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The Hard and Unbreakable Bone of Memory

THE PAINTER OF BIRDS A Novel; By Lidia Jorge Translated from the Portugese by Margaret Jull Costa; Harcourt: 234 pp., $24

April 01, 2001|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review

For some Northern European writers, memory is a butter cookie that releases its pleasures in linear layers until the ingredients have been integrated with the blood and all that remains is the memory of the memory. For those in the oleaginous Mediterranean south, memory is less something to be savored than a second skin that sits like Piz Buin, picking up sand until all is replaced by the smooth tan of the present.

But what of those writers who face the cold, stony Atlantic? In the case of the Portuguese writer Lidia Jorge, and in the case of the heroine of her exquisite eighth novel "The Painter of Birds," memory is a bone that remains hard and unbreakable, even if constant gnawing dislodges a piece of meat or loosens a molar.

For the heroine, an unnamed granddaughter of the farmer Francisco Dias, the bone she gnaws is the memory of a man she calls Uncle Walter but whom she knows to be her father. The youngest of Francisco's many sons, Walter is the rebel, the one who, as a child, refuses to shovel dung, baring his chest to his father's pitchfork in challenge. Walter is the son who spends his days driving his father's buggy instead of working, who knocks up the innocent Maria Ema, who deserts his father and siblings in So Sebastio de Valmares and joins the army, just as World War II has ended. Walter is also a painter of birds.

'The cuckoo from India, the ibis from Mozambique, the hummingbird from the West Indies or the goose from Labrador'-the portraits of birds Walter posts back to Valmares are more eloquent than the cryptic messages he pens while sailoring in the South China Seas or truck-driving in Australia. As the years go on, the birds roost in a portfolio, collected and memorized by Walter's unacknowledged daughter. And as the years go on, the birds replace her uncles and aunts, who, one by one, fly from the farm, leaving Francisco Dias, Maria Ema and the oldest brother, Custodio who, hobbled by polio, was given as husband to Maria Ema to assuage the family honor.

And the young girl remains-niece to everybody, daughter to no one-gnawing at the memory of Walter's brief visits. He returns, like a rocket that hasn't quite achieved escape velocity, in the Sputnik days of the late '50s, and then once again in 1963, long enough to acquire a Chevrolet and inspire another series of longings.

But the memory that turns and returns is of a night when the 15-year-old girl willed her father into her room. "Walter Dias' footsteps again pause on the landing ... he slips off his shoes and prepares to continue up the stairs, lithe as a shadow and keeping close to the wall, and I cannot dissuade or stop him, for the simple reason that I want him to reach the last step quickly, to open the door without knocking and to cross the narrow threshold without saying a word." It is the first sentence of this remarkable novel, presaging not only a life of remembering but the girl's long drought of womanhood and longing. It is a sentence that is full of ambiguities and dangers as uncertain and potent as the miracle of her own birth. Even when the day arrives and she follows her own rebellion, setting off in search of her avian father, following "the irrepressible desire for tragedy that exists in the heart of every family," the hunger of memory is hardly assuaged.

Jorge writes with a simplicity that mimics the outlines of memory. Repetition is her chief tool. Ecstatic imagery and long elegiac paeans to the beauty of nature or the nature of love and youth are not part of her palette. The color and detail, in fact, that fly from the sketches of Walter's birds are absent from her prose. But it is a repetition that she works to immense effect, retracing the lines carved in the memory of the deserted daughter, coming at the grooves from different directions-from the past, the present, the future-in a method as poetic as any well-wrought image.

For the daughter is embarked on a journey of memory as poetic as Dante's-like him both a pilgrim and a poet, first person and third, searching and at the same time writing about the search. And as elusive. For the birds at the heart of her search flutter just as close and as far as the Beatrice of Dante's quest. And the poetry of Lidia Jorge makes an ache of this gnawing search, a pain that persuades us that not only memory but the heart is a bone.

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