Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage, as its title suggests, is a slim volume which strains with the emotion contained within it. Nasser is a Brazilian writer whose fame rests on the short story (it is only 45 pages long) and a novel, Ancient Tillage, simultaneously published by Penguin Modern Classics this year. As far as I can tell, he has previously been unavailable in English, despite the two books in question having been written in the 1970s. (This does not mean there is lifetime’s worth of work yet to be translated, as Nasser gave up writing in 1984).
A Cup of Rage is delivered in seven chapters, six of them short, the other taking up around half the narrative. Each chapter is a continuous sentence, a stream of consciousness pouring from the head of a farmer, half of a couple (the woman is a journalist; neither is named) whose intense, violent relationship is at the centre of the story. The first five chapters tell of their desire for each other, a seemingly irrepressible, unquenchable lust. The woman has a “nightmarish obsession for feet”:
“so I sat on the edge of the bed and calmly started taking off my shoes and socks, holding my bare feet in my hands and feeling how lovely and moist they were, as if pulled out of the earth that very minute”
The “pulled out of the earth” is typical of the narrative voice – not only very physical, but timeless; unexpected, jarring even, but keenly conveying feeling. The ‘sex scene’ is presented entirely in terms of the man’s memories of past encounters while he waits in bed for the woman; in the next chapter it is morning.
Everything changes with the sixth chapter, ‘The Explosion’, when the man spots a gap in his hedge: the culprits are “bloody, fucking leaf-cutter fucking ants.”
“I was rigid as I surveyed the damage, I was livid about that gap”
He quickly pours poison into the anthills, but when he returns he sees something mocking in his lover’s look. What follows is twenty-seven pages of raging argument and insult:
“harnessed to my rage – like a horse, I only needed a starting shot, a reply, only a reply, any throwaway phrase”
The woman initially affects detachment – it is, after all, his irrational rage which has amused her; it is her irony which has so angers him. The argument, however, soon builds unstoppably, just as their lust did earlier, not only encompassing all the irritations of their relationship, but also wider social and political differences. He resents the way she defines herself by her education and at same time believes she is representative of the people, calling her a ‘fraud’; she retorts with ‘fascist’. This may not sound like the most edifying, or indeed interesting, subject matter, but Nasser conveys rage so eloquently that it demands to be read as one sentence, without stopping. Here, for example, the narrator criticises what he sees as his lover’s mistaken belief that she is rebellious in contrast to his conformity:
“I use to go rigid when I saw the fraud anointed with the spirit of the times, surrendering herself lasciviously to the myths of the moment”
In its language (and translator Stefan Tobler must take some credit for this) there is something almost Shakespearian – by that I mean it is poetic in a way that only someone who has little care for what poetry is meant to sound like can write. Modern readers may well find the narrator’s violence troubling (“I said ‘whore, it was an explosion in my mouth and my hand flying another explosion in her face”) but Nassar’s purpose is remain true to passions not sensibilities. That both the first and last chapters are titled ‘The Arrival’ suggests that is a scene which has played out before.
A Cup of Rage, like any explosive passion, may be brief, but is unlikely to be quickly forgotten.