My rating: 3 stars
A group of people surviving the sinking of a ship carrying slaves in the 19th century has the potential to be the foundation of a great story. In Não se Pode Morar nos Olhos de um Gato, the Portuguese author Ana Margarida de Carvalho didn’t fully succeed in using that premise to set in motion an engaging plot and creating fully fleshed out characters, though. There are small moments of brilliance throughout the novel. However, it seems that the author has tried too hard to awe readers in terms of the writing style, forgetting to explore the characters’ predicaments properly and to turn them into a clear narrative.
The first chapter is narrated by the wooden figure of a saint that was supposed to have protected the people on the vessel. Although slavery had already been abolished, slaves were being illegally carried on the ship. Their suffering and the appalling way they were treated are palpably conveyed in a raw way. After some altercations on board, the ship sinks near the coast of Brazil.
Eight people managed to survive the sinking of the vessel and get to a beach surrounded by an area of rocks. They were all from different backgrounds. The group consisted of Nunzio, the overseer of the slaves on the boat, a black baby boy, a servant, a priest, a slave, a noble woman and her daughter, Emina. Nunzio became smitten with Emina as soon as they met. The book consists mainly of episodes from their past.
Only rarely do the characters live off the page, though. The majority of them don’t feel real. It’s not that their past and current predicaments are not lifelike. It’s just not easy to have a clear picture about their personalities, which creates an overwhelming barrier between them and the readers. It doesn’t help that there are no dialogues between them either. It’s not that there are no quotation marks. That’s fine! There really are no proper conversations between the characters on the page. When a book has virtually no plot, it’s important for the characters to be captivating and their feelings palpable.
It’s almost solely when touching on the harsh reality of slavery and when telling the back stories of the servant and Emina that the book manages to be gripping. Their tribulations are affectingly and emotively conveyed. Nevertheless, the stories of the two survivors only become prominent very late in the book. Particularly regarding Emina, it’s rather odd how an occurrence is presented as a revelation, despite the existence of a mystery never having been hinted at. The novel would have been more successful, had Ana Margarida de Carvalho chosen to focus solely on just one or two of the characters and made the story revolve around them. There is neither a distinguishable main character in the book, nor are there enough interactions between the characters, in order for them to feel like a unified whole.
Ana Margarida de Carvalho has clearly put a lot of thought and effort into the writing style. The gripping rhythm of the stream of consciousness of the first chapter, which is told from the point of view of the wooden saint (an interesting choice of narrator), is not replicated throughout the rest of the book. The other chapters are narrated in the third person and the prose loses its initial enchantment. Although there are some moments of meaningful work of language, too many metaphors are so forced that they end up being almost worthless.
Não se Pode Morar nos Olhos de um Gato, which hasn’t been translated into English yet, has the same problem that I have perceived in various books by other contemporary Portuguese authors recently – the writing style feels obsessively laboured to the point of not always feeling organic and effortless, while the characters and the plot seem to have been mostly neglected. Sometimes less is more.