"Phenotypes," Paulo Scott's second novel translated from Portuguese to English, concerns two brothers, Federico and Lourenço. Their father is Black and their mother is white. Lourenço has dark skin; Federico, who narrates the story, has light skin and can pass as white.
When he's young, Federico wants to feel more connected to Black culture and community. As an adult, he devotes his life's work to racial justice. In other words, "Phenotypes" isn't like Philip Roth's "Human Stain," Brit Bennett's "The Vanishing Half" or Nella Larsen's "Passing." Race is specifically complicated in Brazil, and Federico isn't trying to pass as white even though he's often perceived as being or acting white.
As the novel begins, Federico serves on a national committee working to address student protests against racial bias in college admissions. As the protests become more violent, the committee considers using software to remove human prejudice in the implementation of a racial quota system.
"Phenotypes" unfolds in Brasilia, where Federico lives, and in Porto Alegre, where Lourenço lives — and during two time spans: when Federico and Lourenço are teens and in the present time, when they are middle-aged men. Federico's committee work is interrupted when he is called home to Porto Alegre to confront a crisis after a gun the brothers hid for a friend when they were young turns up with Lourenço's daughter at a student protest. This sets up a compelling clash on how best to achieve a just world — in committee rooms or on the streets?
Scott approaches complex national and personal questions with tremendous thoughtfulness and skill. "Phenotypes" is a short novel styled by engaging and epically long sentences, and there are no throwaway moments or scenes. Midway through the novel, Federico rides with a cabdriver dressed in full gaucho to celebrate the Ragamuffin Revolution. The driver sees the commemoration as a way to celebrate a historic battle. Federico points out that rural landowners and political leaders betrayed the Blacks who fought alongside them. The driver takes mild offense and the ride, like more than a few of Federico's conversations, meets an awkward end.
In that short scene, national history and individual perspectives collide. Through it, Scott offers insights on Brazil, Federico and human nature as the specific becomes universal during an everyday moment. Around here, we're having similar "differences of opinion'' in grocery stores and at school board meetings. Federico and the cabdriver could have been discussing Buffalo Soldiers or the Tuskegee Airmen or how to teach history in America.
As Federico rides in cabs, attends committee meetings, visits with family members, and stops to listen to a band in a bar, the family drama intensifies. We travel with him and gain subtle insights on individual and place while we're treated to a keen, multifaceted and subtle look at the cultural and personal complexities of race and color and history. "Phenotypes" is entertaining. It's brilliant and emotionally resonant. I put it down days ago, and I'm still walking around with it.
Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet and critic in St. Paul.
By: Paulo Scott, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn.
Publisher: And Other Stories, 240 pages, $16.95.