P's 3 Women by Paulo Emilio Sales GomesTuesday 07 Jan 2014
Publisher: Dalkey Archive, paperback
The Brazilian film critic Paulo Emilio Sales Gomes' only novel was originally published in Portuguese (Tres Mulheres De Tres Pppes) in 1977, the year he died, at the age of 61. Living at leisure amidst a São Paulo haute bourgeoisie milieu, the somewhat neurotic P recalls his decidedly odd relationships with three different women. He is known as P because he hates his full name, Polydoro, which he forbids his lovers to say in full.
P has been a wealthy businessman, who now, in the autumn of his life, reflects on his extraordinary amours. Indeed, we really only get to know him through the prism of his relationships with the three women, whom he courted at various stages in his life.
The first story, Twice with Helena, is easily the best of the three tales, and it was adapted for television in Brazil over a decade ago. The story concerns the married Helena, who P meets through his old professor. When the professor discovers that he and Helena cannot have children, the couple arrange an emotionally costly plan of seduction involving the young P, whom the professor idolises. One could imagine Neil Jordan making a great new film from this story.
The second story, Ermengarda with an H, tells of Ermengarda, who is separated from her husband - not divorced - so P cannot marry her. The relationship is a disaster, with her family continually haunting the house. Meanwhile, the lady in question keeps two diaries, one blue, one purple-covered, in which she painstakingly writes two different versions of her relationship to P.
P's 3 Women is acutely perceptive in its psychological insights, exploring different perspectives of the same events with great narrative skill. "I was always sensitive to the charge of selfishness," P reflects in the second story. "My sense of guilt is sufficiently broad for me to comprehend that the fact of an accusation being unjust doesn't mean that it is undeserved; it is only a matter of collecting by other means the secret debts one owes the world."
In the final story, Her Times Two, the elderly P is married to a young woman in her teens, only known as Her. He fears hospitals and plans to move out of the neighbourhood if a hospital is built. He avoids doctors, and respects the manner in which his young wife manages to hide her doctor's visits and medicines from him. This final story seems overly-convoluted and a bit too enamoured with its own narrative games.
You will not race through the 136 pages of P's 3 Women, as P's reflections and observations are compacted and dense in this work, ably translated by Margaret E Neves. Those reflections make you pause and think, intrigued by the gamut of strange human behaviour on show. There is a slight touch of Borges, and also the feel of a book that might have been published in 1777, rather than 200 years later. Sales Gomes has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov, to the early Philip Roth and to the Brazilian writer Machado de Assis (1839-1908), whose celebrated short stories will shortly be published by Dalkey Archive. www.dalkeyarchive.com.