the keeper of secrets

Maria Bonomi, Coupling, Woodcut, 72,00 cm x 102,00 cm, 1966.


Commentary on the book by Davi Arrigucci Jr.

"It's all my life I've played." Drummond's well-known verse, present in a poem that celebrates the conquest of his creative maturity, occurred to me after reading this book by Davi Arrigucci Jr. Not only is it the latest from an already enduring acting critic (nearly forty years separate us from his first book, the trapped scorpion), and one of the most outstanding among us, but for composing with the previous ones, including the two fiction books, a kind of personal mythology, at least a flagrant unity. What unit is this?

Let us begin by identifying the dominant tone of his writings – affirmative and obstinate, arising from his position in relation to the chosen works and subjects – adherent, in relation to their beauty and complexity, pertinacious, in the face of the enigma that constitutes them.

Fundamental here is the vision of the inherent difficulty of great works, whose exposition all delay seems insufficient to the critic, always willing to prolong the task of understanding, which he considers, strictly speaking, inexhaustible. This methodical postponement, in order to cover as much of the work under study as possible, this “unbridled desire to go to the limit of vision”, in his own words, in the preface to the book Lost and found, already in 1979, he imbued his critical text with a rhythm that Alfredo Bosi, with humour, but with great accuracy, characterized as that of a “andante sostenuto".

This impetus, a kind of full surrender by the author to his activity, seems to escape the merely professional framework and certainly has deeper roots. David Arrigucci Jr. he sometimes declared that he planned, at first, to be a writer and philologist. This project, materialized by the late publication of two novels, helps to explain something: creation and criticism are intertwined. For him, literary works have a vital greatness and the craft of both the critic and the creator necessarily touch what is most essential in human experience.

This is what we can also read in the preface to the 1979 book, “an attempt to understand that which surpasses us, challenges and illuminates”; in Ugolino and the partridge, the narrator, before embarking on the narrative of an unusual hunt by Ugolino, emphasizes that this story “summed up the impulse to live that animated him, which is always inexplicable, but makes you want to understand”; in the roulade, regarding a certain character, the narrator states, “everything in this world has a story, whose causes can be investigated until they are out of sight”.

This high vision of literature encompasses many things: the sublime, the feeling of beauty, certainly, but also humor, eroticism, among other dimensions, all of which have always been considered in their historical determinations.

Far from any neutrality, since what is said is vital and maintains a close pact with it, the critical style of Davi Arrigucci Jr. it is unmistakable, although without the idiosyncrasies of our other great critics – Mário de Andrade par excellence. Vocabulary choice and syntax elaboration are some of the most visible procedures in which conceptual precision and poetic suggestion are sought.

The meticulous work with language opens up, in turn, to the larger form of the essay in approaching this always elusive other. More or less like Ugolino in front of the partridge: “I had to imagine a ring of another type, wider, like the multiple tentacles of an octopus, closing in on it (…) It was worth trying this type of galloping ring from the bottom of the sea on dry land”, in which the extravagant ingenuity of the imagined gives the measure of the difficulty of the undertaking.

All this ballast permeates the new book, the keeper of secrets, which, from the title, unearthed from a verse by Sebastião Uchoa Leite, takes up fundamental questions for the critic: the “sublime occult”, the “enigma”. It is also worth identifying the long fidelity to Brazilian literature and, albeit to a lesser extent, to Hispanic-American literature.

Equally remarkable is the variety of works and genres studied, a variety that led to the organization of the book into three major parts, relating respectively to poetry, prose, and criticism, followed by an excellent excursion on Hitchcock's cinema, in particular on the film Frenzy, in which the literary critic swims a mile when revisiting, supported by a solid sense of form, themes that are dear to him, such as dark humor, eroticism, hunting...

With regard to poetry, João Cabral de Mello Neto is studied, from a fruitful focus on the concept of work in his poetics, Drummond, Ferreira Gullar, Cecília Meireles; but the biggest novelty is the attention paid to less canonical poets, and also closer to the critic's own generation: Roberto Piva and Sebastião Uchoa Leite, both weird, but with an unlikely approximation, from opposite lineages. Possibly, the studies on these two poets were those in which the critic faced the greatest difficulties in this sector of the book.

Roberto Piva is addressed in two essays. It starts with the recognition of his “anarchic individualism” and the formless or chaotic nature of his poetry, but the purpose is to understand the “novelty of the incandescent mixture that he invented, without reducing it to the known”. Piva's dialogues with international poetry, Whitman and Rimbaud, the surrealists, the beat generation, among others, are again underlined, as well as with the silver of the house, Murilo Mendes, Jorge de Lima, Cruz e Sousa, Augusto dos Anjos , but soon outdated, since, at first, they would only indicate the poet's more general framing in modernity.

What can define Roberto Piva's particularity for the critic is the way he deals with the Brazilian “matter” – “heterogeneous and sometimes disparate components”, that the lyrical subject is “agglutinating” in his walk through the city of São Paulo; agglutinating, but obsessively transfiguring, so that the result is a mix between raw notation and the impulse towards the sublime.

In this sense, the approximations with Álvares de Azevedo and Mário de Andrade advance a little further, including through the common space of the city of São Paulo, and the critic finds analogies both with the “dramatic individualism” of the romantic poet and with the “itinerant poetry” of the modernist poet, according to formulations by Antonio Candido. By situating Roberto Piva in the tradition of Brazilian poetry, the critic himself also positions himself in the face of the tradition of Brazilian criticism.

In the part of the book concerning criticism, in addition to Antonio Candido, Arrigucci discusses two other authors, Gilda de Mello e Souza and Marlise Meyer. There is also a long and important interview in which the author discusses the interpretation of literary works.

As for prose, Brazilians discuss the fifteen, The rats, Grande Sertão: paths e Faca, by Ronaldo Correia de Brito. The text on Guimarães Rosa's novel takes up another, already classic, larger and perhaps more complete ("O mundo misto"), but contains different and fascinating formulations, in addition to the orality mark, which evokes the great teacher. Still within the scope of Brazilian prose, the progressive internalization of the point of view of the other class, of the poor, from the fifteen, through Dried lives, until Grande Sertão: paths. This dialogue extends to the extraordinary work of Juan Rulfo, compared to that of Guimarães Rosa, especially Pedro Paramo, with its mosaic of voices that speak to us “from the dead”, in the devastated land of post-revolution Mexico. This section is completed by studies on Felisberto Hernández and Jorge Luiz Borges/Bioy Casares, the latter one of the largest in the collection.

Just as the dialogue between the different essays in the book is visible, the plot that is established between this and the other books by Davi Arrigucci Jr. is very clear, composing a set that is one of the most important in our criticism at any time.

*Murilo Marcondes de Moura Professor of Brazilian Literature at USP and author of Murilo Mendes: Poetry as a totality (Edusp).

Originally published in Jornal de Resenhas n.o9, 2010.


David Arrigucci Jr. the keeper of secrets. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 280 pages.


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