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Quiet Creature on the Corner: An Interview with the Translator

Below we present an in-depth interview between Quiet Creature on the Corner translator Adam Morris and PEN Translation Award–winning translator of Clarice Lispector’s Complete Stories, Katrina Dodson.

Quiet Creature on the Corner is a slim book that sinks its claws into you, gently at first, then implacably. Like a film by David Lynch, Michael Haneke, or David Cronenberg, its hypnotic momentum pulls you along, even when the disturbing events make you cringe and want to turn away. The 1991 novel opens with a nineteen-year-old poet who’s just lost his factory job. He is one of countless Brazilians out of work in the late 1980s, when the novel is set, after the end of Brazil’s twenty-year military regime, a period marked simultaneously by hope for a new democratic order and uncertainty in the face of raging inflation and economic stagnation. The young narrator and his mother live as squatters in a semi-abandoned apartment complex in a rough neighborhood of Porto Alegre, capital of the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Noll is from.

Early on, the boy recounts his rape of a neighbor girl in the same flat tone and bare language in which he describes washing his hands. The events that follow—his arrest, transfer to a mental health clinic, and surreal transition to a rural property where he becomes the charge of a German-Brazilian couple of mystifying motives—veer between the mundane, grotesque, and ominous. An undercurrent of social and political unrest occasionally pierces the narrator’s disorienting stream of consciousness, with allusions to the country’s first direct presidential election after the dictatorship (and Lula’s first run for president). As we drift through this novel without chapter breaks to arrive at its final image, the young man bobbing in a lake, we are left unsure whether he deserves pity or disgust.

The publication of Quiet Creature on the Corner this May by Two Lines Press, in a translation by Adam Morris, will make it João Gilberto Noll’s only novel currently available in English. Noll is one of Brazil’s most esteemed living authors; of his sixteen novels and short story collections since 1980, five have won the Brazilian equivalent of the National Book Award (Prêmio Jabuti). Yet the only prior book-length English translation of his work is an out-of-print 1997 UK volume of his novellas Harmada (1993) and Hotel Atlântico (1986). Next spring, Two Lines will also publish Morris’s translation of Hotel Atlântico as Atlantic Hotel. In a written conversation over the course of two days, I spoke with Morris about his translations, how to understand the more inflammatory scenes of sex and violence in Quiet Creature, and what Noll’s work means for the present cultural and political moment in Brazil and beyond. We discussed Dilma, Lula, the Brazilian landless workers’ movement (MST), as well as the perverse pleasures of Hilda Hilst, Clarice Lispector’s Nietzschean morality, and when to ignore English grammar and just let those Brazilian run-on sentences ride.

— Katrina Dodson


Katrina Dodson: What drew you to João Gilberto Noll and why this book in particular, out of the thirteen novels he’s published?

Adam Morris: I discovered Noll as part of my academic research in twentieth- and twenty-first century Latin American literature. I studied the Argentine writer César Aira, as well as the Mexican author Mario Bellatin, and have written about them both. My teachers recommended Noll when I began to study contemporary Brazilian literature. As for why I selected this novel, the novel selected me: the experience of shopping in a Brazilian sebo, or used bookstore, as the narrator of Quiet Creature does, can be quite hit or miss. I was looking for novels by Noll, and this was the first I managed to find. I read it and was captivated by Noll much in the same way I was by Aira and Bellatin, and for the reason I decided to study contemporary Latin American literature in the first place: it’s totally different from the North American fiction I was reading. Noll’s voice is unique and astonishing.

Katrina Dodson: Given Noll’s stature in Brazilian letters, why do you think he hasn’t already been translated more into English?

Adam Morris: Translated literature comprises a very small minority of the American publishing industry’s output, a problem that Two Lines and many other independent presses have made it their business to address. So that is the most obvious reason. Beyond that, Portuguese is a minor language in comparison to French or Spanish, and in comparison to, say, German, it’s underrepresented in publisher lists most likely because Brazil was not until recently considered a very important country, geopolitically speaking, and in the U.S., Brazilian culture was chiefly consumed through music. Finally, Brazilian literature and the Portuguese language are not widely taught in universities. So there you have the structural obstacles to the translation of many or most Brazilian writers, not just Noll.

Katrina Dodson: Is this a more ideal time to introduce readers in English to Noll?

Adam Morris: I do think that this is a good time to think seriously about Noll and his work. Given the present political turmoil in Brazil, and the broader debates surrounding neoliberalism in Brazil, Latin America, and Europe, Noll’s work will perhaps speak to the many people, even here in the U.S., who have experienced the detachment of his narrators, and the hollowing of their communities by what many refer to as neoliberalism or, alternately, austerity.

Katrina Dodson: I’d like to return to the broader question of politics later, but for now, let’s talk about this sense of alienation in his first-person narrators. One Brazilian interviewer wrote of Noll, “He says that he’s always written the story of the same character, a drifter, who’s constantly clashing with everything, always searching for something, he’s not sure what.” To this I’d add that the character in this novel, a poet, has something of the poète maudit and the flâneur about him, that writer on the margins of society who doesn’t give a damn about its rules of behavior. There’s also a resonance with Camus’s The Stranger in his sense of disaffectedness and his casual violence. How do this book and its protagonist fit in with Noll’s body of work as a whole?

Adam Morris: I think the comparison to Camus is a very good one, particularly with respect to this novel. There is also the relation to Kafka, especially in The Trial, Amerika, or The Castle, for reasons the critic mentions—that searching after something and not understanding what it is. And yes, the protagonist of Quiet Creature is a poet, but I would not call him a flâneur. The flâneur opts out of the regimented life of modernity. In this context, it’s the withdrawal of these opportunities from the subject, without giving him a say in the matter, something that interests Noll very much.

Katrina Dodson: The parts in which he wanders the city aimlessly, leafing through whatever he finds at bookstores, made me think of the flâneur.

Adam Morris: Yes. But I think the flâneur associates himself with irony and with a detached but ironic stance that is not available to Noll’s protagonists. The idea of joblessness recurs in other novels of this period, including Atlantic Hotel, but always in a context of frustration and even desperation.

Katrina Dodson: So you’re saying that Noll’s protagonists are sincerer in their detachment, or more unconscious of the reasons for it. Noll manages to make his protagonist in this novel both predatory and naive at the same time. He commits some pretty heinous acts of aggression and yet seems like such a kid, totally unaware that he’s an aggressor. I keep thinking about how he smears his forehead with the foundation of a woman he’s just violated and may have killed just to cover up a zit.

Adam Morris: That’s right: not the flâneur’s jolly wandering or the Situationist derive. But—and this is open to interpretation—I believe he also becomes a victim later, and demonstrates the same naiveté when that occurs. He is at once eager to please and insensitive to the effects of his actions. He remarks on this repeatedly in the novel. For example, when he sees Kurt smile, and tries to determine what he has done to have caused it.

Katrina Dodson: I think there’s a lot of moral ambiguity in the book, in the way that the protagonist is also a victim of some pretty abysmal conditions—poverty, lack of family support, lack of control over what happens to his person in certain ways—and aware of the way he breeds disgust and disdain in the people around him, whether imagined or real. So it was a book that repelled me in certain places but that kept drawing me in because I couldn’t quite figure out how to think about this character and his actions.

Adam Morris: Yes, I think this is where a productive comparison to Camus might continue.

Katrina Dodson: One of the most compelling aspects of the book, and your translation, was the dreamlike narration. We never quite know what’s happening in the action of the novel and what the character is imagining. In its surreal and ominous shifts between scenes and locations, I can see the basis for the comparison to the films of David Lynch. Can you say more about this aspect of Noll’s style and what it was like to translate it?

Adam Morris: It’s funny you mention Lynch. I think that is an excellent comparison. Think of the dream structure of Mulholland Drive.

Katrina Dodson: Well, it’s on the jacket copy: “Reminiscent of the films of David Lynch.”

Adam Morris:
Well I am delighted by it nevertheless! I do not have my copies yet. I did not supply that description. But I agree with whoever said so. I think Cronenberg is another good comparison, and Buñuel. I would reluctantly add Murakami, though I think Noll is much better. That milky realization that we are in a dream: Noll achieves this without so-called magic realism. He shifts in verb tenses, and sudden changes in location.

Katrina Dodson: I also think of Blue Velvet.

Adam Morris: Yes, excellent. But unlike Lynch, whose psychodramas appear to have a deep subconscious current, in the psychoanalytic sense, Noll’s dreamscapes are brittle.

Katrina Dodson: What do you mean by brittle?

Adam Morris: I would even say superficial, but I mean that in the sense that surface opacity is the aspect of dreams that works for the political scenario he is describing. The lack of depth is manifest in the character’s lack of a name, his very spotty history, his somewhat impulsive and reactionary psychology.

Katrina Dodson: Noll has cited Clarice Lispector as one of his major influences, and there’s something reminiscent of her novel The Apple in the Dark in how the main character commits a crime and then absconds to a rural setting in a surreal turn of events. We’ve also mentioned Camus and Kafka. Can you speak further about some of the ways that Noll’s work resonates with that of other writers or artists, both in a Brazilian and in an international context?

Adam Morris: In the Brazilian context it would be difficult for any writer not to be influenced by Clarice Lispector as she is so widely read and respected. I like the parallel to The Apple in the Dark, though I had not considered it before. I have written about the somewhat neglected Nietzschean aspects of Lispector’s work, particularly with respect to that novel. I think the strange barnyard scenes also find their parallel in Quiet Creature, in Amália’s shed. There is also the similarity of uncertain morality, or rather, of an unmoored and deeply personal morality that is related to Nietzsche’s philosophy.

Katrina Dodson: Are there other Brazilian or international writers whose work resonates with Noll’s?

Adam Morris: Noll is in dialogue with a lineage of writers who document daily realities in Brazil, particularly as it regards a tone of violence that is sometimes portrayed as mundane. I am thinking of Rubem Fonseca’s famous book Feliz Ano Novo (Happy New Year). That collection is remarkable for the way it presents violence as both shocking and matter-of-course or as a daily reality that results from prevailing social conditions. Noll offers an updated reflection on these conditions for a post-dictatorship context, where the long-sought freedom has not led to emancipation. I think this is a crucial thing to remember when reading Noll: he is thinking through the difference between freedom, or in the American parlance, liberty, and emancipation. The narrator of Quiet Creature has his freedom. Too much of it. But we cannot say that he is emancipated.

Katrina Dodson: Yes, I see a connection to Fonseca’s hardboiled style. Like Fonseca, Noll inhabits the worlds of the so-called “marginais,” a group that includes criminals and vagrants, and both writers narrate these worlds in a matter-of-fact way—unperturbed by the darker fringes of society.

The first book you translated was Hilda Hilst’s With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014). Both Hilst and Noll have a way of dwelling in certain aggressively visceral, sexual, and violent spaces that breed fascination and disgust, as if they want to slap readers out of a complacent bourgeois morality but also perhaps because they are genuinely interested in what is unsettling to most people. Do you see a kinship between the two Brazilian authors you’ve chosen to translate?

Adam Morris: Yes, I do. Hilst was also in conversation with Camus, among many others. She quite infamously was very interested in the obscene. But she distinguished obscenity from pornography. For her, and for the writers she most admired—Nabokov, Miller, Huysmans, the French eroticist Pierre Louÿs, and many others—the obscene was an aesthetic category intended, as you say, to disrupt bourgeois morality and complacency. Noll is not exactly picking up where Hilst left off, but the use of sex has a disruptive function in this novel.

Katrina Dodson: Yes, and not only sex but ways of looking at the body that focus on scatology and decay, things that we are faced with every day but that don’t make for polite conversation.

Adam Morris: We get an even clearer idea of what Noll is doing with sex in Atlantic Hotel, where the narrator describes sex with a hotel employee as an anonymous action, bodies touching below the waist. Although there is certainly more sex and more violent sex in Quiet Creature.

Katrina Dodson: What difference does gender make in how you read these authors’ approaches to sexuality, violence, and death? For example, I’ve found it easier to take in Hilst’s graphic scenes because she approaches them as a woman writer and in ways I find subversive on a more intuitive level. In contrast, the protagonist in Noll’s book treats women in brutal, misogynistic ways that echo dominant power structures in a manner that’s harder for me to take as a female reader, even if I want to believe that there’s a more sophisticated way to understand this material.

Adam Morris: I think what we have in Noll can only be described as a critique of casualized violence against women. The character appears morally confused or ambivalent, and this is the problem. The casual violence of the state on the bodies of its people has become manifest in gender relations. Hilst addresses this, as well.

Katrina Dodson: What part of this do you see Hilst addressing? In the Hilst I’ve read, there is plenty of physical abjection, but it tends to have a sense of perverse pleasure and willingness in the participants. In Quiet Creature, the sexual encounters range from outright rape to scenes of questionable consent on the woman’s part. Hilst is more about the crazy orgy, whether literal or literary, while in Noll’s book I had a harder time witnessing scenes from a point of view that replays the dynamic of male dominance and female objectification that bombards us from all around.

Adam Morris: Hilst’s theater work, which has not been translated, is one place to look for this critique of social gender roles. Her play O visitante (The Visitor), for instance. The literary and queer theorist David William Foster is writing on this play, comparing it to contemporary work by Pasolini, in a volume I am coediting on Hilst out later this year. [Essays on Hilda Hilst: Between Brazil and World Literature, coedited with Bruno Carvalho, forthcoming from Palgrave Macmillan.]

Katrina Dodson: Pasolini is an interesting figure to tie into these questions.

Adam Morris: Yes, he is. And you are correct that Hilst was interested more in pleasure and in the hidden or repressed pleasure at hand in scenes of debasement and abnegation, as well as what would be considered depravity from a bourgeois perspective. In Noll, by contrast, the narrator appears to take uncertain pleasure in his sexual exploits. And I use the word exploits advisedly, since I agree with you that he exercises a violent level of control in most of these encounters. But at the same time, later in the novel, he unexpectedly finds himself in the role of the person whose body is used and manipulated. The path to this scene is as surreal as many of his other discoveries. Here I think Noll uses sexual violence as a metaphor for a social condition of helplessness.

Katrina Dodson: Which scene are you referring to?

[Here, we discuss the disjointed narration of several scenes, in which the narrator himself is the victim of sexual aggressions by other men. The details of one act in particular remain ambiguous, in part because the narrator is ashamed, as Morris points out.]

Adam Morris: So there is a final experience that might provoke empathy with the women he abuses. An emasculating experience where he has no power whatsoever.

Katrina Dodson: Or, as you say, this is a story about people losing control over their bodies, in many senses and not just in that most overt first rape that occurs. And in all of this there’s no sense of fun or pleasure. Just fear, mockery, and brutality.

Adam Morris: Exactly—the rapes, the cancer, old age, homelessness, jail. But! You also see that this loss of control is no longer a subjection experienced at the hands of a Foucauldian disciplinary institution. He has also lost his job, remember, as a machine worker of some sort. So factory, prison, and clinic all expel him. And he’s left without a discernible occupation that would aid in forming his identity. His response to this is to exert power over a woman—after watching porn.

Katrina Dodson: Ah, I forgot that he starts off as an actual worker. I had more of the sense of him as a poet-loafer. This is definitely a book that warrants rereading. It’s short but very condensed and with key details that float by if you’re not paying close attention.

Adam Morris: Yes, as I say, it’s deceptively superficial. It is a very weird book. That’s what I love about Noll.

Katrina Dodson: While Noll’s delirious style resonates with the work of Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst, his writing is more overtly attuned to external political contexts in Brazil, even if still oblique. Quiet Creature on the Corner was published in 1991, in that first wave of writing that was free from censorship under the military dictatorship, which ended in 1984. It appears to take place in the late 1980s, with mentions of Lula running for president (for the first time) and of the Landless Worker’s Movement, which became the MST (Movimento Sem Terra), which originated in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, where Noll is from and where a lot of this novel takes place, particularly in the city of Porto Alegre. In what ways was this novel responding to its political context?

Adam Morris: Well it was a surprise to the political establishment that Lula did so well in the elections of 1989, and the place where he had one of his strongest showings was in the south. Dilma also began her career in politics in Porto Alegre. But yes, Lula is already a celebrity by the time the novel is published in 1991, and Noll had recognized the ways he was responding to the plight of people who realized that the opening of the dictatorship to democracy did not necessarily mean an improvement of their lot. Our protagonist represents what Marx called relative surplus-labor. Today in the context of a global crisis, we describe these workers as belonging to the precariat. So there is a sense of abandonment that follows the fall of the dictatorship when those who fill these ranks realize that the new democratic order will be controlled by the business elite who do not have their best interests in mind. Lula represents the populist opposition to this elite.

Katrina Dodson: As you say, Quiet Creature reflects a sense of economic uncertainty. Its protagonist starts out living in a state of precarity among squatters, worried that the military police could come and throw them all out of their homes at any moment. Then after his arrest, he gets whisked away to an almost feudal manor, lorded over by a German-Brazilian couple, though their activities get blocked for a time by the landless protestors.

Adam Morris: And here is where a class and perhaps race dimension emerges in this novel in a way that is more obvious to Brazilian readers. The landless are, generally speaking, less white than the general population or the middle class and many are indigenous. Brazilian readers would see the Germans as white Brazilians and the landless as nonwhite Brazilians. Readers unfamiliar with the movement could consider them a proto-Occupy movement of sorts.

Katrina Dodson: Noll is known for being a stylist, a writer very much invested in language. What aspects of his style did you feel were most important to convey in English? What were some of the challenges or pleasures in translating him?

Adam Morris: One of the challenges was to preserve something I alluded to earlier: the brittle opacity of the narration, its deceptive simplicity, which is related to another challenge that was also a pleasure, maintaining the narrator’s movement in and out of dreams and the related unannounced transitions between states, settings, and times. Noll himself offers a metaphor for this at the end of the novel, when the narrator swims to the middle of the pond on the farm. He bobs up and down in the pond while looking at Kurt on the shore, trying to remain underwater for longer each time. The narration appears in a similar fashion to avoid reality.

Katrina Dodson: Yes, that’s an arresting image. I was also struck by the passages after he leaves the mental asylum, the clinic they call it, and goes to the farm. I kept thinking he was still dreaming until at a certain point the “plot” just kept moving forward. It all bleeds together.

Adam Morris: Noll and I did not correspond much as I translated, but one thing I felt necessary to ask him about, and perhaps this sounds like the mundane query of a grammarian, was his use of run-on sentences and incessant comma splices. As you know, Portuguese is much more flexible than English about what in English would be called a run-on sentence.

Katrina Dodson: The run-on sentence is very much a part of Brazilian linguistic patrimony. I find it difficult to figure out when to let it roll and when to clip it for the sake of English. With Lispector, I felt very little liberty to do that, so I just kept the comma splices to maintain her flow.

Adam Morris: In our conversations, Noll confirmed that this was his way of conveying an adolescent view or narration. So I worked to preserve a certain naiveté that you noticed. This was very confining, as Noll restricts the character’s lexicon as well.

Katrina Dodson: Yes, a certain breathlessness and carelessness in his youthful way of speaking.

Adam Morris: Yes, carelessness. And also a matter-of-factness that is by turns poetic and crass. Breathtaking in both instances, as well as breathless in others! The narrator will occasionally indulge in a more poetic outlook or description, which reminds us that he is a poet. He grasps at sophistication. Sometimes he achieves it: the images of the moon, for instance. Other times it is rather strained.

Katrina Dodson: Do you plan on translating more of Noll’s work?

Adam Morris: Two Lines will be publishing my second translation of Noll, Atlantic Hotel, next spring. It’s one of Noll’s best-known works. The editors at Two Lines agreed that his books are meant to be read in conjunction with one another. So although we can’t do his whole corpus in one year, readers will have a second novel to look forward to. I enjoyed translating these works very much, but I never know what I’ll next translate. I have a strong evangelical incentive to bring untranslated voices to new readers.