Tag Archives: Portugese Literature

I’m Heroically Free: Água Viva by Clarice Lispector

I brought along a copy of Clarice Lispector’s  Água Viva with me on my beach vacation last week thinking that a book whose title can be translated as “living water” or “jellyfish” would be quite fitting.  I quickly realized that Lispector’s book, although a mere 86 pages, would take me some time to read and fully absorb.  I had to approach this text as I would a dense, meditative, philosophical volume of poetry, something to be digested slowly, one small piece at a time.

This book is nearly impossible to critique, but on a the most basic level it can be described as an unnamed narrator attempting to capture her thoughts about intense, philosophical topics such as time, life and death.  She tells us that up until this point she was engaged in painting but has put down her paint brush and taken up her pen and typewriter instead.  Throughout the text she is acutely aware of her process and oftentimes returns to discussions of painting and music and the similarities among all of these art forms.  She is also very fond of describing things in nature—flowers, a turtle, cats, a cave, oysters, the sea are all beautifully described as she experiences them.  The narrator seems to be addressing a lover but so much of the text reads like a personal meditation that the text could very well have been written as a meditation to the author herself.  But, as so often happens with this book, just when we think we grasp her meaning, she reaches for another topic which may or may not be connected.

I noticed during my first time reading through the text that the words free and freedom appeared quite a few times.  I kept this in mind as I read Água Viva  through a second time and had a very different experience than my first encounter.  I actually went back and counted and found she uses the words free or freedom sixty times in this short narrative. The title of her book, which evokes images of the ocean, is especially fitting because of the freedom and weightlessness we feel when swimming in the open sea.  In addition, the narrator’s unstructured writing frees her from the constraints of a traditional narrative and she often returns to a discussion of her process throughout her text:

A new era, this my own, and it announces me right away.  Am I brave enough? For now I am because I come from the suffering afar. I come from the hell of love but now I am free of you.  I come from afar—from a weighty ancestry.  I who come from the pain of living. And I no longer want it.  I want the vibration of happiness  I want the impartiality of Mozart.  But I also want inconsistency.  Freedom? it’s my final refuge.  I forced myself to freedom and I bear it not like a talent but with heroism: I’m heroically free.  And I want the flow.

But her interest in freedom goes much deeper than the form, or lack of form, that her writing takes.  The narrator’s existential crisis is being worked out on the pages before us in an attempt at self-knowledge that will make her free.  As I read through her text I was also reminded of the many factors in our lives that make us feel chained down, not free—clearly defined gender roles, time, space, love.  Love, in particular, seems to threaten her freedom on more than one occasion.  But she  always writes her way out of her restraints and embraces her freedom.  I will end with a few of the passages in which she contemplates this freedom:

To remake myself and remake you I return to my state of garden and shadow, cool reality, I barely exist and if I exist it’s with delicate caution.  Around the shadow is a heat of abundant sweat.  I’m alive.  But I feel that I have yet to reach my limits, borders with what? without borders, the adventure of dangerous freedome.  But I take risks, I live taking risks.

Yes, this is life seen by life.  But suddenly I forget how to capture whatever is happening, I don’t know how to capture whatever exists except by living here each thing that arises and no matter what it is: I am almost free of my errors.  I let the free horse run fiery.  I, who trot nervously and only reality delimits me.

And suddenly I feel that we shall soon part.  My frightened truth is that I was always yours alone and didn’t know it.  Now I know; I’m alone.  I and my freedom that I don’t know how to use.  Great responsibility of solitude.  Whoever isn’t lost doesn’t know freedom and love it.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Portugese Literature

Review: Quiet Creature on the Corner by João Gilberto Noll

I received a review copy of this title from Two Lines Press.  The book was published in the original Portugese in 1991 and this English version has been translated by Adam Morris.

My Review:
Quiet CornerThe first reaction that I had to the writing style and narrative of this book is that it feels like a series of flash fiction stories.  When we first meet the narrator he lives in Porto Alegre with his mother is a decrepit, abandoned apartment.  Other miscreant vagabonds also spend their days idling around the lobby of this building and doing drugs.  The narrator’s actions and thoughts in the book reflect his aimless and disjointed life; he talks to his mother, he tries to write poetry, he sleeps, he wanders around the city.

The writing manages to be both subtle and shocking when he sexually assaults a girl whom he encounters sitting among the ruins of the city and singing.  The narrative of this encounter is so oddly non-descript for such a horrible act that I had to go back and read the brief paragraph to confirm in my mind what had just happened.  The narrator is then thrown in a jail for his crime and the next few pages of the book deal with the broken and disgusting men he encounters in this jail.

My comparison with flash fiction came to mind because Noll provides us with several different short stories about this narrator. In just a few pages the author gives us just enough of a story to provide an image of a complete setting, but then that story ends abruptly and leaves us with a million questions and wanting more details.  What did the narrator suddenly attack this girl?  How do they know he is guilty?  Why do they set him free so quickly from jail?

The next piece of flash fiction, if we continue with my assessment of the genre, is the narrator’s visit to the countryside once he is suddenly taken from his jail cell.  He is put into a clinic in São Leopoldo where the narrator meets Kurt, a German Brazilian.  Once again many questions come to mind: What is Kurt’s connection to the institution?  Why does Kurt want to help the narrator and care for him?  Why is the narrator put in a clinic instead of being kept in a jail cell?

The final, and largest story, takes place on Kurt’s country manor where the narrator is invited to live.  Greda, Kurt’s ailing wife, Octavio, a type of handyman and Amalia, a maid, also live on the property.  The narrator continues his wandering existence while on the manor, visiting Amilia for nocturnal amorous adventures, taking walks in the woods, and falling asleep listening to the radio.  Every once in a while he dabbles at his poetry but in the middle of the narrative he announces that after this period he never writes poetry again.

There are two additional themes that pervade the narrative that are also worth mentioning.  Sex and desire are never far from the narrator’s mind.  After his attack on his neighbor, his lust does not diminish.  He has several lascivious encounters in the book which are quick and never carried out with emotion or  feeling.  He also notes that at the beginning of the book when he is in Porto Alegre he is a boy and by the time he comes to live with Kurt on his manor he has fully become a man.  When Kurt’s wife dies and he is distraught at her passing, he looks to the narrator for comfort who admits this makes him sad.  This is the first time in the story that the narrator expresses true emotion and demonstrates that he might have actually matured.

This short book is a fascinating read because of the disjointed, flash fiction feel to the prose; it is a book that leaves us wanting more, not just of the narrator’s story but of Noll’s writing as well.  I am hoping that more of this author’s works will be published in English.

Please visit the publisher’s website for an excerpt of this book: http://twolinespress.com/?project=quiet-creature-on-the-corner-by-joao-gilberto-noll

About the Author:

João Gilberto Noll is the author of nearly 20 books. His work has appeared in Brazil’s leading periodicals, and he has been a guest of the Rockefeller Foundation, King’s College London, and the University of California at Berkeley, as well as a Guggenheim Fellow. A five-time recipient of the Prêmio Jabuti, and the recipient of over 10 awards in all, he lives in Porto Alegre, Brazil.



Filed under Literature in Translation, Novella