Translated by Alex Ladd
Reviewed by Victoria
I really love shrink lit. There’s something about the lucid and detailed focus on the interaction between patient and psychotherapist that is somehow the essence of the reason why I read fiction. Also, the often strange and perplexing nature of case studies means that in such novels you are never forced to put up with situational clichés or stereotypes. We are all allowed to think about the genuine paradoxes and contradictions that make up a life and an identity; we are allowed to think about mistakes, missteps and confusions without the usual, tedious judgements having to be aired. We can think about the way we live from unique and often liberating perspectives. We are not trapped by all the shoulds and musts of everyday social ideology and its straitjacket of political correctness. In these stories the acceptance and compassion of the analyst is real and unforced, or if it isn’t, then it goes under the microscope with everything else for careful, measured consideration. I just love all of that – the delicacy of it, the truthfulness of it, the freedom of it.
Sergio Y. is a wonderful addition to the ranks of such novels. It is narrated by Armando, a 70-year-old therapist in the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo. Armando is alone in the world, a widower whose extended family is mostly dead, and whose daughter is studying in New York. For this reason, his patients have become his lifeblood, the focus and the force of his days, and he is good with this. Vanity has kept him a keen-eyed analyst, and he knows he has done work over the years that he can be proud of. He’s a little bit obsessive about his patients, something he seeks to rationalize rather than change, and he really doesn’t like it when one leaves him.
So he is distressed when a patient he has grown fond of, Sergio Y., decides to end his sessions with him. Sergio is a 17-year-old boy, the son of a wealthy Brazilian businessman who has sought therapy to assuage a constant and inexplicable sadness. Armando has found him an elusive patient, intelligent and talkative, good-hearted and easy to get along with; but he has never really put his finger on the problem that causes Sergio pain. And then, after a trip to New York with his family, Sergio abruptly terminates therapy, saying that Armando has helped him greatly, and now he understands what he must do to pursue his own happiness.
Armando thinks often of the boy and is pleased to hear from his mother, when they bump into one another unexpectedly, that he has moved to New York to open a restaurant and is doing well. The blow falls even harder, then, when Armando discovers shortly after this that Sergio has been killed in a random act of manslaughter. He is even more shocked when he discovers that since he moved to New York, Sergio has been living as Sandra. Transgender issues were never ones that arose in their therapy sessions and Armando is horrified, mortified even, to realise that he never had the least inkling that this might be the key to Sergio’s original malaise.
The acknowledgement of his error plunges Armando into a personal crisis. Everything he thought about himself and his abilities as a therapist is put into doubt. Worse still, what if he has inadvertently led Sergio/Sandra to her death? Unable to understand what has happened and full of shame and self-doubt, Armando begins to investigate the circumstances of Sergio/Sandra’s death. These investigations take the form of other stories that surround his young patient: the story of Sergio’s great-grandfather, Areg Yacoubian who emigrated from Eastern Europe to Brazil in 1915, the story of Angelus Zebrowska, another American immigrant whose life in a foreign country allowed her to become a man, and the stories that Sergio/Sandra’s therapist in New York has to tell Armando. These evocative, glancing stories hold a valuable insight into the way happiness must be fiercely and unflinchingly pursued if it is to be realised.
What is particularly beautiful about this beautifully translated novel is the way that it shows how good things come out of bad things. How we can find the joy in life if we have the courage to follow our instincts. And it teaches Armando a valuable lesson in humility – that sometimes other people have answers that we don’t, and that’s more than okay. Life-enhancing, original and warmly recommended.
Victoria is one of the editors of Shiny New Books
Alexandre Vidal Porto, Sergio Y. (Europa Editions, 2016) 978-1609453275, 160 pp., paperback original.
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