An evening with the Brazilian author Rafael Cardoso
Rafael Cardoso is a writer and art historian from Rio de Janeiro, who grew up in the USA. He has published three works of fiction, and countless books on Brazilian art and design history. He is currently living in Berlin, and is working on a novel based on his family’s experiences in Nazi Berlin. His great-grandfather Hugo Simon was a famous art collector, banker and politician, who owned paintings from Oskar Kokoschka, Max Pechstein and Edvard Munch and was friends with Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann. On 11th September, Rafael Cardoso will be talking about his hometown Rio de Janeiro at this year’s International Literature Festival Berlin. We caught up with him at the prelude to the festival in the Hotel Concorde Berlin, where he read from his most recent novel Entre as Mulheres which has just come out in Germany (“Sechzehn Frauen”) and answered a few questions about himself.
What made you want to write a book about Rio?
When I wrote the book in Rio and it was read by a Brazilian public, it was not so much about the city, it was more about these women’s lives. It’s interesting that in Germany, it has been received as a book about Rio. I’ve lived in Rio more than half my life, and Sechzehn Frauen is the third book I’ve published set there; I think it’s just I was so deeply involved in the city and the city was so much a part of me that everything that I wrote was connected to the city at that point. Whereas now I’m not writing about Rio.
You’re currently living in Berlin. Do you think influences will come from Berlin?
Certainly. The new book is about the story of my father’s family. They came from Berlin, so it really starts in Berlin in 1930 and follows these six characters: my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, my grandfather, grandmother and grand-aunt, and my father. It follows these six characters from the 1930s to the 1970s. They left Germany in 1933, and went to France and from France to Brazil.
Why did they leave?
Because of the war. They left in 1933. Someone said to me it’s a story about „Berliners in Exile“ and I think that’s an accurate assessment.
2013 is all about ‘Diversity Destroyed’ in Berlin, where the lives of some of those people affected by the Third Reich are being remembered. Was this your inspiration?
One of the 200 people whose story they chose to tell is my great-grandfather, Hugo Simon. So I’m dealing with a lot of raw emotions.
Did your family ever talk about Berlin?
No, never. I only started to find out about the real story when I was 16. Until then I was led to believe that my grandparents were French, because they lived in France for many years before they went to Brazil.
Did your family ever come back after the war?
No, no one ever came back. I’m the first person in my family to set foot in Germany since 1933.
How does that feel?
It’s very deep, emotional. It’s something that’s hard to talk about without sounding clichéd. Everything is very heavy and laden with meaning. I’m not like one of these tourists who shows up in Berlin and says „oh this is nice“. Everything has a history for me, I’m constantly dealing with the past here.
Is the book going to be factual?
No, that’s a really delicate issue. It’s a fiction. It’s a novel based on things that actually happened and the characters are actual people – they’re not made up. They’re people that actually lived and existed and I’m using real names mostly. This is based to a very high degree on what they did and what happened and the factual documentary evidence that we have. I’m also trained as an art historian and I’m researching this as if it were a book of art history. Where the fiction ends and the non-fiction begins is really one of the critical central issues for the book.
What do you think your family would say about the book?
Everyone is mostly deceased. My grandparents, my father. Everyone passed away a long time ago. My father died in 1987 so really the only people who are left are my brother and myself and my mother who is my father’s widow, but my mother’s family is all brazilian, so she’s not really emotionally very involved in this. None of these people are left to say their piece and I’m here sort of speaking for them, which i think is probably the strongest aspect of the book and also one of the most troubling.
Why did you decide to do it now?
I’ve been trying to do it for years. I think i’ve been writing this book all my life. Literally I’ve been trying to write this book since the year 2000. It’s over half way now. So I expect it to be finished by the beginning of next year. Hopefully it will be published in 2014, if not early 2015.
How does it feel to have your work translated into German?
Not every book can be harry potter, but everyone wants to reach their largest potential audience, and brazilian literature is not read very much in brazil. Brazilians are not big on brazilian literature. So you have very small print runs, it gets very cliquey and clubby, everyone knows each other. I find that very suffocating. I want to reach a wide audience. I try to write texts that are accessible. Pradoxically here in Germany people are responding to my book in the way that I hoped they would in Brazil; People are really reading it and enjoying it, saying they find it entertaining and at the same time it says something that moves them, that is deep, that strikes a nerve.
Click on the gallery below to view pictures from the evening at the Hotel Concorde Berlin or go along to the International Literature Festival Berlin on 11th September from 9pm to see Rafael Cardoso in person (more information).