Coming of Rage

Ancient Tillage BY Raduan Nassar. New Directions. Paperback, 184 pages. $14.
A Cup of Rage BY Raduan Nassar. New Directions. Paperback, 80 pages. $11.

The cover of Ancient Tillage The cover of A Cup of Rage

Certain appetites admit of no satiation. To satisfy them provisionally is only to hasten their resurgence: First comes the ache of expectation, then the diminishment of gratification, then the ache returns. So where does enjoyment fit in? It is at most a sliver, slotted between parallel lacks. In the ravenous fiction of the Lebanese-Brazilian author Raduan Nassar, the problem is not the absence of food but the impossibility of filling.

This year, Nassar's 1975 novel, Ancient Tillage, and 1978 novella, A Cup of Rage, became available in English translation for the first time. These chronicles of disastrous voraciousness make up Nassar's entire oeuvre: After they launched him to sudden celebrity, he left São Paulo to become a farmer and renounced writing altogether. So Nassar, like his volatile characters, filled himself up and emptied himself out, alternating between screaming and silence, exchanging one disappointment for its opposite, all to be disappointed again. The cycle ends only when we learn to sit still.

But A Cup of Rage starts in immediate motion. "And when that afternoon I arrived home at kilometer 27 on the road from town . . . ," it opens, as if even its beginning were the continuation of a prior momentum. The speaker of these words, a brash, reclusive older landowner, returns to his estate to find his lover, a young journalist, wandering the grounds. Her agitation is so pronounced it can barely suffer to await the book's beginning: By the second page, she is already "writhing with impatience." Nassar, complicit in this urgency, pitches into sentences spanning whole chapters, constructions so breathless that it's impossible not to dash through them. But the end of one only activates our craving for the next. This is downhill prose, not for savoring but for devouring as savagely as Nassar's lovers devour each other, biting one another's mouths as if they were "biting into the soft flesh of the heart," enacting a venomous tenderness.

Afterward, in the shower, they pause for a moment: As the narrator delivers himself "absolutely into [his lover's] hands," he is "still and abandoned to her care." But later, when he waits for breakfast, suffering from a more literal brand of hunger, "thinking how good it was that everything was just like this," the woman asks, "What's the matter?"—almost in expectation of the fit to follow, as if she's impatient not just for sexual climax but also for the inevitable conflagration. Men never forgive the women they love for compromising their independence, and in the ejaculatory chapter "The Explosion," the narrator erupts in a frenzy of rage. His outburst is apparently precipitated by the realization that a horde of ants has eaten its way through his hedge, an intrusion into the self-sufficiency of his property not unlike his lover's intrusion into his well-guarded privacy. After he douses the ant colony with pesticide, he sets off on a tirade, accusing his bourgeois but Marxist lover of political fraudulence and initiating a vitriolic argument about free will, populism, and authenticity.

The image of biting recurs as the man and woman hurl insults at each other: "Incisive like her I knew the best way to bite with the teeth of ideas, since our intrigues tended to be made of these shards," the narrator remarks. And fury has its own sensual rewards, a rhythm that swells up irresistibly and demands gratification, shading quickly into sexual goading. The woman's arguments, clever as they are—for "the twists and turns of her logic were brilliant, without a doubt she deserved to be complimented on them"—are muddied by the "fog of sensuality, the same plaintive provocative, and redundant appeal, in short the little miss could never get enough of this 'old man.'" "Remembering the scorn which she had heaped on me," the narrator reports, "I, still the bastard, could get the last word, saying, 'and who is your only man, the clay of your clay?' and she as loyal as ever would reply 'you my love you.'"

And isn't this a woman's lot, to field any wounds the men she loves care to inflict, not out of agreement but out of abject adoration? The narrator knows he's lost the substance of the fight, but he wields his lover's arousal and comparative youth like a weapon, exploiting "her will to power mixed with the sensuality of submission." A woman winning a debate on her intellectual merits still loses on the strength of her caring: Need is always a losing argument. When she finally concedes, he humiliates her, and she drives off in tears.

Still from Daria Martin’s Minotaur, 2008, 16 mm, color, sound, 9 minutes. © Daria Martin, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.
Still from Daria Martin’s Minotaur, 2008, 16 mm, color, sound, 9 minutes. © Daria Martin, courtesy Maureen Paley, London.

In the end, however, she returns again. The last chapter of A Cup of Rage, narrated by the woman this time, mirrors the first, suggesting that the clash we've witnessed is only the latest revolution of a recurring cycle: "And when I arrived at his house, at kilometer 27 on the road from town . . . ," she ends by beginning, and thereby begins by ending. This would not, she continues,

be the first time that I would attend to his whims, because a virulent, vertiginous tenderness took hold of me, so sudden and unexpected that I could barely contain the impulse to open myself completely and prematurely to welcome back that enormous fetus.

And so the drama begins anew, with the image of toxic pregnancy initiating another collision, another estrangement, and so on, ad infinitum.

Ancient Tillage also begins as it ends, this time with an explicit circle: a ring of dancers at a country festival like "a huge mill wheel, spinning swiftly," gaining speed until it grows unwieldy. This early passage, reproduced almost verbatim at the end of the book, casts the monotony of pastoral life as a form of delirious entrapment, dizzying to the point of nausea. André, the book's narrator, the prodigal son of a prosperous fazenda family, experiences the repetitions of farming as a kind of madness or compulsion. Beneath the well-ordered apparatus of daily chores, the baking of the bread and the feeding of the livestock and the drudgery of dutiful prayer, runs a vein of violence: "the throbbing behind all the doors, the trembling, the moaning and the soft voluptuousness of our homicidal plans." Wracked with incestuous lust for his sister Ana, André flees, and Ancient Tillage opens when his brother Pedro discovers him in a boardinghouse, lodging in drunken degeneracy.

The antidote to routine is interruption, and André careers from event to event in an attempt to assuage his longing for excitement. An epileptic, he favors concentrations of energy and passion so high they verge on self-destructive, and his virulent sexuality is his most urgent vice. Desiring demands a balance of restraint and indulgence, and André likens it to his childhood attempts to lure birds into traps: "One kernel too many, or one second less and the bird might become dispirited with excess or with longing, there was just the right, calculated amount, the amount that would maintain the dove's trust once caught." Too much eagerness and the bird becomes frightened and flutters away. Too much denial and the bird is no longer waiting but merely abandoned, unfulfilled.

André's father, a traditionalist, preaches forbearance: "If you exceed the limits of time and rush anxiously and boldly ahead of yourself, you will never get your due . . . if you gulp down the entire glass, you will never taste the wine," he warns. His philosophy is that "purification comes through patience." Throughout the book, he repeats the parable of the starving man who entreats a king for alms and sits through an imaginary meal although he is on the brink of death. When the starving man has endured several courses of mimed eating, the king breaks his fast, informing him that the entire charade was a test of his virtue: "And the starving man, thanks to his patience, never knew hunger again." The moral of the story is that patience is a precondition of enjoyment, allowing us to more cheerfully countenance our privation. If we cannot augment our food, we can at least diminish our appetites.

But André, who has returned to the fazenda in ignominy, counters, "A lot of people work hard, grunting and groaning their entire lives, they wear themselves out, do everything possible, but still can't satisfy their hunger." Like the woman in A Cup of Rage, for whom "the caliber of the thrashing didn't matter, she had never had enough," André knows that no feeding can ever accommodate the immensity of his need. This is the paradox of hunger—that it is not dismissed when it is gratified, that it can never be discharged once and for all, and that to mitigate it is only to bring about its renewal. No feat of surfeit is terminally satisfying—but wouldn't it be boring if it were?

Possession, for Nassar, is terribly precarious: His arrivals are fraught with departures, his gorgings with cravings, and all the meals he serves us in his deliciously indulgent prose are intimations of the emptiness lurking beneath even the fullest plates. Sometimes he overwrites, or tends toward heavy-handedness, and the lyricism of his characters' pronouncements is often unbelievable. His style, like Clarice Lispector's, lends itself to incident rather than plotting: He arrests and elongates moments whose strangeness and pungency might otherwise pass unnoticed, and A Cup of Rage, which treats an episode rather than a whole family history, is more fluid than Ancient Tillage. But Nassar's unwillingness to reconcile himself to partial fulfillments, excesses already reeking of pathetic moderations, is utterly compelling.

So we rush headlong with him into these futile entanglements, extricate ourselves, become entangled again, expose ourselves to the harshest intimacies and abruptly withdraw from them when they prove both more and less than we can bear. Who wouldn't want everything, and always, and at once? And yet who could stand it? But as André insists, "Impatience also has rights!" Why does the fault lie with hearty appetites, and not with the cowardice of their insufficient objects? Maybe proselytizers of patience just can't keep up. Maybe all that satiation requires is fuller fare.

Becca Rothfeld is a Ph.D. candidate in philosophy at Harvard University.