An affair goes sour and carnality turns to violence in reclusive Brazilian writer Nassar’s (barely) novella.
Our narrator is a well-to-do farmer, a stranger to himself. His paramour is a writer from the city, and she is a stranger to him as well—at least, as Nassar writes, “For a few moments in the room we seemed to be two strangers observed by somebody, and that somebody was always her and me.” We readers are the ones doing the observing, and it’s not pretty: the man turns fretful almost at once, his attention diverted by the fact that leafcutter ants have gnawed a hole in his hedge; the woman, much younger, wants the attention on her, but she is thinly contemptuous. Their heated contact turns physical in all the wrong ways; in just four dozen pages, Nassar charts the ugly implosion of a once-passionate affair. But more than that, he metaphorically recapitulates events in Brazil’s history, for this book was first published in 1978, when the nation was slowly emerging from a dark military dictatorship; when the young woman calls the man a fascist, she is not being hyperbolic, and when he admits that she’s not wrong, he conjures up a whole set of associations that may not be meaningful to readers outside that specifically Brazilian experience. Still, his numerous quirks and phobias—including frequent allusions to castration and his not-unfounded certainty that the insects are coming to devour him as well—require no translation. Nassar is a modernist par excellence, his onrushing style reminiscent at times of Beckett; each of the brief chapters here is made up of just a sentence or two that run for pages at a time, capturing the breathlessness of lust and rage.
Vivid, immediate, and mostly unpleasant. Readers new to Nassar may want to begin with his simultaneously released novel Ancient Tillage, which is less experimental though just as cynical.