Andrew McDougall reviews Kokoschka’s Doll by Afonso Cruz, translated by Rahul Bery: a surreal, poignant and sometimes dizzying reflection on the nature of the universe, life’s coincidences and, of course, the human condition.
“I’m writing a new book.”
“What’s it about?” Isaac Dresner asked.
“Who knows. About love or hate, the human condition, that sort of thing. What is any book about?” (pp. 99-100)
The narrative contains stories within stories within stories and different timelines shift and align and become revealed to us as the book progresses. There are frequent philosophical musings and many tales so unlikely they simply must be true. Chance, fate, destiny, divine intervention, call it how you will, weaves together an improbable cast across decades and continents to deliver us this Russian doll of a novel.
Rahul Bery’s translation from the Portuguese, with its steady, consistent voice, is a pleasure to read and at times a reminder of how translation can push our understanding of how our own language functions.
“Lies do not exist in literature, in fiction. What’s more, truth does not exist in real life. If you understand this fully then you will understand many other things as well.” (p.84)
Beginning in Dresden during the Second World War, the novel will travel forward decades and backwards several generations, taking in Paris, Marrakesh, Lisbon and elsewhere along the way.
The notion that fact is stranger than fiction is central to the work and a succession of peculiar events link the characters in ways that could scarcely have been dreamt up. Here, too, ideas of chance come into play and the book self-consciously plays with the likelihood of certain coincidences, with occasional winks to the reader, while suggesting that storytelling gives an illusion of fate because of the way we do it. At the same time, we are presented with the angle that events which may seem like miracles of fate are often no less likely than other potential outcomes which would mean nothing to us.
Everything, after all, comes down to perception, another key and recurring theme in Cruz’s novel.
“The truth has many perspectives. If we limit ourselves to one, then we’re getting close to total error.” (p.40)
It takes many voices to tell a story, we might also conclude, as many pieces make up the whole. In this work, we are reminded of the subjectivity of everything, how we see everything through our own lenses and how we construct the world around us according to our own convictions.
The vital role that perception plays in the world, however, isn’t just about how we view, but about how we are viewed. It is in being perceived, so it is suggested at various points in this book, that we exist. Witnesses and stories bring us to life. Arguably, they can also make us immortal.
It is in philosophical asides and sharp turns of phrase that Cruz excels and the enjoyment of these which will keep you turning the pages quickly. The prose is light and reflective, avoiding the denseness of the big, sometimes metaphysical questions it ponders.
The plot might seem confusing, perhaps purposefully and designedly so, at times, but more so than a story of Isaac Dresner, the Vargas family or even the based-on-true-events story of Oskar Kokoschka’s doll, this book is about humanity, reality and an ode to the power of the story.
It is other people who bring us to life, especially those who love us. My profile has been blurred for several years now. Your words have restored some of my clarity. (p. 257)
Published with the support of Creative Europe’s funding programme for literary translations
Andrew McDougall was born in Glasgow. He translates from Portuguese and Spanish. His work has included co-translating a book by José Eduardo Agualusa and translating a chapter by Ana Cristina Silva as part of the Escape Goat project, on which he also collaborated as an editor.
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