Raduan Nassar's "Lavoura arcaica"

Rebellion against the Patriarchal Taboo

Raduan Nassar's highly metaphorical 1975 novel "Lavoura arcaica" is being published for the first time in German. It is a book that breaks patriarchal taboos and contains allusions to elements in Christian and Islamic culture. By Ilja Braun

photo: www.ism.com.br
Raduan Nassar

​​"Unlawful for you are your mothers, and your daughters, and your sisters…" (The Koran – Sura IV, 26)

"Once there was a hungry man" begins the tale that the father in Raduan Nassar's novel loves to tell his family. The hungry man visits a rich man who invites him to sit at an empty table.

His stomach growling, he is asked to summon up in his mind's eye the most delicious dishes as if they were truly spread out before him on the table. Only after he has fantasized through several courses is he given something to eat as a reward for his patience.

Transgressing the incest taboo

A father who tells such stories at the dinner table should not be surprised at much. Especially not that his seventeen-year-old son is in revolt against an overpowering authority. Yet the rebellion of the first-person narrator, André, in Lavoura arcaica is particularly scandalous.

With his sister Ana, he transgresses the ultimate patriarchal prohibition, the prohibition against incest. Living with his family after this seems impossible. Defiant, he leaves his parent's house and stumbles, warmed by alcohol, to a shabby guest house.

His more level-headed brother eventually manages to persuade André to return home. The lost son is welcomed home in true biblical style, with a festive celebration. When, however, his sister Anna lets herself be whisked off for a provocative, erotic dance, the patriarch suddenly comes to his senses. The novella reaches its bloody climax with Ana's death.

This book by the son of Lebanese parents, born in Brazil in 1935, should not be seen as the South American counterpart to Ian McEwan's incest novel "The Cement Garden."

Even when it was first published in 1975, it was considered unique; it seemed to have so little connection with the literary conventions of its time, what one otherwise only knew from authors like Kafka.

Figurative and richly associative language

In the Brazilian literature of the 1970s, the dominant trend was the so-called "angry realism" – grouped under this term were authors who attempted, despite the censorship of the state, to use literature politically, often with journalistic and social realist means.

Nassar, in contrast, presents the reader with a thrilling, breathless, racing language flow of baroque richness. Not without periods and commas, that is, no "stream of consciousness," rather an astonishingly skillfully constructed structure of different narrative levels.

This highly metaphorical novel contains allusions to elements from Christian and Islamic cultures. It has a perceptible tendency toward pathos and euphoric raptures.

In other words, Nassar's writing is neither distanced nor ironic; nor does he make use of that sterilized token gesture which turned Chaterine Millet into a trendsetter.

For, of course, Lavoura arcaica is mainly about sexuality – what else for a story about incest. The rebellion of the narrator against the patriarchal taboo stands for the main character's desire for liberation, which goes far beyond his love for his sister.

André's feelings for his sister are excessive, debordering, more reminiscent of a surrealistic "amour fou" than a tragic relationship. At the same time, though, it is exactly this incestuous love that keeps André chained to the bosom of the family, arouses childhood memories and kindles regressive fantasies:

"It was a miracle, above all to discover," so it says in the novel, "that we could pleasure ourselves within the confines of our house and thereby confirm our father's words that happiness can only be found in the bosom of the family; it was a miracle, beloved sister, and I will not allow the spell of this act of fate to be broken."

Only his sister's death vaguely introduces a solution to the family for this relationship, even if in an extremely ambivalent manner. The family is not so upset about the girl's death than about the imminent disintegration of their cohesiveness. Not the victim, but the patriarch, the father is lamented.

Award-winning masterpiece

Lavoura arcaica (in German "Das Brot des Patriarchen") is great literature. But it is also literature that may be alienating to readers, if only because of the difficult style, at best unusual in its sentence construction and figurativeness.

Therefore, the knowledgeable epilogue by Berthold Zilly, placed after his fluent translation from Brazilian Portuguese, is essential reading. Here one learns that the author's life work consists of a mere three books.

The romance novella "Copo de cólera" which consists primarily of a heated argument between a man and a woman, was published in German in 1991 ("Ein Glas Wut") and has meanwhile gone out of print; a volume of short stories still needs to be translated. More will not come – Raduan Nassar has given up writing and now only cultivates fields of grain.

Ilja Braun

© Qantara.de © 2004

Translation from German: Nancy Joyce

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