The International Booker Prize Reading Challenge: Crooked Plow, by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz

If I knew that this procession of memories, these thoughts passing through my mind while my hair turns gray, might be valuable to someone, I would have dedicated myself to the craft of writing. I'd have bought notebooks with the money I made at the market, filling them with the words that won't leave my head. Had the curiosity that led me to the knife with the ivory handle been directed elsewhere, I'd have discovered the person I might have been. For my mouth has so many stories to tell, stories that could've inspired our community, our children, to cast off their servitude to the owners of the fields and of the city houses where my people work.

- from Crooked Plow, by Itamar Vieira Junior, translated by Johnny Lorenz

My fifth book for the International Booker Prize 2024 Reading Challenge is Crooked Plow, a novel I've been hoping to read since hearing an extract from it on Damian Barr's Literary Salon podcast earlier this year. 

Crooked Plow is set in north-east Brazil, and follows two sisters, Bibiana and Belonísia, from their childhood through to middle age. The novel begins with a shocking accident, as the two young sisters creep into their grandmother’s room and find a sharp and dazzling knife hidden underneath her bed. Overcome by a desire to place it in their mouths, one sister is badly cut by it, while the other completely severs her tongue, an act that will shape the remainder of their lives, and their relationship to one another.

Crooked Plow contains many elements that I’m drawn to in a novel, including a strong sense of place and atmosphere - in this case Bahia, Brazil’s poorest region, which became home to one third of all enslaved Africans during the height of the slave trade. It also skilfully threads together the personal stories of Bibiana and Belonísia against a wider narrative of the challenges faced by communities of subsistence farmers who are the descendants of formerly enslaved people, and crucially, offered me an insight into a place and historical moment of which I was entirely ignorant.

Forbidden to build homes from long lasting materials, the inhabitants of these quilombos settlements mould their houses from earth and wood, creating houses that must continuously be rebuilt every few years, and work ceaselessly to harvest crops for landowners without pay, earning only the right to grown what food they can in their gardens in any free time they have. Reading of the conditions in which they live, without running water or bathrooms, it is at first difficult to determine the time at which Crooked Plow is set, but gradually mentions of modern elements such as television sets and cars make us realise that the novel is unfolding far later than we might have expected.

One facet of the book that I particularly enjoyed is its depiction of the Jarȇ ceremonies and beliefs held by the characters. Jarȇ is an African Diasporic belief system that seems to blend a belief in natural and spirit forces with some Christian influences, and I found the final section of the novel, in which the narrator switches to a spirit named Santa Rita the Fisherwoman, particularly fascinating and powerful.

Crooked Plow is a richly-layered novel, and one that I think will reward careful reading, weaving together important themes such as our relationship with the land - and who truly owns it- as well as the role of women, individual and collective memory, and history. Having read most of it on a long and somewhat distracting train journey, I didn’t find myself connecting as deeply to it as Like a River by Selva Almada, and I hope to re-read it in future. 

I did however greatly admire Johnny Lorenz’s fluid translation of the text, and his decision to retain the specific vocabulary from the natural world in their original language, which certainly heightened the novel’s sense of place and setting. As the edition that I read did not contain a translator’s note, I was curious to learn more about his translation process, and would recommend listening to the Harshaneeyam podcast with Johnny Lorenz about the novel here.

For me it was a 4.25 star read, and a strong contender for this year’s International Booker Prize Winner.

Read an excerpt from Crooked Plow here.

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