“If happiness is not where we are, we must chase her. She sometimes lives very far away. You must have the courage to be happy.”
When it comes to the depiction of transgender individuals in literary fiction, I will confess that I am a rather cynical customer. Lets just say I know the reality too well. So much of what I have read does not even come close to scratching the surface of what it means to be at odds with one’s own birth-assigned gender. Intentions are good and, of course, the transgender or intersex character always allows for an interesting twist but the results can be misleading, even distressingly off base. That’s why Sergio Y. by Brazilian author Alexandre Vidal Porto is such a refreshing and original read. Here is a novel that treats the subject with intelligence and compassion—quite the feat for a book in which the transgender character meets an untimely and unfortunate end before the story even gets started.
The title character, Sergio Y. is the son of a wealthy businessman in São Paolo, Brazil, and the great grandson of an Armenian immigrant who escaped the tragic fate of so many of his countrymen, including the rest of his family, when he crossed the ocean in 1915, seeking his happiness in the Americas. The narrator is Armando, a well-respected seventy year-old psychiatrist. Sergio had been referred to him for therapy at the age of seventeen, described simply as “articulate, intelligent and confused.” They meet regularly for several years. This mature young man—so handsome, wealthy and talented—intrigues Armando and yet, in spite of all of these advantages, he professes to be possessed by a deep and abiding unhappiness.
Following a visit to New York City one Christmas, Sergio informs Armando that he wishes to discontinue therapy. He has had a revelation, he says, and he believes he has found a way to be happy. Our narrator is a little disgruntled to be dismissed as such but, as the years pass, Sergio Y. fades from his mind until a chance encounter with his former patient’s mother. She reports that her son has moved to New York where he attended culinary school and is now about to open his own restaurant. Armando is surprised, but pleased by this news and the praise he is afforded for his role in helping Sergio find happiness at last. However, this boost to his ego is short lived. Armando’s world begins to crumble when he learns, quite by chance, that Sergio Y. has been murdered at his home in the West Village.
Obsessive by nature, Armando becomes haunted by the need to know more. What he discovers with the help of a private investigator is completely unexpected and sends him reeling. The murder victim is identified as Sandra Yacoubian, female. Sandra and Sergio he soon learns are, in fact, one and the same person. His young patient had found his happiness as a woman and now she was dead at the age of 23! How could he have failed to recognize that Sergio was transsexual? And, even more serious, was his failure in some way responsible for this tragic outcome?
The main source of my frustration was not having detected any hint of Sergio Y.’s transsexuality. I felt I had been duped solely and exclusively by my own incompetence. I had always though that the secret to transsexuality was not all that deep, that it revealed itself in all of the individual’s attitudes, at all times, in all the decisions he or she took, since early childhood. As far as I was concerned, the pain in the patient’s soul and their inner confusion would be so visible that one did not need to be a Freudian or Jungian psychoanalyst to make the diagnosis.
Armando’s search for answers and his personal quest for understanding lie at the heart of this book. He begins with a handful of stereotyped assumptions. He labels them, admits to them, and lays them out. In the end, as he comes to a clearer,more nuanced appreciation of the decision his patient chose to take to find happiness and the determination with which she pursued it.
The narrative tone is highly idiosyncratic, dictated by the analytical, mildly obsessive-compulsive, immodest character of Armando. Even when he begins to doubt and second-guess himself as the account progresses, he maintains the matter of fact, dry, clinical delivery of a psychiatric report. The attention to detail—his clothing choices, his tendency to note the approximate height and weight of people he encounters, even his reports of his own emotional ups and downs—all create the illusion of a sterile account. But when the careful veneer cracks from time to time, we see a moody, somewhat petulant character, prone to bursts of pride, mixed with episodes of guilt and shame. He is continually measuring himself against his own successes and failures. His internal machinations are fascinating.
Ultimately, Sergio Y. is novel that approaches the transgender experience from the inside and the outside, allowing for the comfort with names and pronouns to vary, over time and from person to person, reflecting the complexities of relationships that others, even loving family members, can have when an accepted and assumed identity is challenged. In his own journey to understand and set his mind at ease, the questions Armando raises and the answers he finds serve to create a moving and compassionate portrait of the transgender person’s conflicted internal experience and the search to find a way to be happy in the world.
Happiness may be an ideal; comfort or contentment might work as well. From my point on this same journey I would hasten to add that it can be a difficult and lonely path, but that does not mean it is not worth following. In fact, if it is the right path, there is no other. Semantics aside, this novel is an important, engaging read. It deserves to be written about and it needs to be discussed.
Sergio Y. is translated from the Portuguese by Alex Ladd and published by Europa Editions.