Loose End

The writer Victor Heringer (1988–2018) did not consider himself properly Brazilian. Spending formative years in Chile and Argentina – after which he had to relearn Portuguese – he once explained that any affection for his country sprang from a kind of ‘uncomfortable amazement’. His claim to be apátrida, stateless, reflected a fundamental repudiation of tribalisms and ideologies of all kinds. Today there can be no vanguards, no faiths, or as he proclaimed in Pessoa magazine: ‘Down with Progress! Long live Walter Benjamin!’ His true homeland was irony, something he half-joked was unknown to his compatriots. In a 2014 article – all his contributions to Pessoa are collected in Vida desinteressante (2021) – he defined this not as the pointed drawl that indicates the opposite of the ostensible utterance, but as Scott Fitzgerald defined intelligence, ‘the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function’. Its ruling instance was the compenetration of life and death: ‘Infinity is inscribed into our perishable flesh’.

Simultaneity is the theme of Misantropical, Heringer’s incantatory video made with the musician Dimitri BR for the 2012 São Paulo Biennale, and begets other reverberations in his video work, poetry, journalism and fiction, setting up frictions between melancholy and playfulness in inconsistent ways especially suited (he often said) to the restless attention-style of digital culture. Of course, the new and the old were for him entwined; he was at the same time updating his great hero Machado de Assis. And while he milked the irony of a Brazilian being the greatest ironist of all time, it’s surely because Machado, a mulatto as well as disabled and epileptic, was equally an outsider in his own culture. My failure to find anything online about how Heringer fits into the national literary scene could be simply because he doesn’t.

His debut novel, Gloria (2012), contrasted two phenomena, online life with its witty self-fakery and the growth of Pentecostalism, through two incurably depressed brothers; it was high on metafiction, using anachronistic language registers and pseudo-footnotes. The Love of Singular Men (2016), published this year in a remarkable translation by James Young, is more earnest, despite its slowly emerging snares, and therefore perhaps more daring. It is about first love and aloneness (‘singularity’). Partly set in the mid-seventies on the edge of Rio, in a poor district where the one big house belongs to the narrator Camilo’s family, it is dressed in his shifting subjectivity. We first meet him as a disabled, introverted thirteen-year-old with wildly dysfunctional parents who don’t allow him out except to school, on the day his father inexplicably brings home a ‘coffee-with-watered-down-milk colour’ boy named Cosme to live with them. Camilo instantly hates him, ‘who knows why. Hate has neither reason nor purpose.’

In a refreshingly anti-psychological novel, this is the condition of most emotions, offered as facts that observably succeed each other, typically in the form of physical sensation rather than as inner processes. Love is as arbitrary as hate: ‘After I walloped him with my staff, my hate no longer took Cosme’s name or shape. And so, with a single blow, I began to love him.’ Over the course of fragmentary encounters, love and lust become somehow requited. But what consciousness is remembering all this, yet never trying to make retrospective sense of it? Chapter five introduces a different time frame, that of fifty-something Camilo, still on crutches, in the present day. ‘After more than thirty years away, I came back to Queím. I want to die right where I was born. Everyone likes a little symmetry.’

A double narrative now unfolds. One, Camilo reliving his days as the overwhelmed naïf discovering the streets with Cosme, learning how to masturbate with the boys, the surprise first kiss, the terror of abandonment, Cosme’s homophobic murder. Two, Camilo today as the grumpy misanthrope, railing against the sameness of people or Rio’s cheap upgrades, lamenting the fading of memories that are nevertheless brutally vivid in the telling. Cosme’s death spelled the end of Camilo’s freedom as a teen. As a solitary adult, a period of dealing antiques provided some meagre human connection: ‘our bonds are cardboard boxes full of junk’.

When this sad man lures into his home an untethered boy rather like Cosme, the two strands begin to chime in unacknowledged, disturbing ways. Believing (on flimsy grounds) that Renato is Cosme’s killer’s grandson, yet developing a fondness for him, Camilo is batted between feelings that must be gleaned between the lines – quasi-affection, anger, arousal – given his petrification ever since the murder of his love. This pudeur is one of the most moving figurations of authorial compassion in the novel.

The narrator’s passivity demands active work from the reader. On top of the irregular alternation and overlap of the two timeframes, key information is not released chronologically. We know from the start that Cosme will be killed, steeping each moment of the pair’s two-week idyll in dread as we read. We learn much later of Camilo’s mother’s theory about Cosme’s origins, communicated in a posthumous letter. Cosme was possibly the child of a victim of his father under the dictatorship – suddenly revealed to his son as a torturer – but ‘I never tried to get to the bottom of it . . . It might have been an invention of her bitterness’. What if Renato’s identity is likewise an invention of Camilo’s bitterness? The hum of uncertainty and its implications are amplified by the novel’s literary and sonar patchwork: sharp sensual detail, foggy ambiguity, realism both social and magical, contradictory opinions, different orders of fantasy. The very concept of ‘first’ love is simultaneously upheld and subverted, as Camilo never loved a second time. The several pages dense with the names of real people’s first loves, which Heringer solicited from the internet, both embrace and exclude Camilo: ‘Like André loved Luca, like Tayana loved Nanda, I love my Cosme, my first and only.’

When it comes to fantasy, one scene stands out. The pair go to meet their usual gang of young toughs in the derelict slave house, and stage a kiss. The others freeze, while Camilo steels himself for extravagant violence; instead, a stylized brawl unfolds in slow motion and peters out. ‘Afterwards, for something to say, Knots commented that I was white and Cosme was brown, I was rich and he was poor . . . and then laughed . . . And that was that.’ Such easy acceptance of gayness from street kids in 1976 is surely wishful writing. It sends me to something that Heringer’s brother, in a recorded memorial, said about him: Victor often used the word ternura, tenderness; he did love the world, but really it was ‘more of an aspiration . . . He had an extraordinary capacity for both love and hate’.

In the slave house scene, then, love is wilfully made to prevail, as it also does – more pathetically – in the present, at the novel’s end. After a slapstick revenge fantasy, in which Camilo’s attempts to murder Renato are repeatedly thwarted by his disability, the tension lifts and the chapter numbers start going backwards. We move into the third person. Camilo has become a normal, fussy parent-figure to Renato; but he’s right back in the insecurity that tormented him with Cosme.

As if to adulterate a still too-pure form, various graphic elements appear. Here are Camilo’s childhood drawings, there, stills from a documentary Renato is watching, elsewhere the reproduction of a school attendance sheet. A kind of emoji, a circlet of commas, appears whenever the sun (which paleface Camilo hates) is mentioned, and is used to illustrate other violent evocations, such as scattered brains. The sign is complexly suggestive; the other visual extras – lacking, say, Sebald’s allusive distance in which meaning floats in the disjunction of text and image – provide little more than pleasing illustration. The book remains this side of putting language itself into question.

Was it all conscientiously planned? Heringer once said that he loved the serendipity of creation, like exploring a mountain and discovering new places to twist your ankle. His commitment to heterodoxy, singularity and incongruity made him an artist of the loose end. He killed himself aged twenty nine, when he was beginning to make his name. Perhaps the ‘who knows why’ that whispers through all his work applies also to this.

Read on: Roberto Schwarz, ‘Competing Readings’, NLR 48.