IT'S easy to understand why Gregory Rabassa wanted to translate Jose Sarney's "Master of the Sea." Rabassa's recent memoir, "If This Be Treason," suggests how this premier translator identifies the works he wants to translate: They all present a variety of subjects in an uncommon way.
Which is certainly true of this novel by Sarney, a former president of Brazil (1985-1990), for no detail is surrendered to cliche. To Sarney, every locution is special: The brokenhearted are "crushed flat as a manioc cake"; ships sail into a night with stars "like burning candles in the mouths of sardines"; a body twisting in agony is "arching on its way to death." Such vivid turns of phrase are a translator's meat, luring him on like the robalo used as bait by the book's fishermen to catch bigger fish.
The same is true for readers, now that Rabassa's translation has been published. One is ensnared from the very first appearance of the poor Brazilian fisherman Antao Cristorio, the master of the book's title. Stepping onto the dock of Mojo, his hometown, cursing at a dockhand, he has plenty to be angry about: The ordinary hopes and plans that other men entertain have in his case been thwarted by supernatural forces.
Phantom ships ply the waters of the Maranhense Gulf in northern Brazil, where Cristorio makes his living; the surrounding coral reefs, atolls and mangrove swamps conceal ghosts and monsters. Early in his life, Cristorio fell in love with the beautiful Quertide, but then he lost her when her village was raided by \o7piocos\f7, lustful Cyclops living in the sea who hunger for virgins. In a scene worthy of any of his magical-realist brethren, Sarney describes the tide washing in after the abductions and staining the beach with the blood from the mass deflowering.
All who were carried off into the waves were eventually returned. But not Quertide. And this sent Cristorio on a quest that consumed three years of his life. Though he failed to find her, the search was not entirely futile; it turned him into a skilled sailor with an intuitive connection to the ocean. He bought a \o7biana\f7, a small boat he named \o7Chita Verde\f7, after Quertide's green skirt -- the last thing he saw after promising to return and marry her. The boat is willful, feminine: "When she didn't want to go somewhere he knew it right away: she would become obstinate." More than once, that obstinacy will save him, when he loses control and the boat must guide itself to safety.
Critics have long regarded novels as cultural containers; social scientists will study, say, the fiction of 1890s France to learn something of what ordinary Frenchmen of the Belle Epoque thought and felt. In "Master of the Sea," Sarney gives us his country's maritime lore as well as a raw picture of a fisherman's life along its shores.
Some of the novel's finest moments arise from this lore. As Cristorio and his crew keep nighttime watch over their nets, a ghostly parade of ships passes by, a vision invoking Brazil's founding by European explorers. All manner of caravels "like lamps glowing in the dark ... formed an immense line that seemed to have no end." Among them are ships of the Magellan expedition, Sir Francis Drake's fleet and one carrying Columbus, "an old man with long hair
Less affecting are Cristorio's relationships with the living; the sympathy one feels at his loss of Quertide dissolves in the wind like the apparitions that continually visit him. He steals another man's fiancee, yet later condemns his aging daughter for simply wanting a husband. He holds his son, killed for bedding another man's wife, blameless, and he's puzzled (but not really troubled) by loving his sister-in-law more than his own wife.
Maybe that's Sarney's point -- that a tough old mariner knows little about himself ("He didn't know what love was, only the customs of women and the rules governing their possession...."). But it leaves one yearning for a protagonist more like Garcia Marquez's Jose Arcadio Buendia, a hardened colonel who nevertheless elicits our sympathy. Sarney's characters are repeatedly upstaged by his set pieces -- by the grand ghostly armada or the rapacious \o7piocos\f7 "up to their chests in water, a red light coming from the one large eye in the middle of their foreheads." Lore is this novel's great strength, not the treatment of private lives -- elements the greater masters of magical realism manage to keep in balance.
Sarney does find that balance in the last chapter, as Cristorio comes to a tragic, fantastic end. Delirious, adrift at sea, his boat sinking while a shark circles, Cristorio hallucinates his entire personal history.
The fact of his death is never explicitly stated; rather, Sarney suggests that the next time fishermen encounter a ghostly procession of ships off their bow, they are likely to spot a humble \o7biana\f7 taking up the rear: "\o7Chita Verde,\f7 head for the water of all the seas!" Cristorio commands as his life gives way to eternity -- and we should be grateful that Rabassa has rendered his journey for our ears.