‘The Love of Singular Men‘ (2016. Original: O amor dos homens avulsos, not translated yet) reads like a delicate web, a coming-of-age tale of affection, woven in different forms of violence.
Camilo, the narrator, is a disabled, middle-aged white man, living alone in a small apartment in the fictional Queím neighbourhood, in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro. The story alternates between 2014 and the late 1970’s, when he was a teenager. At that time, in the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship (1964 – 1985), Camilo’s father worked as a doctor for the government, and was involved in the torturing of political dissidents. One day, he takes in a mixed-race teenager of unknown origin: Cosmim is either his illegitimate son or the orphan child of someone killed by the regime; and he is the outsider who will forever change the family’s dynamics, precipitating the separation of Camilo’s parents.
Camilo had always been kept inside the house, overprotected by his mother, because of his disability. The family was the richest in the neighbourhood – their house was the only one with a swimming pool, and the children studied at a private school. Cosmim, like a bridge between the house and what lies outside, introduces Camilo to a gang of neighbourhood kids. And, in the heat of Rio de Janeiro, amidst football matches, the two boys slowly fall in love. “First love is unique. Time, sex and small constructions (children, home, savings) make it easier for us to accept the faded copies that we say we love throughout our lives – but even our open pit, waiting, speaks of that absence. The first love can only be first love because there is a second, of course.” (my translation)
The account of Camilo’s coming of age is interspersed with the narrator’s description of his stalemate present, in 2014. He has lost contact with his sister, his parents are dead, and he has become a melancholy and disillusioned man. Furthermore, we get to know that his first love was short-lived – Cosmim was raped and murdered in a brutal attack, shortly after the two started dating. The circumstances were never clarified, but the murder is likely to have been a hate crime. “Cosmim disappeared and I stayed behind, like the severed tentacle of an octopus.” (my translation)
As our narrator tries to come to terms with his past, he recalls the brief interval in which his love by Cosmim flourished – as well as the many ways this relationship and its tragic end impacted his life. He is now a lonely man, and he thinks he knows who killed his lover. Moreover, he somehow befriends the ten-year-old Renato, the grandson of the man he imagines to be Cosmim’s murderer. And, contrary to expectations, he does not see his enemy reflected in the boy – instead, he sees his lover.
This is very much a book about brutality and violence, in its many facets – sexual, racial, religious, political, and class violence are all embedded in the story. Violence pervades the friendship between rich and poor boys; the relationship between the rich white family and the black people who work for them; the treatment of political dissidents; the pressure against queer people; and the relationship between Christianity and African-derived religions in Brazil. Even the weather seems to be brutal: the periodical floods, the inclement heat, the dirt all around. Moreover, the narrator’s search for the circumstances that surrounded his first love’s death mirrors Brazil’s own reckonings with its history: Cosmim’s murder seems to be a direct indictment of this past, as a crime marked by the intersection between sexuality, race, politics, and social class.
However, buried underneath the novel’s unforgiving brutality – as well as in Camilo’s disenchanted voice – we can find a faint thread of tenderness, melancholy, and love. To write one of the book’s most emblematic scenes, you created a website and asked people to fill out a form with the names of their first loves, which resulted in Camilo’s declaration: “I loved Cosmim as you loved your first love, which was called Bruno or Pablo or Ilyich, Ricardo or Rhana, Luciano, Eduardo, Diego or Carlos Octávio, Kátia, Mariana, Lucas, Marisa or Carlos Eduardo, Rafael, Raí or Solange, or Luiza, Fabiana, Adolfo, Ligia, Joana, Érica, Mateus. I loved like Lucas loved Sophia and Daniel loved Gabriela. Like Denilson loved Raiane, like Aline loved Michael. (…) Luciane loved Jefferson and Otávio loved Rui like I loved Cosmim. (…)” (my translation)
This scene, breaking up the book in two, is a form of violence of another kind: it crosses the limits of the page, it brings us in from the outside, it moves us. Much like a strong river, streaming far beyond its margins, gathering its waters in a flood; much like first love feels like for a teenager. It reads as a powerful reversal of Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s popular poem “Square Dance” (Quadrilha, tr. Richard Zenith, in ‘Multitudinous Heart: Selected Poems: A Bilingual Edition’, 2015): “João loved Teresa who loved Raimundo/ who loved Maria who loved Joaquim who loved Lili/ who didn’t love anyone. / João went to the United States, Teresa to a convent, / Raimundo died in an accident, Maria became a spinster, / Joaquim committed suicide, and Lili married J. Pinto Fernandes/ who had nothing to do with the story.” Whereas, in Drummond’s poem, all characters run towards love only to come to a dead end; in the novel’s own square dance, all are met at the end by love – Camilo’s love for Cosmim.
As Camilo confesses that he no longer remembers in detail his lover’s facial features, his story reads like a struggle against oblivion: he makes a list of first loves as well as an inventory of sensations and smells; a list of the small gifts given to him by Cosmim before his death (pebbles, a matchbox, a porcelain owl without ears…); a list of ‘types’ of people, based on his former schoolmates. His mind is constantly revolving around the events leading up to Cosmim’s murder. The writing itself is interspersed with small drawings and pictures, like an emotional inventory of random things – which, in this particular point, calls to mind Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (tr. Michael Hulse, 1998. Original: Die Ringe des Saturn: Eine englische Wallfahrt, 1995).
Camilo is an archivist of love and hate. In fact, the highlight of the book, for me, was his voice: at once disenchanted and tender, nostalgic and disillusioned. Camilo is a narrator who is frequently evading our empathy and comprehension: at times, he seems mad, bordering on paedophilia and infanticide; at others, he seems just a sad, gentle man. It reads as if we were circus acrobats: swinging between caring for Camilo and believing him unreliable; a delicate balance that you manage to sustain, throughout the novel, between disenchantment and tenderness, brutality and love.
In the beginning our planet was hot, yellowish and smelled of stale beer. The ground was slick with viscous, boiling mud. The first things to surface in the world were the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro, even before the volcanos and sperm whales, before Portugal invaded, before President Getúlio Vargas ordered the construction of social housing. The neighbourhood of Queím, where I was born and grew up, was one of those suburbs. Nestled between Engenho Novo and Andaraí, it was created out of that primordial clay stuck together in various forms: lone dogs, flies and steep hills, a train station, almond trees and shacks and houses, bars and weapons depots, haberdasheries and local lottery stands and an enormous wasteland set aside for the cemetery. But everything remained empty for now: there were no people. They soon came. The streets collected so much dust that man had no choice but to exist: he was required to sweep them. And in the afternoons, to sit on the verandas and moan about his poverty, spread rumours about the others and stare at the pavements encrusted with sunlight, and the buses on the way home from work coating everything with dirt over again. – Victor Heringer, O amor dos homens avulsos, tr. Sophie Lewis
The first tear opened up that day. The noise of dad’s car reached even us. Light was to invade our little hidey hole. Vrmvarroom, that was the Corcel taking a corner. It stopped in before the front gate and roared again, vra-vroom, demanding to be let in. No one came to let him in. Mum appeared on the veranda, said a few words to Maria Aína, made as if to stay but then went back inside. Dad, who was climbing over the iron gate, didn’t see her. He parked in beside the pool, honked and the sun shone full on the mucus-yellow bodywork of the Corcel, and right into our eyes. – Victor Heringer, O amor dos homens avulsos, tr. Sophie Lewis