Read To Win

Why you must read the 47-page novel that could win a Rs 50-lakh prize for translated literature

Raduan Nassar’s extraordinary little book is part erotica, part anger porn.

…I could’ve found plenty of reasons to trip her up, not that I was so naif I demanded coherence, I didn’t expect that of her, I didn’t boast of that myself, only idiots and bastards proclaim that they serve a single lord, in the end we are all beasts born of one and the same dirty womb, carriers of the most vile contradictions…

— 'A Cup of Rage'

It’s a slim book, running to only 47 pages and seven chapters. Each chapter consists of one long sentence. It is about a pair of lovers – a young female journalist and an older man who inhabits an isolated farm.

They spend the night together and the following morning without any warning they tear into each other. It is unexpectedly barbaric and devastating given how a little while earlier they had been so lovingly tender.

Published in Portuguese in 1978, A Cup of Rage is an extraordinary text for its intensity and the power game between the couple. Given that women’s movements and feminism were gaining significance in the 1970s, the older man’s venomous verbal tirade directed at the emancipated woman/lover, followed by the stinging slap he delivers, gives the reader a shocking jolt.

The unexpectedness of the rage can be seen at face value as a spat between lovers, or, as a deeper commentary on the changing social structures and gender equations. Even though I am not familiar with the source language, there is something in the tenor of the translation by Stefan Tobler that makes the story truly magnificent.

Sure, there is passion evident in the opening sex scene, but the incredible skill of this translation is evident in the energy being carried over to the next day’s incident, which is powerfully transmitted to the English text. It has been a while since I read a book that was absorbing to read from the word go.

Raduan Nassar – who was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, to immigrant Lebanese parents – writes these long sentences that leave us breathless, but are akin to how we think, jetting from one topic to another, a roller coaster of passion and musing, going off at a tangent sometimes, but still keeping it altogether with a bit of philosophical reflection and analysis. Each of the chapter-long sentences, broken occasionally by punctuation, moves seemingly effortlessly. It is like a dance. Fluid. Split by moments of intensity (whether in conversation or action), and syncopated by detached observation bordering on meditation.

There are moments when the text seems better engaged with when read out aloud. Tobler writes in The Independent, “The writing has the sheer unstoppable force of a child’s temper tantrum, and only on a second read – or as an editor or translator – do you see the intricate patterns and repetitions that combine to produce this crushing emotional onslaught. He plays fast and loose with standard syntax and punctuation to convey the turmoil and onward rush of his characters. Most of his pages-spanning chapters in A Cup of Rage are a single long, evocative sentence.”

It is no wonder then that as soon as the book finishes you go back to the first page to begin reading it once again. According to an email correspondence I had with Tobler, the first draft of this translation was written almost ten years ago, but he returned to edit intensively a year ago. To quote him: “It was a joy to have something both so precise and so passionate to work with.”

Ancient Tillage

Raduan Nassar is a farmer now, and has been for many years. He is considered a modern literary giant of Latin America despite having written only two novels. Ancient Tillage is his second book although it was published first. The first English translation is by Karen Sotelino. The literary techniques employed in both texts are very similar, but in A Cup of Rage these come across as a little more sophisticated, perhaps a testimony to the quality of translation. It is difficult to say, since chronologically A Cup of Rage was written after Ancient Tillage, but published first, in 1975.

It could be that Nassar was experimenting more by the time he wrote the second story. But there is a distinct difference in the two texts. In A Cup of Rage the interior monologue comes across as richly textured, passionate and sensual. In Ancient Tillage it is flat and dull, with a touch of bewilderment. It could be due to the ages of the protagonists too in the stories – the man in Ancient Tillage is younger than the one in Cup of Rage – which is a remarkable comment on Nassar’s ability to be in the character of a young man and an older one so wonderfully.

Nassar’s evolution as a writer and experiments with literature are not very well documented, since he gives interviews sparingly. He prefers to be a recluse, although not in a fashion similar to JD Salinger. Tobler wrote a wonderful profile of the eighty-year-old Brazilian author in The Independent to coincide with the publication of the first English translation of these texts.

I am not surprised A Cup of Rage has been longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2016. Read the two novels for a glimpse into the earthy brilliance of Raduan Nassar’s writing.

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