Joana finally found an ally, "A cleaning assistant". Between two contractions, the young pregnant woman advances by drawing her infusion, following the employee who pushes her bucket and salutes her knowledge in the corridors of the hospital. Parturient Portuguese novelist Valerio Romão seeks to be useful, and wants to bring a glass of water to other bedridden. Joana catches snatches of conversation from nurses – a drug addict stole a fire extinguisher -, laughs alone, then ends up entering the workroom from which the women flew away.
Poor "Cleaning assistant"old and helpful, we find her almost kidnapped by Joana who after a shameful blackmail uses it as a rearview mirror to get a makeover, or rather smear makeup, contractions not helping the accuracy of gestures. Because Joana likes to have a controlled life to the millimeter. She has been packing for maternity for months, and wants to arrive in the delivery room primed, "Everyone does what he wants, shit, but I'll go prepared, you understand, I'll go prepared, because I always prepare everything."
Already, when she had lost the water prematurely at home, she had taken her time, even if it was not planned, before asking her pale husband to take her to the hospital. The smell of the spilled fluid on her legs had intrigued her, and her olfactory memory had started. Too bad for timing, she would take a bath, and remind Jorge that he was "Out of the question that she asks to be admitted to the hospital by stinking sperm like a vulgar suburban".
But at the maternity, everything is riddled, the candidate for perfection receives unceremoniously balanced information: the fetus Francisco is dead, she must go through all the stages of a classic childbirth if she does not want to be a victim of sepsis. Joana then goes into denial, so strongly that the reader no longer knows where the boundary between truth and fantasy is. And it's gone on the big stage of the hospital theater. Women in the labor of delivery spread swear words against the absent husbands to bear the suffering, doctors argue, a parturient gives a big knee in the figure of a student, and Joana, she gives free rein to his delusional access. Fortunately there is the ceiling, to which she addresses herself regularly and who answers him, comforting conscience and good advice. A borrowed idea, it is indicated in the novel, to the writer Jose Saramago.
With the waters of Joana, Valerio Romão desecrates in burlesque fashion "The top of the ascending curve of a woman's life, the point where we finally reach the limit of the equation f (x) = x2". But the madness of his character, his rage to exist, also give the novel a poignant dimension. The writer's way of merging the young woman's more and more barred monologues, the dialogues, the things seen, the action, is quite virtuoso. Already in Autism, his first novel, the voices circulated in the same way, but they were more numerous. There, the novel is tightened around the figure of Joana, against a backdrop of medical turmoil.
Autism and the waters of Joana are part of a trilogy, whose third book should appear next year in France. Valerio Romão also published a collection of short stories, Of the family, which gives a great place to the absurd. We see a father living on the ceiling, "Like a solitary end-of-year balloon snorting", an inadmissible cannibal child, and other disturbing characters. Is there anything to save in the family, one wonders after reading his books. Yes, he replies, citing the story "Little by little we forgot grandmother", in which an old woman held insane maintains a hidden relationship of great tenderness with her grandson.
Valério Romão was born in 1974 in France, then went to Portugal with his family in 1984, he is also playwright and translator. We owe him the Portuguese version of serotonin by Michel Houellebecq, after texts by Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett. He translates, under his name, works of well-being, "we have to eat", he says, adding that it relaxes him. For two years, he has been living by his writing. Previously, in addition to his books, he was a systems administrator: "I graduated in philosophy then computer scientist, it was perfectly compatible, a question of logic. And then came a time when I could not do this job, because fifteen years to do the same thing when it's not a job that we've always thought about, it's too much. " Meeting in Paris.
How was born the trilogy of which is part the waters of Joana ?
This trilogy started with Autism, which is a semi-autobiographical novel: he talks a bit about my parenting experience of an autistic child. When I was working on this first novel, I had the idea to write the waters of Joana, I thought maybe a set would allow more complexity and amplitude. The third book is published in 2018, in Portugal. Its title is Cair para dentro, in French "Fallen in". Alzheimer's disease is a pretext for a role reversal between a mother and a daughter. The girl is 37, 38 years old. She is completely under the influence of her mother, who forbids her to have a mobile phone. When the mother gets sick, dementia, she must grow up, but she has never been prepared to become an adult. In addition, she suffers from poetry attacks, she says poems she can not control and the mother hates that because she is very pragmatic. So when the girl has a poetry attack, she has to wait for it to pass before going home.
You say that these books are stories of "failed fatherhood" …
For the first, I had the idea of this theme when I concluded from my own experience that there are two moments when we feel parent: when the child is born, and when the child begins to you call dad or mom. And as in severe autism children never speak, paternity is half-missed because the child is never able to say these words. In the waters of Joana, the failure is more obvious because it is about a woman who will give birth to a son who is already dead. In the third case, the girl must be the mother of her mother and we can see that it never produces good results.
How did you become a parturient?
To make all this journey in such a feminine and carnal situation was risky, but that attracted me a lot. Some people told me "I'm not interested in reading a book written by a man about a woman's experience". But my friends to whom I sent pieces of the book, slices as I wrote, to question them in order to know if it smelled of the man or if it was acceptable, always encouraged me to continue because they lived this Joana also with me.
By what process does this woman tip over mentally?
I think it's a consequence of his obsession with perfection. Something will defeat the general plan of her life, but she tries not to lose control. And since she can not change what happens to her objectively, she does it subjectively. For her, all is well, she denies what disturbs her, she carries a dead child. I think that the fundamental point of the novel is success, failure, success, failure. She has a plan and in this one, there is a man, Jorge, who is a character without existential depth, he exists only because Joana wants him to be there, to have a family. The man is finally quite good in his life: if all goes well for Joana, all is well for him.
Photo Sarah Bouillaud. Hans Lucas
You criticize the medical power. You have documented a lot?
No, I'm lazy, I do not like doing research, for me the worst would be having to write a historical novel. This criticism is mostly based on my experience as a patient in hospitals, and on the people I meet. I think the hospital hierarchy is a powerful thing, that it can be a crush machine. We must not forget that we arrive in hospitals in a state of weakness, of need, that we put ourselves in the hands of another and that this other is not a friend or someone of the family but a professional who must keep his distance. Then coldness and impersonality play a big part in the relationship between doctors and patients. All this is nothing new, but it is an experience that can be transcribed. I have medical friends who completely agree with these descriptions.
At one point you compare the body to "A medieval battlefield"…
I believe that pain makes things real, it is through her that we know that we are alive and that we discover for example that we have a pancreas, imperceptible to us most of the time. When one is sick, the body becomes not only a battlefield against the invader, in this case a virus or bacteria, but the organs also compete to be in the best possible state. When you have pancreatitis, the pancreas ignites, you have fever, but for the gallbladder it is not desirable, so it is mobilized. It's like when basic livelihoods are lacking, people fight and transform what was a peaceful city into a tumult.
Why do you stick to the family scale?
The family is an interesting laboratory, which allows me to see almost all the human dispositions. In a short space of time, a reduced space, as with the germ culture test tube, we see everything to reproduce and intensify. I think a lot about my characters, I overload them with emotions, I place them in the house and I attend the reaction of others, like the mice of a labyrinth. I write about my neighbors, I do not write about distant issues. Kierkegaard made a fairly frequent criticism to people who were passionate about distant problems. He said: the systematic philosopher builds castles in the air, but he lives in the dog's house, and I think it's a particular form of egoism to be concerned with problems that can not be solved but who are far away, and not be concerned with problems that could be solved but which are close.
The notion of absurdity is very present in your books …
The absurd has a lot to do with my training as a news reader, Gogol, Buzzati, Kafka, and with my philosophical training. There can not be many levels of absurdity, but you just break a rule and everything else comes out of it. In my collection Of the family, so there was a grandfather with gills like a fish, it was a crazy idea that I pursued. And that's what I like with the absurd, we can show things that in another form would be visible but unthought.
And the metaphor too …
She is the brick of writing for me, a tool of my family of writers. I'm not from Hemingway's, for example. I like this function that has the metaphor of digging a hole between two distinct realities and managing a third that is not entirely contained in one or the other. Metaphor is the power to create a reality that did not exist before, and it also has the property of not being sustainable. When one says for the umpteenth time "your eyes are like the moon", she has lost her power, she has a power that is only a moment.
Do you work a lot to get fluidity between dialogues, monologues, action?
It's something that happens more or less automatically, I write as I think. When I'm writing, I'm actually listening to something, a sentence, a character, dialogues. That's why I say there is a strong musical component in writing. The best days we can arrive at a kind of trance state where we can contemplate with a detailed acuteness something that happens internally. But most of the time, we are mostly in hard work, a novel is a marathon, and if at kilometer 10 we are happy, at kilometer 30, we absolutely want to finish it. I write anywhere, anytime. It can be at a family meal, with my laptop on my lap. But normally, it is at home with my cats, I speak with them, I read them a little what I write, I ask them their opinion. When I go to the kitchen to get a glass of water, I come back and on the screen I see "Bbbbffffff" They went that way.
What do you have left of your childhood in France?
The France I remember was a provincial France where we were welcomed as immigrants and no more. We lived Clermont-Ferrand. My father worked at Michelin, then he was tile setter. He had emigrated for economic and political reasons, he was hostile to Salazar. We left in 1984, we had a little money to buy a house in Portugal. In Clermont-Ferrand, he could do – 10 degrees, – 5, I was a child always sick. In my college I was the only Portuguese or almost. I did not feel at home in France and I did not feel at home in Portugal, I was too Portuguese for the French and too French in Portugal. I remember that when we came back, it was a really different, poor country. I had a pair of sneakers, Le Coq sportif sneakers that my parents had bought me in a French hypermarket, probably the cheapest. But in Portugal, school children saw me with these shoes and they said: "You do not finish the day with that," they stole them and I finished barefoot, because for Portugal it was a luxury, and in France nothing of anything.
Do you have a novel in preparation after the trilogy?
I live in Lisbon, but I do not know how long I will resist because everyone is moving, housing has become too expensive. I am thinking of making a novel about my city, a little surreal, mixing what is happening there, the issue of gentrification, tourism, but in a burlesque perspective.
Frédérique Fanchette (Photo Tina Merandon)
The waters of Joana
Translated from Portuguese by João Viegas. Chandeigne, 200 pp., 20 €.
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