Embracing Damnation: On Caio Fernando Abreu’s “Moldy Strawberries”

By Jane PritchardMay 17, 2022

Embracing Damnation: On Caio Fernando Abreu’s “Moldy Strawberries”

Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu

IN THE 1974 revolutionary song “Como Nossos Pais,” Elis Regina — one of the most famous Brazilian singers of her time and one of the several “dead friends” to which Caio Fernando Abreu dedicates Moldy Strawberries — laments a generation lost to the military dictatorship:

They won, and the road is now closed for those of us who are young

Eles venceram e o sinal está fechado para nós que somos jovens

Her sentiment is one that reverberates throughout Moldy Strawberries: it isn’t that the future is bleak — rather, it will never arrive at all. By the time Abreu published the collection in 1982, Brazil’s struggle with its repressive, totalitarian government was approaching a breaking point. For his circle of friends and chosen subjects — gays, lesbians, drag queens, radicals, addicts, and paranoid intellectuals — the road must have certainly felt closed. These 18 stories, translated for the first time in English by Bruna Dantas Lobato, therefore present a cast of characters who, in one way or another, are grappling with the distinct, at times crushing, loss of the future.

“The Survivors” introduces us to a queer member of the resistance, a woman who has exhausted every resource in pursuit of some modicum of belonging. “I’ve never had any fucking ideals of any kind, I just wanted to be happy, dumb, fat, ignorant, and totally happy, man.” In a near-monologue, she berates her friend, who is also gay, over his decision to leave Brazil. She recounts — with resentment at the fact that he is resorting to escape — everything that she attempted to achieve happiness: “I’ve read everything, man, I’ve tried macrobiotics psychoanalysis drugs acupuncture suicide yoga dance swimming jogging astrology roller-skating Marxism Candomblé gay clubs ecology, all that’s left is this knot in my chest, so now what do I do?” There is no way forward for her, nowhere left to turn.

Another story follows the thoughts of a man rushing across the city during a downpour in hopes of spending the evening with a lover. He travels breathlessly through a rainy city carrying only a bottle of cognac, which shatters when he slips in a puddle. He arrives at the man’s door and knocks to no avail. Instantly, a fatal despair subsumes his hopes for the evening. He laments, “I would never be able to find my way back, or try another idea, another action, another gesture beyond pounding pounding pounding … pounding on the same door that never opens.”

“Fat Tuesday” tells of an even less fortunate romantic encounter between two men at a bloco, or Brazilian carnival street party. They are immediately attracted to one another; as the narrator recounts, “I wanted that man’s body dancing sweaty and beautiful in front of me. I want you, he said. I said, I want you too.” The moment, though tender, takes place amid the backdrop of a menacing crowd. A jeer is heard off-stage. “Ai ai, someone said in falsetto, look at them queens.” The men break away for the crowd, heckled as they do so, though momentarily victorious. Their escape to a nearby beach is one of rare scenes of unadulterated beauty in the collection, a passage where Abreu’s writing is its most optimistic. That is, until the reappearance of the crowd. The writing falls from its heights, and conveys a blunt fact: “Then they came, and there were many.”

The experience of reading the collection at times feels like strolling through a graveyard. In addition to the list of “dead friends” in the dedication, several stories come with their own tombstones: In Memory of Juan Carlos Chacón, of Orlando Bernardes, of Luiza Felpuda, and so on. This memorializing casts a shadow over the stories at the outset — it is hard not to imagine that what we are about to witness is a glimpse into a real life that, if not cut short, was haunted by frustrated desire, the threat of violence, or isolation. The same is true of the stories that are not explicitly in honor of the dead. These too bear dedications, likely for living friends. The effect is no less somber: even when the stories veer into allegory or abstraction, they never lose the sense of being biographical accounts of people locked in a bitter, losing battle with a society that does not want them.

As a gay man who was placed on a wanted list by the military dictatorship, went into self-imposed exile, and died of AIDS at 47, Abreu himself was acutely aware of what happens when you no longer have cause to believe in the future’s inevitability. His writing has a unique set of concerns: how to exist in a perpetual, unstable present; how to make sense of the confusion produced when a mind cannot look forward, only backward — or perhaps worse, inward. For the most part, these are concerns Abreu confronts narratively. Elsewhere, however, he employs both formal and stylistic experimentation that, for many readers, might feel less effective, or perhaps overly obtuse.

There are stories in which a first-person narrators vocalize to an unknown listener, evoking people muttering to themselves nonsensically as they frantically pace back and forth. The bulk of “Transformations” undertakes a highly symbolic description of one man’s mental illness, which seems to take on the quality of multiple personalities, or perhaps even something akin to what Jung describes as the “loss of the soul.” He is at times himself, at other times possessed by something he calls “The Great Absence,” which brings him a separate personality and its own set of impulses. In “I, You, He,” a narrator tries to untangle the threads between himself, a lover, and an unknown entity (the “You”) which he senses inside him but cannot name, asking, “[W]as it you, or him, or me that the man sometimes visited?”

However, the effect of losing one’s future, according to Abreu, does not necessarily correspond with duality or with temporal laxity, but instead with a layering of multiple disoriented identities. Throughout the collection, he makes frequent mention of both schizophrenia and suicide, threats that consistently rear their heads for several of his characters. These are people with secret aspects of their personalities, parts of themselves that have been pushed back into hiding or pitted against one another. The difficulty in reading through some of these intertwined, frantic identities is not unlike the challenge of parsing a single, clear image from the blur of several superimposed photographs.

But as the collection’s title might suggest, where there is rot — despair, danger, illness, heartbreak, loneliness — there is also fruit. Because the book is broken into two corresponding parts (“The Mold” and “The Strawberries”) it might be tempting to think that Abreu is constructing a dichotomy between the good and the bad. Again, it is not about duality — those who were able to thrive and those who were not — but simultaneity. Even in the book’s more optimistic stories, Abreu is always bittersweet, never saccharine. To return to “Transformations,” the man is able, after decades, to break the cycle of his illness by meeting “The Other Person.” He is no longer alone, but life, which had been dull and empty, becomes much more painful because of the love he feels.

Another story details a young philosophy student’s first gay experience with army recruiter, at a discreet motel run by a drag queen named Isadora. After they have sex, he realizes that he has finally acknowledged his desire and “[o]nce awakened it will never go back to sleep.” Just as in “Transformations,” he then experiences a kind of elation that is as exciting as it is terrifying. He recognizes that he is doomed, but vows to seek pleasure in annihilation. The final line announces his commitment: “Tomorrow, I finally decided, tomorrow I’ll start to smoke.”

It would be a little optimistic and reductive to suggest that despite the obstacles they faced, the subjects of Moldy Strawberries (and by extension, their real-life counterparts) find fulfillment. Abreu was part of a generation of young people who were repressed, tortured, and murdered for their ideas and ways of life. Certainly, even those who found some satisfaction still had plenty to protest. The triumph rests, not in being totally happy despite it all, but — somewhat paradoxically — in keeping a firm hold on unhappiness.

Elis Regina may express the paradox best. Just after mourning the helplessness of youth, “Como Nossos Pais” goes on to make a powerful recrimination of those who gave up the struggle, who rebuked their friends to seek safety and stability instead:

It’s been a long time since I saw you in the street,
Hair blowing in the wind, young people gathered.
On the wall of my memory, this recollection is the picture that hurts most.
My pain is to recognize that despite having done everything that we did,
We are still the same as, and we live exactly like, our parents.

Já faz tempo eu vi você na rua, cabelo ao vento, gente jovem reunida
Na parede da memória essa lembrança é o quadro que dói mais
Minha dor é perceber que apesar de termos feito tudo que fizemos
Ainda somos os mesmos e vivemos […] como os nossos pais

The redemption, so to speak, is in embracing the damnation. There is at the very least — for Elis Regina, for Abreu, and for the characters in Moldy Strawberries — some dignity in existing as you are, even if it will kill you.


Jane Pritchard is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at NYU.

LARB Contributor

Jane Pritchard is a graduate of the MFA program in Fiction at NYU.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!