Oct/Nov 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Sun On My Head

Review by Ann Skea

The Sun On My Head.
Geovani Martins. Translation by Julia Sanches.
Faber & Faber. 2019. 116 pp.
ISBN 978 0 571 34824 4.

Fryin' at home just wasn't gonna fly. For kids like us, riding dirty's a cinch, the parley's slick.

We hit up Vitim at his place, then we rolled up to Cueball's and dropped in on Mish and Mash. So far everybody in the same boat: hard up, dopeless, wanting to chill out beachside.

Never mind crack, you crazy, that shit's lose-lose. Sometimes I do lolo at a baile funk, but I take it easy.

It is a brave decision to begin a book of short stories with one written uncompromisingly in Brazilian favela slang. If you don't understand it, you are unlikely to continue reading.

It takes time to tune-in to the voice of young Roselin as he describes a day of blazing heat, beach life, theft, drug-taking, and police harassment, all of which he and his friends experience as normal. But the rhythm and tone of the favela slang are seductive, and it is worth persevering. And while most other stories in the book are written in plain English, all reflect life in the favelas of Rio de Janero, where the author grew up and still lives.

The Sun On My Head contains 13 short stories. The voices of the narrators move between childhood and adolescence and vividly capture the development from innocence through growing self-awareness to young adulthood and the reality of living in a place where poverty, corruption, and violence are part of everyday life.

Breno, a nine-year-old boy, watches a butterfly flit into his grandmother's kitchen. He thinks of butterfly lives compared to his own life, and he thinks of his grandmother's house, and he thinks of cookies. Then the butterfly falls into a pan of cooking oil, and he tries to help it.

He ran to see the butterfly slowly swimming through the oil. He wanted to take her out but had never put his hand in oil before. It only burned when the flame was on, he was almost sure of it. He ran to the paper towel roll, then plucked the butterfly from inside the pan.

Breno's innocence is in extreme contrast to the street-wise thoughts and behavior of adolescent Beto, who has become a minor member of his local drug gang. In a fit of nervous panic, he shoots a dealer. Then, forced by the gang boss to dispose of the body, he struggles to know how to do this but eventually finds a way to dump it in a landfill. The trauma of getting rid of the corpse, however, is nothing compared to that of his rejection by the gang. "He remembered the dreams he dreamed as a kid, what he used to think his life would be like, back then he never thought he'd be selling drugs." But one bad decision and one false move have ruined his life forever.

In another story, a schoolboy begins to notice how his school uniform sets him apart from private-school boys. People avoid him. A woman crosses the street clutching her bag to her body so she won't bump into him. He explores this newfound capacity to scare people by following them, and it becomes an obsession.

A different obsession grips the young man, Fernando, who has become addicted to spraying graffiti. He recognizes the sound of "the metal ball dancing in the can, the sharp smell of adrenaline." But he thinks of his wife and new-born son, his resolve to quit tagging, and his three months of restraint: "He wasn't dropping tags anymore and even avoided tracing the motions of the letters with his fingers."

Then, mistakenly caught next to a young tagger, he reacts to a woman's terrified screams—"Thief! Catch him!":

Next thing he knew he was on his way up to the building's rooftop terrace... Good thing his reflexes were top-notch. He reached the terrace in a split second, caught his breath. From way up high, he hunted the spray kid with his eyes, but the son of a bitch had ghosted, hadn't even made it up the building.

He looks down on an expectant crowd and ponders his next move. Thief or tagger—either way a bullet or a beating.

Shots are fired. He jumps. We don't know if he survives, but we are left with his own certainty that "tagging is his life and his story."

As with any short story collection, some stories work better than others, but Geovani Martins' ability to capture his narrators' voices, thoughts, and emotions and, through them, the great variety of their lives and the color and flavor of life in a favela, is superb. For a young, self-taught writer, who supported his himself and his writing by working as a sandwich-board man and selling drinks on the beach, this book is a remarkable achievement.

Martins was "discovered" during a creative writing workshop at the Paraty International Literary Festival of the favelas in 2018. It is no surprise that film-rights for The Sun On My Head have already been snapped up.


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