The Head of the Saint by Socorro Acioli

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Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Reviewed by Annabel 

In my experience, there aren’t many novels for children and young adults around in English translation, although I was pleased to find out that a prize exists in this field. The English Speaking Union inaugurated The Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation in 1996. It is good to see some familiar translators’ names amongst the winners – that they don’t exclusively translate adult books is rather reassuring .

There are, of course, many notable children’s classics that are translated: All the Moomins books by Tove Jansson, Emil & the Detectives by Erich Kästner and Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren are a few that come to  mind – do add more in the comments below. I know that Pushkin Press are actively publishing translated children’s books too, but I’m seeing few contemporary and/or YA ones in translation on the shelves. So, when one came along, I had to read it…

Acioli is Brazilian, and already the author of many children’s books for which she won Brazil’s Jabuti Prize. She developed this novel at a writers’ workshop hosted by the late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, having been handpicked by Marquez himself to attend.

The Head of the Saint is the story of Samuel, a teenager who, when his mother dies, agrees to light candles for her at the feet of the statue of St Anthony near Candeia, the village she’d had to leave when Samuel’s father abandoned her. Together they lived a poor but happy life and as the story starts, Samuel has been walking in the heat for sixteen days to reach Candeia, with only the address of the grandmother he’s never met there in his pockets.

For the first of those days blood and water seeped from the burst blisters on his feet and hissed as they touched the harsh, red-hot tarmac. Now his feet were dry, so dry they made no sound at all. A new layer of skin appeared, almost a snakeskin – a shrivelled thing, an impressive achievement from nature. His legs were a paradox: the thinner they got, the stronger they became. His muscles grew, even on the dirty shins that supported his fleshless thighs. And his body, as dirty as if newly exhumed, walked constantly straight ahead.

When he finally reaches the village, he finds a ghost town – most of the houses are empty. He begs a drink of water from a girl at the lone café before the owner shoos him away. He finds his grandmother’s house, ‘the biggest on the street, close to the church,’ but it too is neglected and dark. However he plucks up the courage to get a woman to come to the gate. She is his grandmother but, for various reasons she too shoos him away – telling him to go to the cave in the woods at the bottom of the hill…

The cave turns out to be the head of St Anthony – the giant head that was supposed to crown the statue of the saint on the top of the hill – the statue that was supposed to make Candeia a stop on the pilgrim trail. The failure to complete the statue disgraced the town and their beloved Saint’s name dirt. Samuel has nowhere else to go, so he beds down inside the head, but not until after one of the nasty dogs lurking around has bitten him in the leg.

In his fever, he starts hearing voices inside the head and prayers to St Anthony from women searching for love, prayers that he realises that he can help to answer – it’s a miracle! Samuel, aided by his canny young friend Francisco, begins to give out St Anthony’s advice and soon they become overwhelmed by people needing his help, but the clamour dulls the voices – people will be disappointed, and this puts Samuel is at risk – how can he sort things out?

As the story progresses, we also discover what happened to Samuel’s parents and the village of Candeia. We see how faith and local politics got wrapped up together in their fate and how Samuel’s arrival is the catalyst to set things straight. That, of course is the real miracle.

Samuel is a likeable young man who does a lot of growing up through the course of the story. Although he has his bolshie moments, he injects them with a lot of charm and naturally you feel strongly for the motherless boy who’s never known his father and was disowned by his grandmother. He’s good at making friends, and the sub-plot of him and Francisco using St Anthony’s advice to engineer a romance between the waitress Madeinusa (break that name into syllables!) and the village’s young doctor is lovely.

There is a certain understated quality in Acioli’s writing that put me in mind of Meg Rosoff, (of whom I’m a big fan – see our review of Picture Me Gone). In some respects, as in Rosoff’s tales, not a lot happens, except that little by little it does, done in a stealthy style without excesses of description.

The influence of Marquez however is clear – and the novel is partly dedicated to him. The Head of the Saint seems very much like the sort of story he would have written for this audience: there is the mystery of the voices, the search for family and a place to belong for Samuel and the summer heat of South America, all wrapped up in a blanket of faith and romance. The whole is enhanced by lovely lino-cut style illustrations at the start of each chapter.

As far as I can see, The Head of the Saint is the first novel in translation to be published by YA specialists Hot Key Books. I enjoyed it very much and hope for more from this author, as well as other translated novels from them.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny New Books editors and, having struggled to find Brazilian authors in translation during the world cup this summer, is now coming across them everywhere!

Socorro Acioli, The Head of the Saint, trans Daniel Hahn (Hot Key Books, London, October 2014) 978-1471403835, hardback, 208 pages.

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