There Were Many Horses by Luiz Ruffato
Translated by Anthony Doyle
Amazon Crossing, 2014; 160 pp
Reviewed by Mark Jenkins
Representing a city through one book is a challenge. Sometimes it’s a matter of representing a particular neighborhood like Edward P. Jones does in Lost in the City or making the city feel like an antagonist in John Dos Passos’s Manhatten Transfer.
Luiz Ruffato’s debut novel gives just about everyone in São Paulo a voice, from a pickpocket trying to steal enough money to get his mom a birthday present (“Brabeza”_ to a grocery story security guard watching a nervous shoplifter “Diapers.” Some are even more offbeat such as a list of books on a person’s shelves or angry phone messages left for someone “By phone” “Hi, This is Luciana. Leave a message after the tone. You know he’s not what he used to be, don’t you? That he’s getting old? Well? Have you thought about that? That you’re twenty years younger than him?” These more unconventional segments stood out most for me. “Diapers” begins each paragraph with the same description of the security guard “a big black guy wide as a door, impeccable in his black suit.” Contrasting him with the “skinny, boney black guy in a tattered white T-shirt filthy jeans and sneakers with word soles and chipped front teeth” he is assigned to watch, the guard is comically overqualified and overdressed for supermarket security, invoking instead high profile security for a president or celebrity.
“Kitchen” describes a kitchen through its décor: “The motor of the Consul Contest 28 refrigerator, off-white, shakes the kitchen from its silence. The blue walls, the color of angels’ robes, is offset by the red ceramic floor tiles, laid against the will of the lady of the house.” Unoccupied and unused, the kitchen seems stuck in time as we don’t learn who the girl is in a photo “a girl, five or six years old, with a frightened pout, 50 x 50 cm, black and white [who] watches the ants/ climbing the far wall.” Perhaps its owner has simply stepped out for work. Ruffato’s focused descriptions like this create São Paulo vignette by vignette.
The distinct voices and character in these little vignettes move the reader through an otherwise unconventional book as there is no plot or character development, unless you consider that the characters of There Were Many Horses make São Paulo its protagonist. Woefully underread in Brazilian literature, I’m glad Amazon has published this translation of an author I hope will have future work translated, too.