NELSON DE OLIVEIRA & SINVALDO JÚNIOR | Campos de Carvalho & the revenge of the iconoclastic icon
Campos de Carvalho is no longer among us, but still going strong. The last Satanist in Brazilian literature (as he once defined himself) is becoming a contemporary icon. An iconoclastic icon. His main novels, after being long forgotten, were successfully re-released in the mid 1990s in a single volume titledObra reunida. They are now available separately as well, and two of them were recently adapted for the stage, and just as successfully. Not bad for irreverent and disquieting books, sometimes grumpy and annoying – as some say their author used to be –, written more than forty years ago.
On to the facts, the rumors, the anecdotes.
A TWISTING PATH | Walter Campos de Carvalho was born during World War One, on November 1, 1916, in Uberaba, State of Minas Gerais (assuming Minas Gerais really exists). After completing his high school in his home town, he came to São Paulo to study Law and even shared a boarding house room with fellow Uberaban Mário Palmério. The two subsequently had an ideological and aesthetic falling off. In 1938 he got his degree from Faculdade São Francisco, and worked as an attorney and State Prosecutor for the rest of his life.
His literary début came at the age of twenty-five, in 1941, with Banda forra, a self-published collection of humorous essays that Monteiro Lobato complimented at the time. Even so, the book went completely unnoticed. His second book, the novel Tribo [Tribe] (1954) emerged more than ten years later. At the author’ s explicit request, who didn’t see great qualities in them, these two works were left out of Obra reunida, published in 1995 by the José Olympio publishing house, with flaps by Mário Prata, a preface by Jorge Amado and an introduction by Carlos Felipe Moisés, three professed admirers of the author. The volume is made up of the four novels that came after ‘ 54: A lua vem da Ásia [The Moon comes from Asia] (1956, referred to publisher José Olympio by friend and author Aníbal Machado), Vaca de nariz sutil [The cow with the subtile nose] (1961, written in forty days), A chuva imóvel [The still rain] (1963) andO púcaro búlgaro [The Bulgarian vase] (1964, written in an unbelievable 22 days).
The volume also omits the excellent short story Os trilhos [The train tracks], published in 1960, in issue #11 of the Senhor magazine, and the narrativeEspantalho habitado de pássaros [A scarecrow full of birds], in the 1965 collection Os dez mandamentos [The ten commandments]. “Campos de Carvalho will only be discovered as an author thirty years from now,” said Ênio Silveira. The prophecy came true. In the years following the publication of O púcaro búlgaro, a period of military dictatorship and cultural guerilla warfare, his iconoclastic and sometimes hermitic temperament, the opposition against the regionalism of Mário Palmério and Guimarães Rosa, the refusal of the political militancy his peers demanded, and clashes with publishers led Campos de Carvalho to shy away from literature.
Even so, in 1968-78 he was a contributor for O Pasquim, mailing the humorous chronicles that made up Os anais de Campos de Carvalho [The annals of Campos de Carvalho] from Europe; and worked for the O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper. A lua vem da Ásia and A chuva imóvel were translated into French and published by the Albin Michel house in 1976 and 1980 respectively. His name was very seldom mentioned in Brazilian literature compendia and the author never won a single literary award. He died of a heart attack at the age of 82, on Good Friday, 1998, after more than thirty years without writing or publishing a single book.
RETURN OF THE DAMNED | During his three decades away from literature, Campos de Carvalho was also far from the culture press, which stopped coming for him. Things changed with the release of Obra reunida. Pictures, reviews and interviews with the “mad, brutal, damned, anarchist, satanist, surrealist” novelist – as Campos was characterized by almost every critic and journalist, both in admiration and rejection – came out in every important newspaper and magazine.
The joy of being read again after so much time made him consider picking up his literary project and giving birth to another purely nonsensical novel along the lines of O púcaro búlgaro. When asked about it, he was quick to give out the working title of the novel he was writing: first, Pássaro insano em céus do Antigo Egito [Mad bird on the skies of Ancient Egypt], then Maravilha no país das Alices [Wonder in Aliceland], thenMaquinação sem máquina, especulação sem espelho [Machineless machination, mirrorless speculation], thenMosaico sem Moisés [Mosaic without Moses], and finally, De novo no ovo [Back in the egg]. All titles for the final novel that Campos de Carvalho, now hampered by severe health issues, was never able to write.
Early this century, what else happened? José Olympio published Cartas de viagem e outras crônicas[Traveler’ s letters and other chronicles], a book whose title says it all: it is the gathered letters and chronicles published in O Pasquim in the 1970s. In addition, O púcaro búlgaro and A chuva imóvel were enacted as excellently adapted plays. What else is on the way? A biography and another volume of assorted writings. Slowly, gradually, Campos de Carvalho escapes oblivion, arouses the interest of master and doctor degree candidates, without ever ceasing to be an outsider.
OPPOSING REASON | The first words in A lua vem da Ásia, an ironic eulogy of the break with rational discourse and the successive metamorphoses of its narrators past and future, perfectly summarize Campos de Carvalho’ s fiction-writing process: “At 16 I killed my Logic professor. Claiming self-defense – and what defense might be more legitimate? – I was found innocent by five votes against two and went to live under a bridge over the Seine, even though I was never in Paris. I let my beard grow full in my mind, bought a pair of glasses for shortsightedness and spent the nights stargazing, a cigarette between my fingers. I was called Adilson at the time, but soon changed to Heitor, then to Ruy Barbo, and finally to Astrogildo, which is how I call myself these days, when I do call myself.”
The logic of insanity and the common-sense of nonsense were his distinctive trademark: “Madness in Campos de Carvalho is a creative input for satire combined with lyricism, in much the same way that the diminutive size of Lilliput, for example, raises the ridiculous pomp of rules and political dissent to the thousandth power. (…) By submitting classical tradition to the pace of the avant-garde translated, as they must be, into the Brazilian beat, Campos de Carvalho joins the ranks of the great satirists whose genuine outrage lambaste the irrationality and abuse with which man has been writing history,” wrote critic Vilma Arêas.
What did humor mean to Campos de Carvalho? Just before the release of Obra reunida, Mário Prata went to the author’ s apartment to interview him. Getting there, the novelist gave Prata a badly typed piece of paper. In a typical attitude, he already completed the interview: questions and answers both. The quick self-interview ended with the question: “What does humor mean to you?”. And the enlightening answer: “It means the acme of any fiction or any other form of art, in the sense of the sublimation of the sublime, the effervescence of fervor, or the originality of the original. It is one step ahead of any avant-garde, taking a chance on hermeticizing language itself, on the unknown, on the unspeakable. It is as in Finnegans wake, for example, or Mallarmé’ s most nebulous poem, whose intrinsic humor is ever elusive (so foreign to me, so intrinsic to me) however much we try to unravel it. It is also the case of Giorgio de Chirico’ s poem-prose Hebdomeros, whose apparent simplicity is actually the way the author found to disguise himself and shied himself from ridicule, which, in his case, is simply true and subtle humor. Please note that I am not trying to compare myself with these great lights of yesterday’ s literature, but simply to justify my fondness of humor as an art-form, even from the perspective of a minor experiment like O púcaro búlgaro”.
Speaking of humor… Tribo, Campos de Carvalho’ s first novel, has not been re-published yet. Regrettably. But all signs show that in the very near future this delightful shot of irreverence will join the later four that can now be found in separate at bookstores.
DELIRIOUS MOON | Emerging from the post-war context and in parallel with Existentialism in Europe, the chaotic and fragmentary plot of Campos de Carvalho’ s third novel, A lua vem da Ásia, brings up the discussions of the traumas and anxieties of the generation that witnessed the horrors of WWII. According to Marcos Siscar, “the psychological consequences of war are evident in Campos de Carvalho’ s characters (…), the horrors of the gratuitous mass-killings that film has so broadly portrayed are represented from the sad and subtle humor of A lua to the artistically predictable protest of A chuva.”
A lua vem da Ásia is narrated in the first person. The episodes unfold out of order, past and present alternate, and fantastic and absurd events, along with the narrator’ s own impressions and reflections, are presented apparently at random. The lot, notwithstanding the narrator’ s critical discernment, is the fruit of a complex mind tormented by madness, sometimes coagulated in the form of the purest perplexity. It is a fragmentary, shattered, discontinuous novel, the reflection of a mind and a soul (in principle the narrator’ s, not the author’ s) that are just as chaotic.
As Siscar sees it, the madman in Campos de Carvalho’ s work “is not the psychopath, the insane, but he who can understand the deepest essence of human reason,” often resulting in pain and suffering, as human reason is the justification for all manner on inhuman, or irrational, attitudes, as seen in this excerpt, where the narrator decides to denounce the abuse endured: “As what comes to mind, where I am at this point, is just that it seems to me as unspeakable abuse: a minority armed to the teeth, electric chairs included, holds sway over a majority of truly individual individuals.” The madman is therefore self-aware, unlike the sane man, who is ironically responsible for the world’ s madness and chaos.
The book is divided into two parts, Vida Sexual dos Perus [The sex-life of turkeys] and Cosmogonia[Cosmogony]. In the former, the narrator is (or believes himself to be) in a concentration camp that he formerly thought was a luxury hotel, where he remains for a long time without being able to determine its location: “I cannot tell whether it is in Europe or in Asia, or even in Polynesia.” There is present-tense narrative and a series of flashbacks to the leading character’ s life before imprisonment, besides several reflections that put the reader in immediate contact with the extravagant concepts and attitudes of Astrogildo, which is how the narrator calls himself these days, “when he calls himself”. A new turnaround. Neither luxury hotel nor concentration camp, as the site is a mental institution and the narrator one of its inmates.
Part two, Cosmogonia, takes place after Astrogildo’ s not-at-all spectacular escape, and tells of his liberty, as well as fantastic adventures in several countries. In the meantime, he does odd jobs to make a living, including a stint as a movie star. But despite his attempts to make sense of it all, he soon realizes the lack of sense in life: “But have you, brother, imagined the amazing novel we may someday write about the warlike experience we are enduring in peacetime, assuming this permanent state of anguish and hatred that follows our every step, even and foremost during sleep, can be called peace?”.
At the end of the novel, in the chapter titled O.P.Q.R.S.T.U.V.X.Y.Z., the narrator writes the Segunda e definitiva carta ao Times (com vista ao senhor redator da Seção Necrológica) [Second and definitive letter to the Times (C/C: the honorable Necrologies writer)] to inform all of his suicide. The strength of the irony and sarcasm leveled against human beings and society, the explicit ill-regard towards standards, the critical attitude towards reality, and the perplexity when faced with a world where human relationships have lost all meaning; for all this the narrator decides to abandon the word: “The communion of living beings is yet to come and will certainly never be, given the little cordiality among men, as otherwise among all other beasts of the same species.”
THE SUBTLETY OF THE SENSE OF SMELL | The title of Campos de Carvalho’ s third novel, Vaca de nariz sutil [The cow with the subtile nose], borrowed from Jean Dubuffet’ s canvas, may be misleading at a first glance, as it suggests a humor that seldom shows through in the book. In fact, the title is not the only misleading thing there, with the epigraphes (Arrière la choucroute! – Erik Satie; Merde! – André Derain) and the opening words: “Onde o senhor dorme? No Hotel Terminus. Mas aqui não há nenhum hotel Terminus. É o que o senhor pensa”. [“Where do you sleep? At the Hotel TErminus. But there is no Hotel Terminus here. That’ s what you think.”]. Contrary to possible appearances, it is a somber, thick, serious novel.
Vaca de nariz sutil is, like Campos de Carvalho’ s previous novel, a confessional report, this time from a former combatant who was immersed in a universe of death from which he managed to escape physically (and only physically) unscathed. The book’ s subject matter is death. The author’ s prose now takes a tragic turn and, at the same time, becomes lyrically refined. The lyricism shows through particularly clearly when the narrator addresses his passion for Valquíria, “a young lady of fifteen or twenty” who appears to be in some way mentally disabled. The former soldier takes Valquíria on a tomb, and is then caught by a widow who accuses him of raping the custodian’ s daughter right in the cemetery.
After receiving national honors. The narrator (a self-described “former combatant and murderer”), ironically becomes a dangerous criminal (in the eyes of society). The situation leads him to several moral and ethical questions. After all, he was seen as a hero for fighting for his country and killing other human beings, but is now viewed as a criminal for becoming involved with a woman in a mutual-consent relationship. The anti-hero’ s profile is gradually outlined: challenging, anti-patriotic, schizophrenic, pedophile and rapist are some of his main traits, most of them attributed by others.
As in A lua vem da Ásia, the protagonist in Vaca de nariz sutil is completely disenchanted with social relations, with communication among men. Both protagonists in some way reflect, to a greater or lesser degree, a war-ravaged world. The narrators of both novels are fruit of the aftermath of war, of those moments when disenchantment and a feeble hope for the future of mankind arise at once. the two voices therefore experience constant conflict, and are now exceedingly bitter, disenchanted, ironic towards human beings and society, now desirous of change. In this sense, the two books allow readers to perceive an endless sense of awe before chaos, violence and the destruction of civilization and its values.
UNDERGROUND RAIN | Campos de Carvalho’ s next book, A chuva imóvel [The still rain], is certainly his heaviest, most lyrical and most philosophical. Here, the prosemaker vigorously and brutally exercise his angriest voice: the voice of blood and wrath.
The choice of Campos de Carvalho’ s masterpiece is controversial: although most readers and critics find it in A lua vem da Ásia, some do so inO púcaro búlgaro and others in A chuva imóvel. Whether or not A chuva imóvel is in fact his major work, the novel’ s ending is without a doubt the most melancholy and claustrophobic of all: “It will take them centuries to hoist me up, if in fact they are hoisting me up, and for the long ascent of my corpse, but also of what’ s inside it, me, not it – I will continue to spit on you from the depths of my conscience, with a rope around my neck, but spitting in protest and above all in disgust – for myself and all those who died in my testicles, who have died or are dieing, dieing with me, in this slaughter of the innocent. Even in death I will continue to bear my dead man’ s witness. This still rain will be me spitting.”
The novel doesn’t’ t focus on specific topics, but is seated on the existential quest of André, the leading character. The narrative is built as several episodes conveyed in fragments, bit by bit. The story revolves around André and his twin sister, Andréa, for whom he feels incestuous love. According to Carlos Felipe Moisés, A chuva imóvel “takes place on two connected levels: on the one hand, the narrator’ s relentless self-exhumation in search of a meaning for existence; on the other, his observation of the outside world, the often repeated and frustrated attempt to align with those around him.” Unable to find himself in this stifling world of contradictions, the protagonist walks down a dark trail of deep inquiries about himself, finding suicide to be the only way out.
THE TRICKY VESSEL | Antônio Olinto wrote about Campos de Carvalho’ s final novel at the time of its release: “With O púcaro búlgaro, the author reaches his farthest point so far. And stakes our soil with the flagpole of dissatisfaction and unsubmissiveness, of which Oswald de Andrade was for a long time the local symbol. This is why Campos de Carvalho stands alone and unparalleled in Brazilian literature. Hence his position in the avant-garde. And his solitude.”
The novel can be divided into three parts. The first one comprehends the first four chapters: Explicação necessária [Necessary explanation], Os prolegômenos [Prolegomena], Explicação desnecessária [Unnecessary explanation] and In memoriam, which, except for the last one (which is but a note, in fact), are practically one and could have been considered a single chapter had not the author separated them. The second part is concerned with the main body of the novel, written as a journal, and the third and smallest part is made up of the final dialog among the book’ s three central characters and titled A partida (apesar dos pesares) [The departure (in spite of it all)].
The action in O púcaro búlgaro begins in the United States – more precisely in the Historic and Geographic Museum of Philadelphia, where protagonist Hilário is surprised by the sight of a Bulgarian vase – and then unfolds entirely in Rio de Janeiro. Hilário’ s apartment is terribly busy, as are the nearby streets and avenues, because of preparations for the expedition for the discovery of Bulgaria. But the constant hustle, the endless comings-and-going of characters of every description only results in the opposite of what one might expect: inertia, pure and simple.
A lot of effort goes for months on end into organizing an expedition that never begins, never sets sail, that ends (before it begins) in a game of poker at its very starting point. All signs indicate that this overload of activity around immobility – a sort of endless coitus with no orgasm – is the best possible representation of the modern world’ s perpetual motion, where everything mechanically and speedily targets certain ends that are so wild as to never justify the effort put into them.
Hilário’ s actions and reactions are stormy, passionate, instinctive, and lead nowhere: upon discovering the Bulgarian vase in the Geography Museum he immediately returns to Brazil, leaving his wife behind at their hotel, with no money for even everyday expenses. He soon forgets what he intended to do; starts writing a journal without knowing its exact purpose; wanders across the city, anxious over who knows what (of course it is the forgotten discovery, which was deleted from his mind upon arrival in Brazil); he fills his apartment with strangers, all of whom are future expedition members in his eyes; he sponsors debates and conferences on whether or not Bulgaria exists; he creates MSPDIDRBOPMDB (Undeground Movement for the Discovery or Definitive Invention of the Kingdom of Bulgaria or at least of the Bulgarians); he repeatedly postpones departure and finally gives up the endeavor for good.
Two interlocutors are prevalent throughout the novel’ s plot: Hilário and Bulgariology professor Radamés Stepanovicinsky. They lead the others, propose and organize the expedition to Bulgaria in the most absurd of manners. The other characters – Rosa, the ancient nonagenarian, and his granddaughter, Pernacchio, Ivo who saw the grape, Expedito and the psychoanalyst – are permanently in the background, and barely stand out from the narrative scenario, and are in fact barely distinguished from one another. All of these supporting characters are represented as mere objects, without psychological depth or trace of character: they are just springboards for Hilário and Radamés. They are like puppets, but in this sense all characters, leading and supporting, are similar to a greater or lesser degree.
Hilário describes himself and others from without: he only apprehends their external behavior and reproduces their dialog, and never penetrates their soul. Even when he attempts to address their intimacy, we find that he has nothing to say about it, either because he doesn’t know about it, or because it is just not there to know. They are all puppets, whether the narrator Radamés or the others, as they lack inner depth, which makes the humorous situations even more intense. The stylized representation of the world and of people make them strange and impenetrable: “Human beings tend to become soulless objects among soulless objects,” Anatol Rosenfeld wrote.
On the other hand, this resource, used to deform the traditional narrator’ s perspective, also gives people and reality a coat of mythical veneer. The novel’ s time breaks from chronological, specific time, in which facts take place in succession, and becomes the menacing time of fairy tales, of grotesquerie and fantasy. Objective narration, in complete opposition to the subjective form of psychological novels, privileges action and description, associating Campos de Carvalho’ s novel with Homer’ s epics.
O púcaro búlgaro is the only possible epic in the modern age, as it is the anti-epic of exploring expeditions. While the Illiad and the Odissey show the consummation of the Greek aristocracy’ s conquests, Campos de Carvalho’ s novel showcases the failure of a similar endeavor as launched by the anti-heroes of the Brazilian middle class. In the former, the tone is epic; in the latter, its opposite, satire – the shared element: shock, thrill, awe, the strangeness of human beings and everyday objects, as if they were beheld and named for the very first time. The shock caused by the most routine of events: in Homer’ s epics, the world of the gods, their unusual routine and their unique ethics; in O púcaro búlgaro, the world of men, where each vase and each Bulgarian may or may not exist, every limb of the body ma be something else, like the hand of Radamés which is, for al intents and purposes, his pet cat.
Nelson de Oliveira (Brazil, 1966). Fictionist. Some books: A maldição do macho(novel, 2002), Algum lugar em parte alguma(short stories, 2006) andA oficina do escritor(essays, 2008). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. | Sinvaldo Júnior (Brazil, 1982). Essayist, no books. Contact: email@example.com. Essay translated by Allan Vidigal. Page illustrated with works of Unica Zürn (Germany), guest artist this year's ARC.