Kevin Brockmeier on Leandro Sarmatz
GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS
Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists
Leandro Sarmatz was born in Porto Alegre and has lived in São Paulo since 2001. He is currently an editor at the publishing house Companhia das Letras. Sarmatz is the author of the play Mães e sogras (2000), the collection of poetry Logocausto (2009) and the short-story collection Uma fome (2010). ‘The Count’ (‘O Conde’) is taken from Uma fome. 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 – Leandro Sarmatz is introduced by previous Best of Young American Novelist, Kevin Brockmeier.
Much of the fiction I have been happiest to discover lately has originated in the Portuguese – I’m thinking particularly of the novels and stories of Moacyr Scliar, Clarice Lispector, and Gonçalo M. Tavares. I confess, though, that of Granta’s twenty Best of Young Brazilian Novelists, not one is familiar to me. How much of this is due to my own negligence and how much to the laxities of American publishing I cannot say, though I do wonder how many of the writers on the list, if any, have been translated into English. Far too few, if Leandro Sarmatz’s short and startling contribution to the issue, ‘The Count’, is any indication. Tracing the journey of a mediocre actor and Holocaust survivor ‘touched by some mysterious higher design’ as he forges and impersonates his way through the war and then back to the city of his birth, the story is part Samuel Beckett and part Isaac Bashevis Singer, with a sudden final bolt of O. Henry. It has the flavour of a morality tale, but what’s most fascinating to me is how difficult it is to derive a moral from it, or rather how easy it is to derive more than one and how openly they stand in conflict with each other. Does the Count – so-called for the role he has made his specialty, Count Dracula – deserve the fate that befalls him? Can he be blamed for how little the war has broken him, for his seemingly deathless good fortune? How much does it matter if the blood that stains him is not his own? The story ends in a presentiment of violence and a whirl of questions, and it is entirely to Sarmatz’s credit that those questions linger rather than subside. – Kevin Brockmeier, Best of Young American Novelist, 2007
When Emil Fleischer, the Yiddish actor, left the Lager after a two-year period in which he suffered privations nobody can ever anticipate, his first thought was to find a decent bed to sleep in. Despite the real blessing it was to be alive, his second thought was to travel back to see a place he dearly loved before it was swallowed up by the death machine: Czernowitz, the city in Bucovina where he was born with the new century. He would go to America only after he had done that.
Did the decision of a man who felt annihilated make any sense? It was, no doubt, absurd. To make internment in the Lager tolerable, Fleischer – a mediocre actor who had grasped the opportunity to earn his living by playing the part of Count Dracula in a series of roadshows of dubious artistic merit – started to fantasize about a new life in America. At night, on his bunk, writhing from hunger, the actor elaborated truly Hollywood-style idylls.
Sometimes he voiced his thoughts out loud, in the black-hole dark of the hut. Some people thought he was boasting, like Berman, the butcher, who’d never ever seen an artist before. Others swore the actor was simply one more lunatic among so many others dumped there prior to being turned into a shapeless pile of twisted bones, like Aronis, the tailor, who usually spoke French but broke into Yiddish in his nightmares.
As for a bed, Fleischer was happy, in those first few days of freedom, with a handful of sawdust laid out for him by a sturdy Polish woman who was working – rather reluctantly – for the Russians. After spending several nights next to a heater and eating countless decent meals, his body was invigorated and the actor felt like a real prince. Besides, he seemed to have an iron constitution. There was a touch of magic in surviving all that.
Now, he needed to get on the road to Czernowitz.
Translated by Peter Bush.