Friday, 2 May 2008

nine nights [w. bernardo carvalho]

Nine Nights weaves together three separate stories. At the core of the book is the tale of a young US anthropologist, Buell Quain, who committed suicide after a three month mission spent in a village of Kraho Indians, in 1938. The novel cobbles together an account of his life and death, in part structured around seven letters which Quain sent via a local engineer, Manoel Perna, who befriended him briefly. These letters were sent on to friends and family; some were preserved and some lost. Manoel Perna, in turn, writes a series of letters giving an account of his encounters with Quain, which lead to his death, by drowning, a few years later. The third story appears to be the author's himself, who acts as narrator, recounting his increasingly desperate quest to discover the reasons for Quain's suicide.

Quain's life story is scratchy, endlessly out of reach, the subject of supposition and rumour. The author supplies two photos of Quain, implying that whilst this is a work of fiction, it is based on factual events. As the events themselves seem so sketchy, it's impossible for the reader to ascertain where truth begins and fiction starts, just as it is for the author-narrator. However, in contrast to the vagueness of Quain's story, the narrator also tells his own story, including details from his childhood, about his eccentric father, and in a particularly striking passage, of a trip he made himself to visit the Kraho, fifty years after Quain.

This trip is in many ways the highlight of the book, occupying a swathe of text. It's a nightmarish account, written by a trained journalist, of a trip into an alien culture. The divide between the urban, European Brazil of Sao Paulo and the ancient, indigenous cultures of the Indians is yawning. If you've ever visited somewhere foreign, expecting to make a connection with the culture but in practice only discovering with every passing hour of your visit how different societies can be, then this remarkable passage will resonate. Far from participating in an Edenic idyll, the narrator feels threatened, paranoid, and driven to the verge of madness.

The brilliance of this passage is coupled with the compelling sequence where the narrator visits New York in his quest to find a living connection with Quain. These passages smack of the real... and yet, no matter how convincing they feel as a personal account, the text constantly needles the reader with the injunction that nothing should be taken for granted. The more the narrator learns about Quain, the less convinced he seems to become that the truth can be anything more than supposition driven by the personal drive of its seeker. As the narrator discloses more and more of his own story, the reader is inevitably lead to question how much of what is being told can be taken as read.

Nine Nights is a playful, slight, profound novel. Its structure seems erratic at times, short passages dovetailing with longer ones. The premise - the quest for the white man who loses his mind in the jungle - is self-consciously Conradian, and makes for a compelling yarn. It is also a book about modern Brazil, and the disassociations that lie within its borders. But above all it is a journalist's reckoning with the touchstone of their career: the idea that every story has a revealable truth. A reckoning which seems to lead both writer and reader towards the most ambivalent of conclusions.

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