His prose rough and punchy, debut storyteller Geovani Martins captures the many worlds of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: Catholic, impoverished, ambitious, and torn between dignity and despair. Many of the stories in “The Sun on My Head” are first-person narrated, so the language is rough. But readers will feel fully present on these city streets and alleyways — this book is a necessary witness to a world that Martins knows well.
A sandwich-board man who sold drinks on the beach while writing, Martins rose to fame in his native Brazil after his work was discovered during a local literary festival. “The Sun on My Head” has the feel of a debut: his stories often drift more than end; in some instances, this makes them feel incomplete, but in others, the stories feel natural and authentic, rather than sculpted.
In “Lil Spin,” a young narrator narrowly escapes the police, and thinks about God and family during the dramatic chase. He is lounging around the city and beach with his friends, smoking and passing time. He sees “some cops coming down hard on a couple kids,” and soon enough, the police turn after them. “Didn’t think twice. Ditched my flip-flops right then and there and scammed.”
He’s frightened: “My body went head-to-toe cold, sure I’d been made, and his thoughts turn to family: “My old lad was gonna be left with no sons at all, all on her own in that house. I pictured Seu Tranca Rua, my grandma’s protector, then Jesus, my aunts’.”
Martins’ characters are rarely pious, but Catholicism is their frame of reference — what they return to when they seek meaning. The police ditch his trail, and return to apprehend the other boys. Martins’ characters long for divine intervention most sharply in their worst moments, and he blurs whether they are saved by good luck, or by God.
“Spiral” depicts the marked economic contrasts in the city. Once the young narrator begins walking home from school on his own, he notices the difference between him and the private school kids, who “shook whenever my crew walked past.” At their own school, he and his friends were the ones in fear of “bigger, stronger kids who were braver and more violent,” but outside the school, he was the one who stoked fear. “There were times, back then, when I enjoyed that feeling,” he thinks, but “I didn’t understand a thing about what was going on.” The reaction was less fear and more dislike.
The narrator lives in a favela, an impoverished Rio neighborhood. There, he feels, “the abyss that marks the border between the hill and the blacktop runs much deeper.” Out in the streets, “sharing the stairs with pipes upon pipes, stepping over open sewage drains, staring down rats, swerving your head to dodge electrical lines, and spotting your childhood friends carrying weapons of war only to be faced fifteen minutes later with a condominium with ornamental plants decorating its metal gates, and spying teenagers at their private tennis lessons. It’s all too close and too far. And the more we grow, the taller the walls become.”
The narrator is a pickpocket. Brazen, his “victims were varied: men, women, teenagers, the elderly.” He knows that “if I wanted to keep playing this game, I’d need a firearm.” He is given no reprieve in the story; he learns no lessons. We are given a glimpse of his troubled life, and the book moves on.
Perhaps the finest story in the collection, “The Mystery of the Vila” takes place on “macumba night,” when “everything takes on an air of mystery: the babble of the bamboo grove, the running water, the shadows, the voices, the echoing of all things. The children snake with fear, and together savor every second of that early childhood terror.” Macumba, a syncretic religious practice that is portrayed in the story as a mysterious, dangerous force, culturally overlaps with elements of Catholicism. “Nearly all the neighbors took part in the gira,” a macuma meeting, “even Catholics who went to Sunday Mass.” Those suffering from illness deemed incurable by doctors turn to Dona Iara, a practitioner of the folk religion, for help.
When Dona Iara herself becomes sick, the story’s main character is told to pray “to a saint” for the woman’s soul. “If you have faith, he’ll help you with God. When saints ask, the Lord always answers.” The boy kneels in front of the family altar at home, with figurines of Our Lady of Aparecida, Saint Francis of Assisi, and Saint George. When Dona Iara is later healed, the boy is happy, but also made uneasy by the potential power of prayer — and the perception from the healed woman that he’d prayed to a macumba spirit, rather than a Catholic saint. The story is a unique depiction of how Catholic faith and regional practices can both complement and contrast each other.
One of the last stories in the collection, “The Blind Man,” is the melancholy tale of Seu Matias, a man born blind, who has “never seen the ocean or guns or women in bikinis.” Each day, he rides the bus in hopes of collecting money from passengers who are entertained by his stories: “he plays a game of words and harrowing sounds with them, his voice mixing with the clamor of the city, the clinking of the coins rattling in his Guaravita cup, his tin cane always swinging left then right over the bus floor.” He’s a gifted raconteur, but “little by little the truth revealed itself. The experience of reciting his own story day after day grew more and more painful, and living off charity became a kind of torment.”
He ends the story pained and tired — a common occurrence in Martins’ stories. “The Sun on My Head” is the work of a talented writer, unafraid to show stories and lives without neat endings.
Nick Ripatrazone has written for Rolling Stone, Esquire, The Atlantic, and is a Contributing Editor for The Millions. He is writing a book on Catholic culture and literature in America for Fortress Press.
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