Book Review

Two from England

Shocker

In Hotel Atlântico things just happen, and very fast. The work is memorable, and the sum rather amazingly outshines its parts.

Hotel Atlântico, by J. G. Noll,
trans. by David Treece (Boulevard Books,
151 pp., 8 pounds 95 pence, paper import)

Bondo Wyszpolski

There are two novellas in this volume by J. G. Noll, a writer from the south of Brazil who was born in 1946. The title piece begins with the protagonist, an out-of-work actor, checking into a hotel for a night in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana. He has spontaneous and essentially faceless sex with the receptionist, and then checks out.

After being taken to the bus station, he looks at a map of Brazil and then buys a ticket to Florianópolis, a coastal city in the southern state of Santa Catarina. During the night, the American woman he's been sitting next to on the bus takes an extra load of barbiturates and dies.

The out-of-work actor just wants to keep moving. Other encounters and events, similar to the above, keep the story moving as well, but it's very odd how the protagonist seems laconic and matter-of-fact about everything: he simply drifts from one scene to another and scarcely seems to raise an eyebrow. Things just happen.

During its final pages, Hotel Atlântico may remind the reader of an early `70s Wim Wenders road movie, especially after our former actor loses a leg and then hooks up with the black male nurse Sebastião. The two of them take a trip to Porto Alegre, to see the ocean. Now there are shades of Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, and Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise also comes to mind. The story ends—or, one might say, it just slips away—on the beach near the Hotel Atlântico.

Strangely, the work is memorable, and the sum rather amazingly outshines its parts, even though David Treece seems to have translated it at about the same speed he turned the pages. As for who Noll's direct influences are, I'm not sure, but during the course of reading Hotel Atlântico I thought of Oswaldo França, Jr.'s The Long Haul (Jorge o Brasileiro in the original), Ivan Ângelo's The Celebration (A Festa), and Ignácio de Loyola Brandão's Zero. Not bad company.

Harmada, the longer story, is no less bizarre, with another out-of-work actor at the helm. One night the protagonist meets up with a lame man who invites him into the river. Well, why not? All of a sudden, the lame man disappears, and is presumably drowned. As in the first novella, the `hero' of the story just goes on his way, wanders in to see a play, and then ends up sleeping with the two actresses. One of them, Amanda, has an infant girl. Time passes, the actresses head off to another town, and our drifter does some of the usual things—he gets married and finds a job—and then afterwards enters a halfway house where he remains for several years. He's good at telling tall tales, and this is how he entertains the other wayward and destitute residents.

Several years go by, just like in real life, and he meets 14-year-old Cris, who turns out to be Amanda's daughter. Cris is an orphan. The two of them escape the dormitories where they live and track down an old actor friend of the protagonist named Bruce. They move in with him. Here in Harmada the trio teams up and puts on a play, and it's a big hit. It seems to run for months and months and so the two men and the girl make a lot of money.

Cris finds and then eventually moves in with a boyfriend. The two aging actors reminisce; they're both around 50, and starting to feel the slide through middle age. Soon, the protagonist also moves out of Bruce's apartment, and into a coveted apartment of his own, where he meets a little boy who's deaf and dumb. He befriends the youngster, and if the ending's a bit odd, well, this has been an odd and compelling story all along.

I wouldn't have guessed it from the opening pages, but J. G. Noll's Hotel Atlântico, with its two novellas, is a quirky and idiosyncratic book, and I'm going to give it a thumbs-up.

Boulevard Books, 8 Aldbourne Road, London W12 OLN, England. Tel/fax, 0181-743-5278.


Crying shame

This is the kind of sophomoric writing that one does in college and then throws away. Its best parts are still too bad.

Intimate Diary, by Ana Cristina César,
trans. by Patricia E. Paige, Celia McCullough,
and David Treece (Boulevard Books, 114 pp.,
7 pounds,95 pence, paper import)

Bondo Wyszpolski

Born in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana district in 1952, Ana Cristina César revoked her lease on life at age 31. As in the case of Sylvia Plath, the circumstances of her death drew belated attention to César's writing, and this slender volume begins with a brief imaginary sketching trip to England and France which is aptly titled Kid Gloves—Fragments of a Journal. It reads like dispatches from the front (of one's own war), and is mostly a buzzing of travel thoughts, images and ideas, much of it built upon seemingly random details. For example, "I thought up a cheap trick that almost came off. I shall have correspondents in four capitals of the world. They'll think of me intensely and we'll exchange letters and news. When no letter arrives I plan to rip the calendar from the wall, in the session of pain. I'm drawing little snakes which are the offspring of rage—they're little rages which mount the table in a cluster and cover the calendar on the wall, ceaselessly writhing." This section is maybe twenty pages, manic but manageable.

Intimate Diaries is comprised of raw slices, prose poems with the knife-in-the-gut surge that should make us uneasy, but if they do it's for the wrong reason: This is the kind of sophomoric writing that one does in college, perhaps spontaneously and maybe late at night, but then throws away or buries with the favorite pet whose demise inspired it. Occasionally, a portentous passage stops us in our tracks: "I went out into the sun where I attempted some exercises, I feel exhausted. Remember how the diary was my daily sustenance? What does notoriety matter after we're dead?"

Otherwise, whether it's read silently or aloud, in the morning or late at night, Intimate Diary is a banal exploration of despair that fluctuates between bad and worse. Like the author, it comes to a sudden standstill.

Boulevard Books, 8 Aldbourne Road, London W12 OLN, England. ER


EXCERPTS

From Intimate Diary

LOCK AN KEY

Let us take tea at five and I'll tell you the great story of the passion of my life that I've kept under lock and key, and my heart beats unevenly in a waferthin embrace. Tell me more of this story, you counsel me, like some shadowy marshall making an allegory. I am touched by fire. Yet another roman à clé?

No response. I'm no lady, nor a modern woman. I don't even know you.

So:

This is where I get my verses, from this party—with silent discretion and a source to which I won't confess—like someone wiping away her silken sins, the three monuments of her homeland, walking past the spot and past her gloves.

EUROPEAN WINTER

It's more difficult from over here: a foreign country, where the cream is clotted and subjectivity resembles an opening act of theft. I counsel caution. I'm not a character in your novel and like it or not you can't have me silhouetted on the theoretical horizon of the last decade. The sensual militants put the ball in my court: legitimate depression? Or charm in the presence of these uniquely anxious women. Manifesto: hold on to the ball; I as a guest say nothing and most indiscreetly remove my gloves (at most), to the right as you come in.

CASABLANCA

Be still, my craziness!

Slip galoshes over your giddy livedin eyelashes!

The sound of saws, the sharpening of knives

won't come anywhere near your patch of palpitations...

Those springs groaning in the next bedroom

Roberto Carlos groaning in the curves of Bahia

The intoxicating smell of hair in the row in front at the cinema...

Chimneys foam before my eyes

Farewell propeller blades awaken before my eyes

Clogs and bells wake me quickly in the wee small hours made of crow's nest binoculars

And the spray of the bidet that I hear as I lie stiff between linen sheets

END OF AND ODE

It happens like this: I take my legs off the balcony where I saw the winter sun setting over the river Tagus, and I leave quietly, my back painfully bent and holding my chin and mouth in one hand. My head and torso shake uncontrollably, but abruptly, abruptly, understand? I was giggling and now I'm suffering our imminent death, my giggling evolved into a kind of disgusting, laud of casual suffering; I feel an extreme pity for the wounded rat in the cellar, oh another sudden pain, oh what strangeness and what Lusitanian torpor flings me, arms spread wide, onto the boards of the harbour, the stage, the bedroom. I wish I could split my body into heteronyms—I meditate here on the floor, that toxic edifice of time.

Christmas Eve.

I'm looking pretty and that's a waste.

I feel nothing

I feel nothing, mum

I forgot

I lied by day

I used to know how to write

Today I kiss the patients at the entrance and at the exit with technical precision.

Freud and I fight frequently.

Irene in heaven comes clean: she stopped screwing at the age of 45

I'm a young woman, though, trying out pointed shoes that walk terribly, they step along more than they should,

they take me, undesirable me, close to the

black boots

no wonder

***

ENCYCLOPAEDIA

Hecate or Hecata [<gr. Hekáté] Gr. Myth. Lunar and marine divinity, triformed (often depicted with three heads and bodies). An orphic goddess, appears to have originated in Thrace. Sent nocturnal terrors, phantoms, and spectres to men. Venerated by the Romans as the goddess of infernal magic.

ARPEGGIOS 

1. I woke up with an itching in my hymen. I inspected the place with a mirror in the bidet. I discovered no signs of an infection. For sure my untrained eyes don't notice anything significant in that extra shade of red. I applied some white cream until the skin (wrinkled and withered) shone. At which my plan to cycle to the Arpoador point likewise withered. The saddle might revive the irritation. Instead I dedicated myself to reading.

2. At yesterday's reception I inadvertently turned my face away from Antônia's kiss of greeting. I felt the dry puff of surprise on my neck. There was no way to undo the mistake. We smiled the rest of the night. I talked about myself the whole time. I wouldn't let Antônia open her lizard's mouth, always kissing the air. We kissed in parting, by agreement, on both sides. I await the crisis keen with remorse.

3. The crisis appears to be under control. I spend the day reliving the involuntary gesture. I act out the scene in the mirror. I turn my face from my own eager image. Then I turn around, looking for signs of disappointment in her eyes. But Antônia would remain inexorable. I go out after many such rehearsals. The movement of the wheels relaxes my hard tendons. The ships illuminate me. I pedal madly.

NOTHING, THIS FOAM

As an insult to desire

I insist on the wickedness of writing

but I do not know if the goddess climbs to the surface

or only punishes me with her howls.

From the railing of this ship

I so want the breasts of the siren.

ANONYMOUS

I'm lovely; gorgeous; when in the cinema you rub your shoulder against me and it warms, trickles, I don't know any more who it is I desire, who roasts me alive, eating buttermilk or attentive to their downy cheeks, what tenderness inspires that fat one over there, that other one there, in the cinema it's dark and the screen doesn't matter, only my side, the warmth down my side, the merest beginning of a wick. The bearer of this knows where I am, even with her eyes closed; I don't say much; meet me; the corner where Concentration meets Diffusion, on the left as you approach it, newspaper in hand, discreet.


EXCERPT

From Hotel Atlântico

He brought the glass of water. And told me that when I first went to sleep, before he realised he had given me an overdose, he had deflowered Dr Carlos's daughter.

"She came into the room here as soon as you sailed off into dreamland. She started telling me how there was a strange patient in the chapel. Refusing to leave. When she took out the key to the chapel from inside her dress, I sensed that there was this beautiful blonde in front of me wanting to be screwed by a big black guy. I just didn't expect I'd be cracking a cherry."

I told Sebastião that I'd only sucked her little tits, it hadn't gone any further.

Sebastião turned on the light. He tucked me in, said he was on duty, that it looked like it was going to be a busy night. And left.

I woke the following morning with Dr Carlos's hand squeezing the stump which was now where my leg had been.

There were some young residential students standing around. One of them asked Dr Carlos in what way this would affect my whole bone structure.

Dr Carlos replied:

"We live in a world of structures. As with any other, when one part of the bone structure is removed the whole structure is affected."

The students noted down his words. Only one young man didn't use his pen at any point. He was staring at me. He seemed to need a signal from me, in order that he could come and speak to me about something which at that moment was as dear to him as his own life. He didn't stop staring at me undisguisedly.

Dr Carlos said that that was all for today, they could go, and would see each other again on Thursday. Only then did the young man lower his gaze. And left the room with his colleagues.

As soon as the residential students withdrew Dr Carlos began to recommend walking a lot with the crutches and doing various other exercises, because I was soon to be discharged.

Where will I go?, I thought. And Sebastião, is he serious when he says he'll take me with him?

And Dr Carlos standing there, looking indifferent, doubtless realising that any celebrity I might still enjoy with an occasional young girl like his daughter was just a flash in the pan, and that my fading past career no longer excited the electors in the way that he needed.

As I could see that my life in the hospital did have an end to it, I began to exercise daily, walking on the crutches. I went into the yard, and sat down on a bench near the chapel.

I made friends with a shorthaired, gingercoloured dog, a mongrel, which immediately fell in love with me. I'd walk about the yard, and he would come alongside, sometimes behind me, nearly always at the same pace, unhurriedly. Sometimes, when I fell behind, he would turn around towards me, his tail wagging, waiting for me.

When I sat down on the bench he would lie down beside my leg. I got to thinking of some way of taking that dog with me when I left the hospital. People in my situation, with an incomplete body, needed one.

One afternoon I heard someone playing the organ in the chapel. I later found out that it was a young man who had studied conducting in Germany, and knowing that he had terminal cancer he came to die in Arraiol, his birthplace.

I sat there on the bench in the yard, listening to the organ, with the dog by my foot. I looked at my missing leg, felt the stump as if I still had some doubt or other, and saw one or other patient walking with difficulty like me. I thought the world was a pretty unhappy place. Sebastião sometimes waved to me from the door that led into the yard. I answered his wave, the ginger dog nestled closer around my foot.

Those were my walks outside the hospital building. When I got up the dog would follow behind. He wasn't a very daring animal, he never tried to cross the threshold into the inside of the building.

Now they had put me into a ward with a lot of patients. When I went back to the ward I walked down a long passageway between the beds, as I walked I could hear groans, hollow breathing, sometimes delirious ravings.

My bed was the last, it took me a good few minutes to cross that ward to the very end. As I walked past some patients greeted me, two or three of them seemed hungry for a chat.

I left my crutches leaning against the wall and lay down tired out by these short walks.

Sebastião went on seeing to me, but now he didn't spend so long in contact with me. In a place where so many ill people were gathered together a nurse shouldn't devote himself so much to just one.

Now our conversations were more objective: we made serious plans to leave Arraiol together. Sebastião had a car. I now blindly put my trust in him, I believed he would take me with him wholeheartedly, that in some way I might be good company for him.

He only had another fortnight left as an employee of the hospital. That was more or less the period Dr Carlos had set for me to be discharged. Things were coinciding, and the two of us laughed redfaced in the ward. Sebastião was generally the first to remind us to quieten down the row our laughter made.

"In a few days we're gonna be laughing out there until we burst," he said over and over.

On the eve of the day we had arranged I left all my clothes tidily on the bedside table. I remembered to fold the right leg of the trousers a few times and pin it with two safetypins. I still didn't understand the point of all that folding, but that was what I saw other onelegged men do.

On the day of our departure I woke up as the sky was brightening. I dressed unhurriedly, a bird was singing with a darker voice in the neighbourhood.

Even with rubber on the ends, the crutches made a regular clicking noise on the pavement.

Three blocks after the hospital there was Sebastião's rather old, blue VW. Everything as arranged, on that corner, out of sight of the hospital.

When he saw me he gave a hoot on the horn. He got out of the car, opened the door for me to get in. I put the crutches in aslant between the back seat and the floor of the car. They wouldn't fit properly into a VW.

When I closed the car door I saw the ginger dog looking at me from the other side of the street. I opened the window. I made as if to stick my head out, to say something, make a sign. But nothing that could save that friendship occurred to me.

And the dog was now making his way slowly back, no doubt to his place in the hospital yard.

Sebastião got in the car, scratched his head and said:

"I reckon it'd be cool if we went in the direction of Porto Alegre."

"I've not got anyone there any more," I said.

"I know, you told me, but I've got my grandmother who lives in the city and I've been needing to see her for years and years," he said.

"Porto Alegre," I said, "I haven't been back for years."

"Shall we go then?" Sebastião sighed.

"Of course, Sebastião, let's make the most of this lovely morning on the road."

We stopped at a gas station as we left Arraiol. There was a queue of three or four cars. While we waited, I remarked that I didn't want to think about what I'd do when my money ran out.

The car had hardly got out of Arraiol before we went up a road full of hillsides, each one greener than the next. Sebastião whistled.

"Look over there, a flock of sheep," he pointed out.

On some stretches the sides of the road were covered in flowers, mainly daisies. Sebastião said that he liked driving on the open road.

It was gone midday when we stopped for the first time, outside a roadside diner. The diner lay behind a gas station.
When we got out of the car there was a smell of oil permeating the air.

The way in to the bathroom was outside the diner. The two of us headed for the bathroom, Sebastião shortening his pace, as people do when they are with a cripple.

We pissed standing close to each other. Sebastião took hold of one of the crutches, and with my free hand I leaned against the wall. As I pissed I thought how any task would be more difficult for me now.

But on that morning of my liberation from Dr Carlos's empire everything seemed less heavy, even the worst things gave met the feeling they were opportune.

Sebastião ordered a spring chicken with polenta. I had a chicken broth. I threw little pieces of bread in the broth. Since I'd lost my leg it was the first time I had eaten a meal with pleasure. I poured another ladleful into the deep bowl. I looked at Sebastião, he was marvelling at me.

"We're going to arrive in Porto Alegre at around four in the afternoon," he said.

"A good time," I replied, going back to my dish of chicken broth.

When we left the diner I noticed that Sebastião sometimes got distracted and started walking ahead, then he realised and stopped, turned around to me, and said something, like:

"I reckon the journey's going to go nice and smoothly, the weather's helping."

To get into the car we had to walk past the gas station and all that strong smell of oil. On the ground I saw an abandoned iron object, with fibrous bits on it, which seemed to be the thing most affected by the oil in that gasstation. The object was actually pitch black, and whatever its previous function, it was now something like my amputated leg, lost forever.

Sebastião opened the car door for me from the inside. When I sat down I noticed he had turned the radio on low, you could hardly hear it. The car pulled out onto the road.

Sometimes a heavy lorry would get in front of us for a long time, making it difficult for us to get past. After overtaking, if he managed to, Sebastião would look at me, as if he had achieved some feat.

"I've not had the car for long, it's only now that I've been able to buy one," he told me.

Suddenly I felt very sleepy. Sebastião stopped on the verge and helped me get into the back seat, so that I could sleep more easily. The crutches had to stand almost upright, propped against the front seat.

I curled up and lay down. Sebastião switched off the radio, and carried on along the road.

I fell asleep. I had a strange dream, where once again I was a woman. Except that now, to go with my new life, I was a woman without a leg. I, that woman, in a train station in the interior, just open country all around, was waiting for someone I wasn't sure would come. Then the train arrives, fills the whole place with smoke, you can't see a thing... and then I woke up.

I stayed lying where I was, not saying a word. Sebastião went for a long time thinking I was still asleep. All of a sudden he spoke my name under his breath.

"Hey, I've woken up," I said.

He peeped around, and said it was all going according to plan, around four we would arrive in Porto Alegre.

We were entering Porto Alegre. Sebastião told me that until the age of 20 every year he spent a month in Porto Alegre with that grandmother of his. He liked her a lot. She lived in the Mont'Serrat quarter.

When we got to the address that Sebastião had on a yellowed scrap of paper, we saw that the blue wooden house that he was describing to me now, in the minutest detail, in the hope I would help him find it, was no longer there. Now they had erected a four-storey building there, a visibly recent construction. I asked whether he used to be in touch with his grandmother. He said he didn't, since he was 20 he hadn't ever seen her, they didn't write to each other because she was illiterate.

"One day the old woman told me she wasn't close to anyone in Porto Alegre who could read or write anything for her. She worked for years and years as a cleaner in a hotel, but she was very closed in on herself, used to talk to herself, in her head, few people understood what she was saying, when she wasn't cleaning she'd hold her arms over her chest, hiding herself. Her closest friends, she used to joke to me, were even more illiterate than she was. With me she was different, she'd even have a laugh."

Then Sebastião looked straight ahead, and asked whether I could see that bar on the corner, his grandmother sometimes bought things there, they must know something about her there.

I stayed in the car, looking all around, marvelling at how hilly it was in this quarter. The car was parked in a dip, and straight ahead was a climb, you couldn't see to the end of it. I opened the window beside me.

Sebastião wasn't long in the bar. He came over, leaned into the window beside me, and said that the owner of the bar was still the same old man, he'd sent him news that his grandmother had died just over two years ago, and the owner of the house had sold the land so that they could put up that building.

Sebastião took a step or two away from the car, looked up at the sky, and said that the weather was still fine.

"Ah the sea", he suddenly exclaimed, "I've never seen that fella before."

"You've never seen the sea?" I asked.

"Not so far," he replied.


Excerpt

from Harmada

I went to the entrance hall of the theatre. It was pouring with rain. One of the house staff was arriving for the session we'd be having in two hours time. She greeted me apprehensively, for she'd seen me a few times in rehearsals, frantically, if not furiously, trying to drag out of Cris something that neither she nor even I had yet had any way of detecting. I was standing there, in front of Cris, in some rehearsal or other, asking myself: I wonder if it's going to work today? I wonder if today that thing I don't yet know whether it has a name is going to burst out and go tearing off, I wonder. Cris was trying maniacally, she was sweating all over, she came closer to me, and I to her, dangerously close, and when were about to commit some blunder or other, I don't know, like me suddenly tearing her apart, not wanting her any more, running away, or her calling me a disgusting, incorrigible old man, and eventually running away herself, so as to fall, let's say, into the arms of some other reality, when we got to that point there came from her or I removed from her some part of the devil, I think, that's what it is, something that at first we don't quite know whether it's going to preserve or annihilate right there, in the first act of reasoning, that thing that appears, dirty and dizzy and dazed because it's there, on the surface between the two of us for the first time.

"Is this how you want it, Cris, did you enjoy that?" I asked.

I tell the woman who works for the theatre that there's a reporter inside interviewing Cris. I ask if it's been raining for long. She replies that it started a few minutes ago. She goes into the administration office. There's a glass wall that displays her as if she was in an aquarium. She lifts an electric switch on the wall, I know that she's turned on the lights on the front of the theatre.

Cris comes into the bedroom in her nightdress. I'm already lying down, looking at the ceiling. She asks if she can turn out the light. I answer yes. I see Cris kneeling on the bed and sitting there looking out of the window.

"Cris!" I call out.

"Eh?"

In the window that's open to the lights of the town I see her turn around to face me.

"What about tonight's performance, did you enjoy it?"

Cris opens her arms, and the wide sleeves of her nightdress look like wings. Then she sits up, gets down off the bed and comes towards me, very slowly, still with her arms open.

"Did you enjoy tonight's performance, eh, Cris?"

Cris asks me to make room and sits down on my bed.

"Tonight was a beautiful performance," she says.

How many nights we spent chatting in that bedroom.

Tonight was different, I could sense it, she wanted to tell me something.

It had stopped raining. The occasional noise from the town...

Cris laid her hand on my chest.

Bruce must have been sleeping. I knew he was at home because I'd seen his jacket on the back of a chair in the living room. He wasn't in the habit of going to bed early, but that night you couldn't hear his footsteps around the apartment.

So Bruce must be sleeping. Cris had laid her hand on my chest. I knew she had something to say to me.

She lay down, stretched out beside me.

Cris:

"You know what, from tomorrow I'm going to move in with him "

"Move in with who?"

"With the guy you met in the rented apartment."

"The young man we had the drink with in White's bar?"

"That's right..."

The following day.

I'm watching the young man through the window as he puts Cris's things in the boot of the car. Before she gets in the car Cris looks up and waves to me.

Further on is the sea, I can see it through the window.

I put on my swimming trunks and go down to the sea.

It was on this beach that I met Bruce. I was coming from one direction, he from another. We weren't much more than twenty years old. He asked me where Breve beach was. I said it was the first one you came to after this one, he could walk there. I raised my arm and showed him the way.

I wanted to be an actor by this time. Then Bruce asked me whether I knew the Continente theatre on Breve beach. I'd seen a play the previous night at this theatre. He told me he was looking for an actress friend of his. He also told me that he'd got there that morning from a town called Alvedo. He'd come to Harmada to work as an actor in a play with this friend of his. The friend was a well known actress. She was called Vera Vidal.