Os Transparentes (The Transparent Ones), published by Caminho in Portugal and Companhia das Letras in Brazil, is the 2013 winner of the Saramago Prize

his feet were used to covering many kilometres a day, they were old feet in a young body

the ShellSeller enjoyed stepping on the sand of PraiaDaIlha and on the ground that glistened in his nightmares; he had a home in the neighbouring province of Bengo but he had fallen in love with Luanda at an early age thanks to its salt sea

he called the sea the ‘salt sea’

and every day he looked at it with the same passion, as if he had discovered it with his skin and his tongue only the day before

he would dive down slowly – touching a woman – he tasted the salt and relived the constant surprise he dived for as long as his lungs let him and his eyes held out, he knew the rocks and the canoes, the fishermen and the women who sold wares from their baskets, the smell of the dried fish he helped to store was ingrained in his hands. above all, he knew the shells

the shells

he had grown up in Bengo, in its rivers, amongst the tilapia, but one day he found the salt sea with its canoes, and the poles used to propel the canoes along, and its shells

“elder-one, will you make me one of those poles?”

“you haven’t even got a canoe, and you don’t go out to sea”

“… I want a pole to navigate onshore: I’m going to propel my life!”

on PraiaDaIlha he was known as a hard-working and honest young man

he helped carry fish, his smile ever friendly and innocently seductive, he helped with the selling and ran errands, he sent salt and money to his relatives in Bengo

the feet of the ShellSeller, over the years, crystallised like the outer hull of the Ilha canoes, so that shards and nails merely tickled him – but in spite of this he wore the leather sandals given to him by his cousin

a bead necklace around his neck

a sack of shells on his back and half-shut eyes that gave away no secrets

he’d heard of MariaWithStrength, of her many business ventures, and thought that perhaps she might be interested in his shells

with dressmakers he highlighted the shells’ tinkling sounds, with hairdressers that beads were out of fashion, and with crooks he would quickly apologise for carrying nothing more than a sack full of useless trinkets”

he had them in every colour and style, for practical purposes or just for decoration, in so many shapes and prices that it was impossible to cross paths with him without succumbing to the temptation of keeping a shell for immediate or future use: with women he spoke slowly to allow space for their imagination and their respective needs, to street inspectors he offered shells you could pin to your hair that they could give as gifts to their lovers, to men he suggested practical uses for their offices or their cars, to ambassador’s wives he presented the shells as exotic gifts that nobody else would think to give at Christmas, to lamp-makers he spoke of the advantages of the enormous hollow shells and of the effect of the light on that maritime substance, to priests he illustrated the difference one would make to their altar, he recommended them as a souvenir to old women, and as fun pendants to younger ones, to children – as toys that would make other children jealous, to nuns he sold clusters of shells in the shape of a crucifix, to restaurant owners he sold them as plates for starters or as ash trays, with dressmakers he highlighted the creative potential of the material and of the shells’ tinkling sounds, with hairdressers he pointed out that beads were out of fashion, and, with crooks, the ShellSeller would quickly apologise for carrying nothing more than a sack full of useless trinkets

it was at a red light that the ShellSeller met the BlindMan; he slid his sack off his back and onto the ground and the BlindMan liked the sound of the shells

“have you got good hearing?”

“I don’t understand”

“have you got really good hearing?”

“I’ve only got ordinary hearing. are you talking about the noise of the bag? they’re shells”

“I know they’re shells. I’m Blind but I know the sound of things. it’s not that…”

“what is it then?”

“it’s that I can hear the sound of the salt inside the shells”

the ShellSeller didn’t know what to say, the BlindMan didn’t say anything the light turned green but neither of them moved

Xilisbaba left the greengrocer’s with bags of vegetables, accompanied by her daughter Amarelinha; the ShellSeller’s lips became serious – he didn’t understand the look in Amarelinha’s eyes as she sweated and balanced still more bags

“what is it?” the BlindMan asked

“I don’t know,” the ShellSeller hoisted his sack onto his back again

the sound of the shells, or the salt, drew Amarelinha’s attention

her body passed by their bodies, but only the BlindMan knew to think how many smells that body carried: ripe mango, night-time tears, black tea and tea made from the root of the papaya tree, dirty money, washing powder, old sisal, newspaper, carpet dust, mufete

mother and daughter walked quickly towards the building, they went inside, skirting the puddles next to the empty lift shaft, Amarelinha hiked up her dress and followed her mother who knew the stairs better than she did

on the fourth floor, and already very out of breath, they bumped into their neighbour Edu

“how goes it, Edu, are you better?”

“I don’t get any better these days. I’ve not been any worse either. we keep ticking along, dona Xilisbaba”

“all right”

“I’d like to help, but I’ve not got the strength,” he spread his enormous hands in an apologetic gesture

“don’t worry. we’ve only two floors left now”

“is the water down there under control?”

“yes, same as ever”

Edu lived permanently on the fourth floor, and the longest journey he made was from the inside of his apartment to the corridor, to smoke and breathe the polluted Luanda air, he walked with difficulty and had been visited by international experts interested in his case

he had a gigantic hernia next to his left testicle, more commonly known as an mbumbi, which grew bigger or smaller depending on the weather conditions, but which also obeyed psychosomatic factors, and for this reason he was visited by students from a wide range of fields, from the natural sciences to the social ones via the metaphysical, as well as by witchdoctors and even some curious amateurs. from what people said, he had turned down invitations to operate from the angolans, the swedes and the cubans because nobody had yet offered him an amount that could cover his fear

“besides which, I’m used to it now: each of us different in our own way…”

Amarelinha looked at the floor, waiting for her mum to catch her breath so they could carry on

“your daughter gets more beautiful by the day,” Edu remarked, “any day now she’ll be introducing us to her boyfriend”

Amarelinha became flustered and smiled out of politeness; they climbed the remaining steps in silence

on the fifth floor they found the MuteComrade, helpful and silent, an excellent cook of grilled food thanks to his secret method of preparing the charcoal, especially when charcoal was scarce

from his flat came the sounds of the muxima music sung by WaldemarBastos and Xilisbaba thought of her husband

the MuteComrade was sitting by his door peeling potatoes and onions, two huge sacks of them, and Amarelinha marvelled, once again, at the man’s patience in executing his task

everyone knew that when it came to peeling the MuteComrade was tireless and perfectionist

“good morning,” he murmured

“good morning,” Xilisbaba answered

his neighbours turned to his sharp army knife out of habit, and the street vendors on the ground floor, who sold skewered snacks and blood sausage sandwiches to people on the go, would also call on his domestic set-up to fry their chips in tired oil

Amarelinha’s movements were delicate and precise and those same hands busied themselves with threads and beads to create necklaces, rings and bracelets as quickly as young girls made up reasons to buy them”

they got to the sixth floor

Amarelinha let go of the bags at the front door and knocked twice slowly GrandmotherKunjikise came to open it

an old metal watering can was waiting for Amarelinha in the corridor and the row of colourful vases was carefully watered. Amarelinha’s movements were as delicate and precise as GrandmotherKunjikise’s, and those same hands, in the afternoon, busied themselves with threads and beads to create necklaces, rings and bracelets as quickly as young girls made up reasons to buy them

“we’ll get a good business going, my love,” MariaWithStrength, who lived on the second floor, would say to her, “you come in with the labour and material, I’ll sell directly to the clients”

under the watchful eye of her husband, Xilisbaba put away the things in the kitchen cupboards; Odonato watched people and paid attention to the ways of their hands, he liked to look at GrandmotherKunjikise cooking slowly, he pretended to read the paper but was actually admiring the speed and precision of his bead-stringing daughter, he himself had once been skilful with wood but his tasks during his time as a civil servant had undone some of that sensibility

“stamping documents… that’s what killed my graceful gestures”

Odonato watched the hands and the food, all of which had either been given to them for free or found in the leftovers at the supermarket that somebody they knew worked at

“now we only eat the things other people don’t want,” he remarked

“it’s a sin to throw out good food”

“it’s a sin that there’s not enough food for everybody,” Odonato concluded, leaving the kitchen and heading to the balcony

he looked at the city, the chaotic bustle of cars, people in a rush, street vendors, chinese motorbikes, big jeeps, a postman, the car that went by with its siren on and a BlindMan holding hands with a young man carrying a sack on his back

“worried?” Xilisbaba drew closer

“no news from Sage, nobody’s heard from him”

SageOfTheKee, Odonato’s oldest child, spent his adolescence lurching from bar to bar: he became a partner in a famous nightclub but ended up a perennially late doorman, he stole needles from a chemists’ and developed a heroin habit, and now, in his later youth, and as part of a rastafari group in Luanda, he was living a life of ganja and petty theft

aimless by vocation, he would wake early to have more time to do nothing, and he nurtured his obsession with one day owning an American jeep – a GrandCherokee; his friends baptised him ‘Sage of the GrandCherokee’ and it quickly got shortened to SageOfTheKee.

“is there anything we can do?”

“we can hope he doesn’t do anything else.”

Translated by Ana Fletcher from the novel Os transparantes (The Transparent Ones). Reproduced by kind permission of Mertin Witt Literarische Agentur.

Author portrait © Daniel Mordzinski

Author portrait © Daniel Mordzinski

Ondjaki was born in Luanda in 1977 and is one of the most celebrated young Portuguese-language writers in Africa. Now living in Rio de Janeiro, he has published over a dozen books, including collections of poetry, children’s stories and novels. Os transparentes, recently published in Portugal and Brazil, and forthcoming in Argentina, Mexico, Germany and France, has just been awarded the 2013 Saramago Prize.

Os transparentes is a moving fresco that I won’t be able to erase from my memory. I succumbed to its compelling beauty.”
Nélida Piñón, Saramago Prize jury

Ana Fletcher is a translator and editor based in Rio de Janeiro. She translates from Portuguese and Spanish, and her translations have been published in Granta and Machado de Assis magazines.

And_Other_Stories_logoThis extract is part of a longer sample originally translated for the And Other Stories Portuguese reading group. Read more.