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
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.