John Keene is the author of Annotations, and Counternarratives, both published by New Directions, as well as several other works, including the poetry collection Seismosis, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, and a translation of Brazilian author Hilda Hilst’s novel Letters from a Seducer.
Daniel Medin teaches at the American University of Paris, where he helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.
Letters from a Seducer – Hilda Hilst, Translated by John Keene
Daniel Medin: How did you discover Hilda Hilst’s writing? What led you to want to translate this book?
John Keene: My first real encounters with Hilst’s writing are a decidedly 21st century phenomenon. I had seen her name mentioned several times in various critical texts, and finally did an online search for her work about a decade ago. What I found and dove into was the old Angelfire website, still live, that Yuri Vieira dos Santos set up for her in 1999, and launched from her Casa do Sol. It was via that site, which features links to many of her works, photos, and lists of translations, that I was able to immerse myself in Hilst’s world. I only wish serendipity had led me to it before she passed away in 2004, so that I could have contacted her to let her know how deep my enthusiasm for her work was and is, just based on what I found there. After learning that although passages of her work had been translated into English, none of her books had, I immediately wanted to do so (I often have delusions of being the one to translate this writer or other’s work into English to introduce her or him to Anglophone readers), and fortuity again intervened when Rachel Gontijo Araújo invited me first to write the introduction to her collaborative translation with Nathanaël of The Obscene Madame D, and then to translate the deeply challenging but exhilarating Letters from a Seducer.
DM: Letters from a Seducer is a part of Hilst’s famous “pornographic tetralogy.” How are these works different from what she was had been doing before? What distinguishes Letters from the others?
JK: Let me begin by saying that all of Hilst’s prose fiction is experimental, from her initial fiction text, Fluxo-Floema (1970), on, and is informed by her prior primary focus as a poet and a playwright. (She continued writing poetry throughout her life, I should note.) Her earliest poetry, published in the 1950s, is fairly conventional, but by the 1960s you can detect subversive notes, experiments with earlier Lusophone (and Iberian) forms, etc., so that when she began writing prose, it was hardly surprising that she would not follow the standard route. Yet I think it’s fair to say that her fiction is distinctive even from parallel experiments that were happening in Brazilian literature at the time, as a comparison between her texts of the 1970s and those of her close friend, Lygia Fagundes Telles, one of the major fiction writers of Brazil and in the Portuguese language, will suggest. While a book like The Obscene Madame D (1982) does overtly treat sexual themes, in the “porno-chic” works, as she called them, she more openly and directly uses and plays with pornographic language and discourse, and the works themselves turn in part on themes that might be considered pornographic, except that Hilst’s artistry, irony and wit transform them into something quite different. Letters (1991) is the second novel and masterpiece of the four texts; one of them, Contos d’Escarnio: Textos Grotescos (1990) is a collection of stories; Bufólicas (1992) comprises poems; and O Caderno Rosa de Lory Lamby, or Lory Licky’s Pink Notebook (1990), as I think the brilliant translator Adam Morris dubbed it, is an extremely ludic, graphic precursor to Letters written in the voice of a child. (And possibly not publishable in the US, despite its relentless humor.) With Letters, Hilst reaches the pinnacle of the tetralogy and, I think, her art, fusing all the strands that have come before into a profound text about writing, living, sex, human mortality, and so on. It is also quite funny; she never sheds her humor, even at some of the most outrageous moments in the text, which is one of the things I really appreciate about her work.
DM: Could you point out one of your favorite passages, and tell us what you like about (translating) it?
JK: To anyone who has heard me expound on this passage before, my apologies, but towards the beginning of the “Of Other Hollows” section, there’s a passage where Stamatius (Tíu) is meditating, as he’s won’t to do, about what he should be up to instead of agonizing of his writing and his life, as practical Eulália is off keeping things together for them, and Hilst writes:
E deveria ter procurado os cocos e os palmitos. Mas fico a escrever com este único toco e quando acabar o toco troco um coco por outro toco de lápis lá na venda do Boi (tem esse nome porque um boi passou certa vez por ali e peidou grosso). Vendem cachaça pagoça maria-mole carne-seca latas de massa. Então deveria ter ido a cata dos cocos, dos palmitos, e não fui. Continuo dizendo o que não queria. Minhas unhas. Curtinhas e imundas. E as dos pés?… que bom estão limpas.
And I should have looked for coconuts and palm hearts. But I’m here writing with this lone stump and when I stop I’ll swap a coconut for another pencil stub over there at the Ox shop (so named because an ox passed through there once and let out a huge fart). They sell cachaça peanut fudge maria-mole dried meat tin cans of sauce. But I should have gone to gather up coconuts, palm hearts, and I didn’t. I keep talking about what I don’t want. My fingernails. Tiny and filthy. And my toenails? good to say, they are clean.
JK: This is an excellent question. I wrote or began several of the Brazil-related stories before translating Hilst, but I did draft and complete one—“Anthropophagy,” about the great Brazilian Modernist poet Mário de Andrade toward the end of his life, during his short stint in Rio de Janeiro—after finishing the translation. When I reread, sometimes aloud, the galleys after New Directions President and Editor-in-chief sent them to me, I could hear my poetry and music asserting itself in the prose. This is a tendency of mine, but I also think Hilst’s work played a role. It is probably most evident in a story called “Cold,” about the great minstrel performer, composer, actor, director, and impresario Bob Cole. In the story, which is about a musician who cannot get music out of his head to the point that it drives him to the mental brink, I have text boxes with snippets of his lyrics, and I also collage in lyrics into the main body of the text. This was all quite deliberate. The prose at certain points breaks into music; it isn’t just lyrical, though. There are moments, I realized during a reading at Kean University the other day, where the music of the words themselves takes material form, sounding almost like drumming or hip hop, and I have to admit I was a little startled, because I had written the story and could hear it in my head, and had even read it before an audience last spring at the University of Montana, but this time, I was quite aware of what I’d done, under, I am willing to admit, the influence and sign of Hilst. That is just one example, and I’m sure there are more. Like other great authors, she shows in her work that anything is possible, if you can pull it off. That also was something I took to heart when finishing Counternarratives.
The preface to Letters of a Seducer was published in the 2014 Translation Issue of The White Review; you can read it here.
I just got back from a 24-hour (or so) happy time on the hotel roof complete with champagne and fish sticks, and, seeing that we need to check out of the hotel at 8:30am tomorrow to leave for FLIP, I think I’m going to beg off my planned photojournal post (we viste a favela today) and just recommend a Brazilian book: All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão, translated from the Brazilian Portuguese by Zoë Perry & Stefan Tobler, and forthcoming from And Other Stories.
Rimbaud used to do a dance called the Dance of the Blue Pelican. It was one hell of a wiggly dance, using all parts of his body. He learnt it in Africa, he says. But were there any pelicans in Africa? He was free to say whatever he wanted. Actually we all are, but whether it’s true or not is another matter. The truth can be such a sloppy invention and still convince everyone. You just have to be forceful. Or take advantage of people’s natural gullibility.
According to the jacket copy:
All Dogs are Blue is a fiery and scurrilously funny tale of life in a Rio de Janeiro insane asylum. Our narrator is upset by his ever-widening girth and kept awake by the Rio funk blaring from a nearby favela – fair enough, but what about the undercover agents infiltrating the asylum? He misses the toy dog of his childhood, keeps high literary company with two hallucinations, Rimbaud (a mischief-maker) and Baudelaire (a bit too serious for him), and finds himself the leader of a popular cult.
All Dogs are Blue burst onto the Brazilian literary scene in 2008. Its raw style and comic inventiveness took readers by storm. But it was to be Rodrigo de Souza Leão’s last masterpiece. He died that year, aged 43, in a psychiatric clinic.
And one more quote:
I stopped getting bayoneted. I started oral medication. Oral medication is easy to trick your way out of. I know which drugs I take. I always spit the ones I don’t want down the sink. The ideal way to deter that would be effervescent drugs. Of course the feebleminded are totally out of it and take their drugs properly.
Time to watch television. Time for the Addams family to get together. All the nutters would ge together to watch the soap opera. A sergeant, a street cleaner, other dimwits and one guy who beats his head against the wall every two minutes.
I’ve already told that little doctor that he’s going to do his head in. He’s going to have a serious stroke. I blsjdsomdkm0ooooeeirrrriruuuuruuiirrriiirii.
More about this on Friday, but I’m going to be in Rio all next week for the
Confederations Cup Final 2013 Brazilian Publishers Experience. As I’m sure you all know, there’s been a bit of unrest in Brazil as of late (one of the protests on Sunday was staged on the beach right in front of the hotel where I’ll be staying) stemming from all sorts of injustices, including the way Brazil is pumping money in the World Cup (a.k.a. THE GREATEST SPORTING EVENT EVER) instead of, you know, social services and things that could actually help the vast majority of Brazilian citizens. (BTW, as I’m typing this, Brazil just netted a goal to go up 1-0 over Uruguay in the 40th minute.)
World famous, award-winning author Eduardo Galeano came out with this statement
As far as I’m concerned, the explosion of indignation in Brazil is justified. In its thirst for justice, it is similar to other demonstrations that in recent years have shaken many countries in many parts of the world.
Brazilians, who are the most soccer-mad of all, have decided not to allow their sport to be used any more as an excuse for humiliating the many and enriching the few. The fiesta of soccer, a feast for the legs that play and the eyes that watch, is much more than a big business run by overlords from Switzerland. The most popular sport in the world wants to serve the people who embrace it. That is a fire police violence will never put out.
Hell and yes.
And for those of you who are interested, Nation Books (publisher of the best soccer books) is bringing out a new edition of Galeano’s Soccer in Sun and Shadow next month.
Here’s the jacket copy:
In this witty and rebellious history of world soccer, award-winning writer Eduardo Galeano searches for the styles of play, players, and goals that express the unique personality of certain times and places. In “Soccer in Sun and Shadow,” Galeano takes us to ancient China, where engravings from the Ming period show a ball that could have been designed by Adidas to Victorian England, where gentlemen codified the rules that we still play by today and to Latin America, where the “crazy English” spread the game only to find it creolized by the locals.
All the greats—Pele, Di Stefano, Cruyff, Eusebio, Puskas, Gullit, Baggio, Beckenbauer— have joyous cameos in this book. yet soccer, Galeano cautions, “is a pleasure that hurts.” Thus there is also heartbreak and madness. Galeano tells of the suicide of Uruguayan player Abdon Porte, who shot himself in the center circle of the Nacional’s stadium; of the Argentine manager who wouldn’t let his team eat chicken because it would bring bad luck; and of scandal-riven Diego Maradona whose real crime, Galeano suggests, was always “the sin of being the best.”
Soccer is a game that bureaucrats try to dull and the powerful try to manipulate, but it retains its magic because it remains a bewitching game—“a feast for the eyes … and a joy for the body that plays it”—exquisitely rendered in the magical stories of “Soccer in Sun and Shadow.”
And with that, I’m signing off to finish writing up my reports for the 11th Korean Translation Award (more on that tomorrow), to watch Brazil triumph (I hope!), and to prepare for my own soccer match tonight (Terminal Cathole!).
A woman receives letters from an unknown man. Racy? Possibly.
The story above, “Obscenities for a Housewife” (“Obscenidades para uma dona de casa”), by Ignácio de Loyola Brandão is part of the Brazilian bestselling anthology The 100 Best Brazilian Short Stories of the Century (Os cem melhores contos brasileiros do século), a book that was banned earlier this year after being called “inappropriate.”
The book includes stories from acclaimed Brazilian authors Clarice Lispector, Carlo Drummond de Andrade, and Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, among many others, and was bought in bulk by the Brazilian government for public schools as an expedient way to introduce students to Brazil’s literary tradition and culture.
Since then the book, published by Objetiva, has been banned from public schools by the Sao Paulo State due to an objection by mothers against Brandão’s story. A Brazilian court backed the mothers’ objection, citing a “high sexual content” in the book. There is no word on what will become of the government’s copies or if another book might replace the anthology in public schools’ curriculums. Maybe they should ask the mothers.
While I am no expert on school standards or public education, I did manage to find a translated version of the text (of the story, not the book) and read it, and it is surprisingly dirty. Dirty enough to be banned? Perhaps. But as much as I am usually against censorship it might not matter on this one. The book is already a bestseller in Brazil and popular in bookstores. Regardless of the ban, the book is still out there if kids really want to read it.
But then, that too might be up to the mothers.
Only four years old, the Premio Sao Paulo de Literatura has already become one of Brazil’s most coveted literary honors. Created by Sao Paulo State’s Secretary of Culture, the prize offers R$200,000 (more than US$127,000) for the categories of best book and debut writer. The Award is the highest cash prize literary award in Brazil. This year 221 novels were submitted to the contest in the hopes of the prize and the shortlists of the winners were announced earlier this month.
Best Book Shortlist
• Azul-corvo by Adriana Lisboa (Rocco)
• Paisagem com dromedário by Carola Saavedra (Companhia das Letras)
• Minha mãe se matou sem dizer adeus by Evandro Affonso Ferreira (Record)
• Do fundo do poço se vê a lua by Joca Reiners Terron (Companhia das Letras)
• Bolero de Ravel by Menalton Braff (Global)
• Chá das cinco com o vampiro by Miguel Sanches Neto (Objetiva)
• Poeira: demônios e maldições by Nelson de Oliveira (Língua Geral)
• Traduzindo Hannah by Ronaldo Wrobel (Record)
• Passageiro do fim do dia by Rubens Figueiredo (Companhia das Letras)
• Os negócios extraordinários de um certo Juca Peralta by Sérgio Mudado (Crisálida)
Best Debut Authors Shortlist
• Os Malaquias by Andréa del Fuego (Língua Geral)
• Perácio – Relato Psicótico by Bráulio Mantovani (LeYa)
• A ilusão da alma: biografia de uma ideia fixa by Eduardo Giannetti (Companhia das Letras)
• Prosa de papagaio by Gabriela Guimarães Gazzinelli (Record)
• Inúteis luas obscenas by Hélio Pólvora (Casarão do Verbo)
• Manhã do Brasil by Luis Alberto Brandão (Scipione)
• Os unicórnios by Marcelo Cid (7 Letras)
• Método prático da guerrilha by Marcelo Ferroni (Companhia das Letras)
• O dom do crime by Marco Lucchesi (Record)
• Lugar by Reni Adriano (Tinta Negra)
The official winners of the contest have not yet been announced.
Find the original website here
The New York Times profiles the Brazilian authors Márcio Souza and Milton Hatoum and provides an oh-so-brief overview of the Brazilian scene:
Just ask Márcio Souza or Milton Hatoum, two leading Brazilian novelists of Amazon themes. Both were born and grew up in this bustling, ethnically diverse port city in the heart of the planet’s largest rain forest, but both had to leave here and struggle to get recognition.
“We don’t fit any of the established models or niches,” Mr. Souza, 61, said in an interview at his studio here. “We’re not magical realists” like Gabriel García Márquez and other celebrated Latin American writers, he said, “and we haven’t lived through the interesting times that the East Europeans have.”
“Maybe we need more deforestation here to get some attention,” Mr. Souza, the author of picaresque, satirical novels like “The Emperor of the Amazon” and “Mad Maria,” added mordantly. “That’s how the book world seems to work.”
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .
There are plenty of reasons you can fail to find the rhythm of a book. Sometimes it’s a matter of discarding initial assumptions or impressions, sometimes of resetting oneself. Zigmunds Skujiņš’s Flesh-Coloured Dominoes was a defining experience in the necessity. . .
In a culture that privileges prose, reviewing poetry is fairly pointless. And I’ve long since stopped caring about what the world reads and dropped the crusade to get Americans to read more poems. Part of the fault, as I’ve suggested. . .
I would like to pose the argument that it is rare for one to ever come across a truly passive protagonist in a novel. The protagonist (perhaps) of Three Light-Years, Claudio Viberti, is just that—a shy internist who lives in. . .