Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu, translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato. 200 pages, Archipelago Books.
Dutiful reverence attends the work of artists dead from AIDS. Anyone familiar with gay art will know what I mean: when a brilliant life and promising career are truncated by disease, piety is summoned to stand watch over reputation—and sometimes preempt critique. Suffering is transformed into meaning, just as it was on the cross. The result is a crowded mantel of gay saints, not all of whom earned their halos. The Brazilian writer Caio Fernando Abreu is one of these, but his work isn’t without its charms.
Moldy Strawberries, hailed upon its publication in 1982 as Abreu’s finest work to date and appearing now in English translation by Bruna Dantas Lobato, cemented the author’s reputation in Brazil and assured some measure of literary posterity. But let’s be honest about what it is: the late juvenilia of an aging queer bohemian.
The text’s eighteen stories are divided into three segments. The first two, titled “Moldy” and “Strawberries,” contain nine and eight stories, respectively. The final story, “Moldy Strawberries,” is made to stand on its own. This structure recalls the A and B sides of a record that doesn’t (or can’t) contain its title track. The title, too, is a musical tribute: Abreu finished the collection in the years just after the assassination of John Lennon, whose name appears on the dedication page.
Dedications don’t usually set the tone for a book, but this one intends to: Abreu was eight years Lennon’s junior and identified with the gauzy, withdrawn Romanticism that Lennon had come to embody for a generation that, by 1980, had either aged out or sold out of a counterculture already staggering to its grave. For Abreu and others in this cohort, Lennon’s murder annulled the mood of peace and love that had worn too thin to conceal the facts: the strawberry fields hadn’t lasted forever, and what remained of the fruit was rotting under a fuzzy white coat in the fridge.
Moldy Strawberries wallows in this generational self-pity and self-regard, with mixed results. Middle-age weltschmerz from a gay writer risking the censors of Brazil’s military dictatorship is not an entirely unattractive proposition, and several stories in the collection transcend cliché to achieve enchantment through the sheer force of artistic will triumphing over depressive malaise and cannabinoid ennui. Others exalt moments of joy that manage to persist under an oppressively homophobic regime: “Fat Tuesday” is a sexy romp from bar to beach that encapsulates, with poetic economy, the fleeting thrills and looming dangers of gay life in 1970s Brazil. Here Abreu’s prose pulses with life and gamely flirts with camp:
His mouth came closer to mine, slightly open. Like a ripe fig split into quarters, the pulp slowly torn from the round side to the tip with the blade of a knife, revealing the pink insides full of seeds. Did you know, I asked, that figs aren’t fruit, that they’re actually flowers that bloom inward?
Moments later, the narrator and his would-be lover are jumped by thugs on the beach, gay-bashed, and forced to run for their lives. Separated in the melee, their connection is cut short, forever.
“Passing through a Great Sorrow” takes up similar themes, this time in the form of a telephone dialogue between two friends, both depressed and alone. And while the story’s epigraphic instruction—“To be read to the soundtrack of Erik Satie”—at first warns of a pretentious, adolescent attempt at cosmopolitanism, Abreu manages to surprise. It’s a subtler story about connection and disconnection, the imperfect but critical technologies we use to supplement strong ties made brittle by modern urban life, and the chill of loneliness that no device can ever banish.
But I’ve called this juvenilia and must defend the charge. Here is the first paragraph of “Light and Shadow,” a story that seems ripped from a teenager’s notebook:
There must be some sort of meaning, or what would come after? This is the kind of stuff I’m thinking about this afternoon, standing here by the window, facing the endless zinc rooms where doves sometimes land, cooing. They’re gray, the doves, and the sound they make is sinister like the sound of bat wings. I know bats really well, their sharp shrieks, screeches. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I think that if I manage to make some sense out of what I’m saying, I will also, therefore, make some meaning. At the same time, or maybe right after, I think that I don’t know for sure that after this sense and meaning comes anything else.
This is not an auspicious beginning. Just as its title foretells, the story attempts a poetic chiaroscuro as it continues. But continues is the wrong word. There is no narrative or progression, only dilation and contraction: the alternating movements of introspection and projection. This dreary solipsism saturates several stories in the collection.
Similarly, “Still Life” reads like a timed response to a creative writing prompt. Abreu’s narrator addresses a listener who’s apparently in the midst of breakup or a lover’s quarrel. Recalling the numerous references to astrology that appear throughout the volume, the narrator speaks to his interlocutor in an oracular future tense: “Your heart will race, no one will hear it, and for a moment you’ll maybe imagine that you could relax your limbs and simply touch him, which might magically light up the room with the light you’ve spotted in him as well.” The technique aims for stylistic originality but feels lifeless—something Lobato might have recognized when she decided to give the story a new title. (“Still life” is natureza-morta in Portuguese; Abreu’s original is titled “Natureza viva,” or “Living nature.”)
While “Still Life” reads like a cheap knockoff of the tarot-card reading that kickstarts Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7, other stories appropriate New Wave tropes with clever confidence. “The Day Uranus Entered Scorpio (Old Story with Benefits)” reads like a transcription of scenes from one of Godard’s exuberant mid-sixties masterpieces: characters turn up out of nowhere, behave like they’re on drugs, and interrupt scenes to read passages from dense theoretical works to anyone who cares to listen—in this case a selection from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death (1973). The story also offers such delicious prose as this passage, skillfully rendered in Lobato’s translation:
It was Saturday night, almost summer, and there were so many concerts and plays and full bars and parties and movie premieres at midnight and people meeting and motorcycles zooming by around the city, and it was so hard to give all that up to stay in the apartment reading, watching other people’s joy through the window, or trying to find some sliver of meat on the bones of the cold chicken left over from lunch.
Anyone who has ever been young and broke and sick with romance for a city they still can’t believe they call home will remember nights like these. Less interested in capturing a mood than in generating a vibe, the narrative gaze is here directed outward; like an adolescent, it doesn’t register what it sees as a historical or geographical particularity. Rather, the vague city is a universal, made recognizable—and even familiar—by viewing it from the vantage of restless youth. This means it’s a cliché, but like most optical illusions, it’s amusing to behold.
The city evoked in “Uranus” might be Porto Alegre, where Abreu attended college. Or it could be São Paulo, where he joined the founding editorial staff of the magazine Veja in 1968. It might also be Rio de Janeiro, where he worked as an editor for less important magazines in the seventies. Or it might be Paris or Stockholm or London—all places Abreu stayed during sojourns to Europe motivated by the frustrations of living in a homophobic society where state apparatuses controlled by conservative intellectuals could and did censor his work.
Abreu’s foreign wanderings were never long-lasting and amounted to just a few years of his life. But the romance of itinerancy adhered to Abreu’s posthumous legacy, not least because it squared with his self-conception as a poète maudit. Government persecution added a tangible dimension to his afflictions of the soul.
Abreu’s associates likewise reinforced the impression. After moving to São Paulo, he began to spend long periods living at the Casa do Sol: a chácara, or country estate, inhabited by the Paulista poet Hilda Hilst, an eminence of twentieth-century Brazilian literature who maintained a defiant distance from the cultural establishment. Hilst had built the estate to escape the distractions of São Paulo and concentrate on her literary work. Tranquil and rustic, the Casa do Sol was home to a shifting ensemble of artists, musicians, and above all, young poets who came there for the freethinking bohemian atmosphere—and to learn from a writer they worshipped.
Hilst was and remains, for many young Brazilian writers, a more powerful siren than Clarice Lispector. Nearing forty by the time Abreu met her, Hilst had already garnered national acclaim for her work and notoriety for her lifestyle (drinking, smoking, lovers, robes). Abreu was one of the first of many young poets to seek her apprenticeship, which entailed reading assignments from her vast personal library and hours at the typewriter as Hilst dictated her poems. The two writers’ influence over one another is obvious to me: Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death was one of Hilst’s favorite books. But which of them read it first is, so far as I know, a matter of conjecture.
Abreu’s subsequent success augmented Hilst’s: during his lifetime, his fame eclipsed hers and motivated other young poets to turn up at her doorstep. In a slight to Hilst’s mentorship that was also a tribute to her unwavering fascination with mystical power and paranormal activity, Abreu attributed his initial literary success to the wish-granting fig tree on her property. Hilst had selected the site of the Casa do Sol for its proximity to the tree, which was about two hundred years old by the time she inherited the coffee farm where it grew.
Not long after his arrival there, the twenty-one-year-old Abreu put the legend to the test: under the full moon, which Hilst believed strengthened the tree’s occult power, he wished for his reedy voice to deepen, and to win a short story competition he’d recently entered. Residents of the Casa do Sol were astounded to hear Abreu speak the next day, his voice turned to gravel. Soon thereafter, Abreu was named the winner of the 1970 Fernando Chinaglia Prize. He went on to win the Jabuti—Brazil’s most prestigious literary prize—three times in his short life. Abreu’s subsequent work continued his project of giving voice and texture to the lives of people marginalized by the dictatorship—and then by AIDS. His books now appear on reading lists for the entrance exams at some of Brazil’s most prestigious universities.
About ten years ago, I laid a palm flat against the same sorcerous bark at the Casa do Sol and made three wishes. Two have already come true, and the outcome of the third can only be known after my death. I don’t mean to suggest Abreu owes his renown to a magic tree—not really. He became, and remains, the kind of cult figure who stirs the passions of aspiring young writers because even his more jejune and navel-gazing stories capture a different sort of magic, one that comes disguised in blessings and curses: the extreme and erratic emotions of youth.