This impressive, very brief book – the story is only 59 pages long – crosses a lot of terrain and mixes in mathematics, poetry, existentialism and madness. It won’t be for everyone, but readers of Virginia Woolf, Kafka, Beckett, and Joyce should all find things here to like.
The story centers on Amós Kéres and his sudden mental deterioration. Kéres is a math professor who is married and has a son, but his work and family life are inexplicably becoming matters of indifference to him. Something happened to him one day when he climbed a small hill and had an experience he describes as “a clear-cut unhoped-for” and a vision of “incommensurable meaning.”
The book mostly delves into the thoughts of Kéres in an off-kilter, stream-of-consciousness fashion, but it also explores his interactions with a few other characters, concluding in a dark, enigmatic ending. The narrative voice twitches unexpectedly between first person and third person as Kéres expresses his thoughts and describes his actions – this creates an unsettling, out-of-body effect, as if Kéres is living his thoughts while also observing himself from across the room.
As with the swirling narrative, it’s a bit of a challenge to figure out exactly when the story is taking place: As a sequence of flashbacks in his classroom where he’s suddenly fallen silent and wears a thousand-yard stare? In the home of his mother where he’s written the line that appears on the first and last page of the book (“God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter”)? In a through-the-looking-glass nightmare of Kafkaesque proportions?
This is a strange and disquieting little book – I encourage adventurous readers to give it a try.
Hilda Hilst was an important 20th Century Brazilian writer whose work has only recently begun to be translated into English.