Superficially, at least, it’s not remotely like Brick Lane. Does that matter? Yes and no. Following her ambitious and pacy first novel about Bangladeshis in the East End of London, Monica Ali has emphatically changed direction by setting her second book in Portugal. This will inevitably alienate some of her fans. But the change of subject should not really come as a surprise. After Brick Lane was published, Ali was careful to point out that she was unwilling to be a ‘cheerleader’. Being told off by the Greater Sylhet Welfare and Development Council for the ‘inaccuracies’ in her portrayal of the Bengali community, and having the book blithely compared to The Satanic Verses in the Guardian, must have encouraged Ali to relocate.
Alentejo Blue is set in Mamarrosa, a village in Portugal’s Alentejo province. Mamarrosa is a real place. According to the 2001 census, it has a population of 1452; it also has a hunting confraternity, a blood donors’ association, a folk museum, a football club, a largish brass and percussion orchestra that has produced its own jazz CD (you can buy it online for ten euros) and a slimming group. Ali’s Mamarrosa, however, boasts none of these refinements. It is crafted to be an emblematic, allegorical backdrop with few distinguishing features. The spare, ballad-like narrative of the opening chapter establishes the novel’s atmosphere of melancholy: João, an elderly peasant, comes across the dangling corpse of his old friend, Rui, whom he has loved passionately for many decades. Their love has always remained unspoken, and was consummated only once, in great anguish. Now, at the age of 84, Rui has hanged himself. As a young man in the 1940s he had resisted Salazar’s regime, but after the revolution came and went, the century ushered in a different kind of oppression: the rule of the free market. The region has traditionally depended on cork for its survival. No longer: ‘João had not seen it with his own eyes but he had heard that there were plastic corks for wine bottles now.’ The Japanese, the Germans, the Dutch and the British are moving in. Portugal is a struggling member of the European Union: Alentejo is sardonically described by one character as the ‘poorest region in the poorest country in the European Union. Until all them eastern monkeys climbed on board.’
It isn’t only political disillusionment that has prompted Rui to kill himself, though. After his single, shaming night of sex with João, he swiftly marries, has children, and is careful never to be alone with his friend again. There is an adventitious suggestion, lightly laid down, that in old age Rui has at last had enough of being the victim of his own secret emotion: it is his undeclared feeling for João, which he has stubbornly resisted all his life, that does for him in the end. Ali has Rui allude to a folk rumour that Salazar told so many lies that his tongue began to rot. On cutting Rui’s body down, João reflects that Rui ‘had, in silence, told the truth at last’. In death, Rui’s mouth has opened ‘to make his final admission’, and João notices that ‘the tongue, his tongue, was turning black.’ The truth is that his life has been a lie.
Ali establishes her themes – the unpredictability of desire, the allure of dreams, the inevitability of failure – with a bitten-back economy that owes a debt to Hemingway and Steinbeck, without being derivative. And yet the taut, fabular quality of this opening chapter is immediately undercut, in the second, by an apparently unrelated donnée. We are still in Mamarrosa, but the register and cast of the narrative have subtly shifted. Stanton, a self-absorbed expatriate English writer, hopelessly sidetracked by self-doubt and drink, has come to the village to write a novel about William Blake: ‘He read over the last few pages on the screen, making deletions and additions and willing himself into the story. He stood up and sat back down. He set his jaw and willed himself submerged. It was hopeless. It was like deciding to commit suicide and trying to drown with your face in the washbasin.’
When he is taking a break from not writing, Stanton relieves himself by having sex first with Chrissie, the flea-bitten, broken wife of China Potts, a Cockney alcoholic and former drug-dealer, and then with Ruby, their sluttish pubescent daughter. The brisk brutality of these transactions gestures towards a wider sense of hopelessness. Here is the moment when Stanton first forces himself on a semi-passive Chrissie:
The sky was turning red. Her lips were hideous orange. She put the bucket down and took a step back, kicking it over. He kissed her without taking her in his arms. She did not seem surprised. She did not attempt to hold him but her tongue was active, forceful. Brandy and a sharp tang of vomit. ‘Back there,’ he said and went up to the wall. He turned her around and lifted her skirt and made short work of it. He reached forwards briefly and circled her wrists with his hands, the scabs pressed into his palms. She did not cry out or move her hips or even deepen her breath. ‘Thank you,’ he said and zipped his trousers. Behind them the chickens pecked the ground. When he went to the truck and untied the rope the calf stood over the severed head and cried.
The severed head belongs to a cow that Stanton has tried to tow out of the Pottses’ unfinished swimming-pool. The Pottses have blown all their money since arriving in Mamarrosa and now live in a caravan with a half-built house behind it. Stanton is reluctantly drawn to China Potts, whose most casual remarks contain eerie echoes of Blake: ‘If you have a desire, act on it’; ‘Goats . . . you look at ’em long enough you see the universe. Good and evil, love and war, God and the Devil.’ ‘My muse,’ Stanton thinks.
Meanwhile, Stanton is pursuing another experiment in innocence and experience. Ruby has a brother, a half-wild, bewildered boy called Jay who haunts Stanton’s veranda. Stanton at first encourages these visits, giving the child Coke and indulging him in his evident desire to escape being ‘the Potts boy’ for a while. It is his tentative friendship with the boy, more than his affair with Chrissie, that tests Stanton’s capacity for intimacy. He flunks it comprehensively: abruptly, he has had enough, of mother and son. He goes back to writing his novel, and we know that it is very bad. When the first draft is finished, he pays the Pottses another visit, and is surprised and humiliated to find himself rejected: China has finally drawn the line.
The difference between Stanton and Blake is a measure of Stanton’s failure to live authentically in either his creative or sexual life. As if to underscore the point we get a brief glimpse of João at the end of the chapter, wearing a black waistcoat and fedora, which he tips to Stanton. The collapse of passion, the seductive slide into despair or boredom, provides the supporting structure for the book. Although these two unlinked chapters work as free-standing narratives – Stanton’s story especially is a bleak masterpiece of compression – it is evident that the real subject of the novel is Mamarrosa, the site of an abiding tension between hope and failure.
In Chapter 3, Vasco, a café-owner and compulsive overeater, has a crisis of conscience over a piece of leftover cake which leads to a hilarious and poignant meditation on free will and responsibility (clearly Vasco has never discovered that slimming club). Some of his sense of frustration and regret stems from the fact that he has seen better days: at the Blue Boy Inn in Provincetown, New Jersey, where he once did a stint as a short-order cook and met his American wife, Lili, who died, shortly after their marriage, from complications in pregnancy.
‘Lili,’ he whispers, ‘I’m sorry.’ How rarely he remembers. He thought his love would stay pure, the silver lining. But what remains? Disappointment maybe; a little guilt.
A man can decide to do this, and not do that. But feelings, thinks Vasco, are not in his control . . . He breaks off a small piece of pastry and puts it in his mouth.
A sense of comic urgency is provided by Vasco’s rivalry with another café-owner, Eduardo, who has taken the daring step of installing computers in his café, although he has not succeeded in getting an internet connection. Both men have set their hopes on the imminent return of Eduardo’s cousin Marco Afonso Rodrigues, who left Mamarrosa years ago to make his fortune, and who, it is rumoured, is about to give the village a much needed injection of cash: ‘There was talk of a six-hundred-bed hotel down at the coast, a golf course, a park with water slides.’ Eduardo wants to drag Mamarrosa into the modern age – although it is precisely its rusticity that appeals to Stanton and the other English estrangeiros who frequent Vasco’s place.
They include middle-aged, suburban Eileen and her touchy, patronising husband, still smarting from the disappointment of discovering that his son is gay, and Sophie and Huw, engaged twentysomethings who are trying to escape the pressures of organising their society wedding. These characters, too, are given chapters to themselves, and are tidily drawn. Eileen and her husband (he never gets a name) are an unadventurous sketch of a marriage heading for a mid-life crisis which is averted only as a result of some implausible sleight-of-hand by Ali. The couple’s inability to talk about their son’s sexuality is only one instance of a general failure. Eileen has chosen dead-end Mamarrosa for their holiday, where there is nothing to see and nothing cultural worth speaking of: a set-up for disaster, surely? But no. Ali decides to turn Mamarrosa, incongruously, into a symbol of redemption. Eileen demands that her husband sit down beside her on a hot afternoon on a bench in the main square, and he begins, inexplicably, to respond to the place’s charm:
I lean on my husband, or he leans on me. We are, in any case, girded together. I smell the jasmine now on the pergola. It is always stronger later in the day. I look out across the praca, at the winding street, the red roof tiles and rusting iron balconies, and watch the human traffic: a policeman kneeling to polish a shoe, a young girl in white fluttering up towards the church, housewives dipping in and out of shops and doors, the old men gathering, with barely a nod, on the stone bench by the fountain.
‘You see,’ I say to my husband . . .
He’s heavy on my shoulder and I think perhaps he’s dropped off to sleep but then he stirs and says, ‘I do. I do see.’
Really? Wouldn’t he have been more likely to pick up his guidebook and disappear into the church with a withering remark, which is what he has been doing so far? What’s more, the village is nowhere else cast in such picturesque terms; and this passage, coming in the middle of writing that is unsentimental and exact (elsewhere, the ‘far off hills’ are described as being burnished to ‘a fine shade of nostalgia’), reads like a tourist brochure.
Much better, because in tune with what has gone before, is Ali’s evocation of the way in which the heat, the barren landscape, and the purposelessness of being on holiday begin to tell on highly-strung Sophie and to undermine her relationship with her fiancé, solid, uncomprehending Huw. In the grotesque Capela dos Ossos (a very un-English Chapel of Bones) Sophie has a sudden, annihilating insight into the meaninglessness of her life. ‘Next holiday we’re going to Vegas,’ Huw reassures her, only half joking. In twenty years’ time, unless she breaks it off, Sophie will be another Eileen.
The book’s narrative strands are brought together in the final chapter, which also heralds the return of Marco Afonso Rodrigues to Mamarrosa. None of the questions raised by the earlier chapters, except the one regarding Marco’s possible benefaction, is satisfactorily answered, but then, Ali does not intend them to be. The languid, melancholic tone of the novel resembles nothing so much as the blues, and the book’s title suggests that Ali has this in mind. Marco turns out to be a vaguely portentous figure wearing a theatrical black cape, who leaves as abruptly and as mysteriously as he arrives.
The lingering question is why Ali has chosen this fragmentary, opaque approach over the traditional storytelling that made Brick Lane such a success, for in spite of its surface difference, Alentejo Blue shares the earlier novel’s concerns with belonging and assimilation. The answer, perhaps, is hidden in Stanton’s difficulties: ‘He was 28 when his first novel was published. Paradigms in Eight Tongues. How much easier it was to write then, thinking he knew about life.’