Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. —Joseph Schreiber
We humans tend to fancy ourselves rational beings. We hold to the convention of cause and effect. We imagine that if faced with strange and unusual situations, we would respond with curiosity, anxiety, or alarm and make an effort to act appropriately. We are inclined to believe that we need to understand what is happening to us and around us at all times. But, is that truly the way we actually exist in the world?
João Gilberto Noll is an author who dares to challenge that assumption. His novel, Quiet Creature on the Corner is, on the surface, a spare and modestly surreal tale of a young man who surrenders himself to a life that is inexplicably handed to him without seriously questioning his circumstances until he is deeply absorbed in a situation that is rapidly growing stranger and more uncertain. Newly released from Two Lines Press, in a measured, wonderfully restrained translation by Adam Morris, this novel offers an English language audience an absorbing introduction to this esteemed Brazilian author.
Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1946, Noll began his studies in literature in 1967, but left school two years later to work as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. He would eventually return to university, completing his degree in 1979. Participation in the University of Iowa Writer’s Program in 1982 brought him to international attention when one of his stories was included in an anthology of new Brazilian authors published in Germany in 1983. Over the following twenty years he would be invited to teach in Berkley, California; Bellagio, Italy; and London, UK. Quiet Creature on the Corner (O quieto animal da esquina), his fifth novel, was originally published in 1991.
Noll is a writer fascinated with the quality of existence, and by the idea that it could be something better. Like many of his Brazilian literary cohorts he was nourished on a “robust” existentialism and reflects that this, combined with his own innate sense of himself as a human being, may have been critical in forming his view of literature as having:
. . . a universal, maybe even atemporal core, to the extent that one can say that . . . for we’re not here to deny the material conditions of time and space. But it’s my impression that there’s something pretty common at the heart of the phenomenon of literary creation, the fact that it’s born out of tremendous unease, a tremendous discomfort, a feeling of enormous insufficiency in the face of what is real.
He describes himself as more interested, more committed to speaking about the impossible than the possible. And, although he is typically considered a postmodern writer, he is not entirely comfortable with that classification, insofar as he sees it as legitimizing cynicism. “I am in no way at all cynical,” he insists, “I’m tragic the whole time, I take everything in strict seriousness, that’s why I don’t consider myself post-modern.”
Written and set during the years marking Brazil’s transition from military dictatorship to fledgling democracy, the surreal atmosphere that filters through the narrative of Quiet Creature on the Corner reflects the shifting and uncertain dynamics of a society in flux. The book opens with the unnamed narrator, a nineteen-year-old living in Porto Alegre, washing from his hands the grease of the job he has just lost. There is the immediate sense that he is relieved to rid himself of this manual labour even if it means joining the growing ranks of the unemployed. He prefers to see himself as a poet, a purveyor of verse. He spends his days wandering around town, and shares a squat with his mother in an unfinished building at night. The streets of his impoverished neighbourhood are littered with signs of decay and economic ruin.
One day, following a back alley sexual encounter with a neighbour, he finds himself arrested and charged with rape. However, our hero does not spend long in jail, the next morning a mysterious German man hands him a package containing poetry books and paper, and informs him that he is going to a psychiatric clinic. No matter how odd this turn of events may be, his reaction is positive: “Wow, . . . my entire life looks like it’s about to change,” he remarks. He is still young but he feels that he has been waiting, impatiently, for his life to get itself sorted out. He gives the impression he almost imagines this is his due.
His time at the clinic appears to be spent in some kind of dream-like state. He describes an idyllic life on a farm with the same girl who had charged him with rape, caring for horses and cows, and becoming a father. When he emerges from this condition he is surprised to find he is still in his room at the clinic, his experiences had seemed so real. However he notices that the German man, whom he will soon learn is named Kurt, appears considerably older than he remembers. He asks to see a mirror and discovers that he himself has grown long hair and a thick beard. He wonders how much time has passed.
From the clinic, rather than returning to his old life, the narrator is pleased to see that he being taken out to a large estate in the country where he will live with Kurt, his wife Gerda, a man named Otávio, and the servant girl, Amália. Again he takes this development in stride. The atmosphere in the household is oddly tense; the dynamic between the residents is strained, pierced with silences and marked by some very strange interactions that our protagonist chances to observe. Nonetheless, he seems quite content to see how this new life will proceed. After all, he has a comfortable place to live, his needs are all taken care of, and the only thing he seems to be expected to do is write poetry. There is an element of passive opportunism in his attitude that is somewhat unnerving—he quickly becomes sexually involved with Amália and studies Kurt for indications of how he might assure his continued patronage.
As time goes on he learns that Gerda has cancer. This brings him into a closer proximity with Kurt, serving to deepen the mystery around this enigmatic man, rather than revealing secrets. After she succumbs to her illness, Kurt’s rapid aging accelerates. It is at this point that our protagonist seriously begins to question how quickly time is passing and realizes that he has lost his ability to judge. He notices that the remaining members of the household are also aging, and that he himself is no longer the young man he was when he arrived. He becomes increasingly troubled by the strange and surreal quality of his existence, and the curious nature of his benefactor. This impassive man seems to exercise a strange hold that keeps Otávio and Amália circling around him like satellites. What is it?
Yet, as much as he is worried about losing whatever potential financial advantage that might still await him, our protagonist still seems to be uncertain just how much he really wants to know, how much he wants to give, and how close he is willing to get to anyone to figure things out. One senses that so much remains unknown, simply because the narrator makes no real effort to understand, to fully engage. And herein lies the heart of the unsettling, haunting power of this novel.
Quiet Creature is a short work, easily read in one or two sittings. The language is spare, measured, with a matter-of-fact tone that holds level throughout. For our narrator, the past is best forgotten, the future uncertain but, with luck, ripe to be exploited. Whether he is recounting experiences that are mundane or extraordinary, his ambivalent, mildly irritated mood rarely wavers:
The late afternoon shadows had already insinuated themselves among the branches of the Protestant cemetery, the discreet headstones engraved almost exclusively with German names. Kurt and I were walking down a path and our steps made a cadence on the flagstones. Ahead of us, a gravedigger was pushing a little cart that carried Gerda’s casket. The wheels could’ve used an oiling, they made an infernal noise. From time to time the vision of an iron cross, stark, made my head pulse. Gerda’s grave just wouldn’t arrive. The gravedigger was really putting an effort into pushing the little cart, steeply bent over, his ass sticking out at us, pants straining at the seam between his enormous buttocks. I noticed it was getting darker. And the gravedigger started down another path.
At that time of day it was hard to discern the bottom of the grave. The gravedigger asked Kurt if he’d like to open the casket one last time. Kurt shook his head no, and nearby a bell began to toll.
I threw a shovelful of earth into the hole.
Time passes in an uneven, disjointed manner; a sensation heightened by the absence of any type of chapter or section breaks. Periodically there are abrupt jumps in time and place from one paragraph to the next, jarring when encountered in the narrative but effectively reminiscent of the shifts between scenes in a movie, lending a distinctly filmic quality to the dream-like, non-rational story. It is not surprising that critics have referenced filmmakers like David Lynch and Werner Herzog in an attempt to describe this book. Noll’s focus on light and dark, sounds and silence, further enhances this effect.
However, I would argue that it is the author’s exploitation of the inherent instability between the ordinary and the exceptional, and the social and the ontological that gives Quiet Creature on the Corner its distinctive, unsettling feel. As readers we have access to no reality outside the thoughts and impressions of the narrator, a man who maintains an attitude that is at once entirely self-interested yet emotionally disengaged. Like Camus’ Meursault or Handke’s Joseph Bloch in The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick, he demonstrates neither remorse nor regret for his crime. And why should he? It is, as far as he is concerned, the best thing that ever happened to him, lifting him out of a life of poverty and dead end jobs. He states on more than one occasion that he will do whatever is necessary to come out of this to his advantage even if he has no idea what that might entail.
Most disturbing is the startling lack of regard for others that our hero demonstrates. Only Kurt is important because he holds the key to his future security. As political events, blockades and rallies, intrude on his life he reacts with frustration—especially if they threaten something he wants. One is left to wonder at this desire to turn his back on everything he has known, including his mother, and his willingness to submit to such a strange, surreal world that might well exact a high price as his aging benefactor rapidly declines and his country moves on to democratic reform. But then, especially in times of instability and major change, who’s to say where the truth lies and whether denial of reality in the hope of another possibility is not the only sensible response?