Framed by Freud’s psychoanalytical theories of the subconscious and the onset of film as an artistic medium, Walter Benjamin posited the “optical unconscious,” an unexplored dimension of our visual reality that the mind extracts out of everyday experience. Benjamin believed that photographic technology gained access to this unconscious, revealing facets of the physical world previously out of reach. Just as psychoanalysis lent a deeper understanding of our mental processes by unearthing the instincts we repress, film could display the physical dimensions that escape our everyday perception. In João Almino’s “The Book of Emotions,” originally published in 2008 and now translated into English by Elizabeth Jackson, the “optical unconscious” takes on emotional import. Almino explores this hidden region of experience in telling the tale of Cadu, a blind photographer, who recalls his life through his collections of old photographs that he remembers with perfect precision. Though this unique approach to a fictional memoir is innovative and full of emotional experiences, the descriptions of Cadu’s photographs never reach the grand artistic effect and connection that the reader assumes Almino will deliver.
The novel operates on several temporal planes and details the quotidian struggles of Cadu’s life after he is blinded in an accident. The novel functions as a memoir within a diary: The details of his life in 2022, where he lives alone with his dog in Brasília, unfold alongside sections from his memoir-in-progress, also titled “The Book of Emotions.” He tells his story over six months in the present and 61 photos from the past, as he grapples with both the loneliness of old age and the emptiness of his womanizing past. Though the descriptions of the photographs that conclude each chapter of the memoir are evocative of beauty and life, they do not live up to the excessively high expectations that Cadu’s adoration for his photographic craft builds throughout.
Cadu writes in the present of the photographs he plans to use: “Those photographs reveal themselves in rich detail in my memory.... My blindness reveals their essence, for in the end, to best see a photograph, you have to close your eyes.” This compelling idea near the novel’s opening is a powerful statement of Almino’s thematic intent. As Cadu guides the reader through photographs of his lovers and enemies and the stories of intrigue and corruption behind them, the reader sees his history only through the basis of his fascinating assertions. Yet while the vibrant emotions behind Cadu’s photographs are immediately apparent, their effect, unfortunately, proves difficult to translate to the reader—perhaps because the photographs are never seen in the book’s pages, only described. The reader is thus unfortunately unable to fully appreciate the power of the world Cadu captured behind his lens.
For Cadu, his photographs are his memory, and accordingly they are his way of digesting the past in his waning present. His photographs are thus the easiest way for him to tell his story, and two of his greatly contrasting photography exhibitions exemplify his trials in life and art. The exhibition he is most artistically proud of—his “triangles,” which feature the private parts of a number of women—was a flop, while his most successful exhibition was a series of portraits of Eduardo, the corrupt politician who stole his former lover Joana. The portraits, Cadu’s great plan of revenge, were intended to expose and caricature Eduardo in front of the entire city. Instead, the public hailed the photographs as a testament to his humorous ability to portray a distinguished person so grotesquely. Just as the reader may find it difficult to connect with the obviously beautiful but emotionally removed photographs of Cadu, so does his audience fail to understand the intended meaning behind his work. Though he himself clearly draws great inspiration and emotion from his photographs—despite not having seen them in years—it is a near-impossible task to translate this same connection to readers without showing the photographs themselves. While probably an unintentional parallel, this mirrored experience is an interesting manifestation of Almino’s underlying unique ideas about the disconnect between art and reality.
Cadu’s greatest frustration thus lies in the fact that other people never interpret his photography in the way he intends. The photographer eventually comes to terms with his own shortcomings and describes his struggles with the elegant description of senescence, “Age doesn’t have its own virtues. It affects each person differently. It just reacts, like a chemical product, to whatever we already carry inside ourselves.” Just like a perfectly defined image appears on photo paper through complicated chemical processes, Cadu reconstructs his memories, despite his blindness, by conjuring up his photographs.
But as he acknowledges, intensity of experience, in a photograph or in old age, varies greatly among subjects and objects depending on their distinct perspective. Cadu’s complex relationship to his art finds expression in the novel as he frequently recalls his nihilistic brother’s favorite phrase, “Reality is reality.” This plain statement seems both out of place and oddly fitting in a novel that tries to represent reality in a new way. Almino looks for art in unexpected places: It is the process of recalling and writing about the photographs that is art, he appears to posit, not only the photographs themselves.
Eventually, Almino’s innovation becomes his demise, for a book whose depth rests on the beauty and power of photographs that the reader cannot see is intrinsically unfulfilling. Certainly, art exists in that unfulfilled desire. Indeed, this desire mirrors Cadu’s melancholic nostalgia as he blindly pieces together his past. But ultimately the novel does not deliver on its implicit promise to explore the most detailed aspects of human behavior: it is not quite the “Book of Emotions” it positions itself to be.