Victor Heringer's 'The Love of Singular Men'

  • by Tim Pfaff
  • Tuesday January 23, 2024
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Author Victor Heringer (photo: Renato Parada)
Author Victor Heringer (photo: Renato Parada)

You'll know before the first sentence has run its course whether Victor Heringer's final novel, "The Love of Singular Men" (New Directions), is for you. It opens with a creation story, unless, that is, it's a desecration story:

"In the beginning, our planet was hot, sickly yellow and stank of stale beer." Moving right along: "The ground was black with boiling, clinging mud."

As for people: "The streets collected so much dust that man had no choice but to come into being to sweep it."

All that said, there are other things to know before you proceed. The novel has experimental aspects. Either none of its principal characters is sympathetic or they all are. There are visuals of several kinds sprinkled among the words. The "end" is more in the middle. But finally, if you let it, "The Love of Singular Men" will knock the wind out of you.

Other things to keep in mind: the novel is set in Rio de Janeiro and was written in Portuguese (translated, one assumes superbly, by James Young, who declared his qualifications simply by taking it on) by an author both polyglot and artistically polymath. And Heringer, plagued by depression throughout his short life, committed suicide at 29, just as he was teetering into something like fame.

Translator James Young  

Hate at first sight
Then the best thing to do, if you can, is to put all of those things out of your mind in order to expose yourself to the startling originality of the novel. The list of things the novel could be said to be "about" —and Heringer loved lists, which he manipulates with a power similar to the Old Testament "begats"— is ultimately as unrevealing as it is long.

What it concerns is a character named Camilo and his first —and last— love, an orphan boy named Cosme. Make of the adopted boy's name what you will, Camilo is not an Everyman except in his singularity, by which he and his creator mean his aloneness, and sometimes his loneliness.

The story all but condenses itself. Camilo's father brings Cosme into the family unannounced. For Camilo, it's hate at first sight. Weeks into what soon becomes the boys' budding romantic idyll, Comse is raped and murdered. In middle age Camilo, haunted by the past, adopts a boy named Renato and knows love, or something resembling it, again.

It's not too soon to note that this is not a novel about pedophilia; homophobia, yes, centrally. A possible motive for the murder of Cosme is that the boys were, perhaps naively, open with their affection — kissed in public, if in that passion-free, marriage-ceremony kind of way — by no means common in 1970s Brazil.

Opposites attract
At one level the novel is the millionth retelling of the story we know best as Romeo and Juliet. Camilo, whose family is affluent (their walled-off swimming pool holds the first scene), is white, so white, he jokes, that he's almost green. Cosme is the color of milk coffee.

But family affluence does not confer unlimited privilege on Camilo. He's physically disabled and mired in self-pity about it. Like the family housekeeper and resident crone, Maria Aina, he was born with the umbilical cord around his neck. "Anyone born that way will always be on the edge of trouble," she tells him (and the author tells us more than once).

"I was crippled," Camilo tells the reader, "but not terribly. By five I was limping; by eight I was on crutches."

Those crutches go into a different kind of action when Camilo beats Cosme with them (and breaks his own arm). Anyone familiar with crimes of passion will immediately perceive the seeds of love in that sincerely violent "transaction."

Mystery play
The plot is less slim than riddled with mysteries, most left unsolved. Little is certain in the township of Queim, but everything merits conjecture. Among the most nagging mysteries is the identity of Cosme's slayer. No spoilers, but the most disturbing candidate is Adriano, the husband of Paulina, another woman on the house staff, who is pregnant.

Why? It could even be that the murderer and his victim are blood relations. It's possible that Cosme is the offspring of one of Camilo's father's victims. Dr. Pablo, as he is known, assisted the country's regime by keeping torture subjects alive between sessions. He seems nice enough these days, in an absent-parent kind of way, but there is no doubt that he is haunted.

The almost blinding originality of Heringer's story is not enough to conceal its unnamed sources. It's hard to imagine the novel without its precedent in the South American magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It's equally hard to imagine the centrality of Camilo "the cripple" absent his precursor Oskar Matzerath in Günter Grass's "The Tin Drum."

Heringer's novel is political in much the same way those earlier works are. The politics are not patent, say nothing of polemical, but they undergird everything and yield unseen outcomes. The Rio of Camilo's youth is not an exotic getaway.

In a characteristic conflation of internal and external realities, Heringer writes, "We lived under the weird dictatorship of childhood: we looked but didn't see, listened but understood nothing, spoke and were largely ignored. But we were happy under that regime. Like a thick shroud, the fabric of our young lives shielded us completely."

Boys will be boys
Innocence informs the boys' sex play. Cosme teaches Camilo some refinements of masturbation, and the two join other boys in regular circle jerks inside the confines of an abandoned slave house —not, incidentally, the place Cosme is violated and slain. Camilo's own violence is told with all manner of overtone.

"After I walloped him with my staff, my hate no longer took Cosme's name or shape," Camilo tells us. "And so, with a single blow, I began to love him." Make of any of that what you will.

"If you must know," Camilo confides, "it was he who fucked me. Every time."

The author's vision embraces multitudes, but front to back the novel is a meditation —rumination, more like it— on the duality of love and hate, or love and its opposite.
Characters come and go, reappear in new guises and identities, and time frames are shuffled. Chapter numbers reverse after the longest one, about the rape-murder, and point of view changes from first to third person.

Never mind. None of that spells hard reading, and the reader is jostled along by writing as fundamentally cheerful as it is vivid. The prose gallops, and when it slows, in the book's second half, it's by design and part of the emotional scenery. Far more than fancy dancing on the computer keys, Heringer's writing is a braid of the tirelessly hilarious and the deadly serious.

Crack the novel open almost anywhere, and you will find language that astonishes.
"[Cosme's] murder ruled the rest of my life. I was colonized by it."

"The day after [the murder], I woke and my Cosme's desire was no longer in the world. His body was out there, rotting on the table in the mortuary, moved only by the coroner's hands, examining, certifying, trying to slow the decay."

Desire no longer in the world.

"I had a certain love of men.
Today it seems foolish."

Overreaching as it sometimes does, Heringer's novel never seems beside the point.

'The Love of Singular Men,' by Victor Heringer; translated from the Portuguese by James Young, New Directions, 180 pages, paperback, $15.95,

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