While Noll incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. —Joseph Schreiber
Just last year, an enthusiastic English language audience was introduced to the work of the eminent and enigmatic Brazilian writer, João Gilberto Noll, through the publication of Adam Morris’ sensitive translation of Quiet Creature on the Corner (Two Lines Press). On March 29th of this year, less than two months before the scheduled follow up release of Atlantic Hotel, his most highly regarded and controversial novel, Noll died at his home in Porto Alegre. He was seventy years old. While his passing was met with an outpouring of tributes and grief in his home country, to those of us who have been eagerly awaiting an opportunity to his sample more of his work, the confluence of these two events is certainly bittersweet.
For all the acclaim he earned in his lifetime—notably Noll was awarded Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti Prize five times—he was an unassuming literary hero. In his obituary for Words Without Borders, translator Adam Morris wrote:
What was so special about João Gilberto Noll was that he wrote for himself. This might seem like a simplistic criterion for heroism. And what I mean by it is simple, something better expressed by his agent, Valéria Martins, who was quoted in the Folha de São Paulo: “Era um cara que vivia para a literatura.” He was a man who lived for literature. Particularly in his later years, Noll lived a solitary lifestyle that allowed him to devote as much of his time as possible to his craft.
Themes of loneliness and alienation run through his writing; his characters routinely face unlikely situations tinged with surreal overtones. These qualities have engendered a raft of comparisons—Camus, Kafka, and Beckett have been mentioned—while closer to home, Clarice Lispector’s influence is evident. But it is perhaps counterproductive to define him solely with respect to others. Noll stands on his own terms, as a writer who draws on his personal sense of self in relation to the uncertain nature of reality. It is a dialogue grounded in the psychological realm. His protagonists appear to be experiencing and reacting, rather than driving the narrative, and their fatalistic passivity can be unsettling for the reader who expects a main character who, rightly or wrongly, is motivated by some apparent objective.
Originally published in 1989, Atlantic Hotel, like Quiet Creature, can be read, in part, as a reflection of the shifting political climate of the times. Brazil was caught in an extended and difficult process of democratization after several decades of military rule. In Quiet Creature (published in 1991, and which I reviewed last year), the young protagonist, despite the bizarre circumstances in which he finds himself and his personal lack of concern for the events of the “outside world,” attends a rally for Lula and observes the relocation of settlers. This gives the novel an identifiable temporal context. However, with Atlantic Hotel, there is no direct reference to current political or social conditions. In this earlier title, the isolation and restlessness of the nameless narrator speaks more generally to the broad existential dislocation that is a constant element in Noll’s work. He asks: How well do any of us really know ourselves?
The novel begins, as it ends, with a mysterious death. The narrator-protagonist is an amorphous character. He arrives at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro, just as a body is being removed from the premises. He requests a room for the night, but is carrying no luggage. The receptionist seems enamoured with him from the outset and, in the course of his brief stay, they engage in a couple of abrupt and impersonal sexual encounters. He is fitful and unable to relax. An atmosphere of impending doom weighs on him. “I thought about my departure,” he says, “about how long I would last.” But despite his escalating anxiety, he seems reluctant to leave, and returns to his bed:
I kicked off my shoes. I felt I was repressing a sense of hopelessness inside myself, because I had to get going soon—so I pretended to be calm, very calm.
If I feigned madness, or maybe numbed amnesia, the world would rush to commit me.
And isn’t that the same thing as going away? But with the advantage of not having to expend any effort, such as coming and going from dumps like this one. If I went crazy, they’d have me doped all day and night, asleep as soon as my head dropped in a haze.
When he finally checks out of the hotel, he notices that he suddenly feels and looks aged beyond his forty years. He takes a taxi to the bus station and purchases a ticket to Florianópolis, choosing the destination on a whim. On the bus he becomes attracted to Susan, his beautiful American seatmate. But she is escaping her own demons and, before the trip is over, she has taken a fatal overdose of pills. Rather than calling for assistance or reporting her condition, the narrator responds with the paranoid fear that her death will somehow call attention to him. He takes refuge in a washroom and then a bookstore before slipping out of the station and disappearing into the city.
His experience on the bus, his second encounter with a corpse in as many days, has shaken his haphazard sense of direction and he realizes that he needs “new bearings” on his journey. Through a bartender he ends up securing a ride with a couple of questionable-looking men who are said to be heading to Rio Grande do Sul, the southern-most state in Brazil. From this point on, things get stranger. Their first night on the road is spent at a brothel. Before the second day is out, a mysterious stop at an isolated farm has led to an unseen altercation, perhaps a murder, and our protagonist has to make a hasty escape before he himself prematurely becomes the next corpse on his curious odyssey.
From there he catches a ride on a horse-drawn wagon. The young driver takes him to a village where he secures lodging for the night at the local vicarage. The next day, while his sole set of clothing is being laundered, he strolls the village streets dressed in the old frock of a former priest, enjoying the isolation and anonymity the guise affords him. When a distraught woman beseeches him to perform last rites for her dying sister, he complies, taking on the assumed role, and thus meets his third dead body in four days.
Again he is restless and anxious to move on, so as soon as his own clothing is dry he takes to the road once more to continue his journey south. As evening approaches he reaches a small city, and feeling unwell, knocks on a door seeking assistance. The woman who answers starts screaming, identifying him as a kidnapper; the man at the second door he tries greets him with a gun. He collapses and when he comes to he finds himself hospitalized and permanently disabled. Whatever he is seeking or avoiding with his reluctant wandering, he finds this loss of control and freedom difficult to accept. His recovery will be slow and uncertain.
Readers familiar with Quiet Creature will find that Atlantic Hotel is, on the surface, a more straightforward story. The language is precise, the imagery and circumstances less surreal—strange and at times threatening, yes, but potentially explainable. This novel is essentially a piece of noir fiction, with all of the clichés one typically associates with the genre: cadavers, a secretive hero who seduces and sheds women without a care, the requisite danger and suspense. For example, after witnessing a nasty confrontation that leaves him in no doubt that his own life is in immediate danger, our hero plans and executes a daring getaway:
I dragged myself up the riverbank, taking hold of exposed roots to hoist myself up. The ground had the wetness of damp overgrowth that never sees any sunlight, leaves sticking to my clothes as I climbed, everything muddy, moving carefully so I wouldn’t make any noise—when I got to the top of the bank there’d be no cover, I’d have to run for it, make noise, get quickly to the car, which was close to the guard dogs who would bark as though possessed, pulling their chains to the point of breaking.
And when I got to the top of the hill I ran fast to the car, opened the door, and rolled up the windows with the furious dogs just a few yards away. Deafened, I grabbed the key and started the car, and here came the shots from behind.
One can argue that Noll is intentionally playing against the tropes of genre fiction or, in keeping with the cinematic quality of his writing, commercial film. Yet, while he incorporates many of the classic elements of the thriller, he consistently refuses to follow the familiar patterns. Every time a mystery is kindled, the typical narrative expectations dissolve. The protagonist responds with anxiety, paranoia, and an instinct for self-preservation, but resists the temptation to investigate or seek an understanding of the events he encounters. He is increasingly capricious, and there is a growing element of groundlessness to his behaviour. The effect is destabilizing.
If there is a link between the body at the hotel, the suicide on the bus, the devious and deadly pursuits of his travel companions, and the circumstances that lead to his hospitalization and surgery, the narrator reveals no connections and draws no conclusions. Most critically, his own identity is an enigma. We learn nothing of his background or the reason for his exodus. He tells a taxi driver he is on his way to rehab, impersonates a priest, and tells the American woman that he is an unemployed actor. Later, on two separate occasions, others claim to recognize him from movie or television roles. He does not deny this, but holds no nostalgia for a past fame, nor does his persistent anxiety seem to arise from a fear of being directly identified or named.
There is, however, a performative quality to the way he moves through the scenes that unfold. One has a sense that he is improvising and observing himself at the same time, immersed in an ongoing emotional and perceptual interplay with his environment. He is experiencing himself into being, if you like. This ontological process of continual conscious re-engagement with his surroundings—almost every time he awakes he must rediscover where he is—creates a sense of existence that is very much “in the moment.” He seems to require regular physical confirmation to maintain his fragile presence. He is very sensitive to temperature fluctuations, as he travels the weather is either unseasonably cold or hot. His sexual encounters are fleeting, even awkward. And, for a man who owns only one set of clothing, he demonstrates a distinct preoccupation with the condition of his body—he desires regular baths, dreams he is a woman, and is hopelessly devastated when he loses a limb.
As the narrative flirts with the conventions of noir fiction but fails to commit, the narrator seems to be trying to reconcile his physical and psychological realities but keeps unravelling at the edges. Once he finds himself in the hospital under strange and increasingly surreal circumstances, the effort of maintaining the continual re-engagement with his environment quickly wears him down. Unable to leave, he prefers to opt for sedated release, trusting his fate to the black male nurse who attends to his care. In the process of recounting his experiences he has now started to slowly narrate himself out of existence. And, ultimately, Atlantic Hotel becomes an unnerving but starkly beautiful parable of alienation, isolation, and the eternal heartache of the human condition.
Joseph Schreiber is a writer and photographer living in Calgary. He maintains a book blog called Rough Ghosts. He is an editor at The Scofield. His writing has also been published at 3:AM, Minor Literature[s], The Quarterly Conversation, and Literary Hub. He tweets @roughghosts