Trans. Adam Morris. San Francisco, CA: Two Lines Press, 2016. 120 pages. $9.95.
It’s always nice to know just what a celebrated author thinks about life, and when he opens Quiet Creature on the Corner with the allusive sentence, “A dark broth running from my hands beneath the faucet,” João Gilberto Noll doesn’t disappoint. On its own, this figurative line might not convey too much in the way of significance, but when coupled with a novel that puppeteers its helpless protagonist from one confounding scenario to the next, it introduces a vision of existence that casts the individual as fundamentally passive, detached, impotent, and uncomprehending. While the Brazilian author has plumbed into such a motif with previous novels and stories written in his native tongue, Quiet Creature on the Corner represents a rare opportunity to experience him and his distinctively anti-existentialist voice in the English language. Rendered from the 1991 original by San Franciscan translator Adam Morris, it depicts a young poet as he’s pulled from one life event to the next, without ever knowing what exactly he’s doing or why he’s doing it.
Admittedly, such a theme of powerlessness and bewilderment is hardly new in literature, but what sets Noll apart is his ability to communicate the passivity of his anti-hero implicitly rather than explicitly, embedding it in the very form and style of the novel rather than in any direct narration or dialogue. From the very beginning, from the loss of the unnamed poet’s job to his tendency to “suddenly [find himself] stopped in Acelino de Carvalho alley,” he’s shifted abruptly from one place to the other, the lack of agency and control deftly evoked by omissions, vaguenesses of detail, discontinuities, and non sequiturs. All of a sudden, as it were, this unfortunate inclination results in him being distracted one night by “someone singing, a high-pitched voice.” Entranced by the female in possession of this voice, he quickly realizes “I was so close to the singing girl that I could almost feel her breath”—so close, in fact, that he mindlessly rapes her.
Of course, the word rape or anything synonymous with it isn’t ever used, heightening the suggestion that the protagonist has no definite idea of what he’s doing and therefore no particular authorship over his own life. Still, this doesn’t change the fact that he makes himself a criminal, and it’s precisely when he’s arrested for his rash crime that the book becomes stranger still. Having already spent much of his adolescence in Porto Alegre detached from reality in “the public library” where he wasted hours “taking in the lives of poets,” he’s inexplicably whisked away from jail and taken by a German called Kurt to a “clinic,” where he’s more or less obliged to read and compose poetry. At one point, he narrates, “I thought about how they gave me very little to do besides write poems,” thereby suggesting that the novel is also a comment on the life of the artist, on his or her inability to really understand or act upon the world except through the medium of his or her art.
But even more than for this kind of implicit metaphor, Quiet Creature on the Corner becomes so enjoyable at this juncture for what can only be called its realistic surrealism. By virtue of the elliptical and ambiguous prose highlighted above, it produces an engrossingly dreamlike atmosphere that’s entirely plausible and down-to-earth without having to lapse into anything like magical realism or outright fantasy. Halfway through the book, for instance, the poet remarks on the departure of a maid from the clinic in São Leopoldo, only to be precipitously transported to a toilet seat in Rio de Janeiro in the next paragraph:
That same day Amália disappeared. Otávio said he’d heard she followed the colonists’ caravan.
Now I was sitting on the toilet, elbows to knees, looking out at what the doorframe let me see of the rest of my hotel room in Rio.
The effect of this disjunctive writing is to dislocate the reader somewhat from the novel’s fabric, to lend this fabric a seductive veneer or aura of unreality. As publisher Two Lines Press note in their blurb for the book, Noll’s seamless yet fragmented style is “reminiscent of the films of David Lynch,” and when reading his depictions of senseless crimes and bizarre housemate fights, it’s certainly possible to conjure the broken atmosphere of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive. And much like Lynch, Noll understands only too well that the best way to manipulate the audience’s sense of reality is to manipulate the audience’s sense of time. This is evident not only in its instantaneous transitions but also in how, throughout the novel, the unnamed poet is repeatedly at a loss to explain the runaway ageing of his companions, musing of the mysterious Kurt, “this man had really aged beyond his years, he was getting into the taxi with such difficulty that it left my mouth agape, thinking about how unprepared I was to track the passage of time.”
And from this inability to track chronology, the protagonist remains ultimately severed from his environment, his existence and the people around him. He consistently acts “as though there were a soundproof glass between me and what I was watching,” and he consistently fails to understand why exactly Kurt and his wife Gerda had saved him from prison: “What’s happening? I asked myself. What am I doing that would make him so decisively happy?” It’s from this uncertainty surrounding the motives and mindsets of others that much of the novel’s intrigue and impetus stems, yet it probably goes without saying that Noll deprives almost every puzzle of an overt answer, opting instead to leave his anti-hero and the reader pondering such questions as, “What was [Kurt] doing there, in the kitchen, with his arms crossed over the table, the low lamp brightening his rope-veined hands? What was he doing there, at that time of night, when I got back to the manor?”
Ultimately Noll sacrifices the resolution of such questions so as to ensure that Quiet Creature on the Corner raises a more important statement, one that touches on the limits of human perception, understanding, consciousness, knowledge, communication, and agency. Some may feel shortchanged by his reluctance to make this statement more transparent and unequivocal, but ironically it’s because he gives away so little that the book itself gives so much, becoming a highly suggestive and evocative tale whose cryptic minimalism allows for a multitude of possible readings. It’s about the imprisoned isolation of the artist, the docile passivity of the individual, the easy satiety of sex, the mutual separateness of people, the institutional pre-mapping of fate, and no doubt many other things I’ve missed. But more than that, it’s simply an intoxicating book, one that many will greedily ingest in a single sitting and one that introduces English speakers to a major figure in Brazilian literature. Let’s just hope we aren’t all as tragically powerless and impulsive as it makes us out to be.