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


More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South