Bahia Blues is a remarkable début novel by an author of Lebanese and Brazilian parentage. It was originally published in 2003 in French, under the title Les Enfants de la Place, winning Traboulsi the Young Francophone Writer’s Award that year.
The book is set in the provincial Salvador de Bahia square and the hyper-violent favelas of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The cast of characters – archetypes all, but drawn with real humanity and warmth – speak directly to the reader in voices that range from honest to evasive, unlettered to poetic. Under the benevolent dictatorship of Maria Aparecida, ‘Queen of the Square’, the inhabitants go about their various businesses. Pipoca, a diabetic popcorn vendor, nurses an unrequited love for naïve convent caretaker Ivone; Ze and Manuel, HIV-positive teenagers, eke out a precarious existence as beggars; and seven-year-old Sergio, already head of his large family, sells sweets and perfumed handkerchiefs to tourists.
Into this impoverished but cohesive community comes an agent of change in the person of ‘Gringa’, an outsider whose very presence forces the inhabitants of the square to look afresh at their circumscribed lives. Dazzled by the opulence of TV soap operas and seduced by the whispered promise of better lives, one by one they leave the known world of the square for the uncertainty and chaos of the cities.
This is the central dilemma of poverty – to stay within the limits of an impoverished existence, or to strike out into the unknown. Yasmina Traboulsi has crammed a whole world of possibilities and choices into a short novel and Bahia Blues is a triumphant début from a writer of unquestionable talent.