Evil in the Night – A Novel by Erico Verissimo
Get off, get off the rotten world! (The City Outside)
John Updike, Endpoint and Other Poems, 2009
Erico Verissimo, who died in 1975 at the age of sixty-nine, wrote a curious, highly original novel during the Fifties and the story commands some attention if only because it is so unlike that of any other important writing of the period. The novel in question is Noite (Night), a thrilling page-turner, published in 1954. In 1956, the story was translated into the English language by L. L. Barret and published by Macmillan in New York.
Much happened in Brazilian literature in the three decades between 1930 and 1960, but we can assume that Verissimo’s contemporaries were then mainly involved with rural themes. Of course, Verissimo always stood a little apart from them in the climate and character of his novels. This is because Verissimo’s works from the beginning of his career explored a different path: the urban narrative. Alongside this, we need to understand that his fiction has not remained static. Verissimo, we should bear in mind, was a developer – a writer in progress, experimenting down to the end. Besides, more cosmopolitan than his major contemporaries, Verissimo used his personal experience of life to write the fascinating novels of his last literary phase.
While resting after the publication of the second part of his saga O Tempo e o Vento (Time and the Wind) in 1951, Erico Verissimo completed the draft of his novel Noite. What becomes interesting about this novel is the degree to which some readers and critics misread it by describing it as a simply told tale of tugs and whores. The story is, instead, profounder than that. Part of the problem is that Night, a story about the insanity of life in modern cities, has scenes and characters of unusual boldness, including scenes of forthright sexuality and cynicism, which were unusual for readers of Verissimo’s time and place. Night tells us about an unspeakable human tragedy, in which ordinary people are unconsciously trapped in the loneliness of their lives – characters who are so tragic as to be true comic figures. In a sense, its theme is dehumanization: that is, not seeing or hearing each of us as a human being. Despite being a narrative about loneliness there is plenty of humour in Night.
Clearly, for many people Erico Verissimo has written, so to speak, a grotesque novel. One often hears that Night represents a weird interregnum in Verissimo’s work. However, today’s debate has rejected that simplistic view. To be sure, that portrait has ignored at least three things. First, this allegoric narrative of the dark night of the soul is not incongruent in relation to the remainder of Verissimo’s works. This is especially true if we recall that his novels Caminhos Cruzados (Crossroads, Macmillan, 1943) and Musica ao Longe, for instance, also express the same feeling of “lost world”. Second, as Bordini (2006) observes, since Fantoches (Puppets) (1932), Verissimo’s first collection of short stories, the macabre side of the existence fascinated him. Surely, in Night Verissimo puts aside the romantic language of his earlier novels. For Night is not pointedly addressed to his wide public. Third, with Night the cycle of six novels about Porto Alegre comes full circle. According to Loureiro Chaves Night is Verissimo’s best realist novel; the critic also relates Night to the “social realism” from Verissimo’s fiction written between 1933 and 1943.
With two eloquent and effective metaphors, Night depicts the loneliness of the modern man. One is the city as a sort of infernal machine that provokes the anti-hero, called simply the “Unknown One”, to feel like a prey. The city is alive and represents the senseless life of the unindividuated human being. The Unknown One must work to find steady ground, but the city and its emissaries do not permit (“The city looks like a living being.”). Surely in this confront the modern man, the man without qualities (Musil), lacks his psychological unity, like occur with the characters of Kafka, Woolf or Joyce. The other symbolic device used by Verissimo is the night itself which represents hopeless time (“My God! – he thought – this night does not end… “). The textual imagery of the narrative highlights the desperate unending search of the anti-hero for his authenticity.
In this respect, it is important to see that while Stegagno Picchio notes correctly Mann’s contribution to Verissimo’s fiction, she argues that: “(… ) la sua problematica resta al di qua di ogni invenzione che abbia alla sua origine il triangolo Joyce-Kafka-Proust.” For Picchio, Verissimo’s problematic remains beneath the inventions of the triad Joyce-Kafka-Proust. Despite the fact that their expressive innovations monopolize our view, we must get beyond the language use or style. We must know that their themes are also similar. Undoubtedly, her reading of Verissimo differs from Chaves and others that find Verissimo carrying out an enterprise that belongs to the tradition of the bourgeois literature novel represented by Kafka, Mann, and Musil.
Now let us look back briefly to the differences between our author and his colleagues. It is true, indeed, that Verissimo’s preference for dealing the economic situation and the class-conflict on the rising of capitalism remains strong. But while it certainly is that, we should not forget that Night shifted the emphasis to psychological analysis. So, too, Verissimo writes a symbolic novel where the psychological analysis is exclusive. And yet, even where the material of the story is indistinguishable from those of his colleagues, the tone and treatment are subtly different.
We need to understand what Erico Verissimo was reacting against in the years after the Second World War. At the postwar period, stories of confusion and conflict proliferated in Europe. Now stories express the anxieties and fragile hopes of a whole generation. Common to the stories was a new flexibility of structure, and soon the authors began to break down boundaries between author and characters. Beyond that, the spontaneity of personal responsiveness intensified the relationship between feeling and expression. In fact, Verissimo deplored the emptiness of postwar life and Night specifically responds to this epochal change. In a world beset by ideological divisions and hostility, literature has to signal the changes, and the reader has to understand the significance of these signals.
The most interesting stories are those in which we can identify ourselves with the chief character in the story – the hero, or anti-hero. Naturally, it is not difficult to put ourselves in the place of the Unknown One, the anti-hero of Night. But it should be noticed that Verissimo’s anti-hero is not a révolté like the modern man from Camus. Certainly he seems more akin to Sartre’s characters from the existentialist trilogy Les Chemins de la Liberté (1945-49). In fact, we can observe that Verissimo’s characters like Amaro, Vasco, Eugenio and this Unknown One suffer the similar indecision of Mathieu Delarue, among others Sartre’s characters.
Following the idea that philosophical problems are dissolved in Verissimo’s work, Night might be his first explicit tribute to the French existentialist ideas. This is, indeed, a point that deserves further investigation. In any case, we can find out in Night some characteristics of the existentialist literature, such as: the evidence of a culture in crisis, the hero or anti-hero facing a “limiting situation”, the search for an authentic life, and the consciousness of freedom. In other respects though, the novel seems, in terms of mood and atmosphere, in the popular tradition of the detective fiction. Doubtless it reminds us of a post-war novel like Léo Malet’s Il Fait Toujour Nuit (1948). Both are challenging, disturbing, and value alienation as the central element of their characters. There is the buildup of gradual menace as the shadow of incommunicability comes ever closer in these stories.
Night takes the reader into a claustrophobic world where the amnesic main character Robert, the Stranger, is looking for his identity. For this is the tale of the Stranger, the desperate searcher of his own identity; and how he was conducted through the dreadful night by the dangerous people he met up in a sordid pub along the docks: Martin, the Master, with his cynical and nihilistic view of life, and Claude, the dwarf, a psychopath artist who strangely gravitates toward his Master, the cynical pimp. His companions succeed in persuading Robert that he is a killer. Brazilian critic R. Zilberman sees the main character as a sort of “human Pinocchio”, since he seems lost in the hands of his companions like the famous Collodi’s character. Robert narrowly escapes being trapped by the two night birds when near the dawn he knows Lili, a redhead prostitute. Beside the anti-hero, she seems to be the only authentic human figure in the tale. After making love with her, he finally begins to remember the events of the day before: his wife left him (“If she came back, o my God, if she came back I promise that from now on everything will be different.”).
Erico Verissimo’s characters in Night remain in our memory forever: they continue to haunt us to this day.
Bordini, Maria da Gloria.. 2006. Por trás do incidente. In: Verissimo, Erico. Incidente em Antares . São Paulo: Companhia das Letras.
Chaves, Flavio Loureiro. A narrativa da solidão. In: Verissimo, Erico. 1987. Noite . Rio de Janeiro, Globo.
Picchio, Luciana Stegagno. Storia della Letteratura Brasiliana . Torino, Einaudi, 1997.
Zilberman, Regina. 1985. Literatura Gaúcha . Porto Alegre, L&PM.