Ricardo Lísias, the Brazilian Novelist on Trial for Unconventional Form

If an author designs his text to inspire a reader response in a specific social context, is translation even possible?

Featured in our Summer 2018 issue, Brazilian writer Ricardo Lísias’s “Anna O.” examines Latin American politics and memories of dictatorships in the region. In her translator’s note, Lara Norgaard discusses the way Lísias blends truth and fiction to create a unique reading experience: “Lísias’s many references are a key component of the unique relationship he builds between text and reader. The author’s goal is to cause confusion in his audience, to break the boundaries of the book as a discrete object, separate from the world. Nonfiction pours into his fiction and, conversely, the reader reacts to his stories in the real world. In ‘Anna O.,’ Lísias plays with the expectations and knowledge of his audience.” In the following essay, Norgaard further explores this exciting young author’s work.

Ricardo Lísias should be on everyone’s radar.

In Brazil, he already is, and in unconventional ways: two of the writer’s novels over the past four years have landed the writer in court trials. The first, a detective fiction eBook series; the other, a novel signed “pseudonym: Eduardo Cunha,” the name of a prominent right-wing senator currently in prison for corruption charges.

Lísias has the uncanny ability of ruffling feathers in a country where literature too often falls by the wayside. These trials—the former, a charge for the falsification of state documents; the latter, for the defamation of character—might indicate a lack of understanding or urge to control experimental art, both within the justice system and in the general public. But they might also imply that this specific author has managed to escape the bubble of traditional literary readership. His work is controversial, in a broad sense. And yet, despite his dramatic reputation in Brazil, and despite having been named one of Granta’s best young Brazilian novelists, only two of Lísias’ texts have appeared in English translation: the short stories “Evo Morales,” published in Granta and “Anna O.”, just released in Asymptote’s Summer 2018 issue.

At first, this charge for the falsification of documents, the scandal of a political pseudonym, and a lack of material in translation seem like relatively unrelated aspects of Lísias’s literary career. But they all relate to one dimension of Lísias’s writing, which lies not in content but in a very particular attention to form: Lísias delivers fiction in a way that aims to perturb and befuddle a specific audience. More than confound, it inspires the audience to react.

And literature geared towards reader reaction poses a very new challenge for the translator.

In his 2014 eBook detective novels, Delegado Tobias (Detective Tobias), Lísias created Facebook profiles for his main characters (one of whom was himself, so he used his own profile). Between the release of each eBook, the author continued the story online through his social media simulacra, who would post fictional documents and news articles related to the made-up murder mystery. Readers’ interactions with the online personas would then influence the next eBook installment. That is, until one reader chose to take a screenshot of one of the posted images and report it to the Brazilian police as a falsified document.

Ricardo Lísias was put on trial and defended his novels, reminding the judges that a work of art can incorporate objects from the real world—and that literature can exist outside of the traditional book-object. After he won the trial, he wrote a novel in the form of a physical police case file, filled with the most convincing of fake documents.

In 2017, Lísias signed a secret contract with the Brazilian publishing house Record for the release of his book Diário da cadeia: com trechos da obra inédita Impeachment (Jail Diaries: with Excerpts from the Unpublished Book “Impeachment”). Signed: Eduardo Cunha (pseudonym). After the book’s launch was announced, but before copies hit the shelves, rumors flew about who the author of this novel could be. Perhaps the most interesting theory: that the true author was recently impeached former president Dilma Rousseff (whose own court drama is alluded to in the book’s title). The public speculation continued until Cunha took Lísias to trial, claiming that signing the book in his name constituted defamation of character. Lísias won the case and every appeal that followed on the grounds that Eduardo Cunha is a public figure, and the cover of the book clearly identified the signature as a pseudonym. But in the process, Ricardo Lísias was exposed as the real author of the text.

Both of the texts that inspired trials play with the way in which a text reaches its reader. Lísias takes full advantage of the digital platform with the hyperlinked profiles in Delegado Tobias; he brings autofiction to a new and unusual place by blending his personal social media persona with a fictional character. Perhaps the second case seems less clearly experimental; after all, the work is a physical book. However, Lísias creates a sense of realness by signing the fictional diary that the senator kept in jail with the name of the real politician. Before the author’s name was exposed, the pseudonym threw into question what the book was and what it meant politically.

In this sense, both texts combine form and content in a way that challenges the boundaries of what we define as literature, destabilizing the relationship between reader and text.

The traditional relationship a reader has with a literary text is so thoroughly solid and established that the kind of approach Lísias has to the novel is particularly unsettling. So often, writers experiment solely with content. The cutting edge of most texts is the story that is articulated and structured on the page. Sometimes, experimentation lies in the use of footnotes or the arrangements of the words on bound paper (or the PDF document on your e-reader). Or it involves the inclusion of images or drawings into the plot of the book (think, for example, of the powerful series of symbols Roberto Bolaño invents in The Savage Detectives). And though these moments of invention are new and brilliant, intellectually challenging and complex, they do not truly uproot the place the literary book-object holds in society.

It is almost as though literature is in the moment of transition that visual art had in the last century. The literary world has its own avant-garde that redefines the content of a painting, but few authors question the canvas itself. Meanwhile, Ricardo Lísias’s eBooks are like a urinal on the bookshelf of world literature.

He implied as much, at least, since he cited Duchamp in court to defend his art.

When writers tweak form, playing with digital platforms and possibilities, remolding what it means to read fiction, they rarely do so in a way that builds a collaborative relationship between the reader and the meaning being created. Perhaps rather than thinking of Duchamp to understand Lísias’s approach, comparing his work to the artistic happening is more apt and useful: literature can be a process, not an object. Literature exists in the moments in which the reader interacts with words and co-creates meaning. In Delegado Tobias, that process involved the reader who commented on the novel’s Facebook posts, influencing the plot; reading the stories now is like listening to the recording of a concert. In Diário, the novel gained meaning as readers theorized about the book’s author, questioning its place as a purely literary text, considering it seriously in terms of current Brazilian politics. Indeed, after he was revealed as the real author of the book, Lísias filed a suit against Cunha for destroying his work of art. By developing texts that interrupt our personal and political lives, these books frighten those who wish for literature to stay safely tucked between book flaps, inside a cover that can be closed and slid back into the bookshelf under a plaque reading fiction. And when that new kind of disruptive text involves political content? That’s when extremists start suing.

But like most things in this world, what I describe here is not a total novelty—it is instead a novel iteration of an age-old rhetorical tradition. A formalist focus on content in rhetoric comes out of a nineteenth-century tradition heavily concerned with format, structure, and the technicalities of language. (This shift is the case not just in literature, but also in the pedagogy of composition in the academy, as Robert J. Connors notes in his essay on college composition). However, much earlier there existed a different conception of the written word. Classical thinkers such as Cicero and Quintilian defined rhetoric as having five main “canons”: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. The relatively new, nineteenth-century iteration of rhetoric truncates the full reach of rhetoric and focuses entirely on the first three canons, binding literature to the corpse of the printed page and the dreary pedagogy of school-house writing. But classical rhetoric imagined how a text might reach into the contextualized social life and history of the reader—and how it might be delivered to that audience through one of many physical or oral forms.

Of course, outside of the mainstream global book market, a more varied range of delivery does exist in literature. In the northeast of Brazil, a type of book called literatura de cordel—“string literature”—is a form of popular art. They are thin, brightly colored, hand-printed books containing verse. But the authors are meant to sing the poetry aloud, accompanied by a guitar. The little book itself is not the complete literary form; the artistry also lies in the performed delivery of the text.

Today, even writers in the literary mainstream challenge the nineteenth-century paradigm. They have been doing so for the past few decades, in literature as well as rhetoric and composition, as they begin to call upon the two forgotten canons. The unconventional TV show SKAM—originally Norwegian and then adapted to a US audience—even uses social media to develop plot. But Lísias entirely inverts the priorities of “current-traditional” rhetoric in literature; in his most recent work, he grounds the artistic heart of his texts in terms of memory and delivery, in the way a text finds its shape in the real world. The invention, arrangement, and style of his texts are supporting elements to that reception.

Translation, too, is grounded in content rather than in memory and delivery. These final two canons of rhetoric are so thoroughly tied to a specific audience—specific in terms of language, culture, and context of reception—that they inspire a vast range of as-of-yet unanswered questions. Is it possible to recreate a literary “happening” in another language? If an author designs his or her text to inspire a reader response in a specific social context, is translation even possible? What changes might we have to make in translation to incorporate unconventional texts by authors like Lísias in the global literary market?

I like to think of these questions as an invitation. And in that sense, this essay too is a call for readers to act.

Lara Norgaard is a recent graduate of Princeton University in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America. She teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.

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