Book Review - Vista Chinesa

The latest novel from Lisbon-based Brazilian writer Tatiana Salem Levy is set in 2014, the year Brazil hosted the World Cup and two years before the Olympic Games. The country is awash with money and optimism; the government has promised new sporting venues and a modern infrastructure.

Júlia, an architect, is proud to be designing the golf course clubhouse for the Games. Before a work meeting with City Hall she goes running, and against her better judgment heads towards the Vista Chinesa, a pagoda built to honour Chinese culture in Rio de Janeiro. The Tijuca National Park was often deserted in the afternoons but Júlia felt no fear until “danger suddenly appeared behind me. He was short, strong, put a pistol to my head, and said, Follow me.”

Vista Chinesa is the letter Júlia writes to her children five years later. She wants them to learn of her ordeal from her and not from rumours. Júlia struggles to articulate what she feels during and after the attack. At first she just wants to forget it happened — “it was my privacy, my torment, and the sooner I put a full stop to it, the better” — but her family persuade her to involve the police in the hope of sparing another woman from a similar fate.

Júlia cannot remember the details of her rapist’s face for the identikit sketch: “The colour of his skin, the shape of his mouth, the size of his nose, the colour of his eyes, the texture of his hair, any and every distinctive feature, a scar, a mole, a mark, a tattoo.” Suddenly these details become of immense importance and her inability to recall them reinforces her sense of powerlessness. She worries that in the police’s hurry to close the case, the wrong man will be implicated.

Reflecting the fractured nature of memories, Levy tracks back and forth in time. She dissects with forensic detail the rape itself followed by the gamut of emotions that assail her protagonist. Occasionally, she uses the second person to remind us that the narrative is a letter. Throughout Levy slyly comments on the inadequacy of the police and Brazil’s wider problems — her violation “dilacerated, torn apart, fragmented” is set against the country’s economic ruin; the violence done to Rio by its politicians.

Miraculously, Júlia and her partner Michel manage to heal their relationship, and she falls pregnant with twins. Like the clubhouse she successfully constructs, Júlia survives. She comes face to face with evil but lives to tell the tale. Rio is not so fortunate and after the building frenzy, the city rapidly goes downhill: “Politics emptied of projects.”

Levy’s first novel, The House in Smyrna (2007) was partly inspired by her own family history. In an author’s note, we learn that Vista Chinesa is based on the experiences of Levy’s friend, Joana Jabace. Levy built up the narrative through a series of interviews. Jabace would then read what she had written and comment and, if necessary, Levy would revise. This approach gives a sense of immediacy and the account of the rape and its aftermath is shocking in its intensity. Levy’s retelling, deftly translated by Alison Entrekin, is also a powerful act of female solidarity.

Originally published by the Financial Times