Bernardo Carvalho’s novel Nine Nights presents us with alternating narratives concerning the suicide in 1939 of an American anthropologist Buell Quain. The primary narrative is that of a young Brazilian novelist (not unlike Carvalho in some ways) as he researches and reconstructs the events that led up to Quain’s suicide deep in the Brazilian jungle. The alternate narrative, presented in italics, consists of mysterious missives written by Manoel Perna, an engineer and acquaintance of Quain’s who knew him for the nine crucial nights that preceded the suicide. Perna’s intended his oracular texts as a warning to future investigators of the difficulties they will encounter in pursuing answers to Quain’s death. But they also double as warnings for the reader:
This is for you when you get here. You have to be prepared. Somebody has to warn you. You are entering a place where truth and lies no longer have the meanings they had outside…The truth is lost among all the contradictions and absurdities…But before I go I am leaving this testimonial, for whenever you arrive to confront this absolute chaos.
At the outset of the book, Perna’s testimonial and the narrative of the young novelist seem like the parallel halves of a railroad track that will merge into some kind of truth on the horizon. But it doesn’t take long for Carvalho to disabuse us of that notion. Yes, more facts emerge and additional accounts of Quain’s last days surface, but real answers lay buried and lost in the jungle along with Quain’s body.
So, is Nine Nights just another contemporary story about identity, memory, and the slippery definition of truth? Not quite. Even when the novel encounters some missteps – there are one or two improbable events late in the book and some overly long passages – the voice of Carvalho’s narrator is confident and intriguing, and the contemporary story of his search often overshadows the emerging story of Quain’s suicide. One of the most gripping and evocative sections of the book comes when the narrator, who is pursuing Quain’s trail by visiting a remote Brazilian tribe, finds himself at the center of a series of rituals that he can neither fully understand nor extricate himself from. The tribe, it seems, wants to welcome him, to “adopt” him. But as an outsider, the narrator is the only participant with no knowledge of what is expected of him. With minimal understanding of each others language and no cultural contexts in common, every step that either the narrator or the tribe make can be misunderstood.
Suddenly the dancing and the singing stopped. A few women approached with buckets and bottles, picked out a few men and took them to the middle of the ring, near the fire. The men bowed their heads, as if in prayer, while the women, laughing heartily, dumped water on their heads. That was when I understood what the ritual was about, though I still didn’t understand why it was being performed or what it had to do with me. The women poured water on the men they were symbolically related to, the men with whom they could not have sexual relations. The bath was a ceremonial explication and delineation of the incest taboo… When the music stopped again, one of the women pushed me close to the fire, while the others took hold of the men, and emptied a bucket of water on my head.
At the end of his time with the tribe, the narrator remarks:
Despite all my terrifying experiences, I eventually felt a certain sympathy for them. And that was after only three days. I wondered how Quain would have felt after almost five months alone with the Krahô.
Based on the suicide of the real Buell Quain (1912-1939), Carvalho has created a novel that references a number of actual individuals from early twentieth century anthropology, including Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Photography and a mysterious photographer also play a very important role in the story, although the book itself only includes three archival photographs to help anchor the it within its historical context – a pair of ID-like portraits of Buell Quain and a group portrait that includes Lévi-Strauss. But the most captivating photograph is on the front cover, where the author is shown as a young boy holding hands with an impressive looking member of a Brazilian tribe. The fabulous but uncredited cover design crates the impression of a chipped and well-worn book jacket.
Bernardo Carvalho, Nine Nights. London: William Heinemann, 2007. Originally published as Nove Noites in 2002 and translated from the Portuguese by Benjamin Moser.