Little action takes place in Caio Fernando Abreu’s short story collection Moldy Strawberries (Archipelago Books, 2022). But there are many rooms. In these rooms, two queer lovers negotiate the logic of their intellectually vibrant yet sexually flat connection, a group of scholars discuss the import of astrology and the value of the French language, near strangers meet at parties and decide to have sex, or not, fondling each other on beaches or saying goodbye forever.
I’ve known many rooms like these, often echoing with the heated discussions of peers crawling toward master’s and doctoral degrees. And amid this abundance of thinking and talking, we have also tried to catalogue the importance of it all.
Abreu’s characters ask the same thing. In “The Survivors,” the author homes in on the banal tragedy of the intellectual elite through a chain of (ultimately useless) literary, lifestyle, and philosophical references that the characters use to mask their feelings. Of their academic prowess, one of the characters maintains, “… we were superior, we were chosen, we were vaguely sacred.” Yet Abreu deflates this false confidence as the story’s unnamed speakers intellectualize their desire, insisting that their shared interests should be the logic behind their attraction, pointing to the at-times wide gap between lived experience and study, between fucking and thinking. Throughout the collection (originally published in 1982 in Brazil and now republished in English by Archipelago, with a translation by Bruna Dantas Lobato), Abreu situates these disappointments to eulogize the failed utopias of the 1960s and 1970s, contrasting them with the cynicism and consumer culture of the 1980s.
With attention to the social and political weight of the everyday, Abreu’s disillusioned bohemians pepper Moldy Strawberries with existential questions about the meaning of friendship and the contradictory nature of love. In “Dialogue,” a short, Beckett-like absurdist piece, the second speaker is intent on proving their connection to the first speaker, maniacally repeating that the first speaker is their friend until they utter the sparse yet erotically charged statement, “I want it.” This erosion of the distance between platonic and erotic connection comes to surface again in “Those Two,” in which two coworkers circle around their love for each other under the guise of fellowship as their homophobic coworkers watch them closely. Here, again, are lovers deprived of a physical relationship, but for very different reasons.
Born in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1948, Abreu gained national fame in his lifetime, publishing 20 books and winning the prestigious Jabuti Prize for fiction three times, yet he remained virtually unknown outside of Brazil. Abandoning academia to be a pop culture journalist, he wrote about queer love, political violence, and illness during Brazil’s military dictatorship and the AIDS epidemic, when to do so might have cost him his life. To escape persecution, he self-exiled in France. In 1994 he tested positive for HIV and died two years later in Porto Alegre at the age of 47.
Abreu’s work falls within the lineage of cultural “cannibalism,” a movement in Brazilian art and letters sparked by poet Oswald de Andrade’s “Anthropophagic Manifesto” (1928), which urged Brazilian artists to absorb the dominant European “sacred enemy” in order to appropriate its best qualities — to digest European culture and transform it into something distinctly Brazilian. As Bruna Dantas Lobato wrote in her translator’s note accompanying the author’s letter to friend and journalist José Márcio Penido, published in LARB in 2019, “Abreu’s work is about repression as much as it is about forms of consolation.” He took what he felt was trying to consume him — North American commercialism, Eurocentric philosophy and aesthetics, the terror of the nation-state, bourgeois malaise, homophobia, the AIDS crisis — and consumed it. The result is a polyvocal, cultural, and literary hybridity that speaks to its national and global context as it does to the author’s intimate feelings.
Lobato maintains that Abreu approached writing as a form of salvation, “from madness, from death, from invisibility, and, especially, from the self.” David Wojnarowicz, another artist who argued for the political power of queer intimacy, wrote of living amid homophobia, corporate greed, and the AIDS crisis: “… I’m amazed we’re not running amok in the streets, and that we can still be capable of gestures of loving after lifetimes of all this.”
Abreu attends to those gestures of loving amid a sinister world, how they gleam among the detritus of, as Wojnarowicz put it, the pre-invented world. Abreu viewed the act of art making as deeply political. Weighing down humor and the surreal with the concrete realities of living with illness, Moldy Strawberries forces the tradition of social satire to bulge at the seams. It’s a collection that is as hilarious as it is heartbreaking, vaulting existential questions across the page while poking fun at the urge to ask them in the first place, both yearning for and laughing at utopian visions of the past. The strawberry fields of the 1960s and ’70s have grown moldy, but, in Abreu’s writing, within the mulch lies the promise of the new, a chance to start again.
Moldy Strawberries by Caio Fernando Abreu (May 17, 2022), translated by Bruna Dantas Lobato, is published by Archipelago Books and is available to pre-order online.