With two more of his inventive books now available in
English, the late Brazilian prose stylist is being recognized as one
of the neglected masters of 20th century literature.
For over 15 years, one of the most prized volumes in my personal
library has been Avalovara, by Osman Lins, which was published in translation
by Alfred A. Knopf in 1980. In September of 1990, when I reviewed the
University of Texas Press paperback for News from
Brazil, I wrote: “Re-reading it 10 years later, it seems to me
an oversight of the highest order that
Avalovara has been the only one of (Lins’ prose works) to reach
North America. Osman Lins was a true master. Where are his other books?”
The enforced patience has at last been rewarded. Sun & Moon Press
has now given us Nine, Novena (1966), the inter-related short stories, or
narratives, that marked Lins’ break with traditional fiction and served as a
testing ground for Avalovara, which followed in 1973. Almost
simultaneously, Dalkey Archive Press has published
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece (1976), the last novel Lins
completed before his death in 1978 at age fifty-four. Both works are smoothly
and intelligently translated by Adria Frizzi.
To round-out this double gift and surprise, The Review of
Contemporary Fiction has devoted nearly 70 pages of its Fall 1995 issue to
Lins, filling it with essays about him and his work, as well as the author’s
own musings on the art of the novel and the place of the writer in society.
In the January, 1994 issue of News from
Brazil, Gregory Rabassa, the translator into English of
Avalovara (not to mention such classics as
Hopscotch and One Hundred Years of
Solitude), said that “Osman Lins
certainly needs more attention; Avalovara is
a masterpiece, an exemplar of the present form of the new novel.” He also
voiced the hope that it would become one of the enduring works of the century,
for Latin America in particular and for the world in general. My own review
asserted that “the author releases such a downpour of imagery that one
may stop and pronounce him the Brazilian Blake or van Gogh.” But
since Avalovara has been available in Dr. Rabassa’s fine translation for
many years, we’ll bypass it for now and instead look at the works that are
newly available and therefore less familiar to an English-speaking audience.
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece is a worthy successor to
Avalovara, but clearly the latter novel is
Lins’ masterpiece and the author has not outdone it here, only gone off in
another inventive direction. Briefly, the narrator’s lover — Júlia
Marquezim Enone — has been hit by a truck(!) and killed at age 33, leaving behind
an unpublished novel she’s entitled The Queen of the Prisons of Greece
(the reason for the odd title emerges towards the final pages). The
unnamed narrator, a high school science teacher, toys with an idea: “I dream of
discoursing about my dead friend’s book, visited so many times and still so
full of secrets.” He begins cautiously, deciding to keep a journal of his
thoughts and explorations of her book. He knows he will not be able to
suppress his personal feelings, and he writes, “Only my restraint… if I don’t
overcome it, and a certain tact, will limit the frankness of the work — an
analysis or, who knows, just a memoir — from which an elegiac note will
certainly not be missing.”
Júlia Marquezim Enone, we learn, “structured
The Queen of The Prisons ing landmarks where in reality they aren’t to be
found. We’re given accounts of the Dutch invasion of this area in 1630, and
of course we not only wonder how we got here, but wonder if the narrator
is beginning to see patterns and pull things out of the text that may or
may not have deliberately been put there.
Accurately, he assesses Júlia Enone’s book as a “novel of
permutations, where everything invades everything,” where both text and
meaning are malleable; and he realizes “that I’m weaving the web and
weaving myself simultaneously.”
It takes a great deal of faith on Lins’ behalf to assume that we’ll
stick with him. “I know and you knew,”
his narrator thinks, addressing Júlia,
“that works of art are as unlimited as our grasp is limited.”
True works of art are larger than we are, and, like a black hole
absorbing both matter and light, in we go, awash in a maelstrom of
possibility. Slowly, our narrator, our guide, all
but disintegrates into pure text, his words and ideas scattering and
dispersing the way a sand castle returns to the
of Greece around an uninterrupted chain of events centering on Maria
de França, a moneyless mulatto heroine lost in the stairways, corridors
and halls of the social welfare bureaucracy, where she struggles to obtain a
Simple enough, and we sit alongside the narrator as he begins his
at first hesitant, tentative study of a book we, the reader, have never seen
and never will see. And because Lins’ book has the same title as Júlia
Enone’s, obviously one has subsumed the other, an inversion has occurred, and
the study is now the novel, and the novel is now the study. Already, the
ground is going soft under our feet in this sort of
Borges-meets-deconstructionism which pulls us in deeper and
deeper as, again, perched beside the narrator, we marvel as Lins explores the
possibilities of the modern novel.
Our journalist, as in journal-writer, tells us that
The Queen has crafty constructions, and examines the novel
“as double, built in layers and purporting to be its own analysis. For example,
as if there were no Júlia Marquezim Enone or
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece, as if the present piece of
writing were actually the novel by that name and I myself were a fiction.”
It seems that the subject of this book is the book as subject:
“Could questions be the only means of
knowledge really granted to us?” Also,
“Every work of art fashions its own theory.” And the narrator asks
whether “the concept of literary work simply evolves, refines itself…”
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece, “conceived as an absurd radio
monologue” disrupted by “sequences of madness” more and more
resembles “walking through a festive neighborhood in which strains of music
come at us from the shops and the side streets: the book resonates.”
By the time the narrator completes the first one hundred
pages of his journal we’re already finding
ourselves “in the tenuous frontier where
reason, fascinated, surrenders to the
absurd.” In her novel, which certainly does a Kafka-like joust with the
Brazilian social services system, Júlia
Enone blurs the historical Olinda and the modern Recife (cities in the
Northeast, on the bulge that projects into the Atlantic), juxtapos
fabric of the beach it has momentarily risen above and defied. And we speculate, perhaps, if it is purely a
self-destruction or some kind of astonishing embracing and integration with Júlia Marquezim Enone’s text? Has the narrator
somehow rejoined his lost beloved by all but literally sinking beneath the waves of her prose?
Osman Lins leaves us with plenty of food for thought, and
to help in our digesting of it we turn to The Review
of Contemporary Fiction. In his essay, “The World Without Quotation Marks: A Gloss of the Gloss,” José Paulo Paes
says of The Queen of the Prisons of Greece that it is “an illustration and a defense of the art of the novel, as well as a
satire on certain pretensions of criticism or literary hermeneutics.” And he goes on to call it “a deceptive play of
contiguous mirrors: it is not an essay telling a novel but a novel that tells itself in the form of an essay…”
Raúl Antelo’s “The Prison-House of
Language according to Osman Lins” is a more theoretical and analytic
essay than the one by Paes, which is quite lucid and far easier to
grasp. Actually, the pages (155-222) devoted to Lins commence with
Adria Frizzi’s sharply etched overview of the author and his context in
the Latin American `boom’ of the 1960s. She briefly assesses the last
two completed novels and the narratives, Nine, Novena (for which she wrote a penetrating introduction that appears in the Sun & Moon edition).
This is followed by Edla Van Steen’s stitched-together interview, responses compiled from many sources since
Lins himself was too ill to complete it for her. It’s a must-read which, together with Lins’ own essay, “Of Idealism and
Glory,” coming on the heels of the interview, gives us a thoughtful look at Lins reflecting upon his life and his craft.
There is a sizeable fragment extant of a novel `forever tentatively’ entitled
The Head Carried in Triumph, which Lins did not live to complete. His widow, the writer and university professor Julieta de Godoy Ladeira, has selected a
couple of passages for us, which Ms. Frizzi has translated. One is intrigued, of course, but there is simply not enough of it
to know how the novel would have evolved.
Julieta de Godoy Ladeira then recounts how she and Osman Lins looked for foreign publishers and, perhaps
more important, able translators. Lins’ work has appeared in most of the major languages (even Polish and Hungarian),
and most of the author-translator partnerships, his widow recalls, were productive.
It’s nice to see Moacyr Scliar back in print. He pays a brief, apt tribute to Lins, whom he’d met in Porto Alegre
in 1977. Scliar — whom I interviewed for News from Brazil
in New York’s Time Square in 1991 — has had several of
his own novels and short story collections translated into English, including
The Centaur in the Garden.
Next, there’s “Narration in Many Voices,” an obtuse and academic look at
Nine, Novena by Benedito Nunes. Somewhat more enjoyable is
“Nine, Novena‘s Novelty,” in which Ana Luíza Andrade writes that
“Nine, Novena‘s novelty consists in its being boldly playful and carefully systematic at the same time.” Also, she says,
“Nine, Novena, as with most of Lins’ works, ultimately questions the role of the artist in a consumer society.” It’s a consideration
that brings to mind The Other Voice, by Octavio Paz.
As for Avalovara, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
reprints the review/paean that critic and novelist Paul
West wrote when the work first appeared in English. One can find it in
Sheer Fiction, published by McPherson &
Company, a superb collection of essays and reviews about some of the worldwide and world class writers of our time.
Last but not least, of course, is Nine, Novena
itself, which leads off with an introduction by the translator,
Adria Frizzi, itself a solid and sorely-needed orientation to Lins’
unusual poetics. It was Lins’ intent, Frizzi says, “to return us to the
mythic through the discourses of culture and the human arts.” Also, she
adds, “The art of stained glass windows — direct, synthetic and
conscious of its limitations in the face of an overwhelming commitment
to spirituality — is for Osman Lins the paradigm of what he aims at in
Frizzi compares these nine tales to retables, “frames often used as altar pieces enclosing a series of painted
panels.” Because some of the stories are a bit mystifying, it is more than a courtesy extended from publisher to reader that
Frizzi’s introduction gets us started down the right path.
There is, for example, “Hahn’s Pentagon,” in which several points of view seem to hover around an elephant that
has come to town with the circus (one may be reminded of the parable of the blind men touching the various parts of
an elephant, with each one likening it to something completely different). Like the cast of a Fellini film, the
rotating characters — each represented by a symbol (or hieroglyph) — are a bit on the quirky side. Hahn, of course, is more
emblem (and epicenter) than elephant, and is vested with a great deal of symbolic meaning and more than a geometric touch.
“Retable of Saint Joana Carolina” has the kind of prose that glides over the page, and it reminds this writer of the
fluid, rhythmic styles found in The Autumn of the Patriarch
by Gabriel García Márquez, or
The Gospel According to Jesus Christ by José Saramago.
“Baroque Tale or Tripartite Unity” resembles a game with different paths to choose from, in which the reader is
more than simply an observer. The various possible combinations recall the mechanics behind Julio Cortázar’s
“Lost and Found” contains the surge and ebb of many viewpoints, in which a child is lost at the beach and
feared drowned. The narrative is interleaved with matter-of-fact accounts of prehistoric sea life (instilling the whole with a
kind of literary cubism), to which is added other voices, about other searches, and on one level the story may be about
those things we know, have known, but have now seen slip away to the point where they cannot be recovered.
The stories in Nine, Novena, as mentioned earlier, have the feel of a testing ground for Avalovara, but while
the reader’s response to the individual pieces may vary widely, from puzzlement to fascination, there seems to be a
focused and deliberate approach that unifies the collection. As Adria Frizzi writes in her introduction,
“Nine, Novena represents
a turning point in Lins’ work, the relinquishment of a traditional
approach to literature in favor of experimentation, and one of the most
inventive moments in modern Brazilian literature.”
Nine, Novena is published by Sun & Moon Press ($12.95 paperback, 276 pp.) at 6026 Wilshire Blvd., Los
Angeles, CA 90036. Phone: (213) 857-1115; fax (213) 857-1115.
The Queen of the Prisons of Greece is published by Dalkey Archive Press ($12.95 paperback, 187 pp.) at Illinois
State University, Campus Box 4241, Normal, IL 61790-4241. Phone (309) 438-7555; fax (309) 438-7422.
Avalovara is published by the University of Texas Press ($14.95 paperback, approx. 330 pp.) at PO Box 7819,
Austin, TX 78713-7819. Phone (800) 252-3206.
The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1995 ($8 paperback, 269 pp.) can be acquired at the same address,
phone and fax numbers as Dalkey Archive Press.
Excerpt from The Queen of the Prisons of Greece
February 24 — The characters move in a space both real and unreal, which Maria de França’s mental state
justifies or pretends to justify: The Queen of the Prisons of
Greece, I insist, is a web of simulations.
Perhaps, as in a play of reflections (created,
it’s true, with obfuscated mirrors and in dark corridors), in my text I
have passed by the ghost of this factory worker and maid, walking
through doctors’ offices and government offices, crossing the not
imaginary streets of a real city, Recife, with its rivers and bridges,
its port, its forts and the shanties forming a sort of black and putrid
ring around the city. In this process of unveiling which is my
commentary — and I will outline, I hope, the profile of the novel, in
the same way I have already outlined some of its characters — it
hasn’t been possible yet to reveal the true setting of the story, in
actuality a Recife that doesn’t deny the real Recife and doesn’t limit
itself to its model either: it shrivels it up and casts a spell on it.
It’s as if the city were turning into its own map, so flexible that it
can be folded up, without however losing its volume: as if it remained
Excerpt from “Lost and Found” in Nine, Novena
The plants of the earth, preparing the terrain for the coming of animals, appear in the Devonian. My friend
Albano has just arrived, I see the fenders of his bicycle. He does not greet me.
— What is it, Renato?
— I don’t know what to do any more. He’s gone.
Deep lakes and big lagoons formed at that time. The first insects, similar to fleas, leaped in the silence, lords of
the birdless spaces.
— Where did you see him last?
— That’s the problem. I can’ t remember.
Those who went to look for my son at the other end of the beach have already returned. In the Carboniferous, the
trees and the giant insects grow, beetles, ants, forest proliferate, butterflies with wings as big as palm-leaf fans graze in
— I can’t remember. I think it was when he was playing in the sand; but then again, it seems that he called to me,
and I didn’t turn.
— How could you let him out of your sight with a sea like this!
The sea claimed again the land it had lost, fish swam among tree branches, other forests were conquered,
drowned became petrified. The fish were the birds of those black woods.
— It just happened.
— Go get dressed.
Many people have already changed their clothes and are sitting in the sun or in the shade of the tent. Is it that
late? Soon they will all leave.
— Now. We’re going to the police station.
It’s a waste of time. (The glaciers and the deserts). My heart tells me that he’s dead. (The reptiles evolve in
the Permian). What have I done to deserve this?
Excerpt from Avalovara
“Looking at the rug, you can’t see the crocodile among the flowers and the birds. Camouflaged in the profusion
of motifs, he can be discovered more easily on the other side, the side of the weave that is always hidden, where the
threads are cut and knots show. Freed of the artful tricks that hide him, making himself present and invisible at the same
time, the crocodile (absorbed like the obvious motifs on the rug) walks along Abel’s extended trunk. The reddish stag,
standing between our embraced bodies, looks at the face of the clock as if looking at the Sun, tail and hind legs on Abel’s
head and chest on my flank.
The crocodile, darkening Abel’s torso, has his mouth at the level of
his sex and presses against my thigh. The rabbit bites the tip of my
breast, he bites lightly, as if he were nibbling a tender blade of
I know what other men are like, I go to bed with them out of anger, I open my thighs out of rage, they give me
pleasure and draw nothing from me, they give me pleasure, the pleasure one has when a mad dog is shot to death, a mute
and lacerating pleasure, but I want to give myself to you, Abel, in a new and unique way, give myself with joy, I must
open up my identities to your entry, my sexes, my bodies, I must receive you in my innermost parts and love you in two
ways, with double desire, double anxiety, double consent, and you won’t be an intruder, an enemy — you shall be the
guest, the one summoned, the accepted one, I will receive you with all the doors of my body open, I, a cloven and
reunited Asteroid, I, I, dual, I, one. Morde me, Basia me.