In a seemingly biographical manner, Idra Novey, a translator and writer of both Portuguese literature and English prose, writes Ways to Disappear about a translator’s journey in finding the author she has devoted her life’s work to. In this novel, Novey alludes to the streets of Rio de Janeiro to set the scene of how the main character, Emma, attempts to trace and connect with the missing Brazilian author, Beatrice Yagoda.
The book sets the frame for what the life of a translator seems to be, particularly of interest to me as a reader and writer of Brazilian and Portuguese writing. It hones in on the details of translation – “She knew the melon color of her author’s bathrobe and which side of the sofa Beatriz preferred when she curled up to read” – noting the meticulous relationship translator and author must create to get what is written in the text in detail.
What strikes the reader most is the brevity of each chapter, which propels the narrative forward. The first couple of pages whip past the reader in a matter of minutes, setting the story in motion. We are introduced to Emma and her fiancé, Beatrice and her kids, Raquel and Marcus, Flaminguinho, who turns out to be a con artist, and Beatrice’s old publisher. The scenes change rapidly, switching between character perspective within a couple of seconds.
This rapid change of pace could have been done a bit more swiftly to contextualize the reader with the characters and their backgrounds. Readers will notice themselves falling in love with a scene or moment and then abruptly switched to another character’s perspective. This rapid change also disjoints the reader from the third person-limited point of view we are given with each character. It becomes difficult to set the stage and setting when the environment and perspectives of each scene is disgruntledly changed.
The voice employed in each section remains a constant for each character, giving resonance to the tropical and florescent mood of the novel, but taking away from the description of each character’s own pathos. For example, when introduced to Marcos on Ilha Grande, we are reminded of Novey’s voice echoing in the background. It makes it difficult for the reader to stay in line with what the narrative is truly trying to communicate.
The book makes up for these qualities in its ability to place you in Rio de Janeiro, with Emma and other characters. Novey writes about the “thrum of cars along Rua Barata Ribeiro,” and inserts Portuguese phrases like, “puta que o pariu,” taking her reader to the lively streets of Copacobana and Ipanema. Here is where the book’s strengths are birthed and what kept me reading as a reader who is familiar with both Portuguese and who lived on the streets of Copacobana for six months.
This precision to detail paired with the hanging, luminous mystery of what happened to Beatrice is what will keep the reader reading.