“Oh Rio, Rio hear them shout across the land/From mountains in the north down to the Rio Grande” (Duran Duran)

The 2016 Olympics have come to an end (boo!) but we still have the Paralympics to come (hooray!) There have been astonishing achievements by those who seem to have been made from very different stuff to us mere mortals. When they seem doused in more than their fair share of charisma as well, you can’t even make yourself feel better by thinking that they’re probably horrible people, because they’re just so funny and charming about it all. Who could I be thinking of….?


Human being 2.0

To celebrate the Olympics, I thought I’d take up triathlon sit on my backside reading, of course. It’s Women In Translation Month (head over to Meytal’s blog to read all about WITmonth) so I’m looking at two novellas by Brazilian women writers. This will also be one more stop on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading Challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.


Firstly, Agua Viva by Clarice Lispector (1973, tr. Stefan Tobler 2012). Although I’ve called this a novella, I’m not sure that’s really what it is. It’s a series of impressions and observations, plotless but definitely not artless.

“This is life seen by life. I may not have meaning but it is the same lack of meaning that the pulsing vein has.”

I say it’s not artless, because although Agua Viva can give the impression of randomness, it’s carefully constructed to carry you through, the different passages building on and echoing one another.

“So writing is the method of using the word as bait: the word fishing for whatever is not word. When this non-word – between the lines – takes the bait, something has been written…so what saves you is writing absentmindedly.

I don’t want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense. Not I: I want an invented truth.”

“I notice that I’m writing as if I were between sleep and wakefulness.”

Agua Viva quite a difficult work to talk about, because it resists being pinned down.  I could attach various labels to it: impressionistic, modernist, stream-of-consciousness, but none of these are quite right. On this reading – for I suspect it changes every time you read it – I felt it was about trying to capture the immediate present, to pin down moments knowing that they are gone forever just as you recognise them.  The style lends itself to this theme, as it jumps and disorientates, on occasions tipping over into surrealism:

“I am feeling the martyrdom of an untimely sensuality. In the early hours I awake full of fruit. Who will come to gather the fruit of my life? If not you and I myself? Why is it that things an instant before they happen already seem to have happened? It’s because of the simultaneity of time. And so I ask you questions and these will be many. Because I am a question.”

I read Agua Viva cover to cover, and I do wonder if this was the wrong approach. While the kaleidoscopic style and images build towards an overall impression, Agua Viva would equally lend itself to being dipped into, reading a single passage and ruminating on it. Apparently the Brazilian singer Cazuza read Agua Viva 111 times. I suspect it’s that sort of book: either you hurl it against the wall within minutes of opening it, or it becomes a mercurial companion for life.

I can’t sum myself up because you can’t add a chair and two apples. I am a chair and two apples. And I cannot be added up.”


Secondly, With My Dog-Eyes by Hilda Hilst (1986 tr. Adam Morris 2014). This is also a disorienting , unsettling work, non-linear and impressionistic. Hilst uses this style to create a highly effective portrait of Professor Amos Keres, who is having some sort of breakdown or psychotic episode. The fractured story-telling serves to take the reader inside the mind of someone who is extremely unwell.

“Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn’t see shapes or lines, didn’t see contours or lights, he was invaded by colours, life, flashless, dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning. He could only say that. Invaded by incommensurable meaning.”

The narrative shifts from third to first person as Keres copes with his boss suggesting he take a break, and then spends the day thinking over his life since boyhood, his career and his marriage. This makes it sound more linear and contained than it is, and does With My Dog-Eyes a great disservice. Its power comes from its layering of ideas and images with such rapidity as to almost assault the reader – never incoherent but an effective immersion in an unravelling mind.

“And everything begins anew, the patience of these animals infinitely digging a hole, until one day (I hoped, why not?) transparence inundates body and heart, body and heart of mine, Amos, animal infinitely digging a hole. In mathematics, the old world of catastrophes and syllables, of imprecision and pain was cracking up. I no longer saw hard faces twisting into questions, in tears so many times, I didn’t see the gaze of the other on mine, what a thing it can be to have eyes on your eyes, eyes on your mouth. Waiting for what kind of word? Such formidable cruelties occurring every day, humans meeting and in the good-mornings and good-afternoons such secrets, such crimes, such chalice of lies…”

It’s a good job this was a novella (59 pages in my edition) as I don’t think I could have taken much more of it (that’s a recommendation, not a criticism). With My Dog-Eyes is a short, sharp, shock: a plunge into madness.

To end, I was very excited that Caetano Veloso was performing at the Olympic opening ceremony, but I don’t think the acoustics did him any favours in capturing his wonderfully sensitive voice.  Here he is as part of the Pedro Almodovar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her):

20 thoughts on ““Oh Rio, Rio hear them shout across the land/From mountains in the north down to the Rio Grande” (Duran Duran)

  1. I’ve only read one book by Lispector — Near to the Wild Heart – and that too was rather impressionistic in style. There’s definitely something very intriguing about her work, even if it’s rather difficult to describe!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Summer, the Olympics, August, the school holidays, it all feels like it’s coming to an end, but there will always be books, bravo for combining it all in a couple of Brazilian novellas, though they sound like quite a reading challenge, Olympian even! So a literary gold medal to you for the achievement!

    I’ve yet to read Clarice Lispector, looking for the easy entry point!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It does feel like that back-to-school time of year, doesn’t it?

      Thank you for my gold medal – I think reading is the only event in which I’d be likely to gain such an honour 😀

      I don’t know what Lispector’s other works are like, but from Agua Viva I suspect there may not be an easy entry point – let me know if you find it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lispector has been on my radar for a while now, and your review has me intrigued. I might have to wait until my full reading capacity has returned post-Brexit (still on the crime fiction!), but I will definitely read something of hers at some point. in the meantime, I’ve totally fallen in love with the voice of Caetano Veloso. I feel a CD purchase coming on!

    Liked by 1 person

    • She does take concentration, I find, although she can also be read with the words sort of washing over you too. I must admit after reading it I was definitely in the mood for some plot-heavy crime fiction!

      Caetano Veloso’s voice is gorgeous isn’t it? You won’t regret your purchase 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I haven’t read either of these books but was lured by Duran Duran (although I was Team Culture Club, I still appreciated Duran Duran, obvs).

    The telecast times for the Olympics in Australia have been atrocious – time zones don’t match up at all so all the action has either been at 2am our time or 11am… which means I have been both v.v.tired and busting to get the kids off to school so that I can go home and doze/watch more Olympics. Truly, I need a weeks recovery, like an athlete 🙂
    Happily, the television station that has broadcast the Olympics in Australia launched a new show tonight, now that the Games are over. The new show is all about desserts – how fitting that, after two weeks of sitting on my bum watching sport, I’ll now be sitting on my bum watching chocolate 😮

    Liked by 1 person

    • I liked both CC and DD too – my loyalty is more with CC but fundamentally I refuse to choose 🙂

      The timings haven’t worked well for the UK either, 2am was when most of it was on here unfortunately. It’s very demanding viewing – we are athletes (sort of)!

      Australian and UK broadcasters obviously think alike – The Great British Bake Off returns this week…


  5. Handy timing as I’m currently on the look out for novellas, I feel like I’m trudging through too many big books right now (I hate you David Copperfield!) and want something short to read alongside. Also, you should have a go at a triathlon, I have done them in the past and been both last, second from last and third from last (whoo!), and was once overtaken on the bike section by an elderly man with a shopping basket (literally, a stolen Sainsbury’s plastic basket) stuck on the front of his bike, so they really are for everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector is also really good.( I highly recommend it) and I’ve been meaning to dive into more of her work. I was really impressed with her use of language, and I’m curious to see if that follows her throughout her other works. Must pick this one up as well as well Hilda Hilst which I’ve also heard good things about!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the recommendation, I was wondering which Lispector I should look at next 😉 I agree, she’s very engaged with language, it’s wonderful to read.

      The Hilst is astonishing – I really felt I’d been taken inside a deteriorating mind. It’s a brilliant piece of writing.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ahh, that beautiful song has just lowered my stress level – much needed today! Thank you!

    I fear I may be one of the people who would throw the first novella at the wall, but I do rather love the chair and two apples quote…

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Now thank you for that Madame Bibi. This time it is that pure, vulnerable and tender voice in your clip that I shall take away. I was equally as wet-eyed and lumpy throated as the actors in the film. Am still strangely struggling with my reading (and even more with my reviewing!) either cast books aside in exhausted irritation or too overwhelmed into incoherence to review them, if they are anywhere near wonderful.

    Perhaps it has been the exhausting despair of Brexit, and the world events generally, followed by a glut of obsessively watching the Olympics (and I’m the least sports bovvered person in the world – except for tennis -) but there has been something soothing, exciting and awesome watching people do these extraordinary things, and punish themselves to push themselves beyond their limits, which is both humbling, wonderful………and very very weird! A celebration of just how incredibly brilliantly diverse and strange people are. It has been quite joyful watching people make their bodies do things it is surely impossible to make bodies do! I was quite excited when I realised that my running time is very very close to Mo Farah’s 5k timing………he runs his 5 in the time it takes me to run 1 – in fact, I would say I run my 1 a bit faster than he runs his 5. It’s a shame I don’t look quite as joyful as he does though

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you liked the clip Lady F – I think his voice is wonderful, and so moving.

      Normally I’m not a sports watcher in any shape or form, but similarly to you, I think its some sort of post-Brexit reaction that has seen me embrace the Olympics this year – very odd, but enjoyable!

      I’m impressed by your 1km timing – I can’t run at all & I certainly wouldn’t look as joyful as Mo doing it!

      I hope your reading becomes enjoyable again soon 🙂


      • I just try hard to avoid noticing that my 1k running speed might be slower than the power walking speed of the marathon walkers. Ah well, at least I overtake the Sunday strollers and award myself a Usain Bolt lightning flash gesture in my imagination

        Liked by 1 person

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