Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll (tr. Adam Morris)

Title:  Quiet Creature on the Corner
Author:  João Gilberto Noll
Translator:  Adam Morris
Publisher: Two Lines Press, San Francisco (2016)
ISBN:  978 1 931883 51 1

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a weird tale told from the point of view of an adolescent boy being punished for the rape of a young girl.  The assault occurs in an abandoned lot behind the slum-like apartment building where they both live and the boy describes the event so casually that we do not immediately absorb the import of what he is saying.  Our subsequent feeling of horror is subdued, perhaps because he is so young and lacking in self-awareness.  He has no direction and no future – abandoned first by the father he never knew and then by a mother overwhelmed by poverty. He is not a hero to like or relate to, but neither does he elicit a strong enough response for readers to entirely despise him. Everything about the character, by the author’s design, invites ambivalence.

For his crime the narrator is first jailed and then sent to a large country estate.  There he is cared for and kept in relative comfort (far more comfortable than in his previous existence) by an elderly couple named Kurt and Gerda.  He spends his time writing poetry in the solitude of his room. He carries on a secret, consensual relationship with a woman who acts as a servant at the main house. He comes to view Kurt as a father-figure and comes to subconsciously crave his approval. Days, months and (possibly) years pass unnoticed and unmarked upon  – occasionally he is surprised to realize that those around him, and he himself, have aged. In truth very little occurs to disrupt the groups quiet rhythm of existence until Gerda falls ill and must be taken to a hospital in Germany for treatments.  The trip serves as a catalyst for… well… for something

Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

Noll plays with time and memory throughout the novella, inviting comparisons to Kazuo Ishiguro (who gets a mention on the back cover). His narrator is filled with unspecified yearning and crippled by a total lack of introspection. The lens through which the boy sees the world is fogged.  The plot is further confused by the absence of contextual markers  that are usually assigned by the passage of time.  Noll is a complicated and challenging writer. Exactly what is going on always seems to lay just beyond the reader’s ken, but trying to solve the puzzle is surprisingly enjoyable.

I had affixed to the wall of my room an image that appeared nothing like the one I imagined when I first arrived at the manor: I’d recently found an old engraving in Amália’s shed, rolled up in a corner, yellowed in spots, likely by the drops of rain that came through the slats, depicting a boat setting sail. It was signed by the name Wilhelm Müller.

Kurt let me hang it up.

“That engraving evokes, with impressive realism, a farewell to one’s homeland,” he said, as if half asleep.

The poem I was writing 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. One thing was missing at the end of the poem that for three days I labored in vain to find.

The tone in which events are relayed, the sense that there is an underlying meaning, is designed to make readers uncomfortable.  João Gilberto Noll writes in  a muffled and detached narrative voice – as if the events that occur do so in another place and period,  – as if his narrator exists in a fugue state. Sentences run on for pages, an attempt by the author and translator to mimic “the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.” This use of an adolescent, first person narrator, one who feels no remorse and unencumbered by a moral conscience,  forces readers to enter and inhabit an alien mind… which may be the ultimate reason for the aura of weirdness that hangs about Quiet Creature on the Corner. We are unable to relate to, or even understand, the protagonist. Or is it ultimately his inability to relate to and understand us which we find so unsettling?

There is a plot. Things do happen, even if they initially seem to happen without reason or explanation.  Quiet Creature on the Corner is a book which benefits from re-reading (it is short, only 109 pages) and some understanding of Brazilian society in the late 80’s and 90’s. I definitely found this interview with the translator on Guernica’s website helpful. But the novel can also simply be read as a modern-day existential text. A boy/man disconnected from society is not a new device, or tied to a specific period of history.  And Noll’s narrator might easily call Meursault Uncle.

 

The Conductor & Other Tales by Jean Ferry (translated from the French by Edward Gauvin)

Conductor4

Some interests spring fully formed from within, sending us off on a mission to gather information.  I find that my obsessions more often evolve. I find myself returning to the same subject at completely random intervals, unintentionally or even unknowingly, until a gradual immersion occurs over time.  In this way I began reading Sartre in high school because I was (and remain) obsessed with pandemic literature – of which The Plague is a brilliant example. My introduction to Borges came later via a sous chef in North Carolina who, after coming out to ask how I’d like my ostrich prepared, joined a friend and I for drinks. The discussion turned to books and the next morning I found his card on my windshield. “Ficciones” Borges written on the back.  A year or two later Italo Calvino’s The Nonexistant Knight & The Cloven Viscount was passed around my circle of friends – though, thinking back, it seems impossible that I hadn’t already read If On A Winter’s Knight A Traveler.  As for Oulipo, I can’t remember where I first heard that name. Perhaps Electrico W?  Or the Three Percent Podcast?  But Surrealism as a literary movement, separate from a visual one, came to my attention through a very specific (and completely unlikely) source – the Japanese author Kawamata Chiaki.

Only in the last month did I start connecting all those books to the French College of ‘Pataphysics; a shadowy  (and willfully nebulous) institution which came into being at the same time as Surrealism,  and would go on to  spawn Oulipo.

The Conductor and Other Tales is the one and only book of fiction written by Jean Ferry – a French filmmaker, script doctor and surrealist author whose most lasting literary achievement was his critical analysis of the French literary icon and personality Raymond Roussel.*  It is a collection of short stories – some only a few paragraphs in length – dealing with the fears and anxieties that are a basic ingredient in the human psyche. They are the stuff we deal with in nightmares (normal nightmares, not the horror shows of Wes Craven’s and George Romero’s slumber). Ferry was enmeshed with the Surrealists –  exhaustion, sleep and/or dreams are mentioned by almost all his narrators.  And the stories, themselves, resemble dreams  – or rather, the kinds of puzzles and wordplay which surrealists love and have long represented as dreams. Think of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (aka -“This is not a pipe”). Surrealism, as does everything eventually, becomes a “type” – and these stories by Jean Ferry are of a type.  But, in my opinion, they represent the best of that type.

The Conductor, the story for which the collection is named and onto which André Breton lavished praise, deals with a common nightmare scenario.  The narrator is a conductor on a train that never stops.  Everyone – the passengers, engine crew, attendants – are trapped.  There is an unlimited supply of coal and tracks, and enough food so that no one goes hungry.  But no one can disembark.  Ever.  The conductor remembers a time when the train did stops in stations, but that seems to have been a long time ago.  He can’t recall why or when things changed.  He goes on to talk about how he and the passengers have come to accept the situation, the mental adjustments they have made in order to do so.  Always the conductor addresses the reader directly  – making you feel as if you are sitting beside him in the engine car.  As if you, too, are trapped on the train with him.  The Conductor bears all the hallmarks of classic Twilight Zone episodes.  So much so that I actually researched online whether Ferry had ever written one himself (he had not).

My Aquarium is a strange little story.  The aquarium it refers to is filled with little creatures which are the physical embodiment of the narrators’s suicidal thoughts.  He keeps them imprisoned in a box and feeds them like pets, hoping they will never escape.  Like most of the stories in The Conductor and Other Tales, it is short.  At under one page, it’s an unintentional precursor to flash fiction.

The Society Tiger – perhaps Ferry’s most famous short story and one of the earliest to be translated – is  the name of the vaudeville act featured in the story.  A woman appears in the theater between acts, escorted to her seat by a companion: a tiger dressed in evening clothes and standing erect like a man.  The two take their seats in a box visible to the entire audience and the tiger proceeds to perform the affectations of a gentleman.  The narrator hates The Society Tiger – for he alone realizes that the beast is always on the edge of breaking his mental restraints and attacking the audience.  It is a deeply disturbing story (particularly the ending) that seems to sympathize with the tiger.

You probably noticed a pattern emerging.  Many of these stories are structured like jokes:  the obvious set-up, a slight misdirection and then the punchline. Some are very funny.  Some disturbing.  Here, for example, is the entire text of The Chinese Astrologer:

The Chinese Astrologer wears out his years calculating the date of his death.  Until dawn each night he amasses signs, figures. He ages, becomes a stranger to his fellows; but his calculations advance. He reaches his goal. Astrology will reveal the date of his death. Then, one morning, the brush falls from his fingers. From loneliness, from fatigue, perhaps from regret, he dies. He had but one sum left to perform.

Allow me to liken the Chinese astrologer to the intellectual who died of exhaustion at a young age for, on top of a draining, harassing, and poorly paid day job, he put his every spare moment toward preparing a monumental and definitive critical edition of Lefargue’s The Right to Be Lazy.

Edward Gauvin’s translation is wonderful – written in a way which is chatty, informal and friendly.   He’s kept the  prose contemporary in tone, though some of the ideas and stereotypes Ferry puts forward are dated.  The narrators are all storytellers and Gauvin has achieve the effect of making us feel as if we are listening to, instead of reading, the stories.  He seems to be very familiar with Ferry and his fellows – not only contributing a translator’s note to the edition, but publishing numerous online articles here and here.  Oh, and remember this?

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the physical book, itself, is charming.  Wakefield Press (based in Cambridge, Massachusetts and not affiliated, to my knowledge, with the Australian publisher of the same name) is a small, independent publishing house that understands the value of a well-made product.  Their books are relatively small (4-1/2″ x 7″) paperback editions with tastefully subdued covers and details such as french flaps, patterned endpapers, black & white illustrations (in the case of The Conductor and Other Tales drawn by Claude Ballaré) and beautiful formatting.  Objects to be coveted by any self-respecting bibliophiles.  And Wakefield seems to specialize in books by members/friends of the College of ‘Pataphysics.  I recently bought both Perec’s An Attempt At Exhausting a Place In Paris and A Handbook for the Perfect Adventurer by Pierre Mac Orlan.  I’ve been meaning to read something by Perec for ages – he was a character in Chiaki’s novel.  Mac Orlan I’ve never heard of, but I’m almost finished with his book.  Needless to say, it is wonderful.

The Treachery of Images (This is not a pipe.) by Rene Magritte

Publisher:  Wakefield Press, Cambridge (2014)
ISBN:  978 1 939663 01 6

*It speaks volumes that most of my readers are at this point in the post thinking – who is Raymond Roussel?  You will not find that answer here.  I recommend trying here.

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel (translated from the original French by John Cullen)

Blogger Warning:  HERE BE SPOILERS!

Ahhh… absurdism.  It’s so damn European!  Think Albert Camus, Samuel Beckett (o.k., so he was Irish), Franz Kafka, Eugène Ionesco, Jean-Paul Sartre.  It’s a genre that includes classic books like The Myth of Sisyphus, The Stranger, Waiting for Godot, No Exit, Rhinoceros and now, The Investigation.

The Absurdist genre – in all its forms – is a commentary on the ridiculousness of the human condition.   It also, interestingly, involves an unexpected amount of physical comedy.  (The French fascination with slapstick and Woody Allen baffles me, by the way).  The Investigation is pretty much a textbook example.  Whether this is a strength or weakness is really a matter of personal taste.

The plot can be quickly summarized.  The Investigator has been sent to investigate the Enterprise.  Multiple impediments are put in the way of his investigation, placing him in one preposterous situation after another.  This continues until the end of the novel, at which point the Investigator (and the readers) question the protagonist’s sanity.  Suddenly, he is transported into a surreal landscape where he speaks to a God-Surrogate, who in turn reinforces the characterization of an un-caring (at best) or impotent (at worst) higher being.

All fairly standard in the Absurdist’s ouevre.

Claudel delves deeper into the genre/philosophy – not just speaking about the absurdity of life in general, but like Camus exploring the subject of suicide.   The Investigator has been sent to the Enterprise to investigate an unusual high incidence of suicides among the workers.  As the Investigator’s mission is thwarted at every juncture we begin to see why death might seem like a viable option.  (And if you find my constant use of “the Investigator”  annoying, this it nothing compared to the book).

Meanwhile, as the philosophy and plot thickens, Claudel introduces us to a cast of eccentric and memorable characters.  The Giantess, the Policeman, the Watchman, the Founder… to name just a few.  My personal favorite is the Manager.

The Investigator, not daring to disappoint the Manager, nodded his head.

“Of course  you know . . . . Oh, this is all so . . . But I’m wandering!”

He clapped his hands, sprang up nimbly, danced a few steps, caught one foot in the thick rug, and almost fell.  “Look at me!” he cried.  “I have resources, don’t I?  I’m not on my way out, not yet, despite my age! What do you think?”

The Investigator was getting weaker.  His armchair had turned into a great mouth that was gradually swallowing him, and he found the man before him, who was jumping around like an athlete warming up, even more disturbing than the Policeman in the Hotel.

The Manager began to do entrechats, up-and-down bounces, long leaps. He piroetted and ran to the back of the room, where he made the sign of the cross, took a run-up, and charged at his desk, over which he attempted to jump and which he nearly managed to clear, except that at the last moment, when he was suspended in the air, his left foot struck the massive black marble inkwell and he crashed heavily against the glass wall.

While no expert, Ive read a fair amount of Kafka, Sartre and Camus.  Maybe thats why I felt a sense of déjà vu as I read The Investigation. The Chaplin-esque situations the Investigator finds himself in aren’t cliché.  Some are even very funny.  Unfortunately the ideas and themes that Claudel is working with I feel like I’ve heard/seen them all before.    It reminded me of a production of Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, starring John Goodman, which I saw years ago at the Delacorte Theater.  The play is Wilder at his wackiest. Goodman was brilliant and loud. All through my reading of The Investigation I kept remembering that play, its overblown comedy and heavy-handed (yet still incomprehensible) biblical references that in many ways overshadowed the plot.  Like Wilder’s play, this novel is saved by incredible writing.  Claudel’s style and Cullens translation are lovely, truly lovely.  The fact that I continued reading long after I knew I’d heard this story before is testament to that.

Philippe Claudel is a gifted author.  His prose is light, entertaining and fresh.  His imagery is vibrant and cinematic.  The situational comedy is good.  Which makes what Im about to write so puzzling.  Things became interesting – at least for me – when the character of the Psychiatrist was introduced.  I believed that we would be forced to take a hard look not just at the society through which the Investigator was moving, but also at the kind of man that society inevitably creates.

And then, suddenly, Claudel veers off.  Chucks the whole thing out the window and… well…  remember how LOST ended?  Yeah.  Something like that.

So, despite the novels originality and Claudels obvious talent, when the ending of The Investigation arrives it does so with a resounding (and uninspiring) “Click”.

Publisher:  Nan A. Talese / Doubleday, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53534 2

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