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Adriana Lisboa: Azul-corvo (Crow Blue)

We first meet our heroine, Evangelina but known as Vanja, when she is thirteen. She is living in Copacabana with Elisa, her mother’s foster sister. She (both of them but I am talking about Vanja here) has a complicated background. Her mother, Suzana, had led a colourful life. By the age of nine her mother had lost her mother and gone to Texas with her geologist father. As an adult, she had moved to Albuquerque. She had married Fernando but the marriage did not last long. She then did not marry Daniel but had a child, Vanja, by him. When she fell pregnant to Daniel, an American, she disappeared from his life, and when Evanja was born in New Mexico she phoned her ex-husband Fernando, who lived to the north, in the state of Colorado, six hours away by car and four years after the couple had divorced. He came, registered himself as her father, and then left.

He had previously been a guerrilla, spending a lot of time in China, training to be a guerrilla, and then returning to Brazil (mainly overland), becoming part of the Araguaia Guerrilla movement. We learn a lot about his guerrilla activities. He had met Suzana on his way, when he was working in London and she was visiting London with a boyfriend.

Meanwhile Suzana and Vanja move back to Brazil, specifically to Copacabana, where Vanja grows up. Elisa was the daughter of the maid of Suzana’s grandmother. There was no father in the picture and the maid died giving birth to Elisa. Suzana was born later. Suzana’s grandparents brought up Elisa as their own. The women in this family died young, Suzana’s grandmother and mother died young and then Suzana herself died young. Vanja then remained with Elisa for a while but was not happy about it. She learned about Fernando and managed to track him down in Lakewood, Colorado. He does not seem to have a phone or email but he does have an address, so she writes to him. To her surprise and Elisa’s surprise. He agrees to take her in for a while. As she was born in Albuquerque, she is a US citizen.

So off she heads to Lakewood. Fernando keeps a low profile. He works as security guard in a library and also works part-time as a cleaner. He seems to be very low-key, so much so that Vanja wonders what her mother ever saw in him, given that she was a very lively woman.

In Lakewood, Vanja goes to school, makes a couple of friends at school but in particular, makes friend with Carlos, a neighbour four years younger than her, whose family are illegal immigrants from El Salvador. She teaches him English and some Portuguese and they remain friends.

While following all of these events (many of which are not told chronologically – for example we only gradually learn about Fernando’s guerilla activities), we also learn that Vanja is eager to track down her biological father, whom she has never met and who may not even be aware of her existence. Much of the rest of the book is about her attempt, with the aid of Fernando and others, to find him. Lisboa tells the story in such a way that the attempt to find him, including the long journey they make, is far more important than the outcome.

There are essentially three key issues covered in this book. For most of us, it is our biological parents who bring us up and who therefore, for better or for worse, influence us, both by nature and nurture. For Vanja and, even more so, for Elisa, the role of others in the upbringing is key. However, Vanja, not surprisingly, is eager to find not only her biological father but her technically legal father, Fernando. We learn a lot about Fernando but his parents play a minimal role.

The other key issue is immigration, both its cultural and legal aspects. Carlos and his family are illegal immigrants. The implications for them are very important and, indeed, Carlos continually talks about getting his papers, while the fear of deportation is important for his parents. The issue of illegal immgration comes up several times, for example with the very real case of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant Mexican farm worker who died while picking crops because of the heat and lack of water.

It is not just immigrants into the United States. The issue of Bolivians immigrating to Brazil is also discussed: Until a few years ago, they say there were 50,000 Bolivians in SP, but by last year the number had grown to almost 300,000!!!!!!! (99.9% illegal). And that was just in the city of SP – imagine how many there are in the whole of Brazil . . . (SP = São Paulo).

Vanja herself (when older) states it was the disease of Latin American immigrants in the first world: the desperate need to embrace the rich country with all their might and say I want a piece. My story isn’t just mine. It’s yours too. Lisboa makes it clear where her sympathies lie.

However, there is also the cultural issue of immigration. Vanja spent the first two years of her life in the United States but the rest in Brazil, so that when she returned to the United States, she found a very different world. From snow to the US slang, from clothing to the issue of personal space, she comes up against a whole host of cultural issues and, indeed, these occupy a fair amount of the early part of the book. She is not the only character to have these issues, not least because though the book is set primarily in the United States, we also visit Europe, Africa, South America and Asia, albeit very briefly.

The third key issue is the Brazilian guerrilla movement. We are given a huge amount of detail about this and, while she is mildly critical of the guerrillas, both for their naivety (e.g. expecting the people to rise up and support them) and for their rigidity, it is the Brazilian army and government she damns for their cruelty and viciousness. While the locals initially welcome the coming of the army, not least because they get attention they have never had before, in terms of improved health care, roads, housing and other facilities, when the army arrests locals for alleged support of the guerillas, and resort to torture and extrajudicial murders, they soon turn against them. Fernando survives but nearly all the guerrillas are killed.

Lisboa has written an excellent novel, which could have been trite, a thirteen year old girl looking for her father, but never is, not least because Vanja asks sensible questions and raises important issues while, at the same time, we follow many other characters, all of whom are different and all of whom are finding their path in life, in their own way, some successfully, some less so.

And Crow Blue? Vanja likes poetry – including Marianne Moore.

Publishing history

First published in 2010 by Rocco
First English translation in 2013 by Bloomsbury
Translated by Alison Entrekin