return to the helm, then readers are in for a treat.