The OF Blog: Alice Vieira, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Alice Vieira, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome

Por tudo isto é que eu aviso:  a partir de agora só respondo pelo nome de Luís.  O Abílio morreu, emigrou, foi raptado, deu-lhe um ataque de bexigas doidas, o que vocês quisere, mas acabouse, e que ninguém, nunca mais, me chame tal nome.

(For all this is what I warn:  from now on I only respond to the name of Luís.  Abílio died, he emigrated, he was kidnapped, he came down with chicken pox, whatever you want, but it's over, and no one, evermore, shall call me by that name.)

Our names are the keys to our identities.  It is what others associate with us and what allows us to differentiate ourselves from others.  But sometimes, we are burdened with a "funny" name.  Whether it is something as innocuous as there being a recent surge of the use of my name, Larry, for ugly beer-drinking dogs, recastings of Ernest T. Bass in a food commercial, or that punching bag of a neighbor/friend that is too much of a wussy to defend himself in certain commercials, or if it's a name that rhymes with body parts (such as one schoolmate having a last name that rhymed with "pencil dick"), we can become sensitive to how our names stick out.  Sometimes, such as the case of my own father, initials are adopted to disguise the unusual names chosen.  Other times, we adopt nicknames as a means of discarding discretely those names that shame us.

In Portuguese writer Alice Vieira's children's novel, Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome (Journey Round My Name), young Abílio hates that his name stands out in a crowd and at school.  He wants it changed; he wants to fit in with the "normal" kids who have nondescript names like Manuel or Luís.  He resents the unusual name that his mother chose for him and he does his best to convince friends and family to call him by his chosen moniker of Luís.  Through all this, we see Abílio's daily school life and his interactions with others; some think of humoring him, while others are puzzled at why he is so adamant about being called by another name.

Vieira explores this youthful frustration and desire for social acceptance by dividing the narrative into two parts, one of which is seen in a limited third-person vantage point that focuses on Abílio's thoughts and another narrative that is more personal in scope.  It took a while (hindered by my spotty knowledge of written Portuguese) to grasp the connections between the main Abílio-centered narrative and the other narrative, but ultimately the two meshed together well.  Vieira does not condescend here; she treats Abílio's shame over his name quite seriously and in doing so, allows those readers who may have had their own past (or present) issues with their names to empathize with Abílio and to place themselves in his situation.

In reading Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome, I was reminded of Judy Blume's Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing in the direct manner in which the protagonist's concerns are presented throughout the narrative.  Although there were times that I felt that Abílio's situation was foreign to me, this was largely due to encountering descriptions of everyday Portuguese primary school life, which differs in certain key elements from the late 1970s to mid-1980s American elementary school setting of my youth (it should be noted that this book came out in 1987, as doubtless many features in both countries have changed significantly over the following generation).  This did not hinder my enjoyment much (if anything, it made me focus even more on the narrative in order to decipher the classroom dynamics), but it certainly underscored some differences between 1970s-1980s American and Portuguese life for school-age children.

On the whole, I found Vieira's book to be very well-written.  As I said above, she does not talk down to her target audience and she does an excellent job in capturing the conflicting emotions that children such as Abílio may feel.  Too often children's/YA writers can be dishonest with their audiences, not truly striving to speak to them (and perhaps for them through their characters).  Vieira does not do this in Viagem à Roda do Meu Nome.  Instead, she tells a simple, unadorned story that nevertheless is evocative because it touches upon concerns that several of us may have had in the past regarding who we are and how well we fit in with the society around us.  That does not happen enough in any genre of writing, much less children's literature, and Vieira's accomplishment here makes this novel one that should be worth reading.

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