#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews VIOLETA AMONG THE STARS by Dulce Maria Cardoso

Five years ago exactly, in the summer of 2016, I wrote a review for these pages of Dulce Maria Cardoso’s first novel in English, The Return. I have never forgotten that novel, and I imagine that I will never forget this one either, Cardoso’s second in English, once again in a magnificent translation by the academic and translator Angel Gurría-Quintana, who has long championed this major Portuguese novelist. Violeta among the Stars is a significant literary achievement for both author and translator. Written in 2005, before The Return, it is quite extraordinary and a privilege to read – a four-hundred-page, single-sentence novel of love and revenge. It was Dulce’s breakthrough work in Portugal and a winner of the European Union Prize for Literature. 

After her great success in Portugal with The Return, followed by a children’s book and a collection of short stories, in 2020 she published Eliete, The Normal Life, the first novel in a trilogy about an everywoman. It was named book of the year by various Portuguese newspapers and shortlisted for the 2020 Prix Femina. It is currently being translated by Ángel Gurría-Quintana. 

Now, the reason I know all this is not because I have miraculously learned Portuguese since 2016. It is thanks to Ángel, the translator, with whom I’ve kept up a correspondence, and to whom we are indebted for bringing Dulce to us in English. Goodness knows how long it took Dulce to write and Ángel to translate Violeta. On receiving my review copy, I wrote to Ángel again for some orientation before I undertook my reading challenge. This is how he replied:

Violeta is an uncompromising novel – and it was a challenging book to translate. The protagonist is – at least at the outset – an unsympathetic character. The form, a single-sentence narrative, jumping back and forth in time and space, memories clashing, ideas left unfinished, is best tackled by diving in at the deep end and immersing oneself in the writing and drinking it in in one big gulp. But not a single word is wasted or out of place. Words, phrases, sentences echo and repeat incessantly throughout the book, providing the structure for what at first appears to be a haphazard narrative. Violeta may be flailing, but Dulce is in absolute control throughout. I discovered this as I translated – every line in the book plays its part. I confirmed this when trying to abridge an excerpt for a short reading: take one line out and the structure starts collapsing. There are themes you will recognise from The Return: the national trauma of decolonisation and its aftermath; the drama of returnees failing to integrate into Portuguese society; the explicit racism of Portuguese society; the failure of the revolution to live up to its promises; the constant search for identity and a sense of belonging – to a country, to a family.’ 

I agree. I see this highly graphic (in both senses) novel as a great painting or film that becomes clearer the more closely you engage with it. In my mind Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee meet Lucien Freud and Paula Rego. Perhaps Tracey Emin. Violeta is a shameless, exposed mass of pale flesh. On the long, winding scribbles of dark road she travels and on which she meets her end, Hitchcock meets Wim Wenders.

‘I glide along the road that is always the same, leaving it behind as it renews itself ahead of me, a generous tongue swallowing me, black, infinite … what if I changed my direction?’

Violeta is an obese, drunk, sexually predatory travelling saleswoman. She’s regarded as a freak and is full of self-loathing. She calls the hairs on her body ‘enemies’ and peddles waxing products. As she begins her long ‘sentence’, in the moments between her car accident during a storm and her life ‘in the stars’, she hovers over herself; as she dangles upside down in her car, covered in blood, she revisits her unhappy life in snatches, through the truncated voices of her daughter Dora, her partner Angelo, her parents, Celeste and Baltazar, and the myriad  other people who have inhabited her life and thoughts over fifty-two years.

What happened to create this tragedy? ‘I should have stayed at home, I should have stayed at home’, we hear Violeta say again and again. This refrain, and many more, are scattered across each page, like wisps of memory: ‘chic, très chic … bêtises ma chére, bêtises.’ Violeta’s mother, we learn, used French to elevate herself socially and sound sophisticated. She was the grim mistress of the house, the stifling, disapproving mother; Violeta’s crazy father, meanwhile, is a hollow shell who communes with birds. The neighbours gossip about him: 

‘[he] had a tough time after the revolution … one of those high-ups who were put in prison … the refrains of the revolution are so tedious’

The backdrop of this enormous canvas is Portugal’s recent history, as Ángel outlined to me. Dulce herself grew up in what was the Portuguese colony of Angola, up to the War of Independence in 1975 when she and her family returned to the mother country. This experience informs her work and her own struggle with her identity.  

On this momentous day in her life and death, during the course of her rambling sentence, we learn that Violeta has sold the family home. It is a turning point. She hated it: ‘I will no longer belong to it, free at last … my revenge is complete.’

Revenge does not liberate her; death does. Motherhood, the family, the family house, colonialism, racism and Portugal’s 1974 revolution are excavated stone by stone as Violeta lies dying, trying to extract the elusive meaning of her life. She revisits the same phrase and event again and again; a painter examining an artwork from all angles, adding a brushstroke here, correcting a line, removing one there, as she progresses. I read the novel in one sitting over twelve hours, compulsively addicted to the story and its telling. It was devastating but immensely moving. Finally, we understand why and how and what. Our love for this imperfect woman grows. Violeta has known love too, for her child Dora. In these passages her language and insight soar: 

‘there is nothing I don’t know about the most perfect part of me … apart from how she exists … I made her in my own image and likeness, I myself sentenced her to life and death’

Violeta among the Stars is related with rare eloquence. If you prefer an easy read this is not for you, but if you want to be transported and to get to know the writing of Dulce Maria Cardoso, ‘truly on a trajectory to becoming a Portuguese national treasure’ (Ángel Gurría-Quintana), then you must. 

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith

VIOLETA AMONG THE STARS

by Dulce Maria Cardoso

translated from the Portuguese by Ángel Gurría-Quintana

published by MacLehose (2021)

June 2021 #RivetingReviews titles are available to buy from bookshop.org.


Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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