João Gilberto Noll - This metaphysical mystery resembles the films of David Lynch in its quietly surreal manner. It centers around a poet who inexplicably rapes a woman, is thrown into jail, and then is abruptly taken to a manor house where all he must do is... write poetry
João Gilberto Noll, Quiet Creature on the Corner, Trans. by Adam Morris, Two Lines Press, 2016.
Ranked alongside leading Latin American writers like César Aira and Mario Bellatín—and deeply influenced by Clarice Lispector—João Gilberto Noll is esteemed as one of Brazil’s living legends.
When an unemployed poet finds himself thrown in jail after raping his neighbor, his time in the slammer is mysteriously cut short when he’s abruptly taken to a new home — a countryside manor where his every need seen to. All that’s required of him is to . . . write poetry. Just who are his captors, Kurt and Otávio? What of the alluring maid, Amália, and her charge, a woman with cancer named Gerda? And, most alarmingly of all, why does Kurt suddenly appear to be aging so much faster than he should?
Reminiscent of the films of David Lynch, and written in João Gilberto Noll’s distinctive postmodern style — a strange world of surfaces seemingly without rational cause and effect — Quiet Creature on the Corner is the English-language debut of one of Brazil’s most popular and celebrated authors. Written during Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy — and capturing the disjointed feel of that rapidly changing world — Quiet Creature is mysterious and abrupt, pivoting on choices that feel both arbitrary and inevitable. Like Kazuo Ishiguro, Noll takes us deep into the mind of person who’s always missing a few crucial pieces of information. Is he moving toward an answer to why these people have taken him from jail, or is he just as lost as ever?
This metaphysical mystery resembles the films of David Lynch in its quietly surreal manner. It centers around a poet who inexplicably rapes a woman, is thrown into jail, and then is abruptly taken to a manor house where all he must do is . . . write poetry. As the novel progresses, cause and effect become increasingly detached, and Noll challenges us to ponder whether it’s really possible to make sense of our psyches at all.
"Meeting the unforgettable narrator of João Gilberto Noll's Quiet Creature on the Corner felt like finding that the narrator of Camus's The Stranger had suddenly learned new and darker lessons in desire from a film by Nicolas Winding Refn or Gaspar Noé, on his way to star in a Beckett play or one of J.G. Ballard's oddest stories. His is a captivating voice, the perfect guide to lure you into Noll's uniquely alien world, where the intuitive logic of the folk tale is expertly welded to anxieties both personal and political." — Matt Bell, author of Scrapper
"A wonderfully dislocated read, Quiet Creature on the Corner shimmers through the consciousness of a wounded, and wounding, man who experiences the sharpest impacts of himself with the world and is able to hang on to very little else, including the passage of time. It's like what might have happened if Werner Herzog had written a hypnotized sequel to Peter Handke's The Goalie's Anxiety at the Penalty Kick." — Brian Evenson, author of Fugue State and A Collapse of Horses
"Noll's literature doesn't seek to impart a lesson or demonstrate anything. Above all, it shows the poetry in the fact that no one individual is a permanence but rather many simultaneous things." — Sergio Chejfec, author of My Two Worlds
Without a doubt, João Gilberto Noll holds a special place in the pantheon of contemporary Brazilian authors." — Amálgama
"Without any plan, motivated only by curiosity and the compulsion to keep writing. This is how . . . João Gilberto Noll gives life to his books, always curious to find out how a solution might 'emerge.'" — O Globo
Noll is a prize-winning Brazilian author and readers will be delighted that his 1991 mid-career work has now been translated into English. In this bizarre mystery, the unnamed protagonist is a hapless, horny poet in Porto Alegre who's lost his job and is squatting with his mother in an unfinished building. After a brief encounter with a girl who lives upstairs, the poet is arrested for rape and jailed. He is bemused by this, but even more so when he is rescued (or is he?) from the situation by a mysterious man named Kurt, who takes the poet to a large estate in the country where Kurt lives with his wife, Gerda, and a younger relative, Otavio. The poet is given a room supplied with blank sheets of paper, and is asked for nothing in return, "as if they only wanted my negligent company as I wrote my verses." At first he goes for walks; enjoys sexual encounters with the maid, Amalia; and sometimes witnesses strange things that make no sense. But after Gerda gets sick, time begins to play tricks. Kurt is aging—indeed, the poet himself is aging—faster than seems natural. It would appear that this is a tale of a young man in search of identity, but the poet never really registers anything as particularly real or concrete. He seems to wander through a world constructed for him, wondering at its meaninglessness, but with only enough curiosity to keep him putting one foot in front of the other. He is not outraged, as Camus's Meursault is outraged, by the absurdity of the human condition. True to postmodern tradition, the author does not seem particularly keen on teaching his readers anything by telling this story, but the readers who will enjoy this slim book won't mind the lack of moral lesson; in fact, that's more or less the point. - Publishers Weekly
“For a while, Criticism travels side by side with the Work, then Criticism vanishes and it’s the Readers who keep pace. The journey may be long or short. Then the Readers die one by one and the Work continues on alone, although a new Criticism and new Readers gradually fall into step with it along its path. Then Criticism dies again and the Readers die again and the Work passes over a trail of bones on its journey toward solitude.”
Roberto Bolaño, The Savage Detectives
Is there anything so quixotic as literary criticism? It has always seemed to me a compromised act, albeit a holy one; the mad realm of the starry-eyed critic, tilting at texts like a bookish hidalgo. The galling (and goading) nature of its failure is one of maddening proximity, an exquisite nearness; like Moses, we are both certain of a promised land—interpretive totality!—and just as certain we shall never find it. The critic’s triumph is a mirage, ever receding, the distant glimmer in the dunes of explication. This, then, is the gorgeous, exasperating truth of literary criticism: that we possess a formal energy almost commensurate with the art it aims to lay bare.
Allow me to state my belief bluntly: failure is, and always has been, the operative force of literary criticism. Between a book and its exegetes there lies an inadequate courtship, and the greater the book, the larger the gap. It seems apparent to me that the most successful critics discover unique—and uniquely beautiful—ways to fail their texts, the richness and complexity of said failure comprising the basis of their pedigree. Hegel called it “the labor of the negative,” while Terry Eagleton has written of literary theory’s fascination with “lack, belatedness, deadlock, self-undoing.” Unafraid of this contradictory impulse, strong critical work traces what has otherwise absconded into incommunicability, sounding a shout from beyond the mountain. As a critic, I find this process thrilling, the incompleteness of the enterprise, the scrabbling over sheer surfaces. Truthfully, the unfinished rooms in the house of criticism are where I linger, work that has transcended mere engagement or analysis and plunged into the chimerical, an ignus fatuus pursued with indomitable obsession. It is all I want, really: the criticism that dreams or bleeds.
But what of a work that resists the critical apparatus to such a degree that even failure itself seems out of reach? What of a text that begins to dissipate at the merest suggestion of a thesis, an angle? Enter João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 mid-career effort, Quiet Creature on the Corner, a work of sustained resistance to interpretation, a literary Rorschach blot that swells until the ink itself subsumes the sky. If a synopsis of the narrative reads plainly enough—an unemployed poet, after being thrown in jail for rape, is mysteriously taken to a countryside manor where all of his needs are met—the effect of its unfolding is anything but. This is a book of black humor and surreal menace, and thus, perhaps inevitably, it will be compared to the work of David Lynch and Franz Kafka. I find these comparisons tenuous at best. They have become reflexive critical responses to any aesthetic of lurid unreality. In Noll, I find neither the grace of Kafka’s harrowing logic, nor the disquiet of Lynch’s curtained repressions. There is something else going on in Quiet Creature, something that locates its existential terror not in the apprehension of dream—or at least not exclusively—but rather in the intensification of the mundane, the cruelty that lurks beneath banal reality.
If that sounds farfetched for such a profoundly strange novel, consider the lingering concerns of our protagonist: the passing of time, the body, sex, fatherhood, art, the urban environment. They are nothing if not familiar, made revelatory only insofar as Noll is able to inflate them, to expand their fundamental capacities. Take, for instance, the book’s curiously accelerated process of aging (a natural enough anxiety for a nineteen-year old poet): “Kurt had gotten even older, I could see that now. How? I wondered, and shook my head without understanding this strange dose of aging.” This example is, I think, indicative of a larger field of anxiety surrounding the body, one whose leaking, failing, excreting reality Noll intensifies to great (and often disorienting) effect. Our poet regularly finds himself “collapsing,” “trembling,” “screaming,” “swimming,” “swallowing.” His sex with the mysterious Naira is referred to as “a drowning wetness”; as they fuck in the mud, “it felt like she was pissing on [his] hard-on the whole time.” As in Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality, the amplification of the body and its functions can lead to either metaphysical dissolution or physical revelation:
Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.
In her introduction to Blecher’s novel, Herta Müller writes about “the eroticism that lurks in every ordinary object, waiting to ensnare a person” and Blecher’s preternatural ability to articulate that eroticism in his work. I think there is something similar at play in Noll—if not an eroticism than perhaps a fecundity of bodies, of perceptions. I do not find the dream logic of high surrealism here; rather, Quiet Creature presents something more tactile, more immediate. Its brief and perplexing episodes, as escalations of the self-in-time, refresh and reveal the surpassing strangeness of waking life itself.
And the cruelty of it, too. The ghost of Georges Bataille lingers here, the French author and critic whose literature of transgression highlighted the ambivalent nature of prohibitions—namely, that they both establish limits and create provisions wherein those limits may be violated or exceeded. In Quiet Creature, these violations are both frequent and insistent; however, they often create the possibility for a radically negative transcendence within the young poet: “I felt the pleasure that I usually felt when I told a fat lie, the feeling of completely pulling the wool over somebody’s eyes. . .I got swept up in euphoria, as if I were close, very close, to a state that would represent for me, just maybe, a kind of emancipation.” Violence as a form of regeneration has long been employed in literature, from Joseph Conrad to Cormac McCarthy, particularly as frontier myth. Quiet Creature, written during Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy, presents a kind of frontier of etiquette, of morality (or perhaps a crossing of the border into its absence). Noll’s work may be another expression of this trope, in its way every bit as savage as Blood Meridian.
The brevity of the text, too, is worth discussing. Though referred to as a novel, Quiet Creature weighs in at a svelte 109 pages, the length of a respectable novella. I would argue that this narrative economy comprises no small part of the book’s curiously potent effect. It allows for a particular concentration of heat, like the gathering of a fever—and when it breaks, you feel it. In this way, Quiet Creature practically demands to be read in a single afternoon, a gauntlet to be run in a handful of hours. And while I do not much care for flash fiction, this single-sitting text retains something of that genre’s best qualities—vigor, pace, immediacy—while remaining capable of effortlessly exceeding its boundaries at any time. No abbreviated world, this; rather, a masterwork of compression whose lid we open at our peril.
Or so it appears to me after a second read through. I have done my best to sketch the shape I see within the smoke, a shape that already begins to rearrange, to shimmer and swirl. Throughout my time within its pages, Quiet Creature on the Corner has resisted me; even now I can feel its pressure building within the flimsy critical edifice I’ve constructed. Perhaps it shouldn’t be—can’t be—contained. What I know for certain is that, as a literary critic, I need more encounters with these kinds of texts. I need to be pushed back upon. I need books that refuse me entry, books whose covers contain a fog. They bring me up against the limits of criticism, and, in so doing, offer opportunities to dare, to experiment, to pursue. These words may only be another layer of ossified thought on Bolaño’s “trail of bones.” So be it. But in outpacing us, Noll’s work has given critics—and readers of all stripes—a gift. We cannot hope to overtake it, though we will try. Call it failure as a form of exaltation. - Dustin Illingworth
Despite the renown he has earned in his native Brazil over the past 30 years, João Gilberto Noll is all but invisible in English. The process by which any foreign author is granted entry into the transnational metropolis of “English literature” is often constituted as much out of the contingencies of fiction as it is the inexorabilities of truth. Bolaño, Knausgård, Ferrante—all three have achieved an enduring voguishness that is as much rooted in what Anglophone readers feel they need to know about the world as it is in what Western audiences believe justifies fame (or counts as genius) by virtue of an assumed universal consensus.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is the first of Noll’s many works to be thus translated, and after closing the covers on this slim, efficiently brutal book, one cannot help but marvel that it has taken so long for an enterprising publisher to open up the canons of American (North as well South) literature to his writing. Although written in the early 1990s, Quiet Creature on the Corner, in its sly satirizing of privilege, imperialism and cultural schizophrenia, feels as urgently relevant as any contemporary novel.
A synopsis of this book’s plot is fraught with unique risks. Some readers will no doubt refuse to follow a narrator who, in the first 20 pages, admits to raping one of his neighbors, then spends the rest of the novel in cozy confinements which ostensibly transcend both consequence and justice. Others might find this nameless narrator’s obtuseness too evocative of Camus or Kafka. And others still might be disinclined to give their attention to yet another fiction from Latin America that traffics in the tropes of so-called magical realism: characters who age at an unnaturally rapid rate; a poet who never actually composes any poetry, save on a napkin salvaged from an airport lunch counter; a persistent if indistinct haze of military violence hovering on every event’s horizon; and countless sensations that may or may not be hallucinations.
However, it would be a mistake to contextualize Noll’s narrative choices purely in terms of style. Like Mario de Andrade’s autochthonous Modernist fable Macunaíma or Cesar Aira’s improvisatory novellas, Quiet Creature on the Corner employs the rawest of narrative materials—”what happens”—to explore important questions regarding causality and the political abuses thereof.
Within the very first paragraph, our narrator declares he has just lost his job. As he returns to the apartment where he and his mother are squatting in Noll’s own home town of Porto Alegre, we are introduced to the particular textures that define poverty in this world. “My mother remarked that the milk was thick. Indeed, there were rings of fat down the sides of the glass.” Appetites are everything, whether satisfied in the form of soap operas watched on a “black and white TV that didn’t get all the channels”, a “slobbery joint” passed between teenagers killing time in the shadow of “a building whose construction was paralyzed right from the git-go”, or a beautiful young woman “singing a song that wasn’t half bad.” Any opportunity to exchange mere subsistence for pleasure here is to be seized. But with whom do we align ourselves when our pleasures result in the subjection of others?
How Noll chooses to answer that question is what lends Quiet Creature on the Corner both its frisson and its perplexity. Jailed only temporarily, the narrator is transferred to the Almanova Clinic in nearby São Leopoldo, where he eventually comes under the care of a German Brazilian named Kurt. He becomes a member of Kurt’s household, and falls into a rhythm that perverts the passage of time even as he’s aware that this rhythm—or tempo, arrhythmic; rubato?—is separating him more and more from the possibility of a life that is actually alive. (Even if, as the lone explicit dream in this dream-like narrative suggests, that life would be a peasant’s lot.)
All the same, our narrator cannot help but luxuriate in his apparent freedom, except in those moments when he acutely feels the potential loss of the licenses he enjoys. “I was getting dragged out from my situation under Kurt’s wing: if I got thrown in jail again he’d never give me another chance and I’d find myself face-to-face with complete shit all over again…” This anxiety is further accompanied by a drift into more conventional, if not healthy, desires.
… I was no loner a young boy, but a man in the fullness of my functions in need of a woman to keep my company—Kurt would need to give his blessing to this union, preferably with a blonde girl like Gerda [Kurt’s just-deceased wife] seemed she’d once been, he’d be so satisfied he’d give me half his fortune, opening the way not only to Germany but to who knows what other quadrants, and once I’d divorced the dumb blonde, a different woman in every hotel room.
With their manic logic, these passages encapsulate the narrator’s temporal existence under the influence of his own unfettered capacity to consume. Of course everyone around him is dying exponentially faster than he is; of course he is subject to lapses in memory; of course his perception of duration is impaired. And his contentedness, while only rarely disturbed, emerges as the chief source of whatever discomfort we readers experience in his company. The narrator does not comprehend how his choices—no longer aesthetic, but libidinal—have unleashed the colonizing violence of avarice, racism, classism, and an interpretation of history that awards subjectivity to the victors alone.
Adam Morris’s translation deserves special mention in this regard. William Arrowsmith once noted, “the act of translation presupposes a prior act of criticism.” Morris’s English rendition of Noll’s Portuguese feels interpretative in that sense. For example, the narrator declares himself a poet, but as his language angles to secure his grasp on success, it contorts itself into shapes that parody his existential parataxis. “The strong burning smell left me a little stupid, and into my head leaped the hypothesis that Kurt had set me up, that he’d never give anything up. I turned my belly to the sky, exhaled slowly. Overhead, an airplane was heading south.”
By pairing blunt diction with supple prosody and supporting a casual, even cool, “telling it like it is” tone, Morris’s translation effectively discloses the dread and misgiving knotted up in the correspondences that seem always to work in the narrator’s favor.
Quiet Creature on the Corner augurs a notable English-language career for João Gilberto Noll. Provocative in both content and structure (think: a Satanic Bildungsroman), this deceptively modest, “one-sitting” novel is oddly accessible yet encourages multiple readings. One of the final images that tantalizes both the narrator and the reader here is a bonfire: “… it looked like a party had just ended, at the base of the fire things were already unrecognizable, twisted, various flames around them…”
Object and symbol alike are destroyed in this conflagration. And, as the narrator glimpses through the distorting lens of his miraculous “inheritance”, this fire reduces itself to ashes the more he stokes the warmth it provides him. And so causality, from the perspective of the oppressed, is anything but reassuring. Causality is worse than any absurdity, however fortunate. Causality is the essence of catastrophe. - Joe Milazzo
We humans tend to fancy ourselves rational beings. We hold to the convention of cause and effect. We imagine that if faced with strange and unusual situations, we would respond with curiosity, anxiety, or alarm and make an effort to act appropriately. We are inclined to believe that we need to understand what is happening to us and around us at all times. But, is that truly the way we actually exist in the world?
João Gilberto Noll is an author who dares to challenge that assumption. His novel, Quiet Creature on the Corner is, on the surface, a spare and modestly surreal tale of a young man who surrenders himself to a life that is inexplicably handed to him without seriously questioning his circumstances until he is deeply absorbed in a situation that is rapidly growing stranger and more uncertain. Newly released from Two Lines Press, in a measured, wonderfully restrained translation by Adam Morris, this novel offers an English language audience an absorbing introduction to this esteemed Brazilian author.
Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1946, Noll began his studies in literature in 1967, but left school two years later to work as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He would eventually return to university, completing his degree in 1979. Participation in the University of Iowa Writer’s Program in 1982 brought him to international attention when one of his stories was included in an anthology of new Brazilian authors published in Germany in 1983. Over the following twenty years he would be invited to teach in Berkley, California; Bellagio, Italy; and London, UK. Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), his fifth novel, was originally published in 1991.
Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. Like many of his Brazilian literary cohorts he was nourished on a “robust” existentialism and reflects that this, combined with his own innate sense of himself as a human being, may have been critical in forming his view of literature as having:
. . . a universal, maybe even atemporal core, to the extent that one can say that . . . for we’re not here to deny the material conditions of time and space. But it’s my impression that there’s something pretty common at the heart of the phenomenon of literary creation, the fact that it’s born out of tremendous unease, a tremendous discomfort, a feeling of enormous insufficiency in the face of what is real.
He describes himself as more interested, more committed to speaking about the impossible than the possible. And, although he is typically considered a postmodern writer, he is not entirely comfortable with that classification, insofar as he sees it as legitimizing cynicism. “I am in no way at all cynical,” he insists, “I’m tragic the whole time, I take everything in strict seriousness, that’s why I don’t consider myself post-modern.”
Written and set during the years marking Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, the surreal atmosphere that filters through the narrative of Quiet Creature on the Corner reflects the shifting and uncertain dynamics of a society in flux. The book opens with the unnamed narrator, a nineteen-year-old living in Porto Alegre, washing from his hands the grease of the job he has just lost. There is the immediate sense that he is relieved to rid himself of this manual labour even if it means joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. He prefers to see himself as a poet, a purveyor of verse. He spends his days wandering around town, and shares a squat with his mother in an unfinished building at night. The streets of his impoverished neighbourhood are littered with signs of decay and economic ruin.
One day, following a back alley sexual encounter with a neighbour, he finds himself arrested and charged with rape. However, our hero does not spend long in jail, the next morning a mysterious German man hands him a package containing poetry books and paper, and informs him that he is going to a psychiatric clinic. No matter how odd this turn of events may be, his reaction is positive: “Wow, . . . my entire life looks like it’s about to change,” he remarks. He is still young but he feels that he has been waiting, impatiently, for his life to get itself sorted out. He gives the impression he almost imagines this is his due.
His time at the clinic appears to be spent in some kind of dream-like state. He describes an idyllic life on a farm with the same girl who had charged him with rape, caring for horses and cows, and becoming a father. When he emerges from this condition he is surprised to find he is still in his room at the clinic, his experiences had seemed so real. However he notices that the German man, whom he will soon learn is named Kurt, appears considerably older than he remembers. He asks to see a mirror and discovers that he himself has grown long hair and a thick beard. He wonders how much time has passed.
From the clinic, rather than returning to his old life, the narrator is pleased to see that he being taken out to a large estate in the country where he will live with Kurt, his wife Gerda, a man named Otávio, and the servant girl, Amália. Again he takes this development in stride. The atmosphere in the household is oddly tense; the dynamic between the residents is strained, pierced with silences and marked by some very strange interactions that our protagonist chances to observe. Nonetheless, he seems quite content to see how this new life will proceed. After all, he has a comfortable place to live, his needs are all taken care of, and the only thing he seems to be expected to do is write poetry. There is an element of passive opportunism in his attitude that is somewhat unnerving—he quickly becomes sexually involved with Amália and studies Kurt for indications of how he might assure his continued patronage.
As time goes on he learns that Gerda has cancer. This brings him into a closer proximity with Kurt, serving to deepen the mystery around this enigmatic man, rather than revealing secrets. After she succumbs to her illness, Kurt’s rapid aging accelerates. It is at this point that our protagonist seriously begins to question how quickly time is passing and realizes that he has lost his ability to judge. He notices that the remaining members of the household are also aging, and that he himself is no longer the young man he was when he arrived. He becomes increasingly troubled by the strange and surreal quality of his existence, and the curious nature of his benefactor. This impassive man seems to exercise a strange hold that keeps Otávio and Amália circling around him like satellites. What is it?
Yet, as much as he is worried about losing whatever potential financial advantage that might still await him, our protagonist still seems to be uncertain just how much he really wants to know, how much he wants to give, and how close he is willing to get to anyone to figure things out. One senses that so much remains unknown, simply because the narrator makes no real effort to understand, to fully engage. And herein lies the heart of the unsettling, haunting power of this novel.
Quiet Creature is a short work, easily read in one or two sittings. The language is spare, measured, with a matter-of-fact tone that holds level throughout. For our narrator, the past is best forgotten, the future uncertain but, with luck, ripe to be exploited. Whether he is recounting experiences that are mundane or extraordinary, his ambivalent, mildly irritated mood rarely wavers:
The late afternoon shadows had already insinuated themselves among the branches of the Protestant cemetery, the discreet headstones engraved almost exclusively with German names. Kurt and I were walking down a path and our steps made a cadence on the flagstones. Ahead of us, a gravedigger was pushing a little cart that carried Gerda’s casket. The wheels could’ve used an oiling, they made an infernal noise. From time to time the vision of an iron cross, stark, made my head pulse. Gerda’s grave just wouldn’t arrive. The gravedigger was really putting an effort into pushing the little cart, steeply bent over, his ass sticking out at us, pants straining at the seam between his enormous buttocks. I noticed it was getting darker. And the gravedigger started down another path.
At that time of day it was hard to discern the bottom of the grave. The gravedigger asked Kurt if he’d like to open the casket one last time. Kurt shook his head no, and nearby a bell began to toll.
I threw a shovelful of earth into the hole.
Time passes in an uneven, disjointed manner; a sensation heightened by the absence of any type of chapter or section breaks. Periodically there are abrupt jumps in time and place from one paragraph to the next, jarring when encountered in the narrative but effectively reminiscent of the shifts between scenes in a movie, lending a distinctly filmic quality to the dream-like, non-rational story. It is not surprising that critics have referenced filmmakers like David Lynch and Werner Herzog in an attempt to describe this book. Noll’s focus on light and dark, sounds and silence, further enhances this effect.
However, I would argue that it is the author’s exploitation of the inherent instability between the ordinary and the exceptional, and the social and the ontological that gives Quiet Creature on the Corner its distinctive, unsettling feel. As readers we have access to no reality outside the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a man who maintains an attitude that is at once entirely self-interested yet emotionally disengaged. Like Camus’ Meursault or Handke’s Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, he demonstrates neither remorse nor regret for his crime. And why should he? It is, as far as he is concerned, the best thing that ever happened to him, lifting him out of a life of poverty and dead end jobs. He states on more than one occasion that he will do whatever is necessary to come out of this to his advantage even if he has no idea what that might entail.
Most disturbing is the startling lack of regard for others that our hero demonstrates. Only Kurt is important because he holds the key to his future security. As political events, blockades and rallies, intrude on his life he reacts with frustration—especially if they threaten something he wants. One is left to wonder at this desire to turn his back on everything he has known, including his mother, and his willingness to submit to such a strange, surreal world that might well exact a high price as his aging benefactor rapidly declines and his country moves on to democratic reform. But then, especially in times of instability and major change, who’s to say where the truth lies and whether denial of reality in the hope of another possibility is not the only sensible response? —Joseph Schreiber
“The fact is that an act can no more be reduced to what it is than can a man: it transcends itself.” Sartre, Saint Genet
Since the Enlightenment the currency of allegory has devalued. The broader awakening to its alchemical processes has loosed its instruments as givens into our cultural consciousness. The veneer of metaphor and the causality of narrative have delaminated. Yet, as the secrets of allegory are denuded, its structures have remained tropically fertile. Like liturgy to the western atheist, the scheme of allegory serves the literature that acknowledges its obsolescence and applies to it the uncertain motives of decadent tricksters. In his book Allegory and Violence, Gordon Teskey says of this defrocking that, “What is coming to be in the midst of this passing away is not the symbol but the consciousness of history.” In Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press), first published in 1991, João Gilberto Noll has woven a strange hybrid of allegory and psychological realism, wherein the underlayment of familiar allegorical structures is used to prey viciously on the mores of the reader with the goal of manipulating the correspondence of the book’s interior spacetime with exterior world. What reveals the allegorical nature of Noll’s novel is not the clarity of symbolism, but the unreliability of its narrative veneer.
Involved in the Renaissance rediscovery and mathematization of perspectival representation, both Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer produced and utilized prototypes for “perspective machines.” The value of these instruments was less in discovering the true nature of vision, than providing the framework by which quantitative aspects of space could be made to exist in a medium that was not spatial. They functioned by establishing monocular vision at a fixed station point, and by manifesting the translatory picture plane as a transparent gridded frame. The vista frozen by a perspective machine desires stillness, lacks causality, and hence time. In the deep space still existing beyond the frame are secret structures to which the device is willfully ignorant. As with Renaissance cosmology and theology, the fixed and absolute nature of instrumentalized perception eliminated subjective influence, the capacity for the mind to be correct in seeing things outside their intrinsic ideals. Put another way, the instrument cultivated the dangerous notion that we can know definitively what we are seeing. A robust observation of one of these instruments and implications can be found in Peter Greenaway’s 1982 film, The Draughstmans Contract.
Works of literature, more than films, and in a different way than works in space, like painting, sculpture, or architecture, possesses the miraculous volumetric capability of duplicating conscious space through a series of time signatures, while still being ensnared in the elapsing time of the reader. This is true of any work of fiction, whether it is Tom Clancy or Jackie Collins, or it is Borges or Proust. Modern literature, in embracing the potentiality of these strata of time, has liberated its narrative structures to erase the direction and magnitude of time’s vector within the volume of the text, increasing the potential for the book to exist as a concurrent, yet malleable manifold. Simple devices can be used to effect the perception of narrative content, the flashback for example. Beloved or Sophie’s Choice are effective deployments in which the strategic use of the book’s temporal order effect their emotional content. Time concurrence at the opposite end of the spectrum, in Claude Simon for example, utilizes the granular structure of text to illicit an overall intellectual position that shapes the reading as it evolves and creates a smooth, monolithic time object. The most clear sense of time’s orientation in a text is legible causality. Even events that are timestamped, accomplished in a sense by the rotting horse in Simon’s The Flanders Road, if not linked via legible cause, create a manifold missing a dimension, which in turn seeks that measure from without.
My interest as a reader lies far less in what a text means than in what aspects of its composition catalyze the inquest for its meaning. This is a perennial question, one framed effectively by Umberto Eco considering the manner by which a chalk mark around a crack on a wall is able to turn the noise of the everyday into a signal with intention. The fruit of my reading is more frequently the nature of that chalk mark than the contents it singles out. Not every work of literature promotes the same curiosity. Even fewer works elicit a strategy for apprehension that takes dramatically different forms between reading and a posteriori reflection. Quiet Creature on the Corner understands the mutual equivalency in the equation. It allows the crack to determine the nature of the chalk mark. This is dependent on the complex manner that a work endeavors to position itself both in exterior time and space. The rhythm of or displacement of time in literature acts, as does Dürer’s perspective machine, to transpose its content into the physical space of passing time.
The perspective machine partitions and correlates a reality that exists inherently to a fluid and biased apparatus of perception.
Thus my reading of Quiet Creature on the Corner became intently focused on the nature of its time signatures and its organization of, or attitude toward events in time. Though it is not even the most remotely disjointed narrative, something feels terribly off. Its structure appears diaphanous. It is not. The book maintains a structural fragility that relies far more on the reader’s perception than it does actual discontinuity. The first reading of the book is troubled by the sense that its narrative events do not add up. The narrator, who escapes any specific conventional punishment for a sexual assault we are forced to witness, is shepherded around the countryside of Brazil by a host of associates and functionaries. The passage of time is primarily visible through the narrator’s boredom with the passage of time. The act of describing his whereabouts and activities seems to be an intermittent distraction from that boredom, surfacing whenever he rises to self-consciousness. In the intervening space he reflects on the poetry he hopes to write, but shares little to none with the reader. The events of this gaseous and avoidant sequence occur on a biased, but not oriented, surface with one another, something like a panorama more than a stacked sequence. It is not that sequence is disrupted. Upon this surface there is still adjacency. There is still smoothness of medium. It is the vector component of causality between the events that is eliminated. This ultimately has the effect of distending time, even if its actual passage in the book is rendered with rather conventional phrases: “I, if I stopped to take note, would no doubt find myself a man and not the boy that Kurt pulled out of jail.”
To flesh out the volatility of organization and its effect on time is it is worth considering an extra-literary example in the “Black Paintings” of Francisco Goya. Even the most benign of Goya’s portraits bears a haunting emptiness, an odd acknowledgment of its flat falseness. This stands contrary to his Rococo contemporaries: the frivolous ebullience of Fragonard, the ornamental morality of Hogarth and Greuze. Painted in isolation at the end of his career, the “Black Paintings,” represent a shift in attitude from his similar series “The Disasters of War”. Both are inextricable from the political strife of the time in Spain. “The Disasters of War” maintains a representational, though partisan, journalistic mode, while the “Black Paintings” adopt the allegorical, the diffuse, the uncanny to veneer a sense of hopelessness. Volumes of critical work exist about the symbolic logic of each piece and the symphonic space schematizing the meaning in both bodies of work. Yet the bodies of writing are distinctly different in tenor. “The Disasters of War” have cultural and historical meaning illuminated through them. The “Black Paintings” require the interpolation of meaning from cultural and historical contexts. “The Disasters of War” are representative of somewhat given historical scenarios. The “Black Paintings,” with the exception of Saturn Devouring His Son, depict, if not quotidian, at least known scenarios. Absent is the overarching historical tissue of “The Disasters of War.” The scenarios are offset by a few truly bizarre conducting bodies (to borrow a term from Simon), including a witches’ sabbath presided over by a he-goat, the aforementioned filial cannibalism, and a dog sinking into quicksand. The lack of historic landmarks in the corpus, and the presence of these conducting bodies, demands the works’ interpretation as a strange heterogeneous body. Robert Hughes says in his survey, Goya:
“Clearly he did not care about creating a unified allegory or a coherent story. The images of the Black Paintings do not cohere, or not in that way. One cannot even be sure of the apparent links between them, although their original spatial relation to one another is known from old photographs taken while the paintings were still in place.”
This alchemical mystery fosters the ineffable quality of asking its viewer to establish an internal logic, an organization of meaning from detached events, potential causes in space, the physics of their liturgical impact. But the contents of the paintings do not exist in time. They do not urgently establish a hierarchy.
But more critically, although lost forever, is their original unity as a body on the walls of the “Deaf Man’s House” outside Madrid, where (arguably) Goya painted them. These painting in-situ transcend the ecclesiastic fresco or the trompe l’œil. The space of the painting is inextricable from the bodily orientations inside the house. The house is used as a device to construct orientations to the work and between the works. Different than the aspirational space of the trompe l’œil, it is an organizational space. The fixity of the elements, the intractable disposition of the imagery in relation to one another, establishes the expectation of intention and meaning for the tissue of space between. This tissue is more akin to the meditative invitation of the bespoke Rothko Chapel (also home to black paintings) than the transitory curation of paintings in a gallery. The “Black Paintings” were arrayed with an understanding of space because they existed as definitions of space. In their anachronous flatness, they were not extensions of space, but thresholds. The images lie strangely on the surface. The dense juxtaposition of the works architecturally recalled the image mosaic of the Parisian Salons in which the single work is subjugated to the constellation of images. The election to concentrate on a particular image is controlled by its relationship to the surrounding content. The organization of meaning is without. The unspooling of, and organization of time exists in the space of the reader.
Quiet Creature on the Corner, although lying strangely on its surface, is not without the sense that one thing leads to the next. It is more that one thing does not lead to the socially appropriate next thing. The uneasy waves of the act of sexual violence that occurs early in the book exacerbate the existing, but not overly groundbreaking methods for devaluing the passage of time. One wonders how fine the book’s temporal weave would feel comparatively if the awful crime on page 12, touted in the jacket text as a narrative linchpin, were located much later in the book, perhaps swapped with the consensual, though still horribly objectifying rendezvous on page 90, even if it still went ostensibly unpunished. These are truly the book’s two conducting bodies. Would the structure of the book still feel as diaphanous were they swapped, their moral implications transposed? The existing lack of appropriateness in response to the crime would not disrupt the story. One would not question why the narrator suddenly found himself in a country manor. But the way in which our impressions of causality affect our temporal sense would likely not be as psychologically manipulated. In this way Quiet Creature on the Corner becomes a modern version of the psychological novel. It is not familiar to the causal pantomime of Henry James or Stendhal. Its psychological tenor, or portraiture is used to create the spatial quality that structural conceits have sought in other modern works. Its moral lethargy demotes the latent, and chronological temporal structure so that readerly space premiates. Readerly morality arises in lieu of narrative adjudication. Causality exists outside the book, and the book becomes temporally subject to our own strange rhythms. Because the object receives no noticeable stain, the stain bleeds onto the subject. The object, the narrator, is behind a clear-coat, Scotch-guarded. Beads of putridity run downhill onto the reader.
In his book, Saint Genet, Sartre said, “Genet began to write Our Lady of the Flowers. He is going to discover little by little that he must prefer the reader to himself, if only so as the better to destroy him…” Genet, and especially Our Lady of the Flowers is a wonderful opportunity to compare and scrutinize the above hypotheses. It is a book that endeavors to do what I have outlined above, yet maintains direction and balance. Its events and its characters follow the fast and loose model of the picaresque. Sartre asserts that Genet had, “no particular desire to produce a ‘well-made work’; he is concerned with finish, with formal perfection: for him beauty lies elsewhere, in the ceremonious splendor of sacrilege and murder.” In Quiet Creature on the Corner, there is no effort to portray these depraved acts as beatific, but there is a capitalization on their radiating contribution to the book’s “finish.” Our Lady of the Flowers exists in very similar conditions, written in prison, functioning as a distraction from the passage of time. And although there is a wandering quality, an improvisational indulgence, an intermittent surfacing of the self-conscious, the narrative is complete, its effects foreshadowed. It is fraught with violence and sex (though allegedly less so in its contemporary publications), but the acts contain narrative consequences. It is in keeping with its own identifiable hermetic morality. And although Genet’s narrative lavishes more on the moral transgressions, it is done with love. The murder Our Lady of the Flowers commits is heralded. But so too is his execution. Just as much love is present in every act of violence, whether it is just or unjust, whether committed against a stranger or a treasured saint. This love is expressed by the narrator. The book is pregnant with those feelings so that we do not have to feel them. In the end, Genet has not been able to foist this dispassion upon us. Written before the fruits of mid-century rhetorical experiments, the result is that the narrative remains in Genet’s cell with him. “In my cell, little by little, I shall have to give my thrills to the granite.” Our Lady of the Flowers is a fable. By allegorically displacing the moral onus onto the reader, Quiet Creature on the Corner is more the book of imposed trauma that Genet aspired to craft.
The everyday becomes the allegorical in the body in which it doesn’t fit. Genet writes of the youth Culafroy in Our Lady of the Flowers:
“It is magnificence seen from without. Though it may be wretched when seen from within, it is then poetic, if you are willing to agree that poetry is the breaking apart (or rather the meeting at the breaking−point) of the visible and the invisible.”
The asynchrony of perceived narrative time with actual narrative structure is the key source of the uncanny quality in Quiet Creature on the Corner. A closer rereading, or active reflection, reveals that the presence of narrative causality is not actually missing, it is just unsatisfying in a way. It is the (hopefully universal) dissatisfaction with the narrator’s culpability for the sexual assault he commits early on, culpability and lack of contrition, that colors the manner in which we perceive the tissue of narrative causality through the rest of the book. Our dissatisfaction with the narrator’s psychic penance shades the purgatorial surface between narrative locales. This schism provides a more geologic view of time passing, seemingly slower and more sporadic than it actually is. In the prose is not the description of space, but an impression of space upon the time of the reader. This promotes a significant difference between the gestalt interiority of the content and the exteriority of reading, where it blooms like mold in the lungs. - John Trefry
Approaching a translated book is like drawing near a tamed animal. There is the nature of the beast at its core — the original language, the other, the scary place that one doesn’t understand the connotations and nuances of — and the facade that the beast wears of a domesticated animal, trained by the translator into the language one knows well, is familiar with, feels safe in. But tamed animals are at their most beautiful and vivid in the moments of wildness, where their nature takes over and one is swept away — maybe into danger, maybe merely into adventure, certainly into something mysterious.
The best translators, I find, are the ones who allow for the rhythm of that wildness to remain rippling below the surface for the reader to find at unexpected moments. This means also allowed for confusion, for occasional misunderstanding, for the possibility of fear, but there is something trusting in that act, in believing that the reader is capable of more than even she thinks. Adam Morris, translating the words of Joao Gilberto Noll in Quiet Creature on the Corner is one of these fine translators. And perhaps because of this, I cannot quite wrap my head around the book itself.
It’s important to put the book into context. Noll is a well regarded Brazilian writer whose work has only selectively been translated into English, and he has been a visiting scholar at various international universities. This book came out originally in 1991, a year after I was born, when Brazil was going through the turmoil of transitioning to a democracy after many years of military dictatorship with nominal and symbolic yet utterly meaningless elections. This background is crucial to understanding — rather, to attempting to understand — the novel.
On its face, the plot is quite simple. An unnamed narrator, a poet, lives with his mother in a squat in Porto Alegre. One night, for unknowable reasons, he rapes a girl. The next day, his mother leaves to go live with her sister in another city. The rape victim apparently reports the crime and the narrator spends a night in prison. He then hallucinates or dreams up a whole life in which he and the girl he raped, Mariana, live harmoniously together on a farm and have a child. He wakes up in a clinic that has given him books and paper to write on. Why he is in this clinic, what kind of clinic it is, is a mystery that remains unsolved. Soon, however, he’s whisked away by a man named Kurt to a mansion where he is to spend his days in the company of Kurt himself, Kurt’s wife Gerda, another man, Otavio, and a servant, Amalia. He embarks on an affair with the latter, watches Gerda die beneath him during intercourse (and ejaculates into her dead body), and has a one night stand with a black woman, an apparent longtime fantasy of his, before writing his last poem ever and quite possibly living in Kurt’s manor forever.
But the plot, strange and surreal and inexplicable, almost seems secondary to the nature of the book. It reminded my of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, in that the narrator has a detachment from the world around him and seems to lack empathy or even much interest in others. Seeing the world through his lens is bleakly egotistical, yet there’s something forbidden and alluring in that viewpoint, one that is rare to adopt in real lives. But who among us hasn’t dreamed of having every want and need fulfilled — of having endless space and time in which to write — where one’s faintest and most urgent bodily needs are fulfilled without any need to worry about the consequences to others? Maybe in a world full of turmoil, when the social norms are crumbling in the face of a hope that is too terrifying to truly grasp, self serving is the only way to be.
As in The Stranger, perhaps the narrator isn’t one hundred percent heartless, for he takes pains to write to his mother from the manor and to tell her that he won’t be in touch for a long time but that she shouldn’t worry. The narrator confesses to being a bad liar in person, but, he says, “since I was writing someone a lie that I had the feeling they were ready to believe, I got swept up in euphoria, as if I were close, very close, to a state that would represent for me, just maybe, a kind of emancipation.” Having gotten away with rape and being given the space and time to write, it seems that indeed the narrator achieves this freedom.
Is he maybe speaking of a larger freedom? Is the transition to democracy meant to be paralleled in the narrator? I feel unequipped to answer this question and fear that I may be reading too deeply into this. But this is where the translation can only do what it does — give me language with which to infer, to assume, rather than the cultural knowledge to assert those assumptions with confidence. - Ilana Masad
Perhaps the self is light refracted through a prism: Multiple. Bent by every twist of fate. And ultimately hovering just beyond our reach. Or so Brazilian author João Gilberto Noll’s Quiet Creature on the Corner, recently released in a stirring translation by Adam Morris, provokes us to consider. This slim volume leaves the reader with the same impotence its narrator feels time and again, that desire to grab hold of some deeper meaning which may or may not be just an illusion. And therein lies the source of its power, giving new resonance to the absurdity of the human condition.The plot itself is as diaphanous as a dream. The young, unnamed narrator, a squatter in a Porto Alegre slum and sometimes poet, commits a rape for which he is arrested, only to be rescued by an elderly German stranger named Kurt who gives the offender a home with him and his wife on their farm. Why Kurt has taken him in and what his life’s purpose will become, the troubled youth spends the rest of the book wondering. The narrative—thick with familial tension, where everything remains unspoken and physical separations embody the characters’ emotional distance—is overhung with a sense of foreboding, as this young man constantly probes the slightest mannerisms of those around him for some clue as to whether he can rest assured of a continued place in this patchwork family.
Noll’s is a fascinating, if inscrutable, authorial voice projected through this almost sympathetic narrator. In fact, none of the characters is likeable, but one senses they are real, even if the narrative is punctuated with contradictions. In many ways our guide to this enigmatic world possesses a heightened awareness, a perceptivity to the slightest glance and a mindfulness about the natural world. But in those moments where we most hunger for an insight, he leaves us grasping. We are aware we are the blind being led by the blind, yet just as we begin to surrender to his authenticity, his lyrical prose, we are jarred by some horrifying and inexplicable action, rendered incomplete by the absence of detail and emotional impact, which keeps us at a distance, forces us to question whether this character is, in fact, three-dimensional. Yet are we not also distanced from ourselves? Quiet Creature on the Corner confounds our expectations of what literature should be by denying us the opportunity to see ourselves more clearly through a character, but it is that refusal which enriches the experience all the more.
The novel is imbued with an overriding sense of the surreal, not merely with regard to the characters’ motivations, but in the narration itself. The troubled youth’s arrival at the farm takes place amid an extended dream which merges the details of past and present—faces from his days in the slum transposed into this rural setting—and propels them years into the future. The dream is so raggedly delineated, interrupted by dreamed awakenings, that the reader cannot be sure where the dream ends and reality begins. We are on just as precarious footing as he is, uncertain whether to take this new life as given, or to hold it suspect. The rest of the story is marked by further distortions, most notably of time, for example when Amália, the family’s servant, returns to the farm and recounts her illegitimate pregnancy, murder of the newborn child and subsequent prison sentence, an episode that logically requires a duration of years. But in the interval, we have been with the narrator for what seems only a matter of weeks, perhaps months. His only reply? “‘So then a long time really has gone by’” (81). Amidst these chronological unmoorings, the narrator repeats like a prayer various iterations of the phrase “It was December” and “the moon was full,” (though it is always December, and the moon is always full), as if trying to get his bearings, convince himself. He uses the growth of his facial hair to attempt a calculation of the passage of time, but seems always to miscalculate.
If language serves to orient us amid that nebula of human existence, the reader will find that in Quiet Creature on the Corner, it, too, proves frustrating. Nevertheless, language is a key force in this novel, as would be expected from a narrator who uses poetry in a vain attempt to connect with his world, who calls attention to the text as written each time he recounts the arduousness of his creative process. Fittingly, the prose often surpasses the narrator, reaching a sublime, erudite register one would assume impossible for someone of his class. Yet as any writer is painfully aware, language is mercurial: at times elusive (especially when one most depends upon it) and at other times unpredictably fecund, taking on a life of its own:
The poem I was writing then spoke of a farewell, and in that farewell exploded a hatred that tore through everything: ripped curtains, the walls to sawdust, blood on the lapel. Something was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find. (41)
Noll’s stylistics are a play of tantalizing incongruities. Stream-of-conscious and lyrical, until pierced with the discordant syllables of the coarsest argot given its full weight, constantly lulling us into complacent submission only to jolt us into fear and paranoia. Passages that wax poetic in their description of nature, yet are juxtaposed with the muck of base human behavior. Light and dark, both literal and figurative, fuse.
Morris’ translation deftly displays the full brilliance of this multifaceted prose. Alternating hypnotic run-on sentences, unconventional metaphors and litanies of non-sequitur impressions that possess a rhythm almost like gunshot, the text keeps us as readers on our toes and surely demanded much of the translator. One inspired choice seemed to be the frequent use of the gerund, which permits the narrator to avoid declarative sentences:
I, in the doorway of the kitchen, thinking it was the first time I’d seen Kurt drunk, I stood in the kitchen doorway wondering if I really wanted to go in and continue with the farce that was unfolding, Kurt tremblingly raising the glass, toasting me, I couldn’t stand him drunk, not Kurt, I could tell what I was observing was an invitation: an old man widowed just hours prior beckoning me into the tavern to keep him company, to drink, drink until dawn with an unhappy man, that was the idea […] (93)
It conveys a certain tentativeness which so defines this character: Despite his first-person narration, the use of the gerund calls attention to him as an unwilling chronicler, someone incapable of trusting his perceptions, of taking a position in his own interactions with others.
If there is even a narrow window into the psyche of the character, it would be in his obsession with his own passage to manhood. In this respect, the book is a Bildungsroman, but here perhaps it is a perversion of the form, because the transition is far messier. There is no definitive crossing-over into adulthood, no lesson learned. Nor does the character have an arc. But he wants to believe he has become a man, taking note of his growing muscles, telling himself that it is others’ weakness that is holding him back. One could perhaps read his unexplained sexual deviations as an attempt to combat his own emotional impotence when confronted with the suffering of those around him, the vulnerability of the very adults he wishes could be some sort of role model for him.
But, this is only conjecture because, ultimately, existence is an asymptote toward understanding, littered with clues that lure us into believing we know ourselves and others. If we had our lives to read over again, we might come to entirely different conclusions. Quiet Creature on the Corner is that prism that with each reading allows us to probe the spectrum of human existence and find new shades of meaning. - Amanda Sarasien
Quiet Creature on the Corner is a thin book translated by Adam Morris from Portuguese into English for the first time since its original publication over two decades ago. In Quiet Creature, Noll creates a kaleidoscope of events and images, often taking place on top of one another.
At the beginning of the book, the narrator rapes his neighbor, a young girl singing out behind an abandoned building. The scene between them is spartan, the reasons for the actions not provided. There's a sense throughout Quiet Creature that the narrator is at least as confounded by his life as the reader is, and I often found that rather unsatisfying. I wanted to know what would motivate someone to do the things that he does. But our poet just moves onwards instead of inwards, drifting wherever he's led by these strangers who take him in. I found no empathy or understanding, and I can't say that I was any closer by the end of the book. That may even be the point, but it's a frustrating point.
For such a slim volume, Noll doesn't rush to go anywhere fast. He toys with perception and time, jumping from one place to another so abruptly, I had to retrace my steps at several points to determine whether I missed some vital step. But no, Noll seems to be saying, that's just how time works. One moment you're young, the next you're not. Just when a clear narrative begins to appear, the reader is upended again.
My reading experience was a bit like wandering through an art exhibition where maybe you don't necessarily enjoy or understand all the pieces on display. Instead they make you think, and leave you feeling unsettled. - Leah Dearborn
The book is probably best read without any kind of foregrounding or forewarning.
Forewarning (and enthusiastic endorsement): Quiet Creature on the Corner is a nightmarish, abject, kinetic, surreal, picaresque read, a mysterious prose-poem that resists allegorical interpretation. I read it and then I read it again. It’s a puzzle. I enjoyed it tremendously.
So…what’s it about?
For summary, I’ll lazily cite the back of the book:
…Quiet Creature on the Corner throws us into a strange world without rational cause and effect, where everyone always seems to lack just a few necessary facts. The narrator is an unemployed poet who is thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But then he’s abruptly taken to a countryside manor where all that’s required of him is to write poetry. What do his captors really want from him?
There’s a lot more going on than that.
So…what’s it about? What’s the “a lot more”?
Maybe let’s use body metaphors. Maybe that will work here.
We are constantly leaking. Blood, sweat, tears. Piss, shit, decay. Cells sloughing off. Snot trickling. Vomit spewing. Shuffling of this mortal etc.
(—Are we off to a bad start? Have I alienated you, reader, from my request that you read Noll’s novella?—)
What I want to say is:
We are abject: there are parts of us that are not us but are us, parts that we would disallow, discard, flush away. We are discontinuous, rotten affairs. Bodies are porous. We leak.
We plug up the leaks with metaphors, symbols, tricks, gambits, recollections, reminiscences. We convert shame into ritual and ritual into history. We give ourselves a story, a continuity. An out from all that abjection. An organization to all those organs. We call it an identity, we frame it in memory.
What has this to do with Noll’s novella?, you may ask, gentle reader. Well. We expect a narrative to be organized, to represent a body of work. And Quiet Creature on the Corner is organized, it is a body—but one in which much of the connective tissue has been extricated from the viscera.
We never come to understand our first-person narrator, a would-be poet in the midst of a Kafkaesque anti-quest. And our narrator never comes to understand himself (thank goodness). He’s missing the connective tissue, the causes for all the effects. Quiet Corner exposes identity as an abject thing, porous, fractured, unprotected by stabilizing memory. What’s left is the body, a violent mass of leaking gases liquids solids, shuttling its messy consciousness from one damn place to the next.
Perhaps as a way to become more than just a body, to stabilize his identity, and to transcend his poverty, the narrator writes poems. However, apart from occasional brusque summaries, we don’t get much of his poetry. (The previous sentence is untrue. The entirety of Quiet Creature on the Corner is the narrator’s poem. But let’s move on). He shares only a few lines of what he claims is the last poem he ever writes: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth.” Perhaps Quiet Creature is condensed in these two lines: A violent, mysterious milieu and the artist who wishes to record, describe, and analyze it—yet, lacking the necessary tools, he resorts to implementing a finger for a crude pencil. Marks in the dirt. An abject effort. A way of saying, “I was here.” A way of saying I.
Poetry perhaps offers our narrator—and the perhaps here is a big perhaps—a temporary transcendence from the nightmarish (un)reality of his environs. In an early episode, he’s taken from jail to a clinic where he is given a nice clean bed and decides to sleep, finally:
I dreamed I was writing a poem in which two horses were whinnying. When I woke up, there they were, still whinnying, only this time outside the poem, a few steps a way, and I could mount them if I wanted to.
Rest, dream, create. Our hero moves from a Porto Alegre slum to a hellish jail to a quiet clinic and into a dream, which he converts into a pastoral semi-paradise. The narrator lives a full second life here with his horses, his farm, a wife and kids. (He even enjoys a roll in the hay). And yet sinister vibes reverberate under every line, puncturing the narrator’s bucolic reverie. Our poet doesn’t so much wake up from his dream; rather, he’s pulled from it into yet another nightmare by a man named Kurt.
Kurt and his wife Gerda are the so-called “captors” of the poet, who is happy, or happyish, in his clean, catered captivity. He’s able to write and read, and if the country manor is a sinister, bizarre place, he fits right in. Kurt and Gerda become strange parent figures to the poet. Various Oedipal dramas play out—always with the connective tissue removed and disposed of, the causes absent from their effects. We get illnesses, rapes, corpses. We get the specter of Brazil’s taboo past—are Germans Kurt and Gerda Nazis émigrés? Quiet Creature evokes allegorical contours only to collapse them a few images later.
What inheres is the novella’s nightmare tone and rhythm, its picaresque energy, its tingling dread. Our poet-hero finds himself in every sort of awful predicament, yet he often revels in it. If he’s not equipped with a memory, he’s also unencumbered by one.
And without memory the body must do its best. A representative passage from the book’s midway point:
Suddenly my body calmed, normalizing my breathing. I didn’t understand what I was doing there, lying with my head in a puddle of piss, deeply inhaling the sharp smell of the piss, as though, predicting this would help me recover my memory, and the memory that had knocked me to the floor appeared, little by little, and I became fascinated, as what had begun as a theatrical seizure to get rid of the guy who called himself a cop had become a thing that had really thrown me outside myself.
Here, we see the body as its own theater, with consciousness not a commander but a bewildered prisoner, abject, awakened into reality by a puddle of piss and threatened by external authorities, those who call themselves cops. Here, a theatrical seizure conveys meaning in a way that supersedes language.
Indeed our poet doesn’t harness and command language with purpose—rather, he emits it:
No, I repeated without knowing why. Sometimes a word slips out of me like that, before I have time to formalize an intention in my head. Sometimes on such occasions it comes to me with relief, as though I’ve felt myself distilling something that only once finished and outside me, I’ll be able to know.
And so, if we are constantly leaking, we leak language too.
It’s the language that propels Noll’s novella. Each sentence made me want to read the next sentence. Adam Morris’s translation rockets along, employing comma splice after comma splice. The run-on sentences rhetorically double the narrative’s lack of connecting tissue. Subordinating and coordinating conjunctions are rare here. Em dashes are not.
The imagery too compels the reader (this reader, I mean)—strange, surreal. Another passage:
Our arrival at the manor.
The power was out. We lit lanterns.
I found a horrible bug underneath the stove. It could have been a spider but it looked more like a hangman. I was on my knees and I smashed it with the base of my lantern. The moon was full. The low sky, clotted with stars, was coming in the kitchen window. December, but the night couldn’t be called warm—because it was windy. I was crawling along the kitchen tiles with lantern in hand, looking for something that Kurt couldn’t find. I was crawling across the kitchen without much hope for my search: he didn’t the faintest idea of where I could find it.
What was the thing Kurt and the narrator searched for? I never found it, but maybe it’s somewhere there in the narrative.
Quiet Creature on the Corner is like a puzzle, but a puzzle without a reference picture, a puzzle with pieces missing. The publishers have compared the novella to the films of David Lynch, and the connection is not inaccurate. Too, Quiet Creature evokes other sinister Lynchian puzzlers, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (or Nazi Literature in the Americas, which it is perhaps a twin text to). It’s easy to compare much of postmodern literature to Kafka, but Quiet Creature is truly Kafkaesque. It also recalled to me another Kafkaesque novel, Alasdair Gray’s Lanark—both are soaked in a dark dream logic. Other reference points abound—the paintings of Francis Bacon, Leon Golub, Hieronymus Bosch, Goya’s etchings, etc. But Noll’s narrative is its own thing, wholly.
I reach the end of this “review” and realize there are so many little details I left out that I should have talked about–a doppelgänger and street preachers, an election and umbanda, Bach and flatulence, milking and mothers…the wonderful crunch of the title in its English translation—read it out loud! Also, as I reach the end of this (leaky) review, I realize that I seem to understand Quiet Creature less than I did before writing about it. Always a good sign. -
I sat down with Noll translator Adam Morris, who has also translated work by Brazilian writers such as Hilda Hilst and the nineteenth-century writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, among others. Hilst, like Noll, was tireless in her attempt to push the boundaries of form, and Morris’s translation of her novel With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014) earned the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize for Literary Translation. With the prize money, Morris did a residency at the Instituto Hilda Hilst, at the Casa do Sol, Hilst’s residence outside Campinas, São Paulo, an experience that gave him access to Hilst’s personal library and some of her close friends, who, Morris has said elsewhere, impressed upon him the immense gravity that the translation “be done right.”
In recent years, the profile of literary translators has been rising steadily, the reasons for which might attributed to both to the work of organizations like the PEN Translation Committee in New York and the establishment of the London Book Fair Translation Centre, but also to the less quantifiable rise in readers’ interest in international fiction, evidenced by the burgeoning ranks of translation magazines and independent publishers with a focus on literature in translation. The decision by the Man Booker International Prize, starting this year, to split the award money equally between translator and author of the winning work was widely hailed as the culmination of a decades-long campaign (with too many participants to mention here) to give translators their due as co-creators and ambassadors for their authors’ work.
Morris’s own views on translation, as expressed during our discussion and in other interviews, are nuanced, at once recognizing the power of translation, particularly into English, to bring deserved recognition to writers beyond the Anglophone sphere and the equal importance of reading literature in its original language.
Though Morris’s responses to my questions place the emphasis on Noll, when speaking to him, it’s difficult to overlook his ability as a representative for the writers he trnslates. With a learned but accessible mode of expression, it’s clear that in addition to his attention to his writers’ artistry, he is ever attuned—as a good translator must be—the social and political milieu in which each work sits.
In addition to Quiet Creature, our discussion touched on Noll’s place in Latin American letters, his influences, and the remarkable relevance of the novel’s events in light of recent efforts to impeach Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
—Eric M. B. Becker for Guernica Magazine.
Guernica: I’m curious about your entry point into the literature of João Gilberto Noll. When you began translating his work, what drew you to it and how was it you described this very singular writer?
Adam Morris: I was drawn to Noll’s work long before I decided to translate it. I had already heard Noll’s name in connection with the scholarly conversation surrounding postdictatorial literary aesthetics in the Southern Cone. By the time I was learning Portuguese and studying Brazilian literature, I already had studied Spanish-American literature extensively. In terms of style, Noll is frequently mentioned as a counterpart to two other writers I have written about, César Aira and Mario Bellatin.
I suspect these comparisons are based of the lengths of his works, which like those of Aira and Bellatin are located somewhere between the lengths that readers associate with novellas and novels. This formal gesture is part of a much larger shared project of disregarding established generic conventions of the novel. Nowhere is this truer than in Aira’s work, but it the effort appears also in Noll’s and Bellatin’s writing. All three of these writers have abandoned the modern tradition of the masterpiece novel in favor of something else. (It bears mention that Clarice Lispector had also done so in her final book length fictions, Água viva and Um sopro de vida.) In Aira’s and Bellatin’s cases, this “something else” is a novel-system linked by covert and overt connections between works. Noll on the other hand is far more interested in the affective states of his protagonists and in attempting to incite uncomfortable affective states in his readers. His works might be described as both plotless and overdetermined by plot in the sense that sequential logic and what Roland Barthes called the proairetic code are manipulated and warped. He frustrates attempts to foresee the plot or to craft stories as they are traditionally understood and written. The series of events that appear in them are as tenuously linked into a broader narrative as those of a dream: individual causes and effects still propel the action forward, but which of the text’s details or actions that becomes a cause capable of diverting the protagonist’s itinerary or fate appears aleatory—but not in the calculated, whimsical, Rube Goldberg way that Aira’s plots produce their denouements. Noll’s humor is more understated and his overall affective register is gloomier.
When you ask about why I selected Noll or these novels [Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel], I should add that I never intended to become a professional translator in the first place. It is something that happened a bit by accident—literary translation, I think, is an occupation that selects its own victims.
My first book-length translation project was With My Dog-Eyes, a novel by Hilda Hilst. Noll was on my very short list of projects to attempt after the Hilst translation, simply because I like his work so much and feel it deserves the international attention enabled by translation. Like Aira and Bellatin, and even more than Hilst, who always considered herself a poète-maudit in the European mold, Noll is doing something that is totally alien to an American publishing and fiction environment, which in my view is desperately stale and in need of contact with writers as bizarre and restrained as Noll. I think the only persuasive comparison for Noll that I could give you in the American context is George Saunders.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you compare Noll to Aira and Bellatin in that Brazil is often considered—politically and culturally—to be isolated from the rest of Latin America. And to a certain extent, it is and has been for some time. Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari has revealed that the generals who presided over the country during the dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 took pains to differentiate themselves from other right-wing dictatorships during the same period (although we know, of course, that in reality there was a significant amount of cooperation with these same dicatorships, starting with Operation Condor). Similarly, those lines are blurred on the cultural level. In what ways do you see Noll as a counterpart to these two writers?
Adam Morris: You’re absolutely right: Brazil is to a large degree separated from the rest of Latin America and its experience of dictatorship, like its experience of monarchy and independence, is very different from that of Spanish-American countries. Nevertheless, it became fashionable in literary-criticism circles to theorize the conditions of postdictatorship in a comparative transnational framework.
Of course Aira experienced the dictatorship in Argentina, and Bellatin the dictablanda in Mexico, and both of those countries are now governed according to the logic of neoliberal austerity, although Argentina just concluded fifteen years of resurgent Peronism. But I do not think these writers can be grouped into a discrete political or aesthetic category, certainly not one of postdictatorship. Instead, I think one of the compelling aspects of their work is that in each case the writer is working against the concept of the novel as it has developed in the preceding two centuries. Aira is a master alchemist when it comes to blending genres into his short, crystallized comedies. And as many others have suggested, he writes at a rate faster than anyone can read him—his famous fuga hacia adelante, or “flight forward.” Bellatin and Noll also both appear to have deprioritized the notion of a masterpiece novel in favor of a project or a literary corpus that transcends the artificial boundary of the book.
Following the work of Idelber Avelar, the Brazilian critic who perhaps more than anyone else has influenced this discussion of postdictatorial literature in Latin America, I have also compared Noll to writers such as the Chilean Diamela Eltit. Like Noll, Eltit is very concerned with questions of labor and of the anonymous interchangeability of subjects in the neoliberal regimes that tended to replace the Latin American military dictatorships. These political subjects, or as Deleuze would say, these corporate “dividuals,” understand their situation of precarious life as a hardship unto itself, but also as the loss of something concrete: the meaning and purpose that used to accrue to the status of citizenship and even to the role of the worker in the populist regimes that preceded many of the dictatorships.
The literary historical context for this, and for Noll, is important. National identity and the national imaginary were a central concern of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature. But after these countries moved from populist nationalism to authoritarian nationalism and finally into globalized free-trade economies, this prerogative of national identity formation and maintenance fell away. Noll, Eltit, and many other writers responded to this.
Guernica: As you’ve suggest here, if there’s one thing that can be said of Noll, it’s that his style is distinct and that Noll is always seeking to expand what the novel can accomplish. And yet, one can certainly see shades of his influences in his work. He often cites Clarice Lispector, among others. In what way does this influence reveal itself, and what is the mark of a Noll novel? One thing that catches the reader’s eye immediately is that he makes ample use of just about any sort of punctuation other than a period, and his sentences often go on for a page or so.
Adam Morris: Some of the sentences in Quiet Creature are excruciatingly long. This partially has to do with Brazilian Portuguese, which is extraordinarily permissive of what we would consider run-on sentences in American English. But it’s also a stylistic decision on Noll’s part. When the translation of Quiet Creature was in editing, I had conversations with my editor about how to handle these sentences. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Two Lines is because they take risks and trust their translators, both of which were required for me to do a decent translation of Noll. With a word of caution, I submitted a manuscript that preserved even the most egregiously wandering sentences, which do last for entire pages. This generated some worry that the novel would be dismissed as sloppy, or the translation as messy. Now, this is a valid concern from an editorial perspective. As a translator, however, I owe more loyalty to the author than to the reader. If the author wants to shift tenses suddenly or use ungrammatical prose, then I attempt to reproduce this in my translation.
So when the edits came back with most of the sentences cleaned up, a conversation began about how far or how hard I could really push this narrative style on an Anglophone audience. This was one of the rare instances I actually wrote Noll. Without further preamble, I asked him why the sentences in Quiet Creature are so long and meandering. He confirmed what I had already rationalized to myself: that the narration of Quiet Creature, which is performed by a poet in late adolescence, is intended to resemble the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind. This did not fully satisfy editorial demands or my own preoccupations with how the first draft had turned out. So I thought more about the problem, returned to the Portuguese once again, and listened harder to the protagonist. Then, after revisiting every single comma splice in the novel, I ended up bisecting some sentences when I thought it was more idiomatically adolescent to do so.
This brings me rather circuitously to Clarice Lispector. She was a writer tremendously, even obsessively, interested in sound. Her prose masterpiece Água viva could fairly be described as a fugue; the “voice” that narrates that book describes it as chamber music. But in addition to conversational chamber music, Lispector’s work is very much invested in Brazilian oral culture.
Lispector had this tremendous range of tonality and timbre in her writing because she was always listening, with evident wonder, to the diversity of Brazilian voices across class, race, and gender boundaries. Noll is another of these listening writers, especially here in Quiet Creature. I think what he may have learned from Lispector is that so much of the uncanny vibration in her work derived from her deft handling of sounds.
Guernica: Turning to considerations that aren’t strictly lieterary, one of the things that makes this novel interesting is that it was written in the early 1990’s, not long after Brazil was coming out of a twenty-year dictatorship. There are some interesting markers that, if you’re familiar with Brazilian history in the second half of the twentieth century, merit allusions in the novel. One is a rally for Lula—a metalworker from Brazil’s Northeast, a place with its own mythic presence in Brazilian literature—who went nose-to-nose with the dictatorship and reached the presidency years later in 2003; another seems to be the allusions near the novel’s opening to the military police performing nighttime raids against purported “car thieves” and “drug traffickers.” In what way is Noll, in this novel, concerned with the social issues of that time?
Adam Morris: The marks of the novel’s chronological situation are quite clear. The end of the 1980s was not a time of great stability in Brazil. The economy and the political dictatorship had simultaneously unraveled in the 1980s, as it became obvious, even to the military, that the dictatorship was not in fact the guarantor of prosperity, which was one of the claims used to justify military rule over several decades, along with anticommunist rhetoric. The Lula rally in the novel takes place in Porto Alegre, where Lula had the strongest following the first time he ran for president in 1989. The MST or Landless Peoples Movement also appears in the novel. This was a relatively new movement at the time the novel was written, one that brought together peasants and even the urban homeless to demand that the new democratic state enact land reform. In part due to their efforts, the Brazilian constitution adopted in 1988 authorizes the state to repossess and redistribute lands that are not serving the public interest. Kurt and Gerda [on whose property the protagonist resides] live on what appears to be a dysfunctional plantation of some kind, and have been targeted by the MST.
Guernica: These questions of land redistribution recall an episode earlier in the novel where Noll is once again attentive to questions of class, as relevant in today’s Brazil as they ever were. Early in the novel, the protagonist is leaving the Carlos Gomes porno cinema, and comments: “It was almost late afternoon when I left the theater, and I went slowly, so slowly that I suddenly found myself stopped in Acelino de Carvalho alley, a chilly backstreet too narrow for direct sunlight, pedestrian-only, constantly reeking of piss, a couple barbershops on one side, three or four side-exit doors from the Vitória cinema on the other, hearing voices inside speaking English. Right then I remembered: I’m going home, and I walked resolutely in the direction of the bus terminal.” Here the reader is presented with the protagonist’s world of the Gomes porno cinema, and the Vitória cinema not so far away, a different world, a world that belongs to an elite that watches films in English from abroad.
It’s often said that more than racism, classism is the principal ill afflicting Brazilian society (though of course these are often two issues that intersect at various points). I wonder if we could talk a bit more about how these questions feature in the novel.
Adam Morris: In Quiet Creature, Kurt and Gerda are identified as immigrants, but they would clearly read as wealthy white landowners to Brazilian readers. Gerda has to fly to Rio for cancer treatments and owns property or business interests in Germany. Their lifestyle, which does not even appear to be that extravagant, is alien to the protagonist poet. Amália and Otávio, servants on the manor, are portrayed as strange and pathetic people who mysteriously do the bidding of their masters and cannot seem to escape their ties to Kurt and Gerda. But maybe they are just poor people with nowhere else to go. And obviously, the MST occupiers would read to Brazilians as nonwhite.
The protagonist’s disturbing sexual fantasy and encounter with the black woman he meets at the Lula rally also condenses many of Brazil’s racial stereotypes and tensions into one uncomfortable scene.
Guernica: Let’s shift the focus to how these political concerns—public and personal—are especially relevant in Brazil today. Foreign news outlets have been bringing some rather wild news to readers lately around the likely removal of president Dilma Rousseff and an opposition to her that’s largely composed of traditional land-owning families, and the “bullets, beef, and bible caucus.” *
Adam Morris: I am glad you ask this. We are witnessing a crisis of the PT mandate that began with Lula’s election in 2002. For fourteen years, the conservative forces in Brazilian society, which are significant, hoped to put an end to PT reforms by political means. But although conservative families and interests control the mainstream media in Brazil, there was no way a messaging campaign could compete with a political regime that was lifting millions of people out of poverty; elevating the country’s geopolitical importance; and making massive, highly visible, and universally discussed investments in direct social services. The PT effectively created a large middle class in Brazil, which had never really existed before. This in turn stimulated the economy, but this motor for growth could not, by definition, be sustained at the same pace over the long term. Now that oil prices have dropped and Brazil’s main trading partner, China, has entered an economic slowdown, the Brazilian national economy is in serious trouble.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the PT was not immune from corruption, which tends to be endemic in places that were under colonial or neocolonial rule for generations. Dictatorships and closed economies also indirectly encourage black markets, so the legacy of a certain normalization of corruption and shady business in Brazil and in countries with similar historical experience is considerable.
International reporting on the contemporary Brazilian corruption scandals often focus on Dilma Rousseff, the president and Lula’s chosen successor, but the charges against her are relatively minor in comparison with those faced by the politicians who are working hardest to oust her. Most of Dilma’s opponents are charged with or accused of outright graft, while Dilma herself is accused of moving money around within governmental entities. In other words, she is not accused of stealing for herself, as many of her adversaries are. This is a slow-motion political assassination that Dilma’s supporters describe as a coup. The landowning and business elite have finally given up trying to win back political control at the ballot box and are attempting to seize power by other means.
I don’t think these developments are removed from Noll’s world, because this government came to power promising straightforward redistribution of wealth and, although it has moved rightward over the years, has largely delivered on these promises to the perceived detriment of the wealthy classes.
Guernica: And yet what’s interesting is that today the MST—which has historically been a strong supporter of the PT and, as we’ve discussed, features in Quiet Creature—largely hasn’t made much progress. In fact, the PT, once in power, almost entirely abandoned that part of its agenda. And after four election cycles where, as you say, the Kurts and Gerdas of the world have seen some of their power eroded, the impeachment saga we’re seeing now would seem to signal they weren’t so much neutralized as lying in wait for the right opportunity to reassert their historical privilege. So while the PT has delivered on many promises, many journalists who have gone out to the street and spoken with those who most benefited under the PT find that these people, too, now, are in favor of Dilma’s removal (for a whole gamut of reasons, some related to media manipulation, though it would be unfair to suggest that’s the only cause). Where do you think the protagonist of Quiet Creature would stand today? What how would his story have changed?
Adam Morris: If you are asking whether or not he would support Dilma, I think the answer might be more pessimistic than that question allows. He’s politically apathetic about the progressive left, as evidenced by his disinterest in the Lula rally. But this might be because he’s of an urban underclass so marginal that he doubts he’d fare differently depending on the political party in power.
Guernica: It’s often commented on that Noll is a writer concerned more with psychological exploration of his characters than plot, something you’ve mentioned you don’t entirely agree with.
Adam Morris: I would say that in Quiet Creature and Atlantic Hotel, the Noll novels I’ve translated and therefore know best, plot is subordinated to psychology but also directed, or perhaps diverted, by its most aleatory details. I have mentioned elsewhere that the Situationist practice of the dérive is applicable to this vagabond quality of action, which is not propelled by the protagonist’s will so much as his affect. The novels suggest that these affects are the results of a deepened alienation wrought by capitalist society in the decades subsequent to the Situationist writings. And here it’s important to remember that this is an internationalized affective experience, as it derives from modes of precarious life that are as indigenous to the Parisian banlieues as they are to the so-called developing world.
Guernica: This question of marginalization, it seems to me, is also one of isolation in a more general sense. Noll has himself remarked that “solitude is a sentiment that permeates all my work.”
Adam Morris: The poet protagonist in Quiet Creature is utterly alone. His father is out of the picture, his mother flees their situation as squatters, and he has no coworkers or friends. He’s been more or less abandoned. To make matters worse, his contact with women is predicated on the violence and sexual exploitation he’s observed around him and in the media, including porn. The only person to show interest in him is Kurt, and his perplexity over this is one of his principal concerns throughout the novel.
Guernica: This abandonment would, generally speaking, tend to endear us to the protagonist, and yet he isn’t the most likeable of guys, is he? We’ve barely begun the novel and he’s already plotting to pawn his mother’s wedding ring and recounting his rape of a girl, which subsequently gets him interned in a psych ward and then mysteriously placed under the charge of a German-Brazilian couple. And throughout the novel, we see everything through the lens of his confusion.
Adam Morris: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think Noll intends for the reader to identify with the protagonist in all circumstances. But there are other ways in which he is quite human and even endearing. He is frank about his curiosity and sexuality in ways that recall recent American autofiction by writers like Marie Calloway, whose book What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life I am reading now. Although at times he is despicable and at other times opaque, there are still moments where I personally have empathy for him, particularly considering his dire material circumstances and evident lack of future prospects. Someone recently asked me why Anglophone readers should read Noll “now.” This “why now” query is always put to translators, and usually my response is “why not?” There is no right time to read anything. But in this case, I do think that the global awareness of the problem of a massively contingent labor force that lacks a social safety net—essentially the plight of our protagonist—makes this novel, out of all of Noll’s work that I’ve read so far, particularly relevant at this historical juncture. Insecure, contingent labor creates a desperate, resentful underclass and cultivates sympathy for authoritarian regimes among the wealthy and powerful. We are seeing this in the United States: now that credit has tightened in the wake of the 2007-08 crash, workers are realizing wages have stagnated since the 1970’s, retirement is vanishing, and employment is far from secure. Large swathes of my generation and the next youngest one are adrift in the 1099 economy or flit between various underpaid part-time work, all the while getting crushed by student loans and rising rents. Cities that are succeeding economically have become affordable only to the children of the wealthy and privileged. As the poet of Quiet Creature only dimly realizes, it is very difficult to create art under these circumstances. The domain of recognized and remunerated “art” has been captured, reified, and reserved for those who enjoy fated privileges, as the protagonist suddenly does when he becomes a poet-tenant ward on Kurt’s manor.
Guernica: So it would seem then that Noll is concerned with the role of the artist—and particularly the writer—in Brazilian society. Not simply on a personal level but as a concept he wishes to explore in his work. It’s not uncommon to hear people in Brazil, especially more leftist intellectuals, criticize what’s often referred to as the elite cultural, which is really a critique of who has access to art and the agency and/or authority to create it. Does Noll’s work engage this head-on?
Adam Morris: This novel does, since the poet is obviously not from an elite class, but from the poor and marginalized urban enclave of a city distant from the cultural capitals of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I think the classism of literary culture is a subtextual critique in Noll’s work, given that he is so interested in socially marginal people and circumstances. This is something he has in common with writers like Eltit and Bellatin, as well. As for the elite cultural, you are right that intellectual and literary production is mostly restricted to a minority of educated, wealthy, or well-connected individuals. But I do not consider this to be unique to Brazil. There is that wonderful scene in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series in which Elena visits the home of her grade-school teacher and sees shelf upon shelf of books that obviously are the inheritance of many generations of educated people. She understands instantly that she will never have the ease with words and ideas that she admires in the teacher’s handsome son and elegant daughter. This is one of many situations in which Elena realizes the inherent inequity perpetuated by social class. But I want to be clear that even in the United States, where economic and educational disparities are historically not as severe as those in Brazil, artistic and cultural production is dominated by the leisured and monied classes.
*Following our interview, transcripts leaked shortly after Dilma’s suspension suggest that her opponents may have been collaborating with the military to monitor the MST, ostensibly in preparation to suppress any potentially disruptive activities they planned in response to her removal.
- Adam Morris
The first reaction that I had to the writing style and narrative of this book is that it feels like a series of flash fiction stories. When we first meet the narrator he lives in Porto Alegre with his mother is a decrepit, abandoned apartment. Other miscreant vagabonds also spend their days idling around the lobby of this building and doing drugs. The narrator’s actions and thoughts in the book reflect his aimless and disjointed life; he talks to his mother, he tries to write poetry, he sleeps, he wanders around the city.
The writing manages to be both subtle and shocking when he sexually assaults a girl whom he encounters sitting among the ruins of the city and singing. The narrative of this encounter is so oddly non-descript for such a horrible act that I had to go back and read the brief paragraph to confirm in my mind what had just happened. The narrator is then thrown in a jail for his crime and the next few pages of the book deal with the broken and disgusting men he encounters in this jail.
My comparison with flash fiction came to mind because Noll provides us with several different short stories about this narrator. In just a few pages the author gives us just enough of a story to provide an image of a complete setting, but then that story ends abruptly and leaves us with a million questions and wanting more details. What did the narrator suddenly attack this girl? How do they know he is guilty? Why do they set him free so quickly from jail?
The next piece of flash fiction, if we continue with my assessment of the genre, is the narrator’s visit to the countryside once he is suddenly taken from his jail cell. He is put into a clinic in São Leopoldo where the narrator meets Kurt, a German Brazilian. Once again many questions come to mind: What is Kurt’s connection to the institution? Why does Kurt want to help the narrator and care for him? Why is the narrator put in a clinic instead of being kept in a jail cell?
The final, and largest story, takes place on Kurt’s country manor where the narrator is invited to live. Greda, Kurt’s ailing wife, Octavio, a type of handyman and Amalia, a maid, also live on the property. The narrator continues his wandering existence while on the manor, visiting Amilia for nocturnal amorous adventures, taking walks in the woods, and falling asleep listening to the radio. Every once in a while he dabbles at his poetry but in the middle of the narrative he announces that after this period he never writes poetry again.
There are two additional themes that pervade the narrative that are also worth mentioning. Sex and desire are never far from the narrator’s mind. After his attack on his neighbor, his lust does not diminish. He has several lascivious encounters in the book which are quick and never carried out with emotion or feeling. He also notes that at the beginning of the book when he is in Porto Alegre he is a boy and by the time he comes to live with Kurt on his manor he has fully become a man. When Kurt’s wife dies and he is distraught at her passing, he looks to the narrator for comfort who admits this makes him sad. This is the first time in the story that the narrator expresses true emotion and demonstrates that he might have actually matured.
This short book is a fascinating read because of the disjointed, flash fiction feel to the prose; it is a book that leaves us wanting more, not just of the narrator’s story but of Noll’s writing as well. I am hoping that more of this author’s works will be published in English. - thebookbindersdaughter.com/2016/05/26/review-quiet-creature-on-the-corner-by-joao-gilberto-noll/
Though João Gilberto Noll has published nearly twenty books, Quiet Creature on the Corner is his first to be translated into English (by the talented Dr. Adam Morris). A five-time recipient of Brazil’s prestigious Prêmio Jabuti, Noll lives in Porto Alegre, which also happens to be the hometown of Quiet Creature’s narrator—an unemployed poet who finds himself in jail for raping his young neighbor, Mariana.
But then, in a bizarre sequence of events, the poet is soon removed from jail and carted to the Almanova Clinic before then being moved yet again, this time to the mysterious household of Kurt, a German Brazilian, for whom the classic laws of life—time, money, aging, purpose, etc.—no longer seem to apply. As the poet slowly realizes:
A period had passed since the day Kurt brought me to be with him, and now there was no denying it: this period had been longer than I had supposed.
And I wondered, a wave of goosebumps passing over the flesh of my scalp: Why this lapse in recognizing such a duration?Quiet Creature in the Corner is about memory and forgetting, allowing yourself to become so lost that you no longer have a home or self to return to. In this state, the poet no longer feels responsible for his aging, lonely mother, for others he’s hurt, for the crimes he’s committed, for the pain and hunger that wait in the streets just outside his door. —And it’s these classic themes and conflicts that ground Quiet Creature within its surprisingly intense levels of satire and magical realism.
In his room at Kurt’s home, the poet hangs up an old engraving that he took from the maid Amália’s shed (the same shed where he goes to secretly have sex with her each day). It shows a boat setting sail, an image that prompts Kurt to say, “That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland.” The engraving thus becomes the poet’s rather literal writing on the wall. It is the crystallization of all he has left behind in exchange for the soul-mushing comforts of his new reality. And it is this same wholehearted avoidance and denial of all things uncomfortable, all things itchy, unhappy, or difficult, that the poet continues rolling with throughout the entire novel:
I was afraid [Amália] was pregnant, but my dread lasted only a second, and then I returned to sucking and biting her two breasts, because I remembered it had been a long time since I came inside her, so I could keep on sucking and biting her two breasts with peace of mind … and suddenly Amália let out a yell, and shouted, murderer, murderer, twice, and I, who was wrapped in her arms, got up, took her hand, and saw deep in her eyes a sign of alarm, but concluded that I didn’t feel like deciphering it.
It isn’t until he’s faced with Kurt’s dying wife, Gerda, in her hospital room, that the poet finally begins to wonder if perhaps his current situation isn’t as comfortable as he’d first imagined:
Wouldn’t it be better to leave the room and try to forget about the existence of Kurt and Gerda, and find some less blind situation, one as clear as my hand, which opened like a fan in front of the lampshade, my fingers the succinct verses I’d like to have?
And there’s the rub. Blindness. For writers and poets, there are few artistic tools so vital as having sight, as having memory and clarity. As being present in one’s own life. In Quiet Creature we’re faced with the grotesquerie of a poet’s life as it’s drained of all memory, place, and presence. In a life free of worries about money and responsibility, the poet finds himself suddenly absent all ability to write–all the things that once made him himself. - K.C. Mead-Brewer
This slim volume asks to be read in a single sitting, which is precisely what I did. And that's a good thing, because only in that way could I fully experience the dizzying and unsettling "plot."
The first of Noll's works to be translated into English, Quiet Creature is ostensibly about a young, poverty-stricken poet who, after being sent to jail for rape, is released into the custody of a mysterious older man who cares for him on an unidentified estate. Throughout the story, time seems to skip ahead without any warning, the narrator and the few other characters aging in fits and starts.
Often, the narrator will describe his actions as if viewing them from a distance. To him, things just "happen," despite his initiation. People come and go in his life without any explanation, and he often seems on the verge of realizing who his benefactor is and why he has earned the man's protection. But this insight never fully materializes.
Instability and uncertainty seem to be what Noll was going for- his refusal to give the reader a clear, straightforward story is an invitation to readers to think about our own lives and the ways in which we explain them to ourselves. We each have a narrative in our heads that we are constantly updating and tweaking. Noll amplifies this in Quiet Creature, compressing a single life into relatively few pages, asking us to think about our relationships and sense of responsibility. I haven't read too many other books like it. - Bookishly Witty
Sometimes the shortest novels can be the most unsettling. Consider the disquiet and upheaval that can be found in even the briefest of novels by Kathy Acker or Ann Quin; remember the haunting book-length monologue of eccentrics or corrupt leaders in works by Roberto Bolaño and Bohumil Hrabal. In a recent interview, Brian Evenson, whose novels typically fall on the slimmer side of the spectrum, succinctly summarized the strengths of working at a shorter length. “There’s a certain surface tension that you can maintain in that form that you just can’t in a very long book,” Evenson said–and talented writers from Marilynne Robinson to Dennis Cooper have worked wonders with shorter works.
João Gilberto Noll’s 1991 novel Quiet Creature on the Corner, newly translated into English by Adam Morris, also uses brevity to boldly evoke chaos and unrest. In this novel, time turns fluid, bodies undergo strange alterations, and identities, both personal and national, shift rapidly. It begins in a milieu of working-class realism and rapidly turns into something much stranger, a meditation on crimes and violence that leaves no one unscathed.
In the book’s first sentence, the narrator talks about the “dark broth running” as he washes accumulated grease from his hands after losing his job. In the middle of the second sentence, time jumps forward three months, and what had been a sudden loss of a job has transformed into a more pervasive condition of unemployment. Noll makes use of abrupt narrative leaps again and again to achieve a host of effects. Initially, it’s temporal; a few pages later, it will be to advance a much more horrific development in the plot. After leaving the apartment where he lives with his mother, the narrator goes for a walk throughout the building; he hears one of his neighbors, a young woman named Mariana, singing “a romantic ballad by a singer who was hideous.” He approaches her and, in a passage that’s brief but nightmarish to read, rapes her.
What follows is a surreal narrative of imprisonment and disengagement from the world. The narrator’s perspective has already seemed disjointed: first from time and then from morality. The novel’s narrator frequently comes off as a sociopath; in an interview, translator Adam Morris referred to him as “at once eager to please and insensitive to the effects of his actions.” And in the opening pages, Noll has, from an authorial perspective, established a work in which critically important events can take place in the midst of a sentence, with almost no warning.
After his imprisonment, the narrator is moved from prison to a clinic, and he becomes even more detached from those around him, and alienated from his own body. At one point, he catches sight of himself in a mirror and realizes that he’s grown a beard: “Some time had passed, I could now see, and not a little: those long hairs and that thick beard were signs of its passing.” From there, a peculiar kind of imprisonment continues, one where the people around the narrator age mysteriously and events take place in the distance that defy explanation.
Reading Quiet Creature on the Corner, one can find traces of the television show The Prisoner and novels like The Unconsoled and The Stranger–but laced with something horrific and corrosive. This is not an easy book to read, both in terms of its narrator’s capacity for violence and thoughtlessness, and for the dizzying events that isolate him from society throughout much of the novel. It can be read as a surreal work, one in which reality breaks down; it could also be seen as away in which the narrator’s altered reality is somehow punitive in nature.
Throughout the book, political allusions are made–Morris, in the same interview referenced earlier, observed that Noll’s novel was part of the “first wave of writing that was free from censorship under the military dictatorship.” A reference early on to “a photo I’d seen of a street in Vienna in the thirties” seems very telling, calling to mind the specter of totalitarianism, regimented violence, and death. But ultimately, this is not a rational novel; instead, Noll taps into haunting anxieties and unsettling imagery to depict a setting and a character who both veer on the monstrous. In many ways, it’s unsettling precisely because of its surrealism and its ambiguity, which pervade the narrative but never restrain the more realistic horrors at its core. It’s a difficult balance to achieve, but this novel does it, to disquieting effect. -
Quiet Creature is a slim book that sinks its claws into you, gently at first, then implacably. Like a film by David Lynch, Michael Haneke, or David Cronenberg, its hypnotic momentum pulls you along, even when the disturbing events make you cringe and want to turn away. The 1991 novel opens with a nineteen-year-old poet who’s just lost his factory job. He is one of countless Brazilians out of work in the late 1980s, when the novel is set, after the end of Brazil’s twenty-year military regime, a period marked simultaneously by hope for a new democratic order and uncertainty in the face of raging inflation and economic stagnation. The young narrator and his mother live as squatters in a semi-abandoned apartment complex in a rough neighborhood of Porto Alegre, capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Noll is from.
Early on, the boy recounts his rape of a neighbor girl in the same flat tone and bare language in which he describes washing his hands. The events that follow—his arrest, transfer to a mental health clinic, and surreal transition to a rural property where he becomes the charge of a German-Brazilian couple of mystifying motives—veer between the mundane, grotesque, and ominous. An undercurrent of social and political unrest occasionally pierces the narrator’s disorienting stream of consciousness, with allusions to the country’s first direct presidential election after the dictatorship (and Lula’s first run for president). As we drift through this novel without chapter breaks to arrive at its final image, the young man bobbing in a lake, we are left unsure whether he deserves pity or disgust.
The publication of Quiet Creature on the Corner this May by Two Lines Press, in a translation by Adam Morris, will make it Joăo Gilberto Noll’s only novel currently available in English. Noll is one of Brazil’s most esteemed living authors; of his sixteen novels and short story collections since 1980, five have won the Brazilian equivalent of the National Book Award (Pręmio Jabuti). Yet the only prior book-length English translation of his work is an out-of-print 1997 UK volume of his novellas Harmada (1993) and Hotel Atlântico (1986). Next spring, Two Lines will also publish Morris’s translation of Hotel Atlântico as Atlantic Hotel. In a written conversation over the course of two days, I spoke with Morris about his translations, how to understand the more inflammatory scenes of sex and violence in Quiet Creature, and what Noll’s work means for the present cultural and political moment in Brazil and beyond. We discussed Dilma, Lula, the Brazilian landless workers’ movement (MST), as well as the perverse pleasures of Hilda Hilst, Clarice Lispector’s Nietzschean morality, and when to ignore English grammar and just let those Brazilian run-on sentences ride. – Katrina Dodson
(Now read the interview on the Two Lines Press blog.)