Hilda Hilst, With My Dog-Eyes

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Pity for Amanda washes over me.  She has, looking at me, a stupid and childish look on her face.  Some seminary man will say that a child can’t have a stupid look.  I have always been afraid of children (I think my father was too, deep down), afraid they’ll spit in my face my eye my chest.  For instance, the kid of one of Amanda’s friends spit in my glass of whiskey during one of those tedious parties, a birthday party for somebody’s little Junior, come on Amanda, come, afterward we’ll play a little game, well okay, he spit, and another little twerp let out a drawn-out fart that really set me off, and he just wandered away, a little cardboard party hat on his head.  Amanda tersely screeching:  Amós, I’m thirty years old, you get it?  thirty.  I say I don’t get it.  She explains:  I’m trying to say I’m young, Amós, and living with you it’s like I was dead, get it?  Sheesh, Amanda, why would you say that?  Every day you look older to me, more closed up, you don’t say a word to my friends, not even to that mathematician who seems to adore you.  Who?  Isaiah.  Well that’s because we understand each other.  How can you understand each other without even talking?  I understand Isaiah, I do, Amanda.  I don’t tell her that Isaiah lives with a pig in his house.  Isaiah:  I took a shine, Amós, to that little animal, she’d friendly, very nice, she makes great company.  And mathematics?  Ah, it helps me a lot to have hilde around the house, she doesn’t annoy me, doesn’t shed, she’s gentle, patient, quiet.  A few grunts at times, but that gets me a bit excited, you know?  I know.  Amanda continues:  Amós, you’re acting strange.  She leans over me.  I’m seated.  I see the groove between her breasts and the pendants on her neck.  She says:  you stink.  I say:  it was that little twerp that farted.  Ah.  You’re being very strange.  You always knew that I was a bit confused.  Confused how, Amós?  You were never confused, you’re a professor of pure mathematics, you’re a university professor, you did a thesis and all that, remember?  You were simply adorable.  Adorable, huh?  And they said you were brilliant.  Brilliant, huh?  Please, Amós, tell me what’s going on.  I don’t even drink my whiskey.  I couldn’t do it.  I go home. (pp. 32-33, iPad iBooks e-edition.  Translated by Adam Morris)

After reading that singular wall-of-words paragraph taken from nearly halfway into the late Brazilian writer Hilda Hilst’s recently-translated With My Dog-Eyes, it might take a bit of parsing to explain (if explaining is even the point of considering this passage or the book as a whole) just what you read.  Some books are easily summarized.  This is a book about loss and rediscovered one.  That is a book about suffering and redemption.  But this, this particular book is not just merely “about” insanity, it takes on some of madness’s contours in order to show a breakdown in the lines between perception and reality, sense and insensibility.

It is trite, perhaps, to say such tales require an expert hand in order to make sense of the senseless, to allow the sane a window into insanity.  It might also be the sort of canard that makes it even more difficult for the reader to gain a foothold in this vertiginous narrative.  With My Dog-Eyes, written sometime around 1983, is perhaps Hilst’s most challenging yet potentially rewarding prose works.  In his introduction, translator Adam Morris notes that her short tale (the print edition contains only 59 pages) on the unraveling life and sanity of the mathematician Amós Kéres perhaps should be viewed as a nexus that Hilst believed existed between genius and madness, poetry and mathematics.

Certainly there are elements within this novella that seem to support this assertion.  Let’s consider the paragraph quoted above.  Showing a merging conversation between Amós and a woman, Amanda, the purposeful confusion of voice serves to conflate not just voice but personality into a seamless entity that manages to achieve a unity of character despite everything else seemingly being inane or opposed to this illusive unity.  Amós/Amanda switch readily between the picayune and the profound, between the fears of fading youth and the stench of a kid’s fart, between expressing what is acceptable and what is out-of-bounds for “polite” conversation.  This paragraph, which is merely but one of a few dozen similar paragraphs I could have quoted here, serves to mark yet another shift from an orderly, sequential mind to a person whose thoughts and perceptions are becoming decidedly non-linear.

This effect can disorient readers accustomed to more orderly narratives.  Yet for the most part, With My Dog-Eyes manages to create a detailed simulation of madness through its own disjointed, crazed patchwork of dialogues and reflections.  It is point to use the usual critical tools to assess the effectiveness of Hilst’s story.  Her characters do not depend upon plausibility in order to be effective, unless one wants to judge “plausibility” on the ways that it diverges from how a “normal” person would think and act.  As a corollary, the same applies to her prose, particularly her dialogues.  As seen above, taken at surface level, the quoted conversation would induce eye-widening and a head shake before the narrator/s would be dismissed.  But when viewed as a window into the mind of a possibly unbalanced individual, passages such as this capture well this sense of difference and flattening of typical perception/interpretation patterns.

With My Dog-Eyes is by no stretch an “easy” fiction to read, nor is it intended for most readers.  It is a piece of avant-garde, Modernist fiction and while it is easy to see connects, as Morris does in his introduction, between Joyce, Beckett, and Russell, I also noticed several similarities between Hilst’s story and some of the works, prose and poetry alike, of early-to-mid 20th century Argentine writer Oliverio Girondo, particularly in his use of “mad” narrators in order to dissolve narrative expect ions in the search for something truly experiential, if not always experimental in nature.  Hilst is perhaps more successful than Girondo in her use of “mad” characters in order to create complex but fascinating tales, but her style is certainly an acquired taste, albeit one that I have had for several years.  With this in mind, I give a qualified recommendation for readers who do enjoy reading similarly challenging works to read With My Dog-Eyes.  It “may not be for everyone,” but for those for whom it “may be for,” it certainly packs a semantical wallop.

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