the hole in the wall

Carlos Vergara (Reviews Journal)
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By ARTHUR NESTROVSKI*

Commentary on the book by Rubem Fonseca.

With characteristic elegance and good sense, Antonio Candido states, in the introduction to one of his essays, that “drawing a pure and simple parallel between the development of Brazilian literature and the social history of Brazil would not only be boring, but dangerous”, because even historical facts are determinants of literary ones, nor does literature's raison d'être lie in its correspondence to facts.

However, in concluding his reflections on “Literature with two edges” [1], the essayist comments that Latin American literature has always been committed “to the construction and acquisition of a national conscience”, so that “the starting point historical-sociological point of view is indispensable to study it”. This paradox – if it is a paradox at all – of a literature free from reality, but a prisoner of history, serves as an emblem for the work of Rubem Fonseca, as it has been read since The Prisoners, from 1963, until his new book of short stories, the hole in the wall.

All in all there are now 77 contos. With few exceptions, they are all voice exercises: narratives in the first person, with a diction and a set of subjects that are repeated obsessively in this universe that is really made of repetitions and obsessions. The low world of Rio, contrasted or combined with the low world of the rich; violence, miseries and, once in a while, sexual joy; small business and big betrayals; winners, wronged, justices and losers of a daily life that as a rule is presented filtered through the eyes and speech of a male conscience at its limit – these are themes that reappear in the hole in the wall, revitalized, now, perhaps unexpectedly, by a dose of humour.

But Rubem Fonseca is not a Nelson Rodrigues of the 1990s and neither humor, nor mastery of language, much less what Antonio Candido calls “national conscience” brings these two chroniclers closer to the Brazilian grotesque and arabesque. Both write polyphonically, mixing high and low culture; both are critical of the “general demoralization” and the perversions of “the clergy, nobility and people” that a common precursor, Joaquim Manuel de Macedo, paid tribute to by Fonseca in “The art of walking on the streets of Rio de Janeiro” already spoke. (in Black romance and other stories). But Nelson Rodrigues' realism is of a different order and, one might say, from another era as well.

What is most intriguing and most difficult in Rubem Fonseca's short stories is the way in which his themes, explicitly committed to reality, with the revelation of a true and hidden life, are translated into styles and voices that are no less explicitly artificial. There is much comment on the use of crime novels and B-films as matrices of this literature that, at the same time, turns to Homer or Dostoevsky, to Conrad (explicitly – and disastrously – in one of the stories of black novel; implicitly, in this multitude of fallen Marlowes who are its other narrators) and EA Poe (in one of the best stories in the new book, a farce by three, written in the tone of a TV soap opera – if a soap opera could be written by Rubem Fonseca and directed by Quentin Tarantino).

Often, too, a character's speech is compromised by out-of-place expressions, detritus of luxury Portuguese ("iniquities", "prevarications") polluting the purity of the suburban dialect. In his excellent Afterword to collected tales, Boris Schnaiderman defines this texture in terms of a Bakhtinian counterpoint, between “voices of culture and voices of barbarism”.

But a Bakhtinian reading is perhaps better suited to earlier books than later ones. For what is now evident, with redoubled force, is the falsity of all these voices, something for which there is no name in the theory of dialogism. No voice is real in this great chorus. Just as its tone is affectively neutral, even when – or especially because – what is narrated borders on the unnamable, the style also hides in disguises and pastiches, in “literature”.

The tonal tension comes from this contrast, between a writing that wants, on the one hand, to go beyond literature, to tell the truth of things, and, on the other, does nothing but make use of the stylized forms of literature itself (or cinema, of television). In these voices, so human, what is heard is a mechanical repetition of words, which is passing its veil over something more human and terrible.

From certain romantic poems, such as The Thorn from Wordsworth to Mallarmé and Henry James to 1960s European novels and films (such as Last year in Marienbad by Resnais and Robbe-Grillet), and even some musical compositions (Boulez, Sciarrino), there is a whole tradition of works organized around an absence, a lack that paradoxically fills the poem, a full void that serves as its center. In Rubem Fonseca's short stories – including some of the best and most terrifying ones, such as the novels “O Anão” and “O Placebo” –, what is seen suggests the opposite: it is as if writing, now, were constantly at the center, in the heart of darkness, but none the less empty for that. It is an emptied presence, a kind of counter or anti-sublime that the reader is forced to recognize, behind the plastic styles of the narrative.

Each tale has the character of an enigma, or parable. “Parable of what?” each reader legitimately asks and each tale, no less legitimately, refuses to answer. A too quick answer would be “from Brazil”. In another context now, but in rhetorical terms similar to those already seen in The Collector ou Happy New Year, each story rearranges settings of what Julia Kristeva describes as “the abject”. The abject is what is expelled, what is impossible to contemplate, but which nonetheless summons us to the place where meaning collapses. It is the ambiguous, the mixed, what is on the edge and disturbs the identity and order of things. In Pouvoirs de l'horreur [2], Kristeva lists “the traitor, the liar, the criminal with a good conscience, the remorseless rapist and the murderer who claims to be a redeemer” as examples of abject – and this list, for us, summarizes a good number of the characters by Rubem Fonseca, to which is added with special importance in this new book, the voyeur.

“The problem”, as the narrator of the first story says, “is very complicated”. The notion of the abject, however, brings us closer perhaps to understanding grotesque comedies and phantasmagoria, and even a moment or two of relief in the hole in the wall. “What do I know?”, asks – in the story that gives the title to the book – the boarder's lover, talking to another future lover, unaware that he is quoting Montaigne.

The profanation of meanings confers a certain sadness on everything and everyone, which is barely heard in these words without resonance. “When we entered the Rebouças tunnel she told me, I love you”; “[…] and I spent the rest of the night squeezing his neck”; “my father's bones were in worse shape…” “We went to bed”. There is no longer any visible identification with anything that is outside, and there is no longer any language for what is inside, because the interior and the abject coincide in an empty space, in a hole. It is not exactly what is called a “national conscience”.

But this writer without his own voice is perhaps, in his own way, portraying a reality and a story – less because of the subject (predictable, theatricalized) and the style (ritualized, borrowed) than because of the strange confluence of the two in an affectless voice. . It is a partial and oblique portrait, seductively unpleasant. But it won't do much harm, as Antonio Candido said in another context, if the reader leaves with the certainty that reality is in fact much vaster and more complex, and that only the limitations of writing prevented this from becoming clear.

*Arthur Nestrovski, essayist, musical and literary critic, is artistic director of OSESP and author, among other books, of Everything has to do. literature and music. São Paulo: However, 2019.

Reference

Ruben Fonseca. the hole in the wall. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 1995.
Originally published in Magazine Literature and Society (USP), Vol. 2, 1997,
in Folha de S.Paulo, 10/09/1995 and in A. Nestrovski,
Word and Shadow — Critical Essays (São Paulo: Ateliê, 2009) (https://amzn.to/3QHCNna).

Notes

[1] Antonio Candido. “Double-edged Literature”. In: Night Education & Other Essays, p.163-180. São Paulo, Attica, 1987 (https://amzn.to/3YLNBTl).

[2] Julia Kristeva. Pouvoirs de l'horreur. Paris, Seuil, 1980 (https://amzn.to/448SVkQ).

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