A slender, surrealism-tinged tale of fear, loathing and transformation, the third novel to be published in English translation by Brazilian writer’s writer Hilst.
Born near São Paolo in 1930, Hilst, who died in 2004, was an odd character indeed: trained as a lawyer, obsessed with Marlon Brando, a lover of dogs and devourer of libraries, hermit and alcoholic. She also had a sticky memory, and everything she read and observed, it seems, found a way into her writing, though often with absurdist shadings: In Letters From a Seducer, published in English translation by Nightboat Books in March, she speculates that the police hunt down and kill the disappeared “in order not to give them more work later on.” (Come to think of it, given Brazil’s recent history, that may not be so absurd after all.) The present book scarcely qualifies as a novella, but its pages are densely packed with meaning. “Whorehouse Church Government University. They all looked alike”: So grumbles the protagonist, Amós Kéres, a professor whose mind rattles with visions, images and loose quotations from Bertrand Russell and Elias Canetti but who wants to be otherwise engaged, it seems: “There are books all over the place,” he says, “and I can’t interest myself in them any longer.” Thus, in appropriately Kafkaesque fashion, does Amós begin a transformation that puts him “[b]eyond the other side of the mirror” and finds him in distinctly different form, though not without a few troubling, adult-rated visits (“Get drunk every night, and vicious, sputtering, shake my dick timetotime for Amanda’s friends…”) to points of interest in his biography and personal geography. Conceived in the early 1980s, as translator Morris documents in his lucid introduction, this novel speaks to the nexus between genius and madness—and it gets off a few growls at the state of things as they are.
Memorable and very strange: Latin American magical realism taken far beyond the bounds of the genre’s usual whimsy and pushed into the territory of nightmares.