By Josey Foo
Hilda Hilst wrote With My Dog-Eyes when she was in her fifties. Translator Adam Morris writes in his introduction that as she aged, Hilst increasingly felt that serious provocative literature, literature to “wake people up,” was absent in Brazil, including in her own writing. She felt there was no writing brave enough to properly treat the banalities of modern life with its traditional values, apathy, commonplace poverty, and violence in a way that would, if not enlighten anyone, then provide a means to leave it.
Born to wealthy Brazilian coffee-estate owners with a family history of mental illness, and at first celebrated as a glamorous heiress, Hilst had abandoned a law career in order to write, retreating to a small colony she established on the coffee estate to pursue a lifestyle of sexual freedom, unconventional and often sordid love arrangements, reading as she pleased, writing intensely. Her poetry was universally well regarded. Later she would focus on prose, which was viewed as less accessible and avant-garde. Morris calls With My Dog-Eyes the most novel-like of Hilst’s prose fictions. She was drinking heavily and had become an eccentric and reclusive diva surrounded in her colony by beautiful young men eager to be poets. Strapped for funds, she had begun selling off pieces of her family’s land in order to get by and was also lecturing at the university at Campinas in order to avoid selling more land. It was as a lecturer that she began rubbing shoulders with scientists and mathematicians. The middle-class, middle-aged math professor protagonist of this story grew out of this experience.
With My Dog-Eyes looks at first like a puzzle promising small treasures of genius within the protagonist’s madness. The entire story takes place in the professor’s mind, and you are never sure what is real or imagined. The mind never takes flight, however. Despising the life it observes, the mind doesn’t succeed in showing up banalities so much as being somewhat banal itself, as if Hilst did write this while maybe very drunk.
The book opens with Amós Kéres on his way to meet with the department dean. He first pulls up at a university building which, he observes, is no different from other buildings, like a whorehouse or church. He is consumed by the puzzles that seem attached to everything except math equations. An external apathy has gripped Kéres, making him so aloof in his classrooms that he might begin a sentence, then pause fifteen minutes before finishing it. For that reason, as well as a general suspicion that he is mad, the department dean is about to place Kéres on a leave of absence. Perhaps because he is going to meet his punishment, Kéres remembers with self-revulsion the moment he learned of the death of his dog. The boy Kéres throws himself on a patch of squash, hugs a “squash shaped like a twisted cylinder with an ochre head,” and chokes out, why did his dog die? His father simply says, with a destructive gesture of his fists, “he fucked himself,” and calls his son a fool.
The placement on leave propels Kéres through a series of emotions and memories that feel naturally flowing from a man being told he is no longer fit for his life. First, anger directed at the world at large at being expelled years ago as a boy for writing an obscene story. Then, emptiness, a sensation of walking up a hill towards a “hurricane of questions” that had consumed him as a boy, involving the problem of how to extract meaning from behind the words of poets, a problem that doesn’t exist in mathematics, which invades him with “incommensurable meaning.” Then to banalities of married life, with thoughts of Amanda, his ranting and raving wife, a university lecturer like himself, telling him that numbers are only good for a bank account, and to the matching colors of everything in his home, even his pyjamas, at which he has the urge to touch himself, which then leads toward a boyhood memory of a prostitute named Libitina and the multiple meanings of that name from passion to freedom to an old woman, none of the meanings being completely true, or completely false, in his remembrance of Libitina.
From here, Kéres’s thoughts become entirely unhinged for a large part of the fifty-nine-page story. All his previous thoughts overlap and smash into one another: wife, kids, incommensurate meaning, the hill, crude and cruel father putting ants to death, delicate mother warning him against crude, handsome fathers, the pleasure and limitations of equations as applied to words, and interlacing wife and prostitute culminating in both sucking at his forty-eight-year-old cock.
Suddenly, the mind calms. Kéres is in an empty classroom, contemplating poetry and meditating on the sacrifices his wife has endured in making a life with him. He thinks about the love between husband and wife, and while thinking this realizes that he lusts for a friend of his wife, and also thinks about the wetness of a prostitute friend of Libitina’s. These thoughts seem to liberate Kéres toward thoughts on options. Kéres becomes jubilant. He resolves to leave his wife and son in order to do nothing more adventurous than look up two old school friends, one in particular, Isaiah. Kéres is suddenly driving to Isaiah recklessly through city streets amidst a cacophony of horns, almost running over a dog. Then “hilde” appears, rubbing his leg like a cat, but isn’t a cat, as if by inserting a close variant of her name in the story as an animal of some kind Hilst is telling us through Kéres that it is through her eyes that Kéres sees, but “[s]he [hilde], as you can see, is also a polyhedron. We don’t exist, get it?”
A dead dog having begun this story, a different dog also ends it. As Kéres forgets about Isaiah and, instead, gets drunk in a bar and, while drunk, decides on suicide, he sees a stray dog—
A stray bitch appeared at dusk. She’s yellow. She must have just given birth. Her teats sagging, her ribs showing. Her brown eyes have the vehement glint of hunger. There are sparks that escape the flesh in misery, in humiliation, in pain. The sparks show in animals too.
Then Kéres is dead or dying. Alone, in a quiet and rare poetic moment, he feels himself to be “longer thinner,” arrived in some odd heaven with cubes banging on his forehead and with women around him as he feels his “dog body.”
Morris has provided a crisp and readable translation. He describes this story as “the nexus [Hilst] believed existed between genius and madness, poetry and mathematics.” The narrator is the “slowly unraveling genius protagonist.” But the reader is left more with a sense of nexus between boyhood and manhood, and between love and sensation, especially for small and innocent things. There is little mathematics in this book. As for genius, nothing in Kéres’s ramblings feels like more than the breakdown of a middle-class man of no special ability. Maybe Hilst meant this story as no more than an exercise in putting some structure around the consciousness of an everyman. Your last thought is that Kéres could be anyone, an ordinary man who passes from view, and this is not the work that Hilst intended to wake anyone up.
With My Dog-Eyes
By Hilda Hilst
Translated by Adam Morris
Melville House (April 2014)