Jackie Kabir
What started out as a short story titled Sundowners in The New Yorker in 2006 later developed into the novel Alentejo Blue. It is Monica Ali’s second novel. Her much acclaimed first work Brick Lane was about a Bangladeshi village girl named Nazneen, who moved to London after her marriage. The novel of 400 pages revolves around her life along with a parallel story of her sister Hasina, who lives a perilous life on meagre earnings.
A movie was made based on Ali’s book and created a lot of commotion among the Sylheti community, which makes up nearly 90% of the UK’s Bangladeshi population. The film makers were forced out of the Brick Lane area after a public declaration that the book would be burnt on the streets like that of Salman Rushdie, another controversial British born Indian writer. The movie was then filmed elsewhere and the well-known feminist writer Germaine Greer noted in her article in The Guardian, “It hurts to be misrepresented, but there is no representation without misrepresentation.”
Monica Ali was supported by writer Salman Rushdie, who became a target of wrath after publishing the book Satanic Verses. A fatwa was declared by Iranian spiritual leader Ayatullah Khomeni, who ordered that the writer be killed.
This second Ali novel is set in a very different environment, away from Bangladesh or even the United Kingdom. There is no central character in the novel. Rather a number of protagonists appear in the tale from time to time. One of the protagonists is an English writer, Harry Stanton, in a rural landscape in the west of Portugal. He gets entangled in the lives of the Potts, a family living in a farmhouse. “Alentejo.” The name of this southern province of Portugal is stressed on the third syllable_ A-len-TAY-jo- and the ‘j’ is similar to the French ‘j’ in ‘jolie’.” This is how Monica Ali introduces her second novel to her readers.
The work is a collection of loosely-woven stories narrated by many different voices. The narration also goes back and forth through the past and present. A reader has to pay a lot of attention to keep track of the different episodes. There are far too many characters which do not develop even as the novel concludes. It is like listening to a traveller who has journeyed along southern Portugal, getting glimpses of different villages or communities as he passes by. The book starts with Joao finding his life-long best friend and lover’s body hanging from a tree. Suicides among the Portuguese males have been on the rise lately.
The book is living proof of the plight of western Europe’s poorest region coupled with the stagnation brought about by forty years of rule by the dictator Antonio Salazar. The writer who tries to befriend the family gets physically involved with both the mother and the daughter. The portrayal of an ancient city like Evora is drawn with extreme dexterity. Foreigners are also abundant in Alentejo Blue. The couple Huw and Sophie come to visit the southern province before their wedding as they want to ease out the pressure of their wedding. There are other characters like Teresa, who dreams of leaving Portugal for England and making it big there.
A lot of comparisons with England are also made in the book; glimpses of the cultural differences are there, like no birthdays are celebrated with friends. Parties almost always involve immediate and extended family members. One of the plots takes place in Mamarossa, a village where which retains its traditional way of life and which is threatened by a big businessman named Marco Alfonso Rodrigues, who has come to invest in big hotels. People like Vasco, the local pub owner, find his presence very threatening. The writer may have wanted to show the consequences of the exploitation of unspoilt rural landscapes. A murmur spreads through Mamarossa as the villagers feel that it may be prey to civilization and Vasco may never have his pigs’ ears and tails salad to be sold.
There is another couple, Eileen and her husband, the latter like a fact freak who takes all opportunities to belittle his wife. They have a son whose homosexuality is not discussed by his father and thus not paid any attention to. The couple Huw and Sophie are really bird watchers. Sophie is more like a neurotic who has nervous fits every now and then. Numerous characters like Telma Ervanaria, Antonio and the taxi driver Silvio make the book a bit ill-suited for reading at leisure everyday. It is a work that should rather be read at one go so that one doesn’t forget who is related to whom and what they were doing prior to the present situation.
The narrative style also has to be kept in mind as a reader goes through the book. Otherwise it may so happen that one will get confused as to who the narrator is.
Brick Lane remains Monica Ali’s much acclaimed book which has already been made into a film. Alentejo Blue may not even be remembered or have the kind of impact that Brick Lane had.

Jackie Kabir teaches English language; she can be contacted at

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