All Dogs Are Blue is a beautifully nuanced portrayal of mental illness. Rodrigo de Souza Leão has given us a story set in a Brazilian mental institution which isn’t a caricature of lunacy. The author does not fall into the familiar stereotypes. He does not confine his narrator within a prison of horrors. Nor does Souza Leão romanticize the disease, assigning it the attributes of genius. The narrator has schizophrenia, but he is not defined by it. He possesses a consciousness and humanity outside of his mental illness.
The unnamed narrator is a patient at a Rio de Janeiro asylum. In the course of his free-flowing, stream-of-conscious narrative he tells us about his daily routine, gives his observations on his fellow patients, his parents and caregivers, tells how he came to be committed and shares his reoccurring delusions. Two of these, Baudelaire and Rimbaud, are his best friends – the angel and the devil on his shoulders. He masturbates a lot. A loose subplot hinges on another inmate, The Fearsome Madman, and provides some comic relief. All Dogs Are Blue is a book full of contradictions. When it is funny, it’s hilarious. When it is serious, it’s heartbreaking.
This is by no means a traditional narrative, filtered as it is through the narrator’s – sometimes lucid, sometimes delusional – perceptions. The routine of the asylum can be mind-numbingly boring, and yet the narrator is constantly striving to find beauty and meaning inside this narrow world. While Souza Leão is no slouch as a novelist, his true calling is as a poet. I recommend reading this book for the richness of the prose; the shifts between reality and delusion; the beautiful and surreal imagery; and the symbolism of a blue toy dog. Each and every word, up until the last period, counts.
All Dogs Are Blue is – at its heart – a long, shimmering prose poem beautifully translated by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler.
I’ve been to China. Saying it like that makes it sound like I’ve travelled a lot. It was a very pretty place, full of people, bicycles and lots of clouds. The clouds, the clouds. There I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was a foreigner and I was madly in love with those far-away clouds, oh those wonderful clouds! Shapes in the sky. When the day is like that, a sunny day, a day like today, I no longer want to get out of here. I’ll sleep in the calm green of 6 mg of Lexotan. Hold on tight to my blue dog and enter into a pact with happiness. Remember China, its bicycles, its blood-red flag and, finally, those incredible clouds in the Chinese sky. I think I’ll be happier once I’ve taken the bloody blood oath. I want to die of anything, anything but of a chip I swallowed.
This is also a semi-autobiographical novel. It’s Brazilian author, Rodrigo de Souza Leão, died in an institution. He, like his protagonist, was not a man defined by his illness. His artistic output during his too short life (1965-2008) was enormous. He was the author of at least four novels, more than ten books of poetry and was co-founder/editor of the Brazilian poetry magazine Zunái. He was a blogger and maintained friendships with several other important Brazilian poets and authors through email and social media. In addition he was a visual artist whose paintings were posthumously exhibited, in a solo exhibition, at Rio’s Museum of Modern Art. Most dream of, but few succeed in, leaving behind such a legacy.
The English edition of All Dogs Are Blue, published by And Other Stories includes an Introduction by Deborah Levy and the Publisher’s Preface to the Second Brazilian Edition by Jorge Viveiros de Castro (Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s Brazilian publisher) who was a friend of the author’s.