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A way of seeing

Alentejo Blue A Novel Monica Ali Scribner: 230 pp., $24

July 02, 2006|Natasha S. Randall | Natasha S. Randall has completed a translation from the Russian of Yevgeny Zamyatin's "We" for Modern Library.

IN this, the age of global tourism, to watch is to consume. We munch our way through foreign countries, ingesting chunks of scenery, foraging for stories in local faces, voices and gestures. In rural villages of Western Europe, the menu is dependably good: Old men mutter to each other in public squares, no-nonsense cafe owners hold court, ne'er-do-well expats swagger around and old women in muumuus sweep their thresholds or scold their dogs. The locals watch tourists too. Some travelers are rude, others among the endless parade of sneakers and guidebooks are good tippers. But sassy village girls ignore them all with a vengeance.

What is frustrating about the pace and volume of today's tourist travel is that people can rarely do more than skim the surface -- we reduce each other to observable details. In her new novel, Monica Ali shows us that watching is never enough. "Alentejo Blue" is the prismatic portrait of Mamarrosa, a small village set in southern Portugal where residents and tourists continuously refract in one another's lives. Ali demonstrates that what you see in a person is only what your angle of view allows.

"Alentejo Blue" is a novel written in a series of stories -- the main character is the village as a whole. Each chapter takes up the lives of locals or tourists in Mamarrosa and follows them as they encounter others. When Teresa, a shopgirl, hops on her Vespa to deliver groceries to the housebound elderly, she wonders whether anyone can read the secrets in her face. She describes herself as more observant than others: "In the spring, when the wildflowers came, she never said in that cheap way, Oh, how pretty, to hide the fact of indifference." Teresa has made furtive plans to leave the village she grew up in. "It was all very well, she thought, to be alert. But what was there to see?"

One of the most beautiful characters is Vasco, the rotund owner of the local cafe. He is sitting alone after closing time and ruminating in front of a plate of cake. His heaving body comes alive on the page: "He is supposed to be in charge of it, but this notion is absurd. In all that churning and creaking and bloating and leaking, he has no say."

The narrative drops deep into Vasco's ill-starred life story of love and widowerhood, bringing him occasionally to the surface of his remorse and to the dilemma at hand: "He will not eat the cake.... Well, perhaps just a little.... Yes, silly not to eat it. Although why should he force down this stale cake? Is he a dustbin? A man without refinement? I'll risk it."

Elsewhere, from others' points of view, Vasco appears differently, sometimes as "fat," sometimes as "greedy" and other times as a "selfish" man who obsessively wipes his tables and always wants to be asked for advice.

The characters in "Alentejo Blue" move at different paces too, which emphasizes the intersection of time and velocity in the moment of observation. Two British couples -- one older, one younger, in various states of noncommunication -- spend a day or so in Mamarrosa, weighing in on local scenes.

The author makes them explore their motives as tourists. They gorge on facts, they watch the locals. One of them even says sarcastically: "Peasants are so picturesque."

The older British couple is at loose ends in this Portuguese hinterland, wondering what to do. The wife, Eileen, who is enduring menopause, asks her husband: "Doesn't this feel too weird.... To be here. To consume this." He replies: "It's not about consuming, Eileen ... it's about understanding." "For three days?" she replies.

Things do happen in Mamarrosa -- a teenager gets pregnant, an Internet cafe opens, an old man commits suicide -- but these incidents are evident only when Ali glides her spotlight past them. Otherwise, they are just part of the village's design, experienced by different people at various removes. The events themselves are barely important; what matters is how perceptions of them are distorted throughout the village.

When a Portuguese stranger arrives, the villagers are curious and suspicious. Soon after, at a village festa, one old lady asks him for the story of his life and the stranger delivers this line in response: "A life is never simple," he says. "A story is never true." Unfortunately, these heavy-handed truisms are the affliction of "Alentejo Blue."

Ali, whose acclaimed first novel, "Brick Lane," was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2003, is masterful in writing about her characters' lives but disappointing when she offers trite village wisdom.

She is writing about a community that is more than the sum of its parts. The nuances of this are better left to the novel's smaller moments, as when Vasco says: "If I eat the cake ... I'll say it is because I am hungry. If I don't eat it, I'll say it is because I am full. It will become the truth. If Dona Marisa had taken this cake along with her coffee this afternoon, I would not even be here." *

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