Reviewed by Amanda Sarasien
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.
Noll, João Gilberto. Quiet Creature on the Corner. Translated by Adam Morris. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2016.