Bernardo Carvalho by Natalia Brizuela

BOMB 102 Winter 2008
102 Winter 2008 Body
​Bernardo Carvalho

Bernardo Carvalho. Photo: Bel Pedrosa. Courtesy of Companhia Das Letras.

Bernardo Carvalho appeared on the Brazilian literary scene in 1993 with Aberração (Aberration), a collection of short stories that was followed by a steady stream of eight novels. Yes, eight novels in thirteen years. He is prolific, of course. But more than that, what astounds the reader is Carvalho’s relentless commitment to literature. His writing might very well represent the end of the line, in Brazil and abroad, of what he himself considers the declining modernist tradition. At a time when much Brazilian literature is marked by its contamination with “facts” and “reality,” Bernardo insists on the power that literature and fiction derives, first and foremost, from its uselessness. Which is of course completely paradoxical because his writing method—at least since his 2002 novel Nove Noites (Nine Nights), the book that secured his success and visibility both at home and internationally—is to travel to those places where his novels will be set: the heartland of Brazil, Mongolia, Japan, and, recently, Russia. Carvalho travels, then, not to use literature as a document, but to secure, through the allure of the word, the unfailing strength of invention. He travels in order to step outside of himself completely when beginning to write. Literature, for him, comes not from a comfort zone but rather a minefield. Frustrated writers, voracious readers, characters out of place, secrets or codes to be discovered and revealed, disappearing worlds, are only some of the recurrent tropes in his writing. This interview took place over the months of September and October, via email. I remained in California while he was first in St. Petersburg, then Moscow—where he spent a month working on his latest novel—and, lastly, São Paulo.

Natalia Brizuela O sol se põe em São Paulo (The Sun Sets in São Paulo), your most recent novel, is preoccupied with people who try to pass as someone else and things that try to pass themselves off as other things. Feigning and acting are associated with the novel’s characters and spaces. The narrator himself pretends to be a writer, which he is not. And regarding your use of the theatrical in the novel, Masukichi, the kyogen actor, is only one of the many “actors.” Some of the key spaces in the novel are described as theater sets: Setsuko’s house in São Paulo, where the narrator hears the first installments of the story which is itself fake, unreal, inauthentic; and the city of São Paulo itself, whose most authentic trait, according to the narrator, is its “vontade de passar pelo que não é”—it wants to pass for something it is not.

Bernardo Carvalho One of the book’s principal ideas is that things can only be as long as they are not; they can exist only before they are named. It’s a paradox. Actually, I think that everything I write, in a way, could be summed up as the attempt to put paradoxes into practice. As if the truth could exist only in the space where logic starts operating against itself. Hence the idea of simulation, of confusion between action and representation. But I’m not praising simulation. I detest postmodern clichés. I don’t like admiration of the artificial and the false as an aesthetic militancy. What interests me in artifice is the idea of creation, of action in the real world, which has much more to do with modern literature than with postmodernism. There is this postmodern cliché that says everything is fiction, image, simulation. An act, within this scope, would not have any actual effectiveness, since it would be simulation on simulation. Nature is gone. We act within the world of culture. This expresses a disenchanted world, prone to cynicism. I believe in the effectiveness of subjective/artistic acts in the real world, interfering and changing it (which is seen as an illusion or naïveté by postmodernism). And this brings me closer, or back, to a much more modern conception of art. Artifice for me has nothing to do with inauthenticity. On the contrary, artifice is the affirmation of an artistic force. All art has always been, by principle, artificial. In the case of O sol se põe em São Paulo, the sentence you quoted is merely part of the idea: the desire to pass for something else. Which makes the city only closer to what it doesn’t want to be. In other words, in this specific case, simulation merely reveals what it was trying to cover.

NB And what about the idea of contamination, an idea that appears at least four times in a span of a few pages in reference to coming into contact with Masukichi, the actor? In three of those instances, the word appears in that wonderful phrase “ Tudo funciona(va) por contaminação”—“Everything worked by contamination.” How does the idea of contamination fit in with the idea of simulating?

BC That is one of those sentences that pops up without my even knowing very well what it means. It’s an unconscious sentence. There are a lot of those in my books. And perhaps that is the heart of the novels. They are sentences that weren’t planned and that make affirmations, at times bombastic, before the author understands exactly what they mean. Thinking back, that entire novel was written through a sort of infectious spread of fiction. A person tells a story to someone else, who tells a story to someone else, and so on. When I wrote that book, I was very uncomfortable with the reception, in general quite positive, of my two previous novels, Nove Noites (Nine Nights) and Mongólia, which were read as personal accounts, direct expressions of the personal experience of the author. But I was praising fiction and invention (not falsehood) as a vital force. I want to make it clear that I have no interest in simulation. There is nothing further from posing than art. On the contrary, literature is the affirmation of truth. What one must understand is that this affirmation is also an authorial act, a creation, and not merely the chronicle of a reality that precedes it. That’s why I feel much closer to modern literature than to so-called postmodern literature. Much of the uneasiness present in my books comes from this incompatibility of a modern conception of literature with a world that no longer welcomes it, where it can no longer exist. And then we’re back to the idea of paradox in my previous answer, of something being able to be only as long as it is not—but seen from another angle.

NB It makes me think of two of your crônicas from Folha de São Paulo. On the one hand, the crônica from June 2003, where you comment on Jean-Luc Nancy’s Noli me tangere and the distinction he establishes between belief and faith, whereby religion would be rooted in belief (the need for “the reality that precedes it”) and art in faith. You wrote, “There is no guarantee, [art] is a wager in the void.” Like faith, art and all creation is “to see absence.” On the other hand, within this paradigm, how can readers understand the relationship between your December 2004 chronicle “Estranhos num trem” (Strangers on a Train) and the appearance of that same event in the fictional context of O sol se põe em São Paulo? That is, you recount your experience of meeting a Japanese woman on a Kyoto-bound train and going home with her to have dinner (which is quite un-Japanese and made you paranoid). There is no doubt that they are distinct stories, because of their context among other reasons. But this might be a chance for you to talk about certain writing methods and techniques that you have used, and the defense, at the same time, of this absence and emptiness as the kernel of art’s truth.

BC What interests me about traveling is the possibility of writing the novel before even starting to write it. The experience ceases to be something that you passively undergo and becomes part of the creation. The trips that I took prior to my most recent books were provocations of the experience. I deliberately put myself in a place vulnerable to experience. This position provokes what happens, as if the experience were already the novel in process. It’s clear that, from that moment on, I have no control over anything; I don’t control what’s going to happen to me; I don’t have a hold over the real. But what’s incredible is that things happen and, surprisingly, everything converges toward the novel, as if the real were conspiring with me. For example, in St. Petersburg, which is a dream city for any tourist, on my third day I was the victim of an attempted robbery. That heavily shaped the way I began to see the city, as a nightmare, which is an image much more appropriate for the story and the characters I had in mind even before arriving there. Obviously it’s a strange coincidence, but the attempted robbery reinforced what I was already thinking about the city and how I would portray it in the novel. As for the text by Nancy, it’s an extremely beautiful text in which I recognize the things I believe about art as a vocation of faith, almost as a form of religion, although I abhor religion.

NB What is this novel that you were writing in St. Petersburg? And what were you already thinking of in terms of the city and the novel?

BC I traveled to St. Petersburg as part of a literary project conceived by a young Brazilian film producer, Rodrigo Teixeira. He sent 16 writers off to 16 cities around the world. The purpose was for each writer to spend a month in the respective city and, by contract, within 90 days after arriving back in Brazil, write a love story that took place there. The producer is hoping to sell the film rights to at least three of these books and break even. They decided to send me to St. Petersburg; I did not get to choose. Obviously I went there with thousands of ideas. But it is impossible to speak of a novel while I am still writing it; the sense of writing it would be lost. I can say that because I knew nothing about Russia and was staying in St. Petersburg only for a month, I did not feel comfortable with writing about 100 percent Russian characters. The characters in the novel would necessarily have to be outsiders, out of synch with Russian life and with the city. And my condition there immediately condemned me to that place of incompatibility.

NB I like this idea you bring to your work of being out of synch with a place or time, of the world having changed—and with it, of course, not only the practice of literature, its codes, regimes, and structures, but also the expectations of literature. It made me think of a crucial idea that appears in both O sol se põe em São Paulo and Nine Nights: what is being offered, given, shared, passed on as an inheritance to those who remain, who survive, belongs to a world that is long gone. The Japan that Setsuko describes in O sol se põe em São Paulo no longer exists, and the world of Bell Quain, the narrator in Nine Nights was not his, as he states early on. How do you understand this distance, loss, distinction between worlds in these novels?

BC I had never thought about it. Perhaps there is a connection between these two worlds, the same loss in both. I don’t know. There is an attempt to create something positive with this inheritance: the book itself. The books are constantly alluding to themselves, staking out their place. In Nine Nights, the letter stating “Isto é para quando você vier,” “This is for when you get here,” alludes incessantly to the reader’s place, an ambiguous place, because it’s confused with that of the character’s. Just as the last sentence of O sol se põe —“Read this”— also alludes to the reader, and puts him in the character’s place. What these books are saying, or trying to say, is that a world was lost, all is gone, but at the same time, there is the novel and someone who wrote it and someone who reads it. So it’s both things: the consciousness of loss and what you can do with that. Death, emptiness, the lack of meaning, and the affirmation of literature. Obviously, there are people who do this much better than I do, starting with Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, but it’s among them, as a writer, that I want to be.

NB Would “This is for when you get here,” repeated more than a dozen times, be another one of those phrases that trace the heart of your novels?

BC From the beginning, I realized the ambiguity and richness of the meanings of that sentence, which throws the reader into the novel as a character. There are sentences, like the last one in O sol se põe, that open a series of possibilities for the experience of reading, confounding reader, character, narrator, and author.

NB Why put the reader in the place of a character? And why have narrators who are writers? Could you explain the presence of characters who are writers in your books?

BC It’s a way of making the reader be conscious of what, in principle, can or must happen with any novel: that an active participation is expected of him or her, that reading is also creating a work. This is not mere rhetoric. All of my novels propose a game to the reader. And it’s up to him to participate or not. The characters that are authors reinforce this ambiguity and problematize the place of the book in the world. The author himself (as well as the reader) ends up being part of the fiction. The narrator coincides in many aspects with the author, in such a way that the fiction takes on the airs of a personal account, an autobiography. On the other hand, the book itself, a real object, ends up being fiction. This removes the book from a tranquil, institutionalized place. The place of the novel ends up being a problem.

NB Before I forget, I want to ask you a little more about theater. You have a novel titled Teatro (Theater) and another novel, Fear of de Sade, which is divided into two acts, and you worked on a project with Teatro da Vertigem. Does theater offer possibilities that are not open to novels?

BC I’m not sure. To call a novel Teatro was a little provocation, a joke. At more or less the same time, and without one having anything to do with the other, Caetano Veloso came out with an album called Livro (Book). In my case, this idea stemmed from the desire to remove things from their places, to rename them with out-of-place descriptors. There’s an entire tradition of neologism in Brazilian literature, particularly because of Guimarães Rosa. But, even though I think Guimarães is the greatest genius of Brazilian literature, I have nothing to do with this tradition. My writing is discreet and many times deliberately poor. The strangeness in my books is more insidious and less apparent. It appears slowly through little disturbances within a limited scope. The same effect of a novel called Teatro is reproduced within that novel, through these little dislocations and slips of meaning. Well, first, to call a novel “theater” is already a way to create a mist of ambiguity, which is reinforced by sentences that begin saying one thing and end up saying the opposite (as when a very logical and simple grammatical construction says something totally illogical). The novel’s narrative itself is divided in two parts, the first telling a story and the second contradicting it. With respect to the theatrical form of Fear of de Sade, there was something that the theme itself needed, since Sade wrote a lot for the theater and staged plays in the Charenton asylum, where he was confined. That idea was to create a short novel in the form of a play in two acts, which, as in my previous two books Teatro and As iniciais (The initials), would mirror each other, contradict each other, and, curiously, through that idea, complete each other. In the first act, it would be so dark that it would be impossible to see the actors (and the characters) on stage. In the second act, the light would be so bright, so blinding, that one wouldn’t be able to make out the actors either. In any case, I’ve always wanted to work in the theater. It fascinates me. The experience with Teatro da Vertigem has been the only one up to now, and it was also quite specific, because I subjected myself to their method of working, which is violent and chaotic. That experience was very enriching, but it also limited me in a way. I have a great fascination with dramatic texts, even though I hate the rules of drama that you learn in any playwriting school, where the text is seen as a straitjacket for scenic and psychological effects. What interests me is the freedom that one can have in theater and that I recognize in Beckett’s texts: for example, in a theater that isn’t guided by the psychological.

NB I am intrigued by your phrase “my writing is discreet and many times deliberately poor.” What do you mean by discreet and poor? It evokes Borges to me, the way in which his writing (and his speaking of his writing) became economical and intensely discreet over the years. And your notion of the active participation of the reader also resonates with the Borgesian narrative strategy whereby the fundamental core of writing is reading. Some of the French reviews of your novels suggest a comparison between your work and his. Do you feel this is appropriate?

BC I have never thought that what I do has anything directly to do with Borges. The French critic made a comparison based more on geographical proximity than on stylistic affinity. He also detected in my prose a literary project one might call “rationalist” that he didn’t see in other Latin American writers. But, in a way, he was right. And you are correct with respect to my consideration of reading as part of the creative process of a work. I had never thought of that; it is absolutely a Borgesian element. Borges is one of my favorite authors, but when I refer to the poorness of the writing in my books, I’m talking about something much poorer than Borges’s language. A writer friend recently told me that O sol se põe em São Paulo is very Borgesian, particularly because of the theme of simulation, of betrayal, the reversal of roles. In my case, however, at least with respect to the writing, I have the impression that often my style is the rarification of style. Style becomes very thin, it becomes imperceptible, as if there were no style after all. And I don’t think it’s quite the same in Borges. In any case, I recognize in him everything I most desire for myself: that moment in which, through an act apparently very simple and punctual, the writer reinvents all of literature. When he conceived fiction in the form of an essay, Borges widened the meaning of literature forever. That didn’t exist before him. And that is what every real writer most wants.

NB You call Guimarães Rosa a genius, but quickly distance yourself from his writing. What Brazilian writers do you feel an affinity with? Could you also talk about contemporary Brazilian literature, what trends do you see? Do you have a dialogue with any of your contemporaries?

BC For me, Guimarães Rosa is at the absolute top, up there with the great names in world literature. But, for being Brazilian and writing not only in Portuguese, but in a Portuguese difficult to read even for Brazilians, he was condemned to disappear from the world literature scene. The richness of Guimarães’s language is stunning, and it’s natural that he would generate followers. The problem is that absolute works such as those of Guimarães’s do not allow for precursors or successors. These are writers that you can admire, but that you have to avoid if you really want to write. I feel the same way toward Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. There is an enormous risk that their influence might lead to a grotesque emulation. On the other hand, it’s obvious that the imitation of average writers by mediocre ones is generally ignored. I feel that what I do is extremely fragile. It’s not that I don’t want to contaminate myself (because, in a way, everything is contamination) but I need to choose and dose the amount of contamination useful to me, in order not to lose myself. And that perhaps explains why I don’t have greater affinities with my Brazilian contemporaries, even though I admire many of them. In Brazil, there are writers with very interesting projects, such as Sérgio Sant’Anna and Milton Hatoum, among others. But their projects don’t have anything directly to do with mine. Furthermore, it may seem cold, but the more general context of recent Brazilian literature, which for the most part is penned up between the market and the overwhelming violence of a reality that negates literary invention in the name of a common point of view, does not interest me.

NB It would seem that this negation of literary invention that you distinguish as one of the salient features of contemporary Brazilian literature is related to the way in which the reader is instructed to read Nine Nights and Mongólia, as real-life stories. Instead of coming straight from reality, they actually chronicle a preceding reality. In relation to that, how do you explain the presence of photographs in those two novels? Aren’t photographs always indexical? If theater seems to be one of the guides of O sol se põe em São Paulo, photography appears as one of the guides for Nine Nights and Mongólia, at least in terms of their recurrence.

BC These books are works of fiction. They are not chronicles of preceding realities, even though they deliberately generate a lot of confusion between fact and fiction. There are no photos in Mongólia. One of the characters is a photographer, but this is a recurrence from my first book of short stories, Aberração. There are always photographers in my books. Unlike W. G. Sebald’s use of photography, as an element appropriated and reconstructed by fiction, in Nine Nights, the three photos that appear are in fact documentary indexes, only they represent a reality that cannot be known. That novel is the fruit of my obsession with a real story (the suicide, on the eve of World War II, of a young American anthropologist while among Brazilian Indians). When I came across those images, at the very beginning of my research, they had a novelistic effect on me. I wanted to extract from them a truth that I could discover only through fiction. This sentiment is described by the narrator. More than documents of facts and events, these photos are used as indexes of opacity. This ambiguity is different from that in Sebald’s books, because here they are still real documents that represent exactly what I say they represent, but they are documents that don’t reveal anything more than my obsession vis-à-vis the impossibility of knowing.

NB Can you explain this impossibility? It sounds like it is structural in the case of Nine Nights and it makes me think of its presence in many of your other works. Is this so?

BC I think so. The impossibility of knowing is, at the same time, the reason and condition of possibility for imagination, fiction, and literature. That is always on my mind when I write. And, in that sense, Nine Nights can also be read as a novel about the creation of a novel.

NB Could you talk about this Brazilian literary practice anchored between the market and violence, reaffirming a common point of view? Meaning, the relationship between literature and the market, and between the market and violence. Is there a demand for that representation of violence? If so, why?

BC It’s not that, exactly. The problem is that violence is so overwhelming in Brazilian reality, in daily life, that little by little art and literature end up losing their reason for being if they don’t directly mention this reality. Or to put it another way, everything that doesn’t directly refer to a reality that everyone recognizes, that isn’t a common view of reality, ends up not being interesting. Literature takes on the function of sociology. And literature itself becomes corrupted. People read fiction as if it were a chronicle. And end up calling the simplest and rather mediocre account of reality literature. It is in this sense that I defend the obvious: invention as a condition of possibility for literary creation. I don’t mean that one mustn’t speak of the immediate reality or of violence, on the contrary, but rather that one cannot reduce literature to a consensual vision and representation of reality, because this would mean the end of literature. In Brazil, the old hegemonic cliché of the tropical country, of the beaches, soccer, samba, and mulattas is being substituted by a new hegemonic cliché: that of the drug trade and police corruption. The malandro, who until recent decades was considered a mythical hero according to the Brazilian self-image, has been substituted by the drug dealer and the cop. All of these things exist, they are at the center of Brazilian society, but literature should not be reduced to a univocal representation. If in the past I didn’t write about soccer, samba, and mulattas, why must I write now about drug wars, cops and gangsters?

NB What is it about the postmodern that you dislike so much?

BC The postmodern, characteristic of late capitalism, is the expression of a disenchanted, cynical and pragmatic world, after the failure of all of the projects, idealisms and utopias of modernity. To receive this disillusioned world with open arms, embrace it as an opportunistic possibility for the creation of a new corresponding style, is to settle for what was left over, and it seems to me to be not only a thoughtless attitude, but also a profoundly foolish and suicidal one. In addition to being a fraud, since for me art is, as I have said before,a way to produce truth, and this artistic truth is always resistant to consensus. In this sense, when you make art abide by the general agreement of what art should be, it isn’t art anymore—and we come back to that paradoxical reasoning of being as long as you are not. That resistance is typical of a Western modernity that I identify with. I must be an anachronistic writer. I’m inside the postmodern world, but I feel uneasy in this world, and my books clearly express this uneasiness. They have much more to do with an out-of-place modern project, which is no longer possible, than with the identification with the world they exist in. If there is a reference to postmodernity in my books, it’s precisely this incompatibility. I don’t believe in the precepts of postmodernity. To accept that there is no difference between the original and the copy, that the real is reduced to its representation, that individual authorship is a farce, is to subject oneself to a perverse reasoning that can only serve to ruin the manifestation of strong and destabilizing art and literature.

NB I now wonder, reading this, if the insistence in much of your work on a legacy or inheritance that is purposely left for the future is at all related to this refusal to settle for the leftovers of which you speak. Would “inheritance” challenge “leftovers”?

BC In a certain sense, yes. But what’s interesting is that one of the main inheritances of modernity is rupture. Let me repeat this: the tradition of modernity is, to a great extent, rupture. And it is a contradiction in terms. A paradox that places man and art in a peculiar and tragic condition, in an extremely complex and sensitive situation, a kind of dead end, and this condition is lost to postmodernism, “solved” by postmodernism, in which different epochs and styles begin to simultaneously coexist without conflict. I feel that only the consciousness of modernity’s tragic condition allows me to write and that my books wouldn’t make sense without this consciousness. I’m inspired by it.

NB Your phrase “a writing that is deliberately poor”: explain this to me.

BC Maybe I didn’t explain myself very well. When I talk about a deliberately poor writing, I’m talking about a quality, and not a defect. “Poorness” is obviously relative. It’s a way of avoiding the artificiality of style and of poetic prose, it is a way to try to venture a writing that cannot be immediately recognized as having a particular style (or maybe even as having literary qualities, for many people), that cannot be considered tame, “beautiful writing.” It’s clear that I end up paying for this because it becomes more difficult to recognize the intention of this project. And it is also clear that peripheral literatures are often undermined by their belletrist production when they desperately struggle to be recognized by the center, by making themselves pompous and pretty. What my “poor” writing wants is to break with facile recognition, in the attempt to pave the way for a different literature. It’s a writing “against.” Obviously it’s an ambitious project, whose success as “poor writing” is not guaranteed. But it’s precisely because of this tension, created by a very ambitious project that aims to come about through an apparently very simple writing, that these books end up attaining any meaning. In order to escape conforming to the expected, it’s necessary to take risks. And the path of risks is also that of vulnerability. The writers in my books are vulnerable. For the most part, they sought out the risk. The principle behind traveling, for example, is this: to put yourself in a vulnerable place, where you don’t speak the language or understand anything. It’s to search for vulnerability in order to escape style, facile recognition and identification by readers as a particular kind of writer. It’s as if true literature could appear only from an act against literature itself, or rather, against that which literature has become, against the consensus of literature.


Translated from the Portuguese by Clélia Donovan.

Natalia Brizuela is a literary and cultural critic teaching at the University of California, Berkeley. Her writings on Argentine, Brazilian, and Chilean cultural production have appeared in numerous publications. She is currently completing a book on Brazilian visual modernity.

Originally published in

BOMB 102, Winter 2008

Featuring interviews with the Campana Brothers, Cao Guimaraes and Marila Dardot, Ernesto Neto, OsGemeos, Bernardo Carvalho, Francisco Alvim, Lygia Fagundes Telles and Manuel Alegre, Karim Ainouz, Arnaldo Antunes, and Paulo Mendes Da Rocha.

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102 Winter 2008 Body