Melanie Rae Thon on Vinicius Jatobá
GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS
Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists
Vinicius Jatobá was born in Rio de Janeiro. He has written criticism for Estado de S. Paulo, O Globo and Carta Capital. He has also contributed to the anthology Prosas Cariocas and to the film guide 1968 Cinema Utopia Revolução!. Jatobá has written and directed several short films, including Alta Solidão (2010) and Vida entre os mamíferos (2011). Currently, he is at work on his first novel, Pés descalços, and completing Apenas o vento, a collection of short stories, from which ‘Still Life’ (‘Natureza-morta’) is taken. 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 – Vinicius Jatobá is introduced by previous Best of Young American Novelist, Melanie Rae Thon.
You see the house collapsing in disrepair, dust suspended against a fine thread of sunlight, proud furniture cracking and losing its exuberance and shine, the quilt on the bed becoming a filthy cloak, and you think that looking at this house for too long will destroy you, and so you turn, you listen, you imagine, and a woman is speaking, remembering her dream of the house before it was built, believing in dreams, a place where she and her beloved Paulo might be eternally happy, where they might have children and live countless days of joy, but the house insists, you see it sinking, even the FOR SALE sign now cracked and rusted, and Paulo begins to speak his dream of leaving Vera, his madwoman, his pregnant wife, knowing he never will, fearing her swollen stomach might burst and flood the house . . .
Mesmerizing, incantatory, Vinicius Jatobá’s ‘Still Life’ is an eighteen-page lyric poem, a single sentence spanning generations, a broken-open elegy vast enough to be a novel. One of the wonders of this gorgeously evocative story is the elegant movement between sensibilities, the voices of Vera and Paulo and Pedro erupting as if from a single capacious consciousness, that mysterious second person – you who are looking at the house in its inevitable dilapidation, you who might be reader and storyteller, or the dead returned who see how memory dissipates as objects decay. You might be the grandson who steals Paulo’s journals one at a time and secretly returns them, learning the history of his people in fragments; yes, you are endlessly mutable, a stranger, perhaps, anyone who passes a house long abandoned and begins to wonder, to imagine lives lost, dreams destroyed, you who begins to grieve her own inevitable diminishments, but who also remembers the light, each small gift, each miracle, each blessing, who hears Pedro whisper: man’s ingenuity made the bomb but it also made the lamp.
Yes, everything dies: the toads in the mud, the dog, your child, the madwoman, your wife, and yes, even you will die, and the house too will go back to the dust from whence it came, but the mind, the expansive, loving consciousness that moves around and beyond us, the spirit that does not, as Martin Buber says, circulate like blood in a single body, but passes instead like breath between us, this unbounded, exuberant, curiously permeable consciousness continues through our capacity to gaze at a ruined house and hear whisperings, songs of the dead, their revelations and their praise, their impossible hopes, their devastating beauty. – Melanie Rae Thon, Best of Young American Novelist, 1996.
You see the house and its time, the house and the house alone, though your secrets, your fears and silences still exist there, locked away behind the denseness of the closed doors and shuttered windows, your fears and silences desperate for an opening to escape a winter that seems eternal, to leave behind the low rumble of trapped accumulation to which they are held captive and ownerless, and you see, you see the house, you don’t flee from it or ignore it, you see that the only thing that seems to move in its atmosphere is dust suspended against a fine thread of sunlight, that time itself sleeps lazily on the stupefied clocks, you see the proud furniture relinquishing its strength to despondency, cracking and losing its exuberance and shine, the quilt on the silent bed becoming a filthy cloak where any trace of the smell of its owners is lost amid the dusty fury, the grime, the tears on the ceiling and the weeping in every corner
at first he didn’t want to buy the plot and thought the whole thing absurd but I argued that nowhere in the world was so perfect for us to live as here, only here could we be eternally happy, as I’d dreamed of since childhood, and who doesn’t want happiness, we’d build the house of our dreams here and live out the countless days that lay ahead of us, and Paulo just looked at me, silent, aloof, proud, his eyes condemning me as if it were inappropriate to want to be happy here, thinking me mad and crazy and fragile, and I loved him for it, even for that, for making me feel simple in his arms, paralysed under the stare of his dark eyes, all those cold nights together, squeezed against each other, submerged under the covers, yes, your madwoman, I’m your madwoman, I said in silence, and he there, staring at me as if buying a plot of land in a place as boggy and humid as Irajá was something really quite stupid, Paulo always so intelligent and learned and me so ignorant, as he would say shamefaced to his friends, forgive her for not speaking properly and not knowing anything about politics, yes, a little airhead, and I know I’ve only ever really understood my sewing machine, which was all I had in life besides God, my dear God, that machine has brought me pleasure, bricks and mortar, the two of us alone night after night, doing battle, dreaming, accomplices, keeping secrets that we still share, I knew it wasn’t stupid to buy that plot and I said come on, man, are you made of sugar, for Paulo was always so clean and perfumed and he hated mud and dirt and always wiped his feet on the mat, even though the mat was so filthy it was like not wiping them, he wiped them more for the gesture, he furnished himself with gestures, and he went mad whenever his son, all smiles, took the dog into the living room, years later, when the sludge had gone and the house existed and the neighbours had multiplied, and then I went further, I said come on, man, this is where I want to have children, I said, and he ended up giving in, though not without first thinking it was all madness, a godforsaken shithole with no tarmac or anything out there in the back of beyond, but it was a simple matter of me having headaches for weeks and weeks until he changed his mind, feeling nauseous whenever he came close to me in bed in our little rented room in Cascadura and there I’d be, hearing the deep breathing of my heart, and there I’d be, feeling the smooth fabric of my nightdress touched along the line of my buttocks, and even then I had terrible headaches that only stopped when he finally gave in, I who was always excessively pretty and who always got the men worked up on the tram or the tramps in the streets where I walked, restless, as if I were inappropriately clothed, feeling myself naked in front of everyone but keeping a calm face for I was Paulo’s woman, the man I love and the father of my child
You can also see Vinicius Jatobá at the following events:
Translating Culture: From Copacabana to Clerkenwell
14 November, 7 p.m., Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3GA. £7/£5 concessions, tickets include a copy of Granta 121. Purchase tickets here or at the door on the night of the event.
Granta magazine introduces the next generation of Brazilian writers to the Free Word Centre for an evening of short readings with Best Young Brazilian Novelists Vinicius Jatobá, Michel Laub and Tatiana Salem Levy. Then, award-winning translator Margaret Jull Costa and Michel Laub will explore bringing Laub’s short story ‘Animals’ into English with Granta deputy editor Ellah Allfrey.
The Bath Launch
15 November, 7 p.m., BRLSI (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) 16–18 Queen Square Bath, Avon BA1 2HN. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. Free.
Granta’s online editor Ted Hodgkinson introduces Vinicius Jatobá and translator Jethro Soutar with readings and conversation about being chosen as a Best of Young Brazilian Novelist. In association with Bath Spa University’s Creative Writing Department.