Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Nelsinho: a nasty piece of work

My recent travels through Brazilian literature haven’t been without its duds, though. Rubem Fonseca I liked so much I already have three more books lined up to read next; ah, time, where are you? But then my first experience with Dalton Trevisan wasn’t very positive.

Dalton Trevisan (b. 1924) is a reclusive writer who doesn’t like to give interviews, so we shall respect his wishes and skip the biographical lines. After reneging two earlier books, he published the first book he recognises as his own in 1959: Novelas nada Exemplares. This is our starting point. He has written dozens of short-story collections, with only one novel published in 1985: A Polaquinha. He’s considered Brazil’s greatest living short-story writer. I disagree and think that title is better suited to Fonseca, on the merit of what I’ve read so far. Of Trevisan I’ve read The Vampire of Curitiba (1965) and I thought it was weak.

This collection’s short-stories are all linked by the same protagonist, a man called Nelsinho. Nelsinho is crazy about sex. Nelsinho wants to have sex with all women. Nelsinho does have sex with lots of women. The book is only about Nelsinho wanting to have sex with women, and doing it most of the time. It gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Nelsinho is sometimes a teenager, sometimes an adult. Sometimes he has a girlfriend, sometimes he’s on the prowl (not that having a girlfriend would preclude it, not for Nelsinho). Sometimes it’s just Nelsinho, sometimes Doctor Nelsinho, defence lawyer. There is no sometimes about his personality, though. Nelsinho is always a nasty piece of work. I have to give Trevisan credit for how odious his protagonist is, and it’s really one of the book’s redeeming qualities. Nelsinho’s shy with women, but also menacing and not adverse to using force to have his way. What, rape? The devilish rascal takes part in at least two in the book: one by himself, after he tries to flirt with a shop-girl and assaults her inside the store, but it’s left ambiguous whether she liked it or not. So it’s not “rape-rape,” to quote the great Whoopi Goldberg. The other, we’re told, is when he’s thirteen, and he casually comes across  the gang rape of a black girl and asks to join in. In this story it’s made pretty clear she did not like it, so it’s the real thing.

As a defence lawyer he also doesn’t have a problem taking advantage of his female clients. And he’ll gladly go to bed with a girlfriend’s grandmother just to spite her. When it comes to women, old or young, he’s gonna catch ‘em all. Like in Pokemon. Or when he’s spurned, he’ll ruin a woman by telling her husband she’s cuckolding him. Oh yes, Nelsinho is a nasty little piece of work. If you love reading about selfish, spiteful, mean-spirited, insensitive, dissolute lotharios, and I absolutely do, The Vampire of Curitiba is your book.

But damn it, Dalton Trevisan is one lean writer! His range is limited. His situations are repetitive. The characterisation is pretty one-dimensional. And his style is so pared down it looks more like a screenplay than prose. Regarding the range, if you love erotico-comical stories, and I confess many were quite arousing, it’ll be an easy read. Well, it was an easy read, being just over 100 pages, but the lack of variety was disconcerting. Then there’s the repetition. To Nelsinho black is the most erotic colour in the world: black lace, black garters, black underwear, black stockings. But there comes a time when you can no longer hear him dissertate how great black looks on a semi-naked woman. As there will come a time when you start getting fed up of Trevisan describing breasts, thighs, legs, skin pigmentation. The sex starts provoking a sense of ennui. The female characters were overall weak – either virgins or whores. Besides Nelsinho there’s not a memorable character in the book.

But it’s mainly his prose that bothers me, all dialogue and sparse descriptions. And this is one of his earliest collections. There comes a moment when you have to ask if his writing is literature even more. He cuts out so much, scrapes away to the essential, I think we’re left with vestiges rather than a whole thing. I don’t think I’m a fan of baroque, even if José Saramago is one of my favourite writers, but Trevisan is beyond leanness. I ask myself, why not just write for theatre or cinema? If a prose writer is so uninterested in description, if he only wants to write dialogues with a line here and there of prose connecting them, why write prose at all? I’ve read that later in his career his style has evolved to an even more extreme position, with his invention of micro-stories. I don’t even want to imagine. It’s a funny, sexy book, but I don’t think it’s great literature. Perhaps reading more will change my impressions. But right now I don’t feel like giving him another chance so soon. With Rubem Fonseca I can’t wait until I read him again.

Dalton Trevisan received the Camões Prize in 2012. The jury that unanimously chose him compared him to Machado Assis, Edgar Allen Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. The comparisons are risible, except regarding Machado Assis, a writer I find equally weak. Trevisan is apparently more realistic about his shortcomings as a writer. On the note he gave his editor to read during the ceremony, he wrote “I never imagined I was worthy of such distinction.” Indeed he’s not worthy of being in a group that includes José Saramago, Miguel Torga, Vergílio Ferreira, Ferreira Gullar, Sophia de Mello Breyner and Jorge Amado. But he continues. “My awareness of my limitations as a writer forbade me higher dreams.” Seldom is a writer so honest about his talents, oh why did the critics have to disagree?

Borges? As a widely praised short-story whose talent is obvious to everyone save me, it’s not Borges I’m thinking of in the hour of comparisons, but the equally overrated Raymond Carver. Still, thinking about it, I don’t believe Dalton Trevisan deserves my unmitigated ire. He at least entertained me, and even if he’s not a great writer, that is good enough. No, I shall reserve my full wrath for Clarice Lispector, tomorrow.


  1. Machado de Assis weak? Heresy! Lay off the booze while blogging, Miguel!

    I like the idea of a committee comparing any writer to Machado de Assis, Poe, and Borges, though. That says practically nothing at all in terms of a description.

    1. Helena and Dom Casmurro are, by far, two of the worst novels I've ever read in my life, so I take nothing back. It may be his short-stories are moderately better.

      Although if you think this was heresy, wait until you read my Clarice Lispector post.