“…retreat seemed only another cowardly act I’d have to shoulder on my journey. So I pressed ahead.”
Two Lines Press describes the books by Brazilian writer João Gilberto Noll, who died this March at the age of 70, as “reminiscent of the films of David Lynch,” which seems about as apt a description as I can think of. The two books that have been translated into English so far —Quiet Creature on the Corner and Atlantic Hotel — are strange, subversive, and compelling that share a sense of bleakness, violence, and anomie.
In Atlantic Hotel, which comes out this month, Noll’s nameless narrator wanders aimlessly across parts of Brazil. He’s rather like a human pinball, making decisions about his next direction abruptly, without forethought. He often says the first thing that comes to his head, which means he often seems to be lying. He has casual sex within minutes of meeting women. We learn almost nothing about his past or about his motivations. He might or might not have once been an actor on a TV soap opera, but now he gives his occupation as “unoccupied.” He is both running from something and searching for something, but he (and we) never know what.
One day, after hiking through a storm, the narrator arrives in a small town and collapses on a street. When he awakes, he finds himself in a room and learns that his leg has been amputated for no apparent reason. (None is ever given.) He momentarily sheds a few tears, but then he’s over it and struggles on. By the end of the book he has also lost both his hearing and his sight, losses he accepts rather complacently, desperately trying to maintain an inexplicable serenity. “One day I hoped I would understand why all this had happened.”
Noll’s brief book drops subtle hints to subjects like politics, gender, and religion that resonate all the more deeply for being little more than bread crumbs left on our path. Take, for example, the issue of gender. His narrator, who is routinely macho around women, also has dreams in which he is a woman and, at times, he turns curiously tender toward other men. Noll is a minimalist, suggesting much but explaining nothing. He writes in a style that I think of as anti-noir, for lack of a better term. In Atlantic Hotel it’s easy to spot many of the tics of classic 1940s noir writing: random violence, casual sex, snappy dialogue, a spare prose style. “I turned on the faucet, splashed water on my face, hair, neck. An alarm clock rang in the distance. Right after that, a school bell rang. The nervous horn of a car. And in the background, the muffled rumble of Copacabana.” Or this: “I watched the commotion at the bus station and saw that the hour of my departure had arrived, the way someone going under for surgery witnesses the anesthesiologist’s first procedure.” Noll lets the weather set the story’s mood music and he randomly drops small visual moments that seem as if they were borrowed from Edward Hopper paintings, as when the narrator looks out his window and into one in a nearby building where a woman is calmly filing her nails.
Noll gives us all of the moodiness and set pieces of noir, but there’s no justice in the end, there’s no moral compass in sight. Nor is the narrator is an anti-hero. Instead, he is repelling and vaguely sympathetic in more or less equal measures. He’s almost completely unresponsive in emotional terms to the tragedies that occur around him and to him. “I listen. I listen to everything – I don’t ask.” He has no prospects for redemption. He’s merely a survivor.
“I’m sorry.” I said it full of a sudden shame.
“Sorry for what, man?” he asked.
“Sorry for being who I am,” I replied…
João Gilberto Noll, Atlantic Hotel. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2017. Originally published in 1989 and translated from the Portuguese by Adam Morris. Bomb has posted an excerpt from the novel and Guernica has done an interview with translator Adam Morris. and Literary Hub offers an invaluable round-table conversation about Noll. Finally, the novel has been made into a bland and soulless film Hotel Atlântico (in Portuguese) by Suzana Amaral that can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.