He knew how to sign his name, he had no reason to keep the ID card with just his thumbprint and a red stamp on top of it, illiterate. He had to change it, he was somebody else now. Knowing how to read and write was doing that him. Raimundo Gaudéncio de Freitas. Literate, alfabetizado.
The stories of those pushed out of their homes and communities when their sexuality or gender identity becomes known—or even for fear that their hidden truths might be revealed—have been, and are still, commonly echoed in societies around the world. For that reason alone it is important that such stories continue to be told. The Words that Remain by Stênio Gardel, a writer who was born in a rural part of northeastern Brazil, is an ambitious addition to the growing body of international LGBTQ literature.
This debut novel tells the story of an illiterate man who has carried a letter he has been unable to read for some fifty years. But, because it was written by the boy with whom he fell in love as a youth, he is unwilling to let anyone else read it to him. Now in his early 70s, he has learned the basics of reading and writing and yet the unread letter weighs heavily. The only son of a poor farmer, Raimundo was needed on the farm so he was denied the opportunity to go to school. As his father told him “writing was for people who don’t need to put food on the table.” Why then, when Cícero was well aware that he couldn’t read, did he insist on this form of communication rather than meeting at the river as planned so many long years ago? As he looks back over all the decades that have passed, Raimundo recalls his passionate affair with his childhood friend, hidden for a time from their families and their small agricultural community, and the violent, unforgiving reactions of their parents when they are exposed. When it becomes clear to him that he is no longer welcome in his family, Raimundo leaves, his final undecipherable message from Cícero carried close to his heart.
He makes his way to the Capital where he lives, closeted, for a quarter of a century. He supports himself picking up work with truckers, a life that allows him to enjoy the freedom of the open road and hide the fact that he is a man who likes men. His sexual indulgences are limited to the dark, dingy interior of a porn theatre when the opportunity arises. It is through the most unlikely friendship that he develops with a tough transgender sex worker named Suzzanný that he finally comes to peace with himself and settles into a new form of self-employment with a found family arrangement that, if not what he once imagined as a lovestruck young man, offers stability and affection. And, finally, the courage to learn to read and write.
There is much to like about this book and its intention, but the execution does it a disservice at times. Although he employs passages of third person narrative in setting the stage for this tale, it seems that Gardel is trying to achieve an immersive experience, pulling his reader into the world of a doubly marginalized man—gay and illiterate—by relying heavily on often fragmentary dialogue-driven scenes, in concert with extended passages of internal monologue that land somewhere between stream of consciousness and first-person remembrances. The chronology is choppy. Details from much later in the protagonist’s life are introduced early and out of context, whereas other events, such as the death of Raimundo’s twin brothers, are revealed awkwardly, some way into the story, leaving one to guess when it occurred. The result is a narrative that feels, especially through the middle third of the book, oddly pieced together, stretched thin. Overly simplified even.
With the final third, the narrative becomes much tighter and the timeframe starts to fall into place. Suzzanný, who is a wonderfully realized transgender character, acts as the catalyst that the protagonist needs to finally come into being as a fully fleshed person, a fact that then is also reflected in the storytelling. For someone who has been living in denial, in hiding and filled with shame for so much of his life this is understandable, but in Raimundo’s personal story a certain depth is lacking until he finds companionship—a different kind of love that brings meaning in more ways than one.
In the end, sadness and joy blend together in The Words that Remain to paint a moving story of LGBTQ existence that does not attempt to hide the alienation and loneliness that marks the lives of so many people who do not fit into the expectations of their societies. Opportunities are lost perhaps, but resilience and self-acceptance prove more important in the long run.
The Words that Remain by Stênio Gardel is translated from the Portuguese by Bruna Dantas Lobato and published by New Vessel Press.