A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar (tr. Stefan Tobler). New Directions. $11.95, 80pp.
Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage has been a cult classic in Brazil since its publication in the late 1970s, but was not published in English until last year. From the first page, which opens in media res, it is apparent why Nassar has achieved such renown in his homeland, despite only publishing two novels before retreating from public life: his prose moves with a violence, vitality, and sexual energy that burns like a splash of acid. At only 45 pages, it barely meets the expectations of “novel,” yet the experience and reward of reading it are equal to that of a much longer fiction. Constructed of seven one-sentence chapters and anchored by a vitriolic, brutal center-piece, A Cup of Rage is a book to be read in the span of a single sitting—even if its density conspires against that.
The novel takes place on a farm somewhere in the Brazilian outback in the late years of the military dictatorship that had ruled the country since the early ’60s. Its principal characters—a middle-aged farmer and his young lover, who is an idealistic journalist—remain unnamed, save for the rapid barrage of invectives they heave at each other. But we have no premonition of this dark turn at the novel’s beginning. The arrival of the journalist at the narrator’s farm takes up barely the space of the page, immediately thrusting us into an electric bedroom scene:
I closed my hand over hers and straightened out her fingers, instilling courage in them, guiding them under my control to the hair on my chest, until they, from the example of my fingers under the sheet, developed their own masterful clandestine activities, or at a more advanced stage, after having carefully pored over our hairs, swellings and many smells, when the two of us on our knees measured the longest path for a single kiss, the palms of our hands pressed together, our arms open in an almost Christian exercise.
The narrator assumes the role of a priest, performing a ceremony over the body of the journalist. He describes the act as a “ritual,” in which he “would repeatedly enlist God’s name in my obscenities,” and this encounter is the closest the novel ever comes to Christianity—and yet it is a Christianity void of belief. Sex provides the only true escape possible for Nassar’s characters, from their lives, society, and each other, and they appear to repeat the pattern again and again, even if this is the novel’s only “real” sex scene.
But if A Cup of Rage is concerned with desire, it is just as preoccupied, if not more so, with rage. After a languorous breakfast, the narrator steps away to the veranda for a cigarette and spots a gap in his hedge, the work of leaf-cutter ants:
A gap in my hedge, oh misery, I press my finger into the ashtray, get burnt, uncomprehending she asked me ‘what is it?’, but without replying I half threw myself, half tripped myself down the stairs (Bingo was already on the patio, waiting for me, electrified) and she followed me, almost screaming ‘but what is it?”, and Dona Mariana had come running from the kitchen with the commotion, her eyes wide behind her thick lenses, dumbstruck at the top of the stairs, a pot and cloth in her hands, but I didn’t see anything, I left the two of them behind and hurtled over, out of my mind, and when I got close I couldn’t bear what I saw ‘fucking leaf-cutter ants,” and then I screamed even more loudly ‘bloody fucking leaf-cutter fucking ants’
All of a sudden, the slow, aching opening chapters give way to an explosion of tensions. This effect arises not just from the novel’s structure as a continuous sentence, but from the activity Nassar conveys, as characters run, trip, follow, hurtle, and scream from one page to the next, all without a single full stop. The motion is made as the narrator runs past his lover and Dona, the maid, while uttering a stream of obscenities. These imprecations are critical to the chapter’s, but also the novel’s, dialogue, and it doesn’t take long for the protagonist to redirect them from the ants to the young journalist. He rages at her as “an emancipated chit,” “a shitty little journalist,” a “bitch,” a “whore,” a “fraud.” She snarls back, tearing into him as a “little boy,” a “scummy iconoclast,” an “old fascist,” and, most memorably, “degenerate cum.” The hedge and ants are soon forgotten as their fighting takes an increasingly political turn (even from the start this is apparent in her constant admonitions of his alleged “fascism”), though by his own words he seems less a fascist than a disillusioned former idealist who has lapsed into nihilism:
I was repelled when I wanted to take part, let the world go to the dogs now! let cities fall, let people suffer, let life and freedom perish, when the ivory king’s under threat, who cares about the flesh and blood of sisters and mothers and children…people are only, and always will be, a ruled mass…because the shitty strong arm of authority is necessarily the basis of all ‘order’
This is a sharp contrast to the activist-bent of his lover, who continues to assault him as a deluded reactionary—a mantle he all too readily accepts. His ripostes take an increasingly misogynistic, macho turn (he at one point declaring “I’ve got balls, fraud, I don’t need higher power”), as the scene sinks further and further into a morass of bitter insults. Neither the narrator nor the journalist seems to have a firm grasp upon their political positions, or their social positions. His critique that upper-middle class revolutionaries like her, “dressed up as the people, generally look to me like carnival trannies” is, while crude, not an unconvincing criticism of her populist fury. But his own posturing as a “true” member of the people, a “graduate odd-job man,” doesn’t hold up either; he’s an apparently well-off landowner, with a large house and several servants. The closest we get to the actual “people” who form the backdrop of his and her political discourse are the much-abused Dona Mariana and Antonio, who themselves rarely step out of the novel’s backdrop. The real “people” and their plight are scarcely given a second thought by the novel’s erstwhile populists.
If anything, their political posturing seems like nothing more than a performance. This undercurrent comes to the surface when he slaps her across the face, then again, bringing her “almost to the point of orgasm.” “Types like you drool for the boot, types like you drool for a foot,” he tells her, and it’s not clear if he’s referring to an individual’s desire for domination, or that of an entire social group. In the bedroom, the journalist allows herself to be crushed, humiliated, and defeated by the “fascists” she spends her life fighting against. When she tells him “yes bastard, you’re the one I love,” she could just as well be speaking to the military regime. Her retreat to his compound in the outback, far from the political struggles of her real life, allows herself to find release in a ceasing of her resistance. And it is difficult to shake the feeling as a reader than we are just watching an extended sexual performance, each vile insult a last gasp before orgasm, anger and hatred exciting them just as much as physical desire.
Perhaps this ambiguity is fitting for the novel; it ends almost as it begins, with her return to his farm, and by the novel’s close we scarcely know more about the true lives of its characters than we did at its start. The man and the woman remain unnamed, and ever-shifting in their relationships to each other, at one moment mother and son, another tyrant and subject, peasant and intellectual, lover and lover. Like Nassar’s surging, unceasing prose, their transformation keeps us perpetually off balance, never quite sure of what is real and what is yet another torrid fantasy.
Ciat Conlin is a comparative literature major at the American University of Paris’
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