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Toby Litt on Ricardo Lísias

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GRANTA 121: BEST OF YOUNG BRAZILIAN NOVELISTS
Introduced by previous Best of Young Novelists

Ricardo Lísias was born in São Paulo, and holds a PhD in Brazilian literature from São Paulo University. He is the author of one short-story collection and four novels, the latest of which is O céu dos suicidas (2012). His work has been translated into Galician, Italian and Spanish. His writing has also been published in the magazine piauí and in issues 2 and 6 of Granta em português. ‘Evo Morales’ is a new story. 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 – Ricardo Lísias is introduced by previous Best of Young British Novelist Toby Litt.

Adventures in Capitalism, my first book, came out and was reviewed in the Catholic Herald. They called it ‘A “Diary of a Madman” for the Shopping Channel generation.’

Yes, I was flattered; flattered to be reviewed and not condemned.

It took me years, though, to realize that – apart from being a lot more than merely flattering – the Gogol comparison was right as it could be.

I admire other writers more than Gogol – Austen, James, Kafka, Mandelstam, Beckett – but there are none to whom I feel so alike.

This isn’t self-flattery. Gogol isn’t Tolstoy. And the Gogols of this world will always lose out to the Tolstoys.

Gogols are in love with the grotesquery of paradoxical revelation, more than with truth. Gogols find themselves cat-mesmerized by contradictory effects, by shimmers, undertones and fluorescences, rather than the pure matt tones. If a Gogol can do something bass ackwards, even build a temple, they will. Gogols, as they themselves will admit, will insist upon, are not to be trusted as Tolstoys are. (Gogols mistrust trustworthiness.)

Readers like writers they can plainly trust.

It is safer for civic folk to erect a statue to Tolstoy in the forum, because Tolstoy stands for something, erectly, statuesquely.

A Gogol statue would have to show him posed in a parody of how figures on statues stand, or cowering behind the plinth in order not to be seen as shamefully statue-worthy, or pissing.

When I read Ricardo Lísias’s story ‘Evo Morales’ (translated by Nick Caistor), I saw straight off that it was Gogolian – his narrator is great-great-grandson to the Madman in ‘Diary of a Madman’.

But I saw more than that – in the beautiful polyphony of referents (comedians call them ‘callbacks’), in the grotesquely fractured form (switching to epistolary two-thirds of the way through because it just does), and in the gorgeous political slyness of the whole thing (Evo Morales may or may not be amused) – in every word I saw a true untrue Gogol, and I felt joy. – Toby Litt, Best of Young British Novelists, 2003.

Evo Morales

The first time I had coffee with Evo Morales, he had not yet been elected president of Bolivia, and I was a long way from winning the title of World Chess Champion. My mother was coming back from Australia, where she had been to visit my brother. She was returning to Brazil on a connecting flight from Buenos Aires. Shortly before her scheduled arrival, I discovered that her flight was going to be almost two hours late. I decided to have a coffee to pass the time. At the counter, when I was about to order a second cup, I noticed a strange figure beside me.

A short, stocky man wearing a poncho typical of the indigenous peoples of South America was trying to chat up the waitress. Obviously uncomfortable, the girl managed to disappear. The man was left with no alternative, and so asked me where I was flying to. I explained I was waiting for my mother and asked him: And you, are you from Peru?

I saw he understood Portuguese well. No, replied Evo, I’m Bolivian. As if sensing my curiosity he told me he was hoping to run for the presidency of his republic, and had come to Brazil to meet the leaders of some social movements. Evo seemed particularly impressed with the Landless Workers’ Movement. I recall that he smiled when he mentioned one of their camps, which he had visited.

I asked two or three more questions, and then we said goodbye. It was time for Evo to board his plane. When I told my mother the story, she said that she also seemed to meet some weirdo whenever she flew. Being in an airport brings it out in people.

Two years later, I was shocked when I saw Evo Morales on television. My friend had become the first indigenous president in the history of Bolivia.

Translated by Nick Caistor.

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