Paulo Scott’s Phenotypes, translated by Daniel Hahn is, as the title suggest, a novel about race. It’s original title – Marrom e Amorelo (Brown and Yellow) – perhaps makes this even clearer, but obviously has entirely different connotations in English than in (Brazilian) Portuguese. Scott tackles the issue head-on as the novel opens with its protagonist, Federico, sitting on a committee considering the use of racial quotas in Brazil. Federico has an understanding of racial distinctions much closer to home as he is in appearance white, while his brother is not:

“I, with my very fair skin and straight brown hair verging on the blond, was considered white, and he, my brother, was considered black…”

And so even as a child his brother, Lourenco, has to suffer “the insults that had come out of the filthy mouths of three of his little bastard class-mates.” Years later Federico admits that even he did not fully understand the difference, giving as an example his refusal to use the flash when taking photographs as it’s “for amateurs” only for his brother to eventually tell him:

“But you’ve got to use it for me, otherwise when it’s kind of dark like now I don’t show up properly.”

Federico’s relationship with his brother will be one of the central strands of the novel, but in the meantime the committee allows Scott to highlight both the currency and the complexity of the race issue, and the difficulty of even defining ‘colour’, with black students unhappy with:

“Afro-convenient brown people, those who were merely inoffensively tanned and who’d decided to pose as true deep-down blacks in order to exploit the opportunity and surf on the advantage of quotas.”

Similarly, white students are accused of “getting themselves a few sessions in the tanning booth… perming their hair, getting lip injections…” Scott’s description of the committee suggests he could write an excellent political satire, but rather than being the focus of the novel this instead provides a context for the much more personal story it will tell, one that originates in Federico’s past when he arrives home to find his brother with a gun he has been asked to hide. Years later the gun resurfaces in the hands of Lourenco’s daughter, Roberta, when she is arrested on her way to a demonstration. Federico leaves the commission to help her, but she is dismissive of him, regarding his work as a link to the government:

“…she shrugged, and it was the first time I’d felt any kind of aggression from her, leaving me kind of unsure how to react from one moment to the next.”

One strength of the novel is that Federico’s character is far from perfect, and, in particular, is seen as arrogant and aloof by some of the other characters. For example, he is contrasted unfavourably with his brother in a bar in the neighbourhood where he grew up:

“I’m a fan of your brother’s. Lourenco never moved away, Lourenco’s not all theory, Lourenco just is.”

Complicating matters further, the policeman who is intent on charging Roberta is known to Federico from an incident years before:

“He’s a guy who’s been carrying a grudge against me and might want to take his hatred out on Roberta.”

The incident is a fight which breaks out one night in a queue to get into a club. It begins with a racist comment aimed at Federico’s cousin, Elaine, by another girl. The girl refuses to apologise, and the argument escalates, but it is Federico rather than the girl’s friends who resorts to violence first. This seems out of character and, indeed, it is as later we discover that Federico has had his own encounter with racism already that day. This is all cleverly revealed throughout the novel which alternates chapters set in the present with those in the past. This not only signals that racism persists (in fact, according to Federico’s father, “the group of people who think black men and women are disgusting is only growing”) but that the novel is, in part, about Federico facing up to his past, a place he has tried to escape from.

Phenotypes is a powerful novel which does not shy away from the complexity of its topic. It uses its structure and characters to explore racism from a variety of angles, but without ever seeming schematic or preachy. Federico’s flawed character is an important facet of this, seeing himself by the end perhaps like his father:

“…a man who is neither better nor worse than other men, carrying with him his rage and his intention not to make mistakes, never to make a single mistake.”


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3 Responses to “Phenotypes”

  1. Tony Says:

    Hmm, let’s just say that I’ll agree to disagree 😉

    • 1streading Says:

      I wasn’t sure of it at first but I took to it on reflection. I agree (as per your review) that some parts are under-developed and I wouldn’t be fighting for it to be on the shortlist. For some reason my favourite books from this publisher are never selected!

  2. International Booker Prize 2022 Longlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Phenotypes by Paulo Scott, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn (And Other Stories) […]

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