Face chronicles one man’s effort to rebuild his soul after a devastating calamity has changed his life. After a short prologue, the book is divided into two major sections. It is told in the third person through the consciousness of the major character, although there are frequent flashbacks to earlier periods in his life. In addition, the author intersperses the commentaries of doctors and other observers of the novel’s action. In the struggle of Helio Cara to repair his badly deformed face, the reader envisages the persistence and resilience of the human spirit.
The book begins with Helio Cara, an ordinary barber with an ordinary life, stumbling as he is running down the rugged rocks of the poverty-ridden, shack-filled Whale Back section of the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. As he makes his way down the multi-tiered levels of rock, he loses his grip and falls. Although he survives, his face is irretrievably disfigured.
Helio has difficulty remembering the incident after its occurrence. Although his life is forever changed, the exact moment of the injury is clouded by the impact of the trauma. This trauma is so total that he does not even remember any pain or have clear images of people, such as his coworkers, who were prominent in his life before the tragedy. Wearing a white handkerchief to shield his face from the scorn and mockery of others, Helio reflects on his predicament. The only individuals he perceives clearly are his mother, whom he has lost long ago to his stepfather, and his mistress, Lula, whom he suspects he will now lose after this terrible injury.
Helio recalls a time before the accident, when he was living with Lula and enjoying their romantic comradeship. He is talking idly with his mistress when a telegram comes from Rio Piedras, the remote town in the country that he had left years ago for the large, impersonal city of Rio de Janeiro. The telegram reveals that his mother is dying.
Back in the present, readers witness the attempts of doctors to treat and remedy Helio’s condition. The doctors conduct themselves professionally and genuinely try to repair Helio’s face. Yet their scientific discourse does not address the pain Helio feels in his soul.
Helio attempts to return to his former job as a barber. Although his superiors and coworkers are not overtly antagonistic toward him, they clearly do not wish to have him around and feel that what has happened to his face has made him, in effect, a different person. Helio remembers his former boss, Cardoso, who had taught Helio to read and had ameliorated his backwoods status, schooling him in the rudiments of urban civilization.
Helio applies to have his face rehabilitated, suffering an embarrassing moment when he goes to the window selling lottery tickets instead. His fate in life the exact opposite of a lottery winner, Helio finally locates the right place. Yet he becomes increasingly desperate when the doctors, led by an administrator named Godoy, tell him that even though the state-subsidized Brazilian health-insurance plan covers the physical, mechanical aspects of his facial rehabilitation, the aesthetic aspects are extra. In other words, if Helio wishes his face to be beautiful again, or at least as beautiful as it once had been, he will have to pay for it himself. As Helio, without a job and with his mother dead, has no money, this is an impossibility. Closed in and daunted, Helio seems defeated at every turn. Yet soon Helio, beleaguered and hounded as he is, has a first glimmer that it will have to be his own...
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initiative, not the assistance of others, that provides his rehabilitation.
Helio relates his abandonment by Lula. Lula still loves him and does not leave him callously, but nevertheless his condition makes it impossible for their romance to continue, and Lula reluctantly severs the relationship. Continuing his odyssey with the Brazilian medical bureaucracy, Helio is admonished that he should have had his workplace issue a letter of disability immediately after the accident; without this, there is no question of full reconstruction being authorized.
Helio decides to take his life fully into his own hands and repair the face himself. Helio leaves the city and returns to the hinterlands, where he had been born. Helio finds himself disoriented by the vast difference in scale and lifestyle between city and country. He returns to his mother’s shack, and he recalls the pain he had experienced after his father’s death, when his mother had remarried a man named Julião, an action that Helio had regarded as a betrayal.
Helio once again attempts to find work, but even the merchants of his hometown disdain him. Bereft of other options, he uses his last remaining money to amass supplies for the reconstruction of his face. Revealing an ingenuity in excess of what could be expected from his largely menial and deprived existence, he slowly makes his face anew. It is only when this process is near completion that he is psychologically able to recall the scene of his father’s death. Helio receives a letter from Godoy; presumably, the hospital is now ready to subsidize the remainder of whatever further treatment is needed. Helio imagines encountering Lula and her new boyfriend, and he looks forward to encountering society on his own terms, his identity fully renewed.