To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase at your local bookstore.
In 1982, Caio Fernando Abreu published a short story collection called Moldy Strawberries. By then, Abreu was already one of the most prominent writers in Brazil, known for his lyrical short stories told from the perspective of junkies, failed revolutionaries, poets, beggars, and drag queens who have stopped trying to please the dominant culture and have sought solace in their own communities. Much like them, the characters in Moldy Strawberries have lost their faith in government and authority figures at large. This loss however renews their faith in the arts, and the characters revel in music, cinema, and literature. In one story, two friends talk about the end of the world while finding comfort in Satie’s piano pieces. In another, two men who work together in an oppressive government agency discover their love for one another through their shared love of boleros and old movies. Written at the height of the AIDS crisis and the military dictatorship in Brazil, Abreu’s work is about repression as much as it is about forms of consolation. His stories model how it might be possible to find one’s voice in spite of the world’s dangers.
In this letter, penned in 1979 to his friend, Brazilian journalist José Márcio Penido — Zézim for short — Abreu moves quickly from subject to subject, writing about his visit to the beach, his love of other writers like Clarice Lispector, Adélia Prado, and Dalton Trevisan, his interest in meditation and yoga. In his passion for writing itself, he advises Zézim to keep moving and creating, and confesses that his unabating need to create and his love for the creations of others are the only things keeping him afloat. He writes, “I’ll quit all my jobs out there the moment I feel that this, literature, which is all I have, is under threat.” He might as well be saying, “I’ll quit everything the moment my life is under threat.” For Abreu, writing is a form of salvation: from madness, from death, from invisibility, and, especially, from the self.
Porto, December 22 of 1979
I just got back from the beach, I was there some five days, completely alone (amazing!), and found your letter. These few days here, ten, and it already feels like a month, I couldn’t stop thinking about you. I’m worried, Zézim, and want to talk to you. Please be quiet and listen, or read it, rather, you must be full of Adélia Pradian vibes and therefore a little too focused on small mysteries. It’s a long letter, so get ready, because I already got ready over here with a cup of Mu tea, cushion under my butt, and a pack of Galaxy, the pseudo-intelligent decision.
So here: out of the few lines in your letter, twelve sentences end with question marks. They are, therefore, questions. I answer some. The solution, I agree, is not in restraint. It never is, nor will it ever be. I’ve always thought that the two most fascinating kinds of people in the world were the sluts and the saints, and they’re both entirely unrestrained, right? You don’t have to abstain; you have to eat of the banquet, Zézim. No one will teach you the way. No one will teach me the way. No one has ever taught me the way, or taught you, I suspect. I move blindly. There are no ways to be taught or learned. In reality, there are no such pathways. I’m now reminded of a verse from a Peruvian poet (is it Vallejo? I’m not sure): “Caminante, no hay camino. Pero el camino se hace al andar.” [sic]
And more: I’ll admit that I, too, have thought, what if God breaks down? And it’ll happen, it’ll happen because you said, “God is my last hope.” Zézim, I care so much about you, please don’t think of me as unbearably condescending for saying this, but you’re too stubborn, Zézim. There’s no last hope besides death. The one who seeks doesn’t find. You have to be distracted and expect nothing at all. There’s nothing to expect. Nor unexpected. It’s all maya / illusion. Or samsara / vicious circle.
Right, I’ve read too much Zen Buddhism, I’ve done too much yoga, I have this thing where I have to keep playing with magic, I’ve read too much Krishnamurti, you know? And also Alan Watts, and D. T. Suzuki, and this often seems a bit ridiculous to people. But I’ve taken for my personal use at least a certain tranquility from these.
You ask: what do I do now? Don’t do, I say. Don’t do anything, while doing everything, waking up every day, making coffee, making the bed, walking around the block, listening to music, feeding the Poor. You’re anxious and that’s not very religious of you. Shocking: I think you’re not very religious. Really. You’ve stopped burning smoke to find God. What on earth? You’re replacing weed with baby Jesus? Zézim, I’ll tell you a deplorable cliché now, here we go: you won’t find anything outside of yourself. The way is in not out. You’re not going to find it in God or in weed, or moving to New York, or.
You want to write. Right, but do you want to write? Or everyone demands it from you and you feel that you have to write? I know it’s not that simple, and that there are thousands of other things involved here. But maybe you might be confused because everyone keeps asking, what’s going on, where’s the book? Where’s the novel, where’s the novella, where’s that play? Fuck them, demons. Zézim, you only have to write if it comes from the inside out, otherwise it won’t work, I’m sure of it, you could fool a few, but you wouldn’t fool yourself, so it wouldn’t fill this void. There are no demons between you and the typewriter. What there is instead is a matter of basic honesty. This simple question: do you really want to write? Ignoring the demands, do you continue to want it? Then go ahead, search deep, as a gaúcho poet once said, Gabriel de Britto Velho, “stub out the cigarette on your chest / tell yourself what you don’t like to hear / tell everything.” That’s writing. Drawing blood with your nails. And it doesn’t matter the form, it doesn’t matter its “social role,” nothing, it doesn’t matter that at first it might merely be some self-exorcism. But you have to bleed abun-dant-ly. Aren’t you afraid of this surrender? Because it hurts, hurts, hurts. The frightening loneliness. The only reward is what Laing says that is the only thing that can save us from madness, fromsuicide, from self-erasure: a feeling of inner glory. This phrase is very important in my life.
I knew Clarice Lispector fairly well. She was the unhappiest, Zézim. After the first time we talked I cried all night, because her whole existence hurt me, because it seemed to hurt her too, out of so much bleeding understanding of everything. I’m telling you about her because Clarice, to me, is what I know best of magnificent, literarily speaking. And she died alone, cheated, unloved, misunderstood, known as “a little crazy.” Because she gave herself entirely to her job of creating. Dove deep in her own trip and went inventing her own ways, in the greatest loneliness. Like Joyce. Like Kafka, crazy too, except that in Prague. Like Van Gogh. Like Artaud. Like Rimbaud.
Is that the kind of creator you want to be? Then give yourself over and pay the price. Which, too often, is too high. Or do you want to write a competent little book to be released with hors d’oeuvres and suspicious whiskey on a pleasant afternoon at Livraria Cultura, with everyone you know celebrating? I don’t think so. I’ve known and know too many people like that. And I won’t give a penny for any of them. You, I love. I’m rarely wrong.
Zézim, search through your memory, your childhood, your dreams, your passions, your failures, your sorrows, your wildest hallucinations, your most unreasonable hopes, your sickest fantasies, your most homicidal desires, in everything that’s seemingly the most unutterable, the most abominable guilts, the stupidest lyricisms, the most general confusion, the bottom of the bottomless well that is the subconscious: that’s where your work is.
Most important of all, don’t go looking for it: it comes to you, when you and it are ready. Each writer has their process, you need to understand yours. Perhaps, this thing that seems enormously difficult is simply your sub or unconscious’ gestation.
And reading, reading is food for anyone who writes. Many times you’ve told me that you couldn’t read anymore. That you didn’t like reading anymore. If you don’t like reading, how will you like writing? Or go ahead and write to destroy the text, but then feed yourself. Lavishly. Then throw up. To me, and this might be personal, writing is sticking your finger down your throat. Then, of course, you sift through the goop, mold it, transform it. There might even be a flower. But the defining moment is the finger in the throat. And I think — and I could be wrong — that this is what you haven’t been able to do. You know, when you’re drunk as shit, no one else’s finger is willing to go into your throat.
Or then go to therapy. I mean it. Or try swimming. Or modern dance. Or a radical macrobiotic diet. Anything that will take care of your mind and/or body and, at the same time, will distract you from this obsession. Until it’s resolved, by force or on its own, it doesn’t matter. I just don’t want to see you choking like this, my dear friend.
As for me, I was telling you about these past few days at the beach. That’s it, I woke up at six, seven in the morning, headed to the beach, ran some four kilometers, exercised, at around ten I headed back, to cook my rice. I rested a little, then sat down and wrote. I’d be exhausted by then. I was exhausted. I spent my days talking to myself, submerged in text, I managed to force it out. It was a shred that had come to me in September, back in Sãopa. Then it came, without my planning for it. It was ready in my head. It was called “Moldy Strawberries,” it’ll have an epigraph from Lennon & McCartney, I have the lyrics of “Strawberry Fields Forever” here waiting to be translated. Zézim, I think it’s so good. I was completely blind while I was writing it, a character (an adman, former hippie, who insists he has cancer in the soul, or brain damage caused by too many drugs, from past carnavais, and the symptom — which is real — is this persistent taste of moldy strawberries in his mouth) stopped in his tracks and refused to die or go completely mad at the end. It has a beautiful ending, positive, joyful. I was stunned. The ending made its way into the text and wouldn’t let me interfere. So weird. Sometimes I think that when I write I’m just a transmission channel, say, between two things totally alien to me, I’m not sure you know what I mean. A transmission channel with a certain power, or ability, selective, I don’t know. This morning I didn’t go to the beach and finally finished the story, I think already in its fourth version. But I’ll let it sleep for at least a month, then I’ll reread it — because I know I could always be wrong, and my current eyes might be unable to see certain things.
Then I took notes, a lot of notes, for other things. The mind boils over. It’s so great, Zézim, it’s great, it isn’t dead, and that’s all I want, I’ll quit all my jobs out there the moment I feel that this, literature, which is all I have, is under threat — like it was, at Nova.
And I read. I found out I love Dalton Trevisan. Boy, was I screaming while I read Knife in the Heart, it has some incredible stories, and so meticulously faceted, polished down to its gleaming essence, especially one of them, called “Woman on Fire.” I’ve read almost all of Ivan Ângelo, I also really like it, especially The Real Son of a Bitch, but then the title story put me to sleep and I stopped. But he has such a text, oh that he has. And a lot of it. But the best thing I’ve read these days wasn’t fiction. It was a short article by Nirlando Beirão in the latest Istoé (from December 19, please read it), called “The Rebirth of a Dream.” I’ve read it so many times. The first time, I was moved to tears — because he contextualizes all the experiences I’ve had in this decade. Of course he’s talking about an entire generation, but then I realized, my God, look how I’m so ordinary, so typical of my generation. It ends in utter joy: reinstating the dream. It’s so beautiful. And so bold. It’s new, healthy. A light bulb went off in my head, you know when something lights you up? Just as if he’d given shape to what I, confusingly, had only ever groped for in the dark. Read it, tell me what you think. I couldn’t refrain from it and wrote him a letter saying that. I’m not his friend, only an acquaintance, but I think we should say certain things.
When I’m writing, I talk a hell of a lot, don’t I?
Things are good at home. It’s always a great energy, it’s no use criticizing it. Their good energy doesn’t depend on any opinions I might have on it, isn’t it amazing? The house is kind of under renovation, Nair is building a kind of winter garden out back, will connect it to the living room. Today she was pissed because Felipe won’t be applying to college anymore: he failed his senior year again. My sister Cláudia got a Caloi 10 bike for christmas from her fiancé (Jorge, remember?), and I took it and just earlier today went on a great ride around Menino Deus. Márcia looks pretty, more grown up, sort of with an air of a younger Mila. Zaél is cooking, today made rice with raisins for dinner.
Other people, I haven’t seen. I’ve heard that A Comunidade is in theaters now and I have a paycheck coming up. Tomorrow I think I’ll check it out.
I’m so lonely, Zézim. So me-me-with-myself, because my me with family is only in passing. It’s good like this, I’m not afraid of any of my emotions or fantasies, you know? The days of total loneliness at the beach were especially healthy.
You’ve seen the new Nova? There is mister Chico, stuttering, and a very funny picture showing everyone at the newsroom — me looking like “I don’t want to get involved, I have nothing to do with this.” Check it out later. Speaking of which, Juan stopped by, I was at the beach, he talked to Nair over the phone, he was getting off one bus and getting on another. He said he’ll be back on January or February third, Nair doesn’t remember, to stay for a few days. Will he stay? And nothing will happen. Someone told me once that I would never love in a way that “would work,” otherwise I would stop writing. It could be. Small miracles. When I finished Moldy Strawberries, I wrote in the margins, without realizing, “creation is a sacred thing.” It’s more or less what Chico says at the end of his article. It’s mysterious, sacred, wonderful.
Zézim, give me updates, many, and soon. I didn’t imagine I would miss you this much. I don’t know how long I’ll stay, but I go on staying. I want to write more, go back to the beach, document everything. I’ve even thought: later on, when I’m about to return, wouldn’t you like to come join me? We could do that same thing again, we’d return together. My family loves you madly, today there was even a bit of commotion because everyone wanted to read Chico’s article at the same time.
Let me take you down
’cause I’m going to strawberry fields
nothing is real, and nothing to get hung about
strawberry fields forever
strawberry fields forever
strawberry fields forever
That’s what I wish you for the new decade. Zézim, let’s go. No last hopes. We have brand-new hopes, every day. And none, besides living fully, more comfortable inside ourselves, without guilt, that’s it. Let me take you: I’m going to strawberry fields.
Tell me about Adélia.
And take care, please, take care of yourself. Any darker waters, dial 0512-33-41-97. I can at least listen to you. And please don’t mind any harshness on my part. It’s because I care about you. To quote Guilherme Arantes, to finish this off: “I want to see you healthy / always in a good mood / full of good will.
A kiss from
PS — Hugs to Neilo. To Ana Matos and Nino, too.
Caio Fernando Abreu (1948-1996) was one of the most influential Brazilian writers of the 1980s and 90s. He was the author of 20 books.
Bruna Dantas Lobato's stories, essays, and translations from Portuguese have appeared or are forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Harvard Review, A Public Space, BOMB, The Common, and elsewhere. She is a 2018 A Public Space Fellow and a 2019 PEN/Heim winner.