Having started the main part of our Man Booker International Prize journey in Angola, we now cross the Atlantic Ocean for our second stop. Today’s book takes us to Brazil, but we won’t be stopping here for long, just under fifty pages separating us from a quick getaway. Keep the engine running, then, and be careful where you look, especially if you’re easily offended…
A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar –
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Modern Classics, translated by Stefan Tobler
What’s it all about?
There’s a man and a woman, on a ranch of some sort, somewhere in Brazil (presumably). There’s sex, in a fair amount of detail, there are ants damaging hedges, there’s a blazing row, provoked by very little at all, and then, finally, there is a switch of viewpoints. That is A Cup of Rage…
…well, from one angle, certainly. Of course, though, there is much more than that to Raduan Nassar’s story (I hesitate to even stretch to novella; at forty-seven pages of text, some of which are almost blank, I don’t think it quite makes the novella grade). A Cup of Rage is less about what happens, but how it happens, a sparse collection of actions inviting the reader to follow the writer’s long, mesmerising sentences and fill the gaps in later.
The majority of the story is told from the viewpoint of the man, a nameless, middle-aged entity who, from the very first sentence, exudes confidence, to the point of arrogance, which only grows once the story enters the bedroom:
…I waited for her, stiff and ready, enjoying in silence the cotton of the sheet that covered me, and right then I closed my eyes thinking of the strategems I would use (of all the many I knew), and in this way I went over alone in my head the things that we did, how she quivered at the first twitches of my mouth and at the shine I forged in my eyes, where I brought into plain view what was most vile and sordid in me, knowing that carried away by my side she would always shout ‘so this is the bastard I love’…
p.4 (Penguin Modern Classics, 2016)
This arrogance continues throughout the story, leaving the reader to reflect on what his relationship with the younger woman involves, and whether she really is as obsessed with her lover as he seems to think.
While the sex scenes beginning the story have attracted a lot of attention from reviewers, in truth they are merely the prelude to the real focus of A Cup of Rage, the extended chapter set outside the house, where the man picks a fight with the woman, one in which he discovers that when it comes to words, his lover is not as easily cowed as he would like. Over the space of what is easily more than half the story, the man (angered by the aforementioned ants…) attempts to lash out at the woman in a wide-ranging, and often incomprehensible, torrent of words:
…’me, the cyst, the sore, the canker, the ulcer, the tumour, the wound, the body’s cancer, me, all this without any irony and much more, but I don’t hide my own appetites behind the hunger of the people; and know this too, that I don’t give a shit for all your blather, and it’s only my good hygiene that keeps me from wiping my arse on your humanism… (p.34)
Yet his partner is always able to deflect these outpourings of bile, twisting the man’s words and setting him on the defensive. It’s all very impressive – if only we knew what they were really arguing about…
The structure of the story is notable for its lack of balance, with a few brief chapters, some only a page or so, followed by the lengthy fight scene and one last short section to finish off the book. Each of these chapters, including the main one, is written in one extended sentence, with the only full stops appearing at the end of each part. As you can imagine, this calls for complex, rambling, run-on sentences (with some deft use of punctuation), and Tobler manages this nicely for the most part, with the first sections in particular a joy to read.
Of course, how much you enjoy those first sections will depend on whether you’re happy to read about sex. There’s nothing truly pornographic here, but A Cup of Rage certainly doesn’t shy away from the erotic, exposing us to the male protagonist’s lust for the young woman – and how he sates it. In truth, though, this is just a warm up for the main act, the internal, interminable monologue of a frustrated, angry man…
If you want to look for one, there is almost certainly an allegorical nature to the book too. Quite possibly there’s a political element to the work, or you might just see it as an examination of the age-old battle of the sexes. However you choose to read it, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s a powerful, emotional read, packing a lot into a very short space. Whether you see it as a success or not may just depend on what you want from it, though.
Does it deserve to make the shortlist?
Not for me. I suspect that Nassar’s book will be extremely divisive, with supporters passionate in its defence – but not too many of them. I enjoyed the writer’s style to begin with, but as the argument started, and the couple began to exchange barbs, I slowly found myself losing interest. It’s all very well to start the story in media res, and it actually works quite well, but at some point the reader really needs to find a reason to invest in the book – I struggled to find one.
I’d also have to say that while I thought the translation was excellent in places, I wasn’t a huge fan of the dialogue. There was a lot of stilted, old-fashioned vocabulary, and the conversation was a bit wooden at times. I suspect that this reflects the original, with the words the man uses being deliberately trite compared to the wave of words swirling around in his head, but if I’m being honest, I’d still have to say that the writer(s) lost my interest well before the end.
Will it make the shortlist?
I doubt it. There are a lot of great books on this longlist, and I can’t see the judges pushing this one into the top six. Someone on the panel obviously likes this a lot and will undoubtedly fight its corner, but I’d be surprised if it got enough support from the panel as a whole to progress further in this year’s prize.
After a quick getaway (and a cold shower…), we’re back on the plane, ready to set off for our next destination. Having already been to Japan and Korea prior to the longlist announcement, our next trip to East Asia takes us to China. I’m not sure everyone will enjoy the stay, but it’ll certainly be an education…