At her death in 2004, Brazilian author Hilda Hilst had received a number of her country’s important literary prizes and published more than two dozen books of poetry, drama and fiction. What many Brazilians immediately thought of in conjunction with her name, however, was the notoriety generated by what critics labelled Hilst’s ‘pornographic’ tetralogy of the years 1990-1992, with the novel Letters from a Seducer generally considered the masterpiece of the four. Yet the charge of pornography, which Hilst did not disavow, hardly approaches her deep skill and artistry in drawing from and upon a mode that might appear inimical to art. In Letters from a Seducer, Hilst employs multiple discourses, styles, forms, and registers, including those of the libertine epistolary tradition, evoking works by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos and the Marquis de Sade, as well as by modernist antecedents and later twentieth century models, to create a postmodern polyphonic text that surpasses the limits of the conventional realist novel. Unfolding in three parts, beginning with letters from a wealthy, depraved socialite, named Karl, to his cloistered sister, Cordélia, then shifting to a series of stories by a near-homeless graphomane named Stamatius (‘Tiu’), and concluding with even briefer fragments extracted, like atomic particles, from the ‘hollows’ of the imagination, the novel suggests that perhaps the greatest seducer of all is language and its manifold (im)possibilities. What becomes ever clearer as we proceed through this novel is Ludwig Wittgenstein’s famous dictum that ‘ethics and aesthetics’ are one.
How to think about pleasure wrapped up in this crap? In mine. This discomfort of knowing myself raggedy and covered with sores, your hair growing long in the crotch, if you dare think about it, and then around the hair a stew of wounds, I do dare think about it I tell myself, my mouth toothless because of all the stress and strains and addiction, I dare think about it and they don’t forgive that. Then I take hold of your pubes and your pussy, pound them, your cry is high, hard, a whip, a bone, there’s debris all over the room, shards of that church over there in Caturré, the guy blew up everything in five minutes (was it me?), screamed, darkly: God? here, oh I only know about God when I enter the hairy mouth of the wild sugar apple, and soon after we heard the bang, the church exploding like jackfruit falling from the sky. I take hold of my mistress’s pudenda, after I spit on the papers, those ones from six months ago and which every day I smooth out, fumble with, tear, soil. Don’t you want to fuck, Tiu? aren’t you a little tired of writing? I look at Eulália. She’s tiny and plump. For a year now she’s been accompanying me in the street. — We ask for everything that you are going to throw in the trash, everything that isn’t worth a dime anymore, and if there is any leftover food we still want it. The burlap sacks fill up, bric-a-brac books stones, then some people put rats and shit in the bag, what faces those rats had, my God, what injured little eyes those rats had, my God, we separated everything out right there: rats and shit here, books stones and bric-a-brac there. Never any food. We were busy all day long. Afterwards I washed off the books and began to read them. Eulália would do what she could to get some food. What readings! What people of the first order! What Tolstoy and philosophy they threw out is unbelievable. I have my half-dozen copies of that masterpiece The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the complete works of Kierkegaard. And among the bric-a-brac I got some special ones too: a twelfth-century foot of Christ, half the face of an eighteenth-century Teresa Cepeda y Ahumada, a piece of St Sebastian’s thigh (with arrow and blood) from the thirteenth century, a stick of pink plastic, from this century, all twisted up as if it had been burned (I kept it in order not to forget … not to stick mine in one of those spontaneously combustible pieces…), two parrot feathers, the belly of a Buddha, three pieces of angel wings, six Bibles, and two hundred and ten copies of Das Kapital. (They threw a lot of this last one out, it seems to be out of fashion, I guess.)
We’re going to fuck, yes we are, Eulália, very soon.
She laughs. She has excellent teeth (!) and doesn’t care about my empty mouth. She knows that I lost them (the teeth) when I was trying to pay my mortgage. The mortgage for my house. Stress. It is quite clear that I was unable to do it, I found myself without house without teeth without furniture and without my woman. But the catfish here is whole, firm as you’ll find, the tongue also, and I go on licking Eulália’s little dove, her sweet coil, and she cries out a high cry, hard, a whip, a bone. Afterwards I insert the pole. When I come I take a peek at the bounty. My bounty here inside. What I did not have. The one I lost. I lost so many words! They were beautiful, blonde, I lost ‘Monogatari’, all her mountainousness, her monkey-cat-gnome-like acts, I lost Lutécia, a pathetic woman but mine. She died soon after saying to me: I’ll go get some pasteles for you only. She was run over. My Lutécia. The crushed pasteles still in her hand. My Lutécia. Never again. She was on the plump side and tall. And what softness in the cleft of her bosom, her chasm, in her bush, in her ass. What a butt! I laid my face there and sometimes half tearful, half silly, said to those stuffed meats, if I had had a little pillow like yours, Lutécia, when I was a filthy, shabby kid, I would have been a poet. Then she turned: cry here in my pussy, big boy, smear the rose, go on. I wept and smeared it. She moaned sad and long. Eternal Lutécia.
what’re you thinking about?
about our lives, Eulália.
and it isn’t good, Tiu?
if I could at least manage to write.
write about me, about my life before I happened to find you, about the beating Zeca gave me, about the disease he gave me, about my mother who died of pity for my father when he utterly destroyed his liver, about the baby I lost, Brazil ay!
yes I’ll write, Eulália, I will write about your tobacco leaves, about my bat.
don’t talk like that, baby, I just want to help.
She lies face down, cries a little, afterwards whimpers, that’s when I pluck the parrot’s feather, one of those with yellow-green plumes, and whistling the national anthem I’ll trill her little ass, sliding the shaft in the hole, slowly stroking the slope of her buttcheeks and Eulália rises and draws hers back loose, so I’m heading into the woods, and leave the pulp for the nib, beautifully stuck right in there. I come thick thinking: I am a Brazilian writer, something of a macho, baby. Let’s go.
Hilst was born in Jaú, São Paulo State, in 1930. After studying law at the University of São Paulo, she issued her first book, a collection of poems, in 1950, before dedicating herself to literary creation several years later. For the next four decades, she published extensively, beginning with collections of poetry before turning primarily to drama in the late 1960s, and fiction after 1970. From 1982 to 1995 she participated in the Artist-in-Residence program at the University of Campinas, near her home, the Casa do Sol. Recognised in her lifetime and after as one of the most important and controversial figures in Brazilian contemporary literature, Hilst died in 2004. The above excerpt comes from the preface to Letters to a Seducer (Nightboat/A Bolha Editora).
John Keene is the author of Annotations (New Directions), and, with artist Christopher Stackhouse, of Seismosis (1913 Press). His poetry, fiction, essays, reviews, and translations from Portuguese, Spanish and French have appeared widely, in periodicals and anthologies, and he has received an array of honours for his work. He is Associate Professor of English and African American and African Studies and a member of the Creative Writing MFA faculty at Rutgers University in Newark.
This piece was selected for inclusion in the January 2014 Translation Issue by Daniel Medin, a contributing editor of The White Review. He helps direct the Center for Writers and Translators at the American University of Paris, and is Associate Series Editor of The Cahiers Series.