Review: Daniel Galera’s “The Shape of Bones”

Daniel Galera’s The Shape of Bones is one of the most macho novels I have ever read. The Brazilian novelist’s story begins with a section called “The Urban Cyclist” that opens with this sentence: “No terrain is impossible for the Urban Cyclist.” And it concludes fifteen pages later—after a catalog of all the problems a high-speed bicyclist can encounter (cobblestone streets, loose gravel, imperfections in the pavement, dogs, unexpected holes, slick areas because of moisture, fallen objects)—with a bloody tumble: “The true Urban Cyclist cannot be fazed by wounds and bleeding resulting from the accidents that sooner or later happen. His knee continues to bleed all the way back up Reservation Street, shedding bad blood. A trickle of red runs from his lower lip over his chin and drips between his legs from time to time. It is as if cameras hidden behind lampposts are recording his physical tenacity, his dynamic recovery after a spectacular fall. Every red drop is awaited with anticipation.”

There’s a certain sadistic love of blood; his body—as an adult, at thirty—is covered with scars and pit marks from all the falls and battles from his youth, though his brutal past was left long ago when be entered medical school and subsequently became a plastic surgeon. When he was in his mid-teens, he and his masculine friends took delight in brawls, shifting loyalties, downhill racing that was expected to result in a bad accident, but, also, a badge of courage from honor and incipient manhood. There’s a scene in the novel, when Hermano (the main character) refuses to let another doctor use a local anesthetic before he patches him up, followed by the observation, “It was very painful, but every time the needle pierced his flesh he was certain it was precisely what he had hoped to feel. It was a therapy of sorts, slowly soothing him, bringing his entire body back under control.” In short, it’s pain that is desired.

You could argue that that pain—that challenge to test has body again as a successful adult surgeon—is what drives Hermano to agree to climb another mountain with his friend, Renan, also a practitioner of extreme sports. They’ve climbed numerous mountains in South America together. But this time it’s different because Cerro Bonete in the Bolivian Andes has never been successfully climbed by anyone. Probably because it’s a volcano, covered with ice: “he considered climbing first and foremost a kind of meditation, an exercise in self-knowledge extended to each of the body’s two hundred and twelve muscles…a complex economy of muscular effort and balance, a dance of contraction and repose led by a mind that was focused and disconnected from everything that was not body or rock.”

To get to Cerro Bonete, they have to leave Brazil, cross the Bolivian border and drive up treacherous roads to “almost thirteen thousand feet on the Bolivian Plateau,” then rest for a few days before hiking several miles and setting up a base camp. Hermano’s wife tries to dissuade him from risking the climb, reminding him of their young daughter. There’s also the question of Renan’s recklessness, in contrast to Hermano’s skilled control as a surgeon. “There had never been a more mismatched pair of climbers.”

Then, a big surprise. They day of their departure, Hermano (who will be driving) is expected to pick up Renan at six o’clock, an hour they argue over
because Herman thinks they need to leave much earlier. Renan—always too casual about their objectives—says he needs the additional sleep. But, after departing before six without saying good-bye to his wife, who he knows is feigning sleep, Hermano begins to muse about his childhood, an early sexual encounter with a thirteen-year-old girl, the death one of the guys in his group, and—finally—his memory of an ugly incident where he acted less than honorably. In his flash of memories, Hermano remembers playing computer games with his friends, gang fights especially over girls (“there were still traces of the conviction that girls were to be fought, not made pregnant”), even the memory of one of his friends who was only fifteen suddenly announcing that he’s gotten pregnant a girl who was sixteen and that they will be married. Obviously, he realizes that that could have happened to him.

It was a super masculine world even when they were young, or at least the pretense that they had to be masculine, rough with girls, and—above all—willing to get bloodied from fights, scrapes with destiny, and stupid feats of risk that inevitably led to trips to the hospital. So the question becomes what happens when you become an adult and you’ve got responsibilities to your own family? Do you still engage in high-risk activities that may reinforce the belief that you’re still young but may also lead to your own sudden death—and death of others?

The story is bloody throughout, and that makes me curious about the title of Daniel Galera’s earlier novel (Blood-Drench Beard) that I have not read.

Daniel Galera: The Shape of Bones
Trans by Alison Entrekin
Penguin Press, 228 pp., $25


Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.