All Dogs are Blue
Rodrigo de Souza Leão (trans. Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler)
And Other Stories, paperback, £10
116 pages, 978-1908276209
The kind of madness that interests people, Rodrigo de Souza Leão says in a 2008 interview, is stereotypical madness: madness that bears no relation to reality, with its romanticised sufferers dressed in folkloric clothes and behaving in such a way that they are recognised as ill wherever they go. The kind of madness at the centre of All Dogs Are Blue, Souza Leão’s astonishing portrait of the internal and external reality of a schizophrenic in a Rio mental hospital, is far from stereotypical. This protagonist is articulate, reflexive and self-aware, seductive but never romanticised, and it is his voice that makes this such an extraordinary novel.
“I’m loco-lite, the diet version,” he tells us. His psychological condition fluctuates between hallucinations, delusions and moments of lucidity, and his concerns fluctuate too, between the fantastical and the mundane. He worries that there is a door in the asylum that makes people disappear, and that his imaginary friend Rimbaud might have romantic designs on him, but also that his medication is making him too fat to be attractive to the nurses, that it’s been a while since they were served guava jelly with dinner and that Brazilian politicians are earning far too much money. As we read this short novel, we inhabit his shifting and unreliable world that is sometimes a “life full of fears”, sometimes full of possibilities, but always built from what-ifs. What if the blue soft toy dog he had as a boy were real? Would it eat blue food? Would it take blue medicine, like him?
“My process was that of attempting to make the prose close to schizophrenia,” Rodrigo de Souza Leão explains in the same interview. “In order to achieve this, I resolved to move the prose towards poetry. The natural language of a lunatic is, let’s say, a little poetic.” And thus, by imitating poetry, the novel’s prose imitates madness: this is not poetry about madness, but rather poetry being used to reflect a psychological condition that happens to share its structure. And so the protagonist’s words take on a vivid truthfulness: the repeated phrases are obsessions rather than refrains; the metaphors more like overlapping realities than juxtaposed ideas.
The result is an untrustworthy landscape with movement and stasis in all the wrong places, making it difficult to know where to lean. There is a sense of being constantly caught unaware by your surroundings, be it through sudden realisations that “there were hippos everywhere”, or subtler moments, such as when pot plants suddenly “sprout up like beanstalks” in the corners of rooms and bread is buttered in violent “swipes”. Similarly, as Rodrigo is smashing up the furniture in his house before being admitted to the asylum, we encounter one of the novel’s most wonderful lines: “things […] self-destructed when I stroked them”.
All Dogs Are Blue is brilliantly funny throughout – for instance, when the narrator describes how prostitutes these days “do anything. They might even pay you to have sex with them”. But it is also terribly – at times almost unreadably – sad. It manages this without ever being sentimental, disguising its painful truths within the rhythms of comedy. This is tragedy with comic timing, these are punchlines that hurt: “Where’s Baudelaire? He’s playing snooker. / It’s so sad when your friends are two hallucinations.” Some of the most difficult parts to read involve the narrator’s parents. Although his narrator may appear to overlook their feelings, Souza Leão never allows the reader to forget how acutely this is their tragedy too:
“My brother is bipolar. He suffers from being sad. He suffers a lot. My dad studied psychiatry because of him, and then because of me. My dad was a paediatrician. Now he’s a psychiatrist. I would like to have studied at Cambridge. So I could help my sons more.”
Souza Leão has referred to another of his literary projects as a mix, comparing himself to a DJ (incidentally, until his diagnosis with schizophrenia in his early twenties, he had planned to become a radio presenter), and the analogy is appropriate here as well. All Dogs Are Blue is a collage of collages, it is many madnesses at once: the noise of the city merges with the noise of the protagonist’s mind, as the infamous Rio funk music seeps in through the asylum windows from the favela outside and keeps him awake at night. The novel is filled with references to Brazilian culture, from its literature and music to the ubiquity of the much-derided – but also much-watched – soap operas: “You know Ana? She’s going to kill Marcos. Olivier is coming back for Marcos. Pereira is breaking up with Maju. Lina is going to end things with Maciel.”
Translators Stefan Tobler and Zoë Perry masterfully work this web of Brazilian cultural references into their version of the novel, intriguing but never patronising or mystifying the reader. Their translation impresses for the same reason as the novel itself: like the author, they are impeccable ventriloquists who have reproduced a voice that could never belong to anyone else, that is unmistakeable and utterly original, and they have also reproduced, equally flawlessly, the many other voices contained within it. “A banana bar. Who wants a banana bar? A banana bar. Who wants a banana bar? Who wants to buy a banana bar? The sun was a ball of mango ice cream.”
The novel is also a collage of views on mental hospitals and treatment methods. Sometimes hospitals are “really nice places, full of lots of flowers and trees”; sometimes they are proof that God does not exist. “There’s the movement against mental hospitals. But where do you put all the people with no family, who are lost causes?” Sometimes treatment is there to punish, and sometimes to cure, but one thing that remains constant through these shifting perspectives is the fear that some people never get better. This is why this ingenious, charismatic, musical mix of a book is so devastating to read: the narrator’s “moments of lucidity” are only ever moments, samples of a track he will never get to hear in full, mixed out as dexterously as they are mixed in.
“You wait,” the narrator threatens at one point in the novel, as nurses continue to “bayonet” chemicals into his flesh: “I’ll survive long enough to expose this whole dirty game.” For a second after reading this, you might wonder if that is what this book is supposed to be doing: revealing the inadequacies of the Brazilian mental health services. Just as quickly, however, you realise it is nothing of the sort. All Dogs Are Blue goes deeper than a simple exposé: there are too many sides to it, too many truths all at once. If it has a message, it is that this is what this is like – and it is a message that is delivered with astounding success. Souza Leão’s acheivements are rare and magnificent: a voice that makes no concessions to the reader and yet never ceases to entertain them, and a work that is intensely experimental but makes you believe every word. All Dogs Are Blue is sometimes ugly, often beautiful and always alive – and it is unforgettable.