We are constantly told how important words are, how the tongue is sharper than the sword, how reading is knowledge and knowledge is power. We often communicate through words, through poems and literature, through letters. Love has often existed in the spaces between words, between the lines, in pencil scratches, in love letters. Having access to these words, being able to read them or write them, is often not regarded as a privilege. Yet not all love can be spoken. Queer love and desire have historically (and presently) only been able to exist in silence. What if your love cannot be spoken, written, or read?
Stenio Gardel’s The Words that Remain, translated from Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato, is a heartbreaking debut novel. Gardel was born in rural northeast Brazil, an aspect of Gardel’s biography captured in the novel. The Words that Remain follows Raimundo on his journey to becoming literate to access the letter that his previous lover, Cícero, left him decades ago. The novel portrays the way in which queer love and desire transcend time, hatred, and even the barriers of language. Raimundo and Cícero’s relationship, set against the landscape of Northern Brazil and the people who inhabit that space, opens a new perspective of queerness specific to that region. Navigating the complexity of identity, internalized homophobia, religion, family, and companionship, Raimundo’s interactions with his family and friends highlight queer struggle as well as queer joy.
On a global level, the novel engages with the role of words and written language to communicate feelings that cannot be articulated out loud. As Raimundo puts it, “words are stretched, so where words alone can’t go, with poetry they can, they fly, like the bird, the bird that can hear loud silences, the loud silences that can open up dawns, shrink rivers, horizon stretchers, only words can do that” (53). The use of verbs such as “stretched” and “fly” to describe what words can do, actions that not even humans can perform, illuminates the miraculous capability of words and literature which encapsulates the message of the novel. Raimundo is guided by love to learn how to read and write, because only words can describe a feeling so complicated in the face of oppression, “only words can do that.”
The novel’s fluctuating narration appears to pose a challenge to the Anglophone reader. The rich prose and beautiful lyricism seem lost in the effort to understand the fast-paced plot and to follow the multiple speakers. But in the original Portuguese text, the narration similarly fluctuates between first and third person, perspective and chronology. Lobato’s translation retains these changes in the narrative. The novel explores illiteracy and memory, the words we leave with others and the words we keep to ourselves. Keeping the potentially confusing narrative changes highlights these very themes and forces the reader to engage with the story actively by following Raimundo’s and others’ storytelling. The reader is not the sole audience of the novel: Raimundo speaks to Cícero, his uncle, and his father as well. This multiplicity of voices is not only the element that forces the reader to engage fully with the text; the abrupt changes in who characters are addressing further complicate the narrative flow.
The heartbreaking ways in which these characters are connected beyond mere familial ties, are emphasized as Raimundo details his journey from being beaten and mistreated by his family, to living in the capital, and meeting then working with Suzzanný – a transgender woman who shares Raimundo’s life as his companion.
As the non-chronological aspects of Raimundo’s life are being pieced together, the narration shifts to Raimundo’s father addressing his brother – Raimundo’s uncle. Raimundo’s father describes how “I spent the rest of my life with this emptiness, and this empty space grew, it took over me I don’t have anything else to give, so my son left and, far away from me, he’s just waiting for this premature cross” (49). By including many different perspectives, in this case that of Raimundo’s father, the novel expands the understanding of queer struggle for readers outside of the book’s Northern Brazilian context. Further, Raimundo’s father expresses the way in which his learned homophobia impacts his relationship with Raimundo, linking the image of the cross as death and therefore religion (specifically the homophobia created by religion) as death as well.
The novel delves into the deep-rooted homophobia in Raimundo’s family and in the more general culture, as well as into Raimundo’s own internalized homophobia. Lobato keeps some of the original Portuguese punctuation and syntax so that sentences are long, with numerous commas and exclamation marks. The intentional preservation of Portuguese punctuation and syntax reinforces the feeling that this is a story being told orally, that the reader is actually a listener. Further, by using commas and longer sentences, Lobato retains the rhythm of the Portuguese language.
Although queerness is a key theme in the novel, the specificity of queer experience in Brazil is the focus. The Northern Brazilian setting and landscape are vital to Raimundo’s understanding of his identities. Queer resilience and pain are poignant in and of themselves which allows for the reader outside of the Brazilian context to connect with the story and characters. However, Lobato’s inclusion of Portuguese words such as “forró,” referring to the music and dance style popular in Northern Brazil, creates a distance between the Anglophone reader and the Brazilian reality depicted in the novel. Nonetheless, the emphasis on queer experiences outside mainstream Northern American representations opens room for representing and understanding Brazilian queerness.
The rural setting, Stenio Gardel’s birthplace, is culturally important to the characters and plot. Beyond contextualizing the farm labor Raimundo, Cícero and his family do, it introduces the recurring image of water – specifically, the sea and the river. There is a relationship between water, the river, and desire. The motif of water enacts the conflation of both desire and drowning to highlight the perils and risks of queer love as Raimundo puts it: “I can’t let myself drown or let anyone else drown me, the body can hide underwater from the neck down, but the head won’t, it’ll float above the waterline, no one can see inside our heads anyway, I don’t have to show what I am to anyone…” (73). The image of the river also ties Raimundo and Cícero’s relationship to the landscape of Northern Brazil.
The cross furnishes another recurring motif in The Words that Remain. Homophobia in the novel is attributed to religion, a seemingly important aspect of the culture in Northern Brazil. The cross, however, is also a symbol of queer resilience in the face of that hatred. The cross, located by the river, becomes a marker of Raimundo and Cícero’s relationship and at the end of the novel “the cross isn’t there anymore, it used to be right here, it was here the last time we saw each other, you looked back and met my eyes…” (129). The cross, withered away with time, is a motif for homophobia in the novel and its disappearance highlights the queer resilience in Raimundo’s story.
The Words that Remain is not just a love story but an expression of queer desire, struggle, and resilience in spaces outside of romantic love. Gardel’s text and Lobato’s translation create a puzzle that the reader is trying to solve, not unlike Raimundo who is solving his own puzzle, the letter Cícero left him. Through this process the reader is brought along on the journey of companionship, family, and love. Raimundo makes a world for himself in which he feels accepted, seeking the comfort of his sister and Suzzanný. Where love can’t be spoken, written or read, it is felt.
Gardel, Stenio. The Words that Remain. Translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato. New Vessel Press, 2023.
Juliana Gaspar studies comparative literature at Oberlin College & Conservatory and translates from Portuguese into English.