Review: ‘Moldy Strawberries’ by Caio Fernando Abreu

Moldy Strawberries

Moldy Strawberries is a collection of short stories by the acclaimed Brazilian writer Abreu, who passed away in 1996 and whose electric talent is now being unleashed on the English-speaking world; thanks in no small part to the translator Bruna Dantas Lobato. 

The opening story, Dialogue, sets a distinctly surreal tone for the collection. It pulses to the beat of its philosophical undercurrent, depicting the human experience as a strand of DNA, or a monad, prompting both an existential and a corporal reading. 

In philosophy, a monad refers to a simple entity, which can be seen as both an atom and an individual. In biology, it illustrates a single-celled organism. Both depictions appeal to the essence of human emotion, picking loneliness and separateness from the swarm of stimuli that taunt them.

Highly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the story draws our attention to the notes of absurdism that can be picked out in every human interaction. The state of waiting in the stories, whether out of a sense of dazedness or anticipation, bleeds into the idea of companionship, shaping need into the root of all suffering. 

Swelled by the potency of saudade, a deep emotional state of melancholic longing, the various narratives teeter on the edge of the mundane and the euphoric. Hungrily, they convey a sense of delirium that draws on the vagueness of their desired consummation. 

This is felt particularly deeply in Beyond the Point, which comes across as a breathless expulsion, an endless exhalation. The run-on sentences discard punctuation in much the same way the protagonist wants to do away with clothes, and other fronts, as he traverses the city in pursuit of the object of his passion.

This narrative device is a red-hot poker, and it’s used to stoke the stories’ fever repeatedly. Abreu’s prose stuns and seduces in much the same way as poetry. The end result is a written record of the sentiments that defy the constraints of language. Abreu seizes an impulse, throttles an emotion by stripping it of its vague oral embodiment. Thoughts and senses collide, overwhelm, drown.

As a result, instead of desire, we carry “so much mental spiritual moral existential attraction and none of it physical”. And when it’s pulled taut, we see that “too much culture kills people’s bodies, man, too many films, too many books, too many words”, thus, “I could only consume you by masturbating”.

The deeper we plunge, the more we see that the idea of the monad keeps resurfacing. It defines crossed wires in every conversation, reveals two people drifting close with all the apprehension of a swift parting. Every exchange, both verbal and physical, has the shape of a bridge being erected from two opposing sides of the riverbank; always a few inches off, never to meet in the center to form a whole.

Like any true artist, Caio Fernando Abreu turns form into substance, searches for meaning in the textures that come with a tactile awareness of one’s own graceless, limbed existence. Repeatedly, without ever tempering his thoughts, Abreu wonders if we’re simply the sum of our longings, reflections, and movements. Maybe none, maybe all of them combined.

The end result is the weight of the body being dragged from place to place by It, which exists as the answer to the question that has never been phrased. In contrast, we have the Other, which stands for the one we desire with everything that we are, and therefore perceive as existing as the sum of everything. Abreu does permit himself to ask a single question in relation to this wretched state, “Where did the parts of things that didn’t fit into themselves go?”.

This distortion feeds another palpable theme in the collection; namely, penetration. After all, it’s the ultimate form of breaking through the walls of a single cell, of merging with the crumbled ruins of the individual. Much like every other sentiment and image found in Abreu’s stories, the idea of penetration exists on both a bodily and an emotional level.

It offers a taste of the desired consummation, as pleasure leads to a deeper understanding of the Other (“I pictured a flashlight tearing open the darkness of a long-hidden cave, a secret cove”). As an emotional assault, penetration feels even more forceful (“the other man’s presence would throb next to you, nearly bleeding, as if you’d stabbed him with your silent emotion”).

Ultimately, the collection’s passions converge into a meditation on time, which the writer himself was deprived of by AIDS. As an expansive concept, time extends to the idea of being alive. At first, only the prick of suffering — unbearable at the moment of its occurrence — can convey “the unbearable beauty of something entirely alive”. In youth, it’s felt most keenly when in love, or in lust.

The bliss that suffering provides is always acknowledged in retrospect, however. And always with an air of insurmountable detachment. When time grows moody and withdraws its offering, the future chokes, turning the present into a continuum of existence (“Infinity is endless. Infinity is never”).

That’s why, the titular story, which serves as the collection’s culminating point, comes across as both the least coherent, and the most visceral. It surfaces as a scream, an outcry about the thing that should be sweet offering nothing but a foul reaction for the body to stomach. 

The protagonist says, “if it weren’t for the living presence inside me, deteriorating, being eaten away, the cell going crazy in my soul fermenting the disgusting taste on my tongue”. And yet, heartbreakingly, he barely gives voice to his pains. Instead, he steps under a stream of sunlight, naked, glancing around for the best spot to grow a fresh strawberry plant.

Publication date: May 17, 2022 (Archipelago)

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