An Interview with João Gilberto Noll’s Translator, Adam Morris
Image of 'Canoas e Marolas', João Gilberto Noll, taken by Flickr user Aline Viturino
João Gilberto Noll is one of the most celebrated writers in contemporary Brazilian literature. Born in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre in 1946, he has published numerous books and has been awarded the Jabuti Prize—Brazil’s highest literary honor—on five different occasions. In addition to his work as a novelist, Noll has written for the theater. Earlier this month, San Francisco-based Two Lines Press released Quiet Creature on the Corner, Noll’s 1991 novel that follows an unemployed poet in 1980s Brazil who finds himself thrown in jail after inexplicably raping his neighbor. But the poet finds his time in the slammer is mysteriously cut short when he’s abruptly taken to a new home—a countryside manor where his every need seen to. Like many a character throughout Noll’s work, the protagonist and narrator of Quiet Creature is very much subject to the impulses of his body and adrift in a world that appears empty of meaning.
I sat down with Noll translator Adam Morris, who has also translated work by Brazilian writers such as Hilda Hilst and the nineteenth-century writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, among others. Hilst, like Noll, was tireless in her attempt to push the boundaries of form, and Morris’s translation of her novel With My Dog-Eyes (Melville House, 2014) earned the 2012 Susan Sontag Foundation Prize for Literary Translation. With the prize money, Morris did a residency at the Instituto Hilda Hilst, at the Casa do Sol, Hilst’s residence outside Campinas, São Paulo, an experience that gave him access to Hilst’s personal library and some of her close friends, who, Morris has said elsewhere, impressed upon him the immense gravity that the translation “be done right.”
In recent years, the profile of literary translators has been rising steadily, the reasons for which might attributed to both to the work of organizations like the PEN Translation Committee in New York and the establishment of the London Book Fair Translation Centre, but also to the less quantifiable rise in readers’ interest in international fiction, evidenced by the burgeoning ranks of translation magazines and independent publishers with a focus on literature in translation. The decision by the Man Booker International Prize, starting this year, to split the award money equally between translator and author of the winning work was widely hailed as the culmination of a decades-long campaign (with too many participants to mention here) to give translators their due as co-creators and ambassadors for their authors’ work.
Morris’s own views on translation, as expressed during our discussion and in other interviews, are nuanced, at once recognizing the power of translation, particularly into English, to bring deserved recognition to writers beyond the Anglophone sphere and the equal importance of reading literature in its original language.
Though Morris’s responses to my questions place the emphasis on Noll, when speaking to him, it’s difficult to overlook his ability as a representative for the writers he trnslates. With a learned but accessible mode of expression, it’s clear that in addition to his attention to his writers’ artistry, he is ever attuned—as a good translator must be—the social and political milieu in which each work sits.
In addition to Quiet Creature, our discussion touched on Noll’s place in Latin American letters, his influences, and the remarkable relevance of the novel’s events in light of recent efforts to impeach Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff.
—Eric M. B. Becker for Guernica Magazine.
Guernica: I’m curious about your entry point into the literature of João Gilberto Noll. When you began translating his work, what drew you to it and how was it you described this very singular writer?
Adam Morris: I was drawn to Noll’s work long before I decided to translate it. I had already heard Noll’s name in connection with the scholarly conversation surrounding postdictatorial literary aesthetics in the Southern Cone. By the time I was learning Portuguese and studying Brazilian literature, I already had studied Spanish-American literature extensively. In terms of style, Noll is frequently mentioned as a counterpart to two other writers I have written about, César Aira and Mario Bellatin.
I suspect these comparisons are based of the lengths of his works, which like those of Aira and Bellatin are located somewhere between the lengths that readers associate with novellas and novels. This formal gesture is part of a much larger shared project of disregarding established generic conventions of the novel. Nowhere is this truer than in Aira’s work, but it the effort appears also in Noll’s and Bellatin’s writing. All three of these writers have abandoned the modern tradition of the masterpiece novel in favor of something else. (It bears mention that Clarice Lispector had also done so in her final book length fictions, Água viva and Um sopro de vida.) In Aira’s and Bellatin’s cases, this “something else” is a novel-system linked by covert and overt connections between works. Noll on the other hand is far more interested in the affective states of his protagonists and in attempting to incite uncomfortable affective states in his readers. His works might be described as both plotless and overdetermined by plot in the sense that sequential logic and what Roland Barthes called the proairetic code are manipulated and warped. He frustrates attempts to foresee the plot or to craft stories as they are traditionally understood and written. The series of events that appear in them are as tenuously linked into a broader narrative as those of a dream: individual causes and effects still propel the action forward, but which of the text’s details or actions that becomes a cause capable of diverting the protagonist’s itinerary or fate appears aleatory—but not in the calculated, whimsical, Rube Goldberg way that Aira’s plots produce their denouements. Noll’s humor is more understated and his overall affective register is gloomier.
When you ask about why I selected Noll or these novels [Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel], I should add that I never intended to become a professional translator in the first place. It is something that happened a bit by accident—literary translation, I think, is an occupation that selects its own victims.
My first book-length translation project was With My Dog-Eyes, a novel by Hilda Hilst. Noll was on my very short list of projects to attempt after the Hilst translation, simply because I like his work so much and feel it deserves the international attention enabled by translation. Like Aira and Bellatin, and even more than Hilst, who always considered herself a poète-maudit in the European mold, Noll is doing something that is totally alien to an American publishing and fiction environment, which in my view is desperately stale and in need of contact with writers as bizarre and restrained as Noll. I think the only persuasive comparison for Noll that I could give you in the American context is George Saunders.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you compare Noll to Aira and Bellatin in that Brazil is often considered—politically and culturally—to be isolated from the rest of Latin America. And to a certain extent, it is and has been for some time. Brazilian journalist Elio Gaspari has revealed that the generals who presided over the country during the dictatorship that lasted from 1964 to 1985 took pains to differentiate themselves from other right-wing dictatorships during the same period (although we know, of course, that in reality there was a significant amount of cooperation with these same dicatorships, starting with Operation Condor). Similarly, those lines are blurred on the cultural level. In what ways do you see Noll as a counterpart to these two writers?
Adam Morris: You’re absolutely right: Brazil is to a large degree separated from the rest of Latin America and its experience of dictatorship, like its experience of monarchy and independence, is very different from that of Spanish-American countries. Nevertheless, it became fashionable in literary-criticism circles to theorize the conditions of postdictatorship in a comparative transnational framework.
Of course Aira experienced the dictatorship in Argentina, and Bellatin the dictablanda in Mexico, and both of those countries are now governed according to the logic of neoliberal austerity, although Argentina just concluded fifteen years of resurgent Peronism. But I do not think these writers can be grouped into a discrete political or aesthetic category, certainly not one of postdictatorship. Instead, I think one of the compelling aspects of their work is that in each case the writer is working against the concept of the novel as it has developed in the preceding two centuries. Aira is a master alchemist when it comes to blending genres into his short, crystallized comedies. And as many others have suggested, he writes at a rate faster than anyone can read him—his famous fuga hacia adelante, or “flight forward.” Bellatin and Noll also both appear to have deprioritized the notion of a masterpiece novel in favor of a project or a literary corpus that transcends the artificial boundary of the book.
Following the work of Idelber Avelar, the Brazilian critic who perhaps more than anyone else has influenced this discussion of postdictatorial literature in Latin America, I have also compared Noll to writers such as the Chilean Diamela Eltit. Like Noll, Eltit is very concerned with questions of labor and of the anonymous interchangeability of subjects in the neoliberal regimes that tended to replace the Latin American military dictatorships. These political subjects, or as Deleuze would say, these corporate “dividuals,” understand their situation of precarious life as a hardship unto itself, but also as the loss of something concrete: the meaning and purpose that used to accrue to the status of citizenship and even to the role of the worker in the populist regimes that preceded many of the dictatorships.
The literary historical context for this, and for Noll, is important. National identity and the national imaginary were a central concern of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Latin American literature. But after these countries moved from populist nationalism to authoritarian nationalism and finally into globalized free-trade economies, this prerogative of national identity formation and maintenance fell away. Noll, Eltit, and many other writers responded to this.
Guernica: As you’ve suggest here, if there’s one thing that can be said of Noll, it’s that his style is distinct and that Noll is always seeking to expand what the novel can accomplish. And yet, one can certainly see shades of his influences in his work. He often cites Clarice Lispector, among others. In what way does this influence reveal itself, and what is the mark of a Noll novel? One thing that catches the reader’s eye immediately is that he makes ample use of just about any sort of punctuation other than a period, and his sentences often go on for a page or so.
The narration of Quiet Creature, which is performed by a poet in late adolescence, is intended to resemble the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind.
Adam Morris: Some of the sentences in Quiet Creature are excruciatingly long. This partially has to do with Brazilian Portuguese, which is extraordinarily permissive of what we would consider run-on sentences in American English. But it’s also a stylistic decision on Noll’s part. When the translation of Quiet Creature was in editing, I had conversations with my editor about how to handle these sentences. One of the reasons I wanted to work with Two Lines is because they take risks and trust their translators, both of which were required for me to do a decent translation of Noll. With a word of caution, I submitted a manuscript that preserved even the most egregiously wandering sentences, which do last for entire pages. This generated some worry that the novel would be dismissed as sloppy, or the translation as messy. Now, this is a valid concern from an editorial perspective. As a translator, however, I owe more loyalty to the author than to the reader. If the author wants to shift tenses suddenly or use ungrammatical prose, then I attempt to reproduce this in my translation.
So when the edits came back with most of the sentences cleaned up, a conversation began about how far or how hard I could really push this narrative style on an Anglophone audience. This was one of the rare instances I actually wrote Noll. Without further preamble, I asked him why the sentences in Quiet Creature are so long and meandering. He confirmed what I had already rationalized to myself: that the narration of Quiet Creature, which is performed by a poet in late adolescence, is intended to resemble the inchoate thought process of an immature, if sophisticated, mind. This did not fully satisfy editorial demands or my own preoccupations with how the first draft had turned out. So I thought more about the problem, returned to the Portuguese once again, and listened harder to the protagonist. Then, after revisiting every single comma splice in the novel, I ended up bisecting some sentences when I thought it was more idiomatically adolescent to do so.
This brings me rather circuitously to Clarice Lispector. She was a writer tremendously, even obsessively, interested in sound. Her prose masterpiece Água viva could fairly be described as a fugue; the “voice” that narrates that book describes it as chamber music. But in addition to conversational chamber music, Lispector’s work is very much invested in Brazilian oral culture.
Lispector had this tremendous range of tonality and timbre in her writing because she was always listening, with evident wonder, to the diversity of Brazilian voices across class, race, and gender boundaries. Noll is another of these listening writers, especially here in Quiet Creature. I think what he may have learned from Lispector is that so much of the uncanny vibration in her work derived from her deft handling of sounds.
Guernica: Turning to considerations that aren’t strictly lieterary, one of the things that makes this novel interesting is that it was written in the early 1990’s, not long after Brazil was coming out of a twenty-year dictatorship. There are some interesting markers that, if you’re familiar with Brazilian history in the second half of the twentieth century, merit allusions in the novel. One is a rally for Lula—a metalworker from Brazil’s Northeast, a place with its own mythic presence in Brazilian literature—who went nose-to-nose with the dictatorship and reached the presidency years later in 2003; another seems to be the allusions near the novel’s opening to the military police performing nighttime raids against purported “car thieves” and “drug traffickers.” In what way is Noll, in this novel, concerned with the social issues of that time?
Adam Morris: The marks of the novel’s chronological situation are quite clear. The end of the 1980s was not a time of great stability in Brazil. The economy and the political dictatorship had simultaneously unraveled in the 1980s, as it became obvious, even to the military, that the dictatorship was not in fact the guarantor of prosperity, which was one of the claims used to justify military rule over several decades, along with anticommunist rhetoric. The Lula rally in the novel takes place in Porto Alegre, where Lula had the strongest following the first time he ran for president in 1989. The MST or Landless Peoples Movement also appears in the novel. This was a relatively new movement at the time the novel was written, one that brought together peasants and even the urban homeless to demand that the new democratic state enact land reform. In part due to their efforts, the Brazilian constitution adopted in 1988 authorizes the state to repossess and redistribute lands that are not serving the public interest. Kurt and Gerda [on whose property the protagonist resides] live on what appears to be a dysfunctional plantation of some kind, and have been targeted by the MST.
Guernica: These questions of land redistribution recall an episode earlier in the novel where Noll is once again attentive to questions of class, as relevant in today’s Brazil as they ever were. Early in the novel, the protagonist is leaving the Carlos Gomes porno cinema, and comments: “It was almost late afternoon when I left the theater, and I went slowly, so slowly that I suddenly found myself stopped in Acelino de Carvalho alley, a chilly backstreet too narrow for direct sunlight, pedestrian-only, constantly reeking of piss, a couple barbershops on one side, three or four side-exit doors from the Vitória cinema on the other, hearing voices inside speaking English. Right then I remembered: I’m going home, and I walked resolutely in the direction of the bus terminal.” Here the reader is presented with the protagonist’s world of the Gomes porno cinema, and the Vitória cinema not so far away, a different world, a world that belongs to an elite that watches films in English from abroad.
It’s often said that more than racism, classism is the principal ill afflicting Brazilian society (though of course these are often two issues that intersect at various points). I wonder if we could talk a bit more about how these questions feature in the novel.
Adam Morris: In Quiet Creature, Kurt and Gerda are identified as immigrants, but they would clearly read as wealthy white landowners to Brazilian readers. Gerda has to fly to Rio for cancer treatments and owns property or business interests in Germany. Their lifestyle, which does not even appear to be that extravagant, is alien to the protagonist poet. Amália and Otávio, servants on the manor, are portrayed as strange and pathetic people who mysteriously do the bidding of their masters and cannot seem to escape their ties to Kurt and Gerda. But maybe they are just poor people with nowhere else to go. And obviously, the MST occupiers would read to Brazilians as nonwhite.
The protagonist’s disturbing sexual fantasy and encounter with the black woman he meets at the Lula rally also condenses many of Brazil’s racial stereotypes and tensions into one uncomfortable scene.
Guernica: Let’s shift the focus to how these political concerns—public and personal—are especially relevant in Brazil today. Foreign news outlets have been bringing some rather wild news to readers lately around the likely removal of president Dilma Rousseff and an opposition to her that’s largely composed of traditional land-owning families, and the “bullets, beef, and bible caucus.” *
Adam Morris: I am glad you ask this. We are witnessing a crisis of the PT mandate that began with Lula’s election in 2002. For fourteen years, the conservative forces in Brazilian society, which are significant, hoped to put an end to PT reforms by political means. But although conservative families and interests control the mainstream media in Brazil, there was no way a messaging campaign could compete with a political regime that was lifting millions of people out of poverty; elevating the country’s geopolitical importance; and making massive, highly visible, and universally discussed investments in direct social services. The PT effectively created a large middle class in Brazil, which had never really existed before. This in turn stimulated the economy, but this motor for growth could not, by definition, be sustained at the same pace over the long term. Now that oil prices have dropped and Brazil’s main trading partner, China, has entered an economic slowdown, the Brazilian national economy is in serious trouble.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the PT was not immune from corruption, which tends to be endemic in places that were under colonial or neocolonial rule for generations. Dictatorships and closed economies also indirectly encourage black markets, so the legacy of a certain normalization of corruption and shady business in Brazil and in countries with similar historical experience is considerable.
International reporting on the contemporary Brazilian corruption scandals often focus on Dilma Rousseff, the president and Lula’s chosen successor, but the charges against her are relatively minor in comparison with those faced by the politicians who are working hardest to oust her. Most of Dilma’s opponents are charged with or accused of outright graft, while Dilma herself is accused of moving money around within governmental entities. In other words, she is not accused of stealing for herself, as many of her adversaries are. This is a slow-motion political assassination that Dilma’s supporters describe as a coup. The landowning and business elite have finally given up trying to win back political control at the ballot box and are attempting to seize power by other means.
Plot is subordinated to psychology but also directed, or perhaps diverted, by its most aleatory details.
I don’t think these developments are removed from Noll’s world, because this government came to power promising straightforward redistribution of wealth and, although it has moved rightward over the years, has largely delivered on these promises to the perceived detriment of the wealthy classes.
Guernica: And yet what’s interesting is that today the MST—which has historically been a strong supporter of the PT and, as we’ve discussed, features in Quiet Creature—largely hasn’t made much progress. In fact, the PT, once in power, almost entirely abandoned that part of its agenda. And after four election cycles where, as you say, the Kurts and Gerdas of the world have seen some of their power eroded, the impeachment saga we’re seeing now would seem to signal they weren’t so much neutralized as lying in wait for the right opportunity to reassert their historical privilege. So while the PT has delivered on many promises, many journalists who have gone out to the street and spoken with those who most benefited under the PT find that these people, too, now, are in favor of Dilma’s removal (for a whole gamut of reasons, some related to media manipulation, though it would be unfair to suggest that’s the only cause). Where do you think the protagonist of Quiet Creature would stand today? What how would his story have changed?
Adam Morris: If you are asking whether or not he would support Dilma, I think the answer might be more pessimistic than that question allows. He’s politically apathetic about the progressive left, as evidenced by his disinterest in the Lula rally. But this might be because he’s of an urban underclass so marginal that he doubts he’d fare differently depending on the political party in power.
Guernica: It’s often commented on that Noll is a writer concerned more with psychological exploration of his characters than plot, something you’ve mentioned you don’t entirely agree with.
Adam Morris: I would say that in Quiet Creature and Atlantic Hotel, the Noll novels I’ve translated and therefore know best, plot is subordinated to psychology but also directed, or perhaps diverted, by its most aleatory details. I have mentioned elsewhere that the Situationist practice of the dérive is applicable to this vagabond quality of action, which is not propelled by the protagonist’s will so much as his affect. The novels suggest that these affects are the results of a deepened alienation wrought by capitalist society in the decades subsequent to the Situationist writings. And here it’s important to remember that this is an internationalized affective experience, as it derives from modes of precarious life that are as indigenous to the Parisian banlieues as they are to the so-called developing world.
Guernica: This question of marginalization, it seems to me, is also one of isolation in a more general sense. Noll has himself remarked that “solitude is a sentiment that permeates all my work.”
Adam Morris: The poet protagonist in Quiet Creature is utterly alone. His father is out of the picture, his mother flees their situation as squatters, and he has no coworkers or friends. He’s been more or less abandoned. To make matters worse, his contact with women is predicated on the violence and sexual exploitation he’s observed around him and in the media, including porn. The only person to show interest in him is Kurt, and his perplexity over this is one of his principal concerns throughout the novel.
Guernica: This abandonment would, generally speaking, tend to endear us to the protagonist, and yet he isn’t the most likeable of guys, is he? We’ve barely begun the novel and he’s already plotting to pawn his mother’s wedding ring and recounting his rape of a girl, which subsequently gets him interned in a psych ward and then mysteriously placed under the charge of a German-Brazilian couple. And throughout the novel, we see everything through the lens of his confusion.
I think the classism of literary culture is a subtextual critique in Noll’s work, given that he is so interested in socially marginal people and circumstances.
Adam Morris: Yes, that’s right. I don’t think Noll intends for the reader to identify with the protagonist in all circumstances. But there are other ways in which he is quite human and even endearing. He is frank about his curiosity and sexuality in ways that recall recent American autofiction by writers like Marie Calloway, whose book What Purpose Did I Serve in Your Life I am reading now. Although at times he is despicable and at other times opaque, there are still moments where I personally have empathy for him, particularly considering his dire material circumstances and evident lack of future prospects. Someone recently asked me why Anglophone readers should read Noll “now.” This “why now” query is always put to translators, and usually my response is “why not?” There is no right time to read anything. But in this case, I do think that the global awareness of the problem of a massively contingent labor force that lacks a social safety net—essentially the plight of our protagonist—makes this novel, out of all of Noll’s work that I’ve read so far, particularly relevant at this historical juncture. Insecure, contingent labor creates a desperate, resentful underclass and cultivates sympathy for authoritarian regimes among the wealthy and powerful. We are seeing this in the United States: now that credit has tightened in the wake of the 2007-08 crash, workers are realizing wages have stagnated since the 1970’s, retirement is vanishing, and employment is far from secure. Large swathes of my generation and the next youngest one are adrift in the 1099 economy or flit between various underpaid part-time work, all the while getting crushed by student loans and rising rents. Cities that are succeeding economically have become affordable only to the children of the wealthy and privileged. As the poet of Quiet Creature only dimly realizes, it is very difficult to create art under these circumstances. The domain of recognized and remunerated “art” has been captured, reified, and reserved for those who enjoy fated privileges, as the protagonist suddenly does when he becomes a poet-tenant ward on Kurt’s manor.
Guernica: So it would seem then that Noll is concerned with the role of the artist—and particularly the writer—in Brazilian society. Not simply on a personal level but as a concept he wishes to explore in his work. It’s not uncommon to hear people in Brazil, especially more leftist intellectuals, criticize what’s often referred to as the elite cultural, which is really a critique of who has access to art and the agency and/or authority to create it. Does Noll’s work engage this head-on?
Adam Morris: This novel does, since the poet is obviously not from an elite class, but from the poor and marginalized urban enclave of a city distant from the cultural capitals of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. I think the classism of literary culture is a subtextual critique in Noll’s work, given that he is so interested in socially marginal people and circumstances. This is something he has in common with writers like Eltit and Bellatin, as well. As for the elite cultural, you are right that intellectual and literary production is mostly restricted to a minority of educated, wealthy, or well-connected individuals. But I do not consider this to be unique to Brazil. There is that wonderful scene in Ferrante’s Neapolitan series in which Elena visits the home of her grade-school teacher and sees shelf upon shelf of books that obviously are the inheritance of many generations of educated people. She understands instantly that she will never have the ease with words and ideas that she admires in the teacher’s handsome son and elegant daughter. This is one of many situations in which Elena realizes the inherent inequity perpetuated by social class. But I want to be clear that even in the United States, where economic and educational disparities are historically not as severe as those in Brazil, artistic and cultural production is dominated by the leisured and monied classes.
*Following our interview, transcripts leaked shortly after Dilma’s suspension suggest that her opponents may have been collaborating with the military to monitor the MST, ostensibly in preparation to suppress any potentially disruptive activities they planned in response to her removal.
Adam Morris is a writer and translator. He has translated Hilda Hilst, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Vivian Abenshushan, Nuno Ramos, Carol Bensimon, and others. He is writing a book on American messianic movements for Liveright.
Eric M. B. Becker is an award-winning literary translator, journalist, and editor of Words without Borders. In 2014, he earned a PEN/Heim grant for his translations of Mia Couto. In 2016, he earned a Fulbright fellowship to translate Brazilian literature. He has translated work by Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Lygia Fagundes Telles, and Noemi Jaffe, among others. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Massachusetts Review, and World Literature Today.