ANCIENT TILLAGE by Raduan Nassar


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A prodigal son’s homecoming gives ample reason to think that everyone might have been better off if he’d just stayed away.

Brazilian writer Nassar is being rediscovered in his own country, where, though never quite forgotten, he fell into near silence for 40 years following the publication of this novel and its companion novella, A Cup of Rage. During that time, he retreated to the countryside, where he grew up and took to farming. In this slender story, young André has followed much the same course, having tired of his father’s sternly pious ways and gone off to the big city to try to make a life there. It didn’t work: “The happiness I had imagined existed beyond our father’s realm was no more than an illusion.” André is a study in torment, and what torments him the most is a decidedly unhealthy attachment to his sister, Ana: “Ana was my illness, she was my insanity, my air, my splinter and chill, my breath, the impertinent insistence in my testicles.” Well, now. When he is not warding off thoughts of Ana, he is out in the sheepfolds and livestock pens, carefully eyeing the “smug nanny-goat” or trying to dissuade his siblings from taking his example and heading off to the metropolis themselves; confesses one to André, perhaps improbably, “I want to be known in the brothels and in the alleys where tramps sleep, I want to do lots of different things, be generous with my own body….” Ah, but that way trouble lies. Nassar’s story has all the gloominess of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, and it’s just as packed with allusion to classical mythology and literature, as when, in closing, André’s mother cries out “an ancient lament that to this day can still be heard along the poor Mediterranean coast” even if it issues from the Brazilian rain forest.

Nassar is tremendously adept at capturing the existential anguish of a troubled mind. It’s not easy or uplifting reading, but his dark view of the world commands attention.

Pub Date: Jan. 31st, 2017
ISBN: 978-0-8112-2656-1
Page count: 144pp
Publisher: New Directions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15th, 2016


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