In Conversation with Adam Morris

I regard one of the functions of literature as social interaction, of reaching and challenging other minds. Otherwise, why write at all?

Adam Morris and I emailed over the course of July about his translation of João Gilberto Noll’s novel Quiet Creature on the Corner from Two Lines Press. The novel follows a young, freshly unemployed poet-drifter in Porto Alegre, Brazil who lands himself in jail after committing rape. Then, without explanation, he is taken to a country house owned by German immigrants Kurt and Gerda where the world suddenly turns irrational. As the protagonists’ world turns surreal, the real world churns on around him, as Lula runs for president for the first time, and the Landless Workers’ Movement stages protests on the street.

                                    –Ryan Mihaly

Ryan Mihaly (RM): I want to start with a grammarian’s query as you say. Some of Noll’s sentences are relentlessly long and often change tense. They almost read like transcriptions of a casual conversation. Was there ever a temptation to break up Noll’s comma splices with something like a semicolon or em-dash instead of a comma?

Adam Morris (AM): You are really taking a risk with this question. I have worked as an editor for many years and am opinionated about grammar and punctuation. I’ll try to be brief.

Semicolons are not used in Brazilian Portuguese and are falling into disuse in English, except among the most pedantic writers. So I discarded that option out of hand. The narrator in Quiet Creature is not a pedant and is, as you say, speaking in a conversational tone. The em-dash was another available option, and unlike the semicolon, its prevalence is increasing. I often find it to be the signature of juvenile or lazy writing, which seemed suitable for the adolescent narrator of Quiet Creature. So I tried using it for some of the more blunt comma splices in Quiet Creature. But when I reread what I’d done, I discovered I’d lost the narrator’s voice. In English, the em-dash commands more of a pause than I heard in his wandering drift. His narration is not choppy or staccato, but a sort of numbed fugue of uneven pace. So the em-dash had to go. A few of them remained, and some turned into commas, but I got rid of most.

RM: The narrator is a poet, but we don’t see any of his lines until about three-quarters of the way through the novel. They are: “A shot in the yard out front / A hardened fingernail scraping the tepid earth”, two rhythmic lines which the protagonist taps out with his fingers on the bar where he writes. Were you able to maintain the rhythm or imagery of the original? And how do these lines, in Portuguese, compare to the “numbed fugue” of his narration? 

AM: The Portuguese reads, “O tiro no jardim em frente / A unha empedernida crispando a terra morna.” Readers of Portuguese will notice I swapped definite articles for indefinite articles to repeat the assonance of the original, but otherwise preferred to translate as closely to the literal meanings of the words as possible. These are only two lines of verse, and they’re not remarkable for any poetic qualities. It’s the imagery that matters, so I did not sacrifice it for the sake of rhythm or meter.

RM: On the plane ride back to Porto Alegre, the protagonist gives the flight attendant a “yellow smile” when they hit some turbulence. It’s an inventive idiom that makes sense in context. Can you tell us about that phrase in Portuguese (or other idioms you encountered), and why you decided to translate it like that?

AM: The phrase is “sorriso amarelo,” so yellow smile is a literal translation. The flight is passing through turbulence, and the smile he gives her is sickly but also afraid. In English we might say a person looks green to indicate they appear ill, but a person’s face never actually turns green: it’s a trope. Yellow nicely fits the literal meaning, and also functions as a trope for the kind of trembling smile you see on people’s faces when a flight hits a bad stretch of turbulence.

RM: The rape scene in the beginning of the novel is chilling. It occurs in one long, precise sentence. Did translating Noll get under your skin? 

AM: No. I enjoyed translating Noll. As for that first rape scene, I’d say it’s the least disturbing of the narrator’s sexual encounters.

RM: The novel begins and ends with the narrator in water. It opens with a cleansing of the greasy hands he got from his factory job, which he just lost, and ends with his submerging into a freezing lake with all of his clothes on. When he gets out, he rips off his clothes in a fury and takes the dry clothes from Kurt, and decides to go to bed, even though it’s morning, hoping he might dream. What conclusions, if any, do you draw from this surreal ending? Is the narrator—or the real life, down-and-out Brazilians he may represent—doomed to this cycle of crime and poverty? Or is there some glimmer of hope? 

 AM: It is up to the reader to decide. But thank you for juxtaposing these images from the beginning and end of the narrative. It’s very provocative the way you’ve put it. I do wish to make clear, though, that I don’t think the narrator is an everyman character or in a straightforward stand-in for the underprivileged.

 RM: I was going off your interview with Katrina Dodson, where you said Noll’s work might speak to many people in the United States, Europe, Brazil, and Latin America, who are experiencing the negative effects of neoliberalism. I see the narrator is not simply a stand-in, though I wonder what Noll thinks about the fate of the underprivileged in these circumstances. The narrator coming out of the water puts on a striped shirt—I thought they were vertical stripes, like a prison cell. But the last few words (“…I’d go to bed, calm myself, sleep, and maybe even dream”) were oddly peaceful and suggested to me that maybe things would get better for him. So this reader can’t quite decide… and I suppose that’s the strange genius of Noll.

AM: Noll is not underprivileged and does not pretend to speak on behalf of those who are. There’s nothing approaching prescriptive politics in Quiet Creature, and in my view the novel is careful to avoid gestures of hope or doom.

If I am remembering correctly, I was referring in that previous interview to the ability of this novel to relate to Americans and others in the developed West in ways that it could not have done in 1991. Neoliberalism is a word I use with caution, since it’s been vacated almost entirely of specific meaning by the careless rhetoric of so-called progressive activists. I prefer to refer instead to some of its discrete political characteristics, such as fiscal austerity and identity politics. These phenomena have expanded and strengthened their hold over Western economies and mindsets in the intervening 25 years. Experiments in austerity were first applied in places like Chile and Argentina and Poland—Naomi Klein has written an excellent book about this—but when the public wealth of those countries was privatized and expropriated to the point of near-exhaustion, the gaze of financial imperialists turned to their own societies. This has happened to some degree in almost every capitalist society, and is responsible for creating a debt-burdened populace that is powerless to resist the exploitation of the so-called gig economy and other rollbacks in labor standards.

Meanwhile, and especially in the United States, identity politics have all but destroyed solidarity between and among the groups that used to be the core of the twentieth-century left: immigrants, queers, the working class, and the middle-class intellectual left. So Americans, like Brazilians of 25 years ago—which is to say nothing of the recent events in that country—now live in a society where 47 percent of the population could not come up with $400 for an emergency expense [cf. Neal Gabler]. Rent is skyrocketing, so are evictions, so is homelessness, and the economic recovery has been confined to the wealthy and to those who had the money to make a killing off the foreclosure markets, low interest rates, and the downward pressure on wages. In other words, Americans are living the effects of economic “reforms” similar to those that were imposed all over Latin America since 1973 and whose effects are on display in the initial pages of Quiet Creature.

RM: Your assessment paints a clear backdrop for the novel. While we (and the rest of the world) are on the topic: are identity politics only divisive? Shouldn’t the concerns of oppressed groups of people be addressed alongside the issues of great economic disparity and the tightening grip of the ruling class?

AM: A troubling tendency I observe in recent identity politics is to describe the experience of a group or individual as not only inaccessible, but fundamentally incomprehensible to those who do not share in it. This is a claim whose horizon is a solipsism that recalls idealist philosophy, such as the work of George Berkeley. Philosophical idealism, i.e., the prioritization of nontransferable and desocialized individual “experience,” does not lead anywhere in terms of a functional political ideology. Rather, it seems to me to be a negation of politics, since politics necessarily requires negotiating disagreements and forming coalitions that subordinate individual and sectarian beliefs to accomplishing shared objectives. Of course politics did not interest Berkeley very much, and Marx, who is his near-total opposite, preferred historical materialism. If pure free-market ideology can be said to have a coherent philosophy, it’s solipsistic individualism.

To return to the novel, the narrator inadvertently finds himself at a rally for a leftist political candidate, Lula, who in 1989 was much more radical than he later became. But the narrator can’t focus on the rally, and appears not even to care about it, as he’s more concerned with fulfilling a fetishistic interracial sex fantasy. This is despite the narrator’s recent status as an unemployed machine or metal worker—the same job Lula himself had as a teenager and which led him into union organizing and then on to lead the Workers Party (PT). I leave it to the reader to draw his or her conclusions about what this means. But what I will say, to finish my thoughts above, is that I regard one of the functions of literature as social interaction, of reaching and challenging other minds. Otherwise, why write at all?

RM: I think you are absolutely right. I am reminded of Ralph Ellison’s introduction to Invisible Man, which I just started reading: “…by a trick of fate (and our racial problems notwithstanding) the human imagination is integrative—and the same is true of the centrifugal force that inspirits the democratic process. And while fiction is but a form of symbolic action, a mere game of ‘as if,’ therein lies its true function and its potential for effecting change.” Ellison is speaking of endowing his black characters with an “intellectual depth” and “eloquence” not found in other novels up to then, 1952. He goes on: “…my task was one of revealing the human universals hidden within the plight of one who was both black and American”. 

Neither you nor Noll provide an introduction or afterword to Quiet Creature. The book was originally published in 1991. Did you consider providing a note that explained the novel’s political context? 

AM: Invisible Man is a provocative companion piece for Quiet Creature, now that you mention it. The marginalization of the narrative personae in both novels, that is, their social invisibility, places them always on the edge of danger, both in terms of their precarious circumstances within the narrative and in terms of their aesthetic and political literary function: they are figures whose thoughts and behaviors are meant to challenge readers’ assumptions. The narrator of Quiet Creature on the Corner is late-adolescent male. Some of the tropes that Noll hangs on him, such as his hypersexuality, are conventional. But the blunt and detached manner in which he relates his acts of sexual violence against women is appalling. He also troubles the rubric of social class: as an unemployed squatter, he is lower in status than the proletarian workers at the Lula rally. He finds himself instead demoted to the Lumpenproletariat, a powerless urban subclass that Marx did not expect would join a proletarian revolution. And yet the narrator is literate, considers himself a poet, aspires to a writerly life, and produces snippets of poetry that have a memorable, if somewhat inscrutable, originality to them: they’re not the ersatz Bukowski the reader might expect from an adolescent male poet. These complexities are meant to challenge bourgeois assumptions about the indigent and unemployed, as well as complacency with race and gender relations in Brazil.

The danger that these characters pose to easy social and political narratives, whether of the right or the left, is what would make both of these novels highly unpopular in one of those classrooms that aspires to be a “safe space.” Quiet Creature would require at least ten trigger warnings to be smuggled into a “safe” space, but I don’t think it’s the kind of text that most instructors would risk teaching, given the academy’s responsiveness to this kind of anti-intellectual “activism.” Likewise, I imagine that Ellison’s work is now being censored for similar reasons. He is not a “safe” writer. Neither is Noll, obviously—and that’s the point.

Your query about an introduction for the text is one that’s more suited to my publisher. I proposed the translation and carried it out. Editors are the ones who make decisions about introductions. Of course contextual knowledge—for instance, about German migration to Brazil, the transition from dictatorship to democracy, the rise of the Workers Party and the MST, and so on—is helpful for a deep critical reading. But it’s not necessary for understanding the novel, especially not in our post-Occupy context, when the working and middle class of nearly every Western capitalist society has become familiar with the precarious mode of life that is depicted in the crucial opening scenes of Quiet Creature.

RM: I am imagining a class, actually, in which Quiet Creature is taught alongside two other novels: Roberto Bolaño’s A Little Lumpen Novelita and Yoko Tawada’s The Naked Eye, two books I am surprised other reviewers have not compared to Noll’s novel. All three see the world, against a clear political backdrop, through the eyes of characters on the fringe of society, all of them penniless, caught up in crime, tangled up in nightmarish sex acts, finding themselves inadvertently entering foreign locales, all of whom who get in these situations through some sort of awful luck. All three are surreal, disorienting, and challenging. None of them are “safe”.  

Have you read reviews of your translation? Have reviewers hit the mark about the book?

AM: I think it is unwise for me to begin reviewing the reviews of a book I did not write.

I will say that personally, as a reader, the more I read the less I am persuaded by any review that compares one writer to another without any specifics and without any kind of thesis to advance. I understand that this is usually intended, in a generous review of Writer A, to appeal to readers of the more well-known or widely respected Writer B, and to persuade admirers of Writer B that Writer A is equally worthy their time. But this seems to me a lazy form of praise, and certainly an injustice to Writer A, whose work ought to be able to speak for itself and not require the borrowed imprimatur of Writer B.

RM: Last question. You described the narration not as “staccato” but a “numbed fugue.” Do you have a musical background? 

 AM: No.

Adam Morris is a writer and translator based in San Francisco. He has translated work by Hilda Hist, Nuno Ramos, Machado de Assis, and others. His translation of João Gilberto Noll’s Atlantic Hotel is forthcoming from Two Lines Press.

Ryan Mihaly is the Interview Features Editor for Asymptote. He is currently pursuing an MFA at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.


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