Andrés Felipe Solano on J.P. Cuenca
GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS
Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists
J.P. Cuenca was born in Rio de Janeiro. He is the author of the novels Corpo presente (2003), O dia Mastroiani (2007) and O único final feliz para uma história de amor é um acidente (2010), which will be published in the US in 2013. His work has been published in German, Italian, Portuguese and Spanish. ‘Before the Fall’ (‘Antes da queda’) is taken from a new novel, forthcoming in 2013. Here, as part of an ongoing series on the twenty authors from The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists issue – which was first published in Portuguese by Objectiva – J.P. Cuenca is introduced by previous Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelist Andrés Felipe Solano.
In 1985, Terry Gilliam debuted his film Brazil, a witty, dystopic satire in which life consists of bureaucracy, plastic surgery, late-night shopping, and terrorist bombs. At the end of the trailer – the movie’s title derives from ‘Watercolour of Brazil,’ a famous song of the late 30s – a voiceover says that Brazil is a state of mind.
In J.P. Cuenca’s ‘Before the Fall,’ Brazil is Brazil. Brazil does not take place in anyone’s head. It’s reality. Brazil is Rio de Janeiro, a city, we learn, that has suffocated on its own vomit after a decades-long party. A city that succumbed to false promises, to vulgarity, to the economic bubble, to being the flavour of the month, to the Starbucks introduced by the Olympics and the World Football Championship. From the future, Cuenca narrates Rio’s collapse and the personal fall of the main character. He does it with the elegant distance of a data collector but also with the terrifying certainty of one who knows there’s no going back.
In the years that preceded the fall, when Tomás Anselmo was not in the street sighing and taking inventory of his losses, he would shut himself at home with his wife, turn on the air conditioning and organize small orgies lubricated with champagne in Martini glasses.
Anselmo is not a victim, nor is he a victimizer. All he seems to be is someone who learned how to make his way in a post-Olympics, pre-apocalyptic Rio de Janeiro, someone who probably knows all the reasons why the city should be destroyed but who only does one thing: abandon it. Not out of cowardice, but rather boredom. In ‘Before the Fall,’ Cuenca tells us in straightforward, bullet-proof prose what happened to Anselmo before the earth split open right before his Rio eyes. – Andrés Felipe Solano, Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists, 2010. Translated by Alfred Mac Adam.
Before the Fall
He has never committed the indiscretion of admitting, especially to himself, that his desire to abandon the city was reciprocal – that it also desired to abandon him. To go away of one’s free will would be quite different from being expelled, or, worse, being seen as someone in flight. Would renouncing one’s native land not be the rejection of its people? Is it possible to run away without being a coward? Whatever the answers, the very questions were defeats that he was unprepared to accept.
It was necessary to maintain the superiority of the one who abandons over the abandoned, the lucidity of the lover who says farewell and who, starting from a bright and irresistible point in the timeline, decides to be alone. Guaranteeing such a status before his personal diaspora was an inescapable issue. He himself, the son of emigrants, had an example at home: he feared being forgotten by professional colleagues, by the press, by his ex-wives, by the retinue of female admirers who had never met him (precisely because of that), by bar-room conversations – the proscription of those who depart, the name that ceases to be remembered until finally it is never spoken again. Besides going away, he needed to be missed. Exactly what his family, upon escaping from the shipwreck of its circles of origin in the seventies, had been unable to do.
His fondness for the meagre social legacy accumulated over thirty-seven years contrasted with the ill-disguised disdain he had not only for his conquests but also for their arena: Rio de Janeiro. The city, as he was wont to repeat, making instant antagonists in bars, would be the cultural capital of the Extreme Occident if not for Buenos Aires, the financial capital of the Extreme Occident if not for São Paulo, and was moving, then in pre-Olympic times, towards becoming a slightly poorer and a lot more exotic Barcelona in the backwaters of the southern hemisphere.
More exotic and more expensive: the real-estate boom, which transformed shacks in the shanty towns of Rio’s South Zone into boutique inns run by Frenchmen in the post-tropical Mykonos that the favelas suggested in the days of the new armed peace, was already part of an irreversible process.
If in the early years of the twentieth century the narrow streets and the thousands of tenements in the city centre, focal points of diseases like smallpox and the poor, were demolished to make room for Haussmannian boulevards surrounded by mansions and art nouveau buildings (which would also be razed for the construction of architecture-free skyscrapers so dear to the economic miracle of the military dictatorship decades later), at the beginning of the twenty first century the tearing down of shacks to emulate the Parisian hillside would be a political and aesthetic impossibility – even if their conditions weren’t all that different from the tenements of a hundred years earlier: piles of garbage, inadequate sewers, violence, tuberculosis, urban chaos. Not by coincidence, the men and women expelled from the centre by the urban renewal undertaken by Mayor Pereira Passos from 1902 onwards were the same ones who cleared the tropical forest of the hills and transformed it into favelas. It was a vicious circle, an uroboros not of a snake but of a dog chasing its tail – a very common sight in the streets of Rio de Janeiro at any time.