The Azorean writer Álamo Oliveira, from the island of Terceira, wrote the seminal novel, “Já não gosto de Chocolates,” published in 1999, out of print for a while, but now back to the reading public with a second edition in 2017. Although I read the book in the original Portuguese, I was equally delighted to read it in the 2006 English translation, “I No Longer Like Chocolates.”
It’s the ubiquitous story of every Azorean family’s journey from the Old World to the new promised-land, America. With heartbreaking honesty, the life of protagonist Joe Sylvia is retold through memory as he sits in his wheelchair tended by a private nurse in an expensive nursing home where his children visit him dutifully, yet less and less over time, while he reminisces and tries to make sense of a life that started with the dream of the anticipation of tasting American chocolates, and ended up with him no longer liking them. Despite having worked hard to become a prosperous dairy farmer in Tulare, California, Joe Sylvia and his wife could not buy the happiness they dreamed of. And thus, the symbolism of chocolate is not lost on the reader: the dream is sweet; the reality, bitter.
There is much richness in the universal depiction found in each of the characters in the novel. Who can read this story and not recognize their own immigrant mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers, grandparents — families with their ambitions and struggles coming to terms with their new country while memories of the old clash with the new, and the challenges of life in another language and a different way of being in the world is sometimes more of a loss rather than a gain?
But what particularly stood out and resonated for me in a very personal way in “Já não gosto de Chocolates” was reading for the first time in a Portuguese novel about a son who, like me, was an outsider because he was gay. The strength of Oliveira’s novel is that he fleshes out the gay character as being as integral to the story as his other family members, and not relegated to the usual silences, absences, hiddenness, or worse, demeaning easy stereotypes found in other works of Portuguese literature.
Oliveira’s daringly truthful portrayal of John, the younger son, who dies an agonizing death — not only because of the AIDS that destroyed his life, but because his family rejected him — confirmed my intuition honed since youth that in order to survive being who I was, I had to find my own private island to live on, on the periphery of family life. John’s sister Maggie’s pronouncement on the family, that “We are a family of merdas,” of shits, painfully reminded me of how devastating it has been for many gay sons and daughters of Azoreans to be their real selves and experience belonging within their families. And yet, as she acknowledged, “He, the queer, was the one who never left [his mother’s] deathbed.”
If nothing else, Álamo Oliveira’s beautiful chapter on John and his partner Danny forces readers to face with raw honesty that one family member who everyone knows about but would rather keep in the closet — or, at least, have living far away in San Francisco, Toronto, or any other urban centre that will welcome, shelter, and protect the “deviant” child from the vergonha, the shame brought upon his family. Perhaps this attitude and prejudice, still so prevalent in Azorean society at the time of the novel, is no longer as true for most Azorean families, just as it is no longer the case with so many Portuguese and other ethnic groups around the world. So I’d like to believe it, but yet I intuit that it’s not totally true, either. We still hear of stories… but whether in the old country or the overseas communities that have sprung up in the new world, there is a sense of tolerance and acceptance that certainly wasn’t there during my youth.
With a mixture of sorrow, truth, and humour, Oliveira’s “I No Longer Like Chocolates,” whether read in the original language or the beautiful English translation, will offer the reader a profound insight into the world of the dream and the after-dream of immigrant lives with unflinching candour, and the rejection of the “and they lived happily ever after” American illusion. As Joe’s nurse companion Rosemary, announcing his death to his children, said, “It’s no great tragedy. He no longer liked American chocolates.”