Folha Online 29/06/2009

Writer Cristovão Tezza Is His Own Public Servant

By Teresa Chaves

Cristovão Tezza, 57, traveled far and wide before becoming a writer – physically (he left Lages, where he was born, and lived in Curitiba, Coimbra and Acre, before returning to Curitiba) and emotionally. The teenager who refused to sit a university entrance exam, tried to get into the navy and was a member of an alternative theatre group ended up becoming a university lecturer and one of Brazil’s best-known writers.

His latest book, The Eternal Son (Record, 2007), won the Portugal Telecom and APCA (São Paulo Art Critics Association) literary awards, bringing him well-deserved recognition. The novel narrates the experiences of a father, in the early 1980s, who discovers that his newborn son has Down syndrome. Many have referred to it as an autobiographical work, since Felipe, the writer’s son, has the syndrome. But Tezza disagrees. For him, everything he writes is fiction. But he doesn’t deny that he finally managed to write about a subject that had always terrified him, and that the only way to do so was to make himself into a character.

In an email interview with Folha Online, Tezza, who is a guest at the 7th FLIP (Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty) and who defines himself as a person in constant transformation, talks about biography, the writing process, his relationship with his son, success, and states his belief in the formative power of literature.

Folha Online – Your life seems to have been punctuated by a number of utopias, as you have characterized several moments in your books: the theatre group, the utopia of the actor, of the artist. In hindsight, do you still believe that they were really utopian moments? Do you believe there is room in your life for new utopias?

Cristovão Tezza – They weren’t great collective utopias with a political agenda, such as that which gave rise to the armed struggle in Brazil (although it always had totalitarian underpinnings). In my case they were small-scale peripheral utopias, anarchical and communitarian in nature, revolving around individuals, which informed my entry into adult life and left a deep impression on me. Politically, I instinctively mistrust the state and its manifestations (the military dictatorship had a lot to do with it, of course – but I still have this instinct, even today, although it is much lighter). On the other hand, I have always harbored a sense of social inadequacy, which, in a childish kind of way, has become a value to be upheld. In short, I have spent much of my life trying to put life and art in the same boat, which really doesn’t work. Nowadays I am pretty cautious about utopian thinking – it is always an open door to magical thinking and irrationalism. My refuge is fiction, a very private way of recognizing things in the world. I no longer have any all-encompassing ideas about reality.

Folha Online – Tell us about your writing process.

Tezza – I’m always answering this question and I’ve never got it exactly right. It’s an eclectic process, with a few stable elements of a practical nature. I need routine. When I start a novel, I write every day from Monday to Friday, at certain times of day, generally for about three hours, as if I were my own public servant. I also need time out. I don’t function under pressure or tension, I can’t be in a hurry, and I need to know I have free time in front of me. I like strolling aimlessly and sitting still, in silence. In the last two years this has all collapsed, which is why I haven’t written anything new. But it has been for a good cause: The Eternal Son represents my freedom in the practical world.

I wrote all of my books by hand, believe it or not, except The Eternal Son, because in the beginning I imagined that it would be a book of essays or testimonials. When I decided on fiction, I was already used to the computer. I don’t think I’ll go back to writing things by hand.

Subjects come to me naturally and draw me in – I have the feeling that I don’t choose anything. When I start writing I always have a project in my head, a beginning, a middle and an end, which never works out as I planned. But if I don’t have that outline, I can’t start. The key moment is discovering the voice of the book, that first sentence that gives me a particular outlook on the world and makes me move forward. For example, “Solitude is a discrete form of resentment,” from O Fotógrafo [The Photographer] (Rocco, 2004). Or “I’m writing this book for money,” from Uma Noite em Curitiba [One Night in Curitiba] (Rocco, 1995). Or “I had it all, except the family,” from Juliano Pavollini (Rocco, 2003). I take a long time to get to this moment and start the book. The passage from the image in my mind to the writing of the text is always traumatic.

Folha Online – Your short story “Telephones,” published in your site, seems like a good biography. Even so, he confuses readers regarding dates, events and sequences. Was that your intention with this text, to talk a little about yourself as if you were a character?

Tezza – I think so. I have a certain difficulty dealing with assertive language, expressing opinions, except when I can take refuge in academic language, that of essays, pure theoretical simulation – then I can be downright dogmatic. In order to talk about myself, the structure of fiction is the only thing that works, because many things are obscure. Fiction frees me – I don’t talk about myself, but about someone I know well, so to speak, but whom I keep at a safe distance. That’s how the story “Telephones” was born – it’s all biographical, but it is fundamentally fiction. For example, the scene with the father is made up. It is actually a montage of different moments in my life. On the other hand, the scene of the Swedish girl on the phone – absolutely irrelevant from a biographical point of view – is real, although it seems made up.

Folha Online – You have been many places in Europe and Brazil. What does it feel like to return to your roots, to settle in Curitiba again? What is your relationship with the city like now?

Tezza – I didn’t have much choice in that either. I basically just followed my nose, looking for the practical circumstances I needed in order to write. In Curitiba, where I re-settled in 1978, I found these circumstances, which have remained constant over the years. I did live in Florianópolis for a while in the 1980s when I first started teaching, but I came back to Curitiba. I’ve become a fully-fledged Curitibano, and have no desire to leave again. I ran the city down for years, without realizing that the city was working its way under my skin for the very same things I was criticizing. In the end, the things I used to consider flaws I now consider qualities. People’s introspection, love of order, fear of others, the fact that there is no Carnival or beach, the size of the city – still within arm’s reach, the cold, the way people are homebodies, and demanding of themselves, the very few friends that last 40 years (and not the 350 that last 40 days).

Folha Online – Looking back now, why do you think it took you so long to decide what you wanted to do? Where did your resistance to academia and university come from?

Tezza – As a teenager, I believed that universities were the cultural arm of the state and that I’d be destroyed as an artist if I went to one. I fought tooth and nail to avoid them, until reality finally caught up with me. At the age of 25, I sat an entrance exam for a degree in language and literature, although I was still somewhat indocile, defiant. Suddenly, through linguistics I discovered the language of science, so to speak, and I developed a taste for it. One thing led to another, and I became a lecturer. But I have never given myself heart and soul to the academic world – I’ve always remained a little wary, maintaining a secret resistance, more emotional than rational. When I finished my PhD, I decided against teaching on post-grad courses (a wise move, or I’d never have written another word again except for Ministry of Education reports) and stuck with the undergraduates. Now I’m almost 57 (still over ten years away from retirement...), but I don’t think I’ve got it in me physically to keep going, and I feel I’ve got a lot to write. My private dream is to leave the university and return to the spirit of the 1970s...

Folha Online – In “Telephones” and other interviews you have expressed a somewhat glum view of being a writer, saying, "Actually, no one wants you to write anything; working is better.” Do you think that even today writing isn’t considered work? Where does this disenchantment come from?

Tezza – There is a touch of irony in the line from the story, blending the boy and the mother’s voices in the same sentence. For me, from an emotional point of view, writing literature isn’t “work” – it’s a pleasure, a personal journey, an adventure, something difficult but good. In a way, I still have this lingering adolescent thing that refuses to see the production of literature as a “profession.” When they talk about writers’ unions and the likes I get shivers down my spine. But my position has nothing to do with amateurism or dabbling – I am talking about literature as a very personal ethical and existential adventure that shapes ones life. Total surrender. It is a solitary choice without any guarantee of a return. It’s your problem, so to speak.

Folha Online – What gave you the idea to enter the Merchant Navy Officers’ School? Wasn’t that the opposite to the freedom that you sought through theatre?

Tezza – It was the fantasy of a new writer. I thought that, like Joseph Conrad, as a merchant navy officer (a civil rather than military profession), I’d be able to make a living traveling the world and writing novels. When I was there I experienced the tough reality of military routine, since the school was run by the navy, right in the middle of the Médici dictatorship (1969-74). I didn’t last six months and got out of there as fast as I could.

Folha Online – What did your time with the actors’ troupe bring you in terms of experience? Do you think it was important to your future?

Tezza – It’s hard to say – but everything that happens to you between the ages of 16 and twenty-something marks you for the rest of your life. It was a really good time for me – I have great memories of it. It was a formative time, when I read a lot – and everything had a fairly anarchical, unorthodox point of view. Afterwards, it took me a while to free myself of that collective dream to embark on a “solo career,” as such. But the marks remain.

Folha Online – How did the military dictatorship affect you?

Tezza – It had a big impact – relatives and friends, students at the university, were arrested, some were exiled, and others disappeared. In the environment I lived in, surrounded by people connected to theatre and literature, the dictatorship was obviously on everyone’s lips – it would have been impossible not to respond to it in some way. The bad side of every dictatorship is the inescapable polarization of the world that it imposes on you. It is hard to free yourself of this us-and-them perspective.

Folha Online – What did it mean to be in Portugal in the aftermath of the Carnation Revolution (1974), while Brazil was going through its own dictatorship?

Tezza – That was a fascinating experience – looking at Brazil from afar, from a country that was learning to live in freedom. I didn’t know it, but the Carnation Revolution actually paved the way for a complete about-turn in the world that would take place years later with the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Folha Online – After mistrusting universities for so long, what is it like to be part of one? Do you believe your work as a lecturer is important?

Tezza – I’ve always felt like a person in constant transformation. It would be silly for me now to hold on to what I believed in 1970, which made sense in an 18-year-old’s mind. Discovering the language of science, when I finally entered university, was important for me. In these 20 or so years in the classroom, I think I’ve been a good teacher of Portuguese, though not very imaginative. Thinking about it now, I feel as if I’ve always taught the same class. Academically, I wrote a book about Bakhtin [Mikhail, author of the classic Rabelais and His World] and Russian Formalism, which was my doctor’s thesis, and I co-authored two textbooks with the linguist Carlos Alberto Faraco. The funny thing is that I have never taught literature or literary theory – the few times I tried, in one-off classes or seminars, I was a disaster. But, to be fair, I’ve never put my soul in the university – only my survival and a certain spirit of trying to do a good job whenever possible.

Folha Online – Do you consider yourself an autobiographical writer? Or don’t you consider it the main characteristic of your work?

Tezza – Looking back on what I’ve written, I’d say I’m a confessional writer rather than biographical. I’ll explain: most of my narrators are creatures who confess. Their texts are structured like existential confessions, even when in the third person. This testimony in itself has nothing to do with biographical testimony, which can be structured in a cold, distant, non-confessional way. I have only two books that are more biographical: Essay on Passion (Rocco, 1999), in which my experience with the actors’ troupe was a strong presence, albeit with a touch of fantasy, and The Eternal Son. In this one, I really did exploit myself mercilessly...

Folha Online – What is the relationship between fiction and reality in your work? Do you worry about blurring or establishing boundaries? Do you think a writer’s life influences his or her work irremediably? Has this always been a concern in your work?

Tezza – I don’t think so. When I write fiction, biographical or otherwise (and I think I’ve already exhausted my biographical repertoire) I’m a “narrator,” who sees everything clinically – for him, a dragon and a dog can be part of the same reality. It doesn’t matter if one really exists and the other doesn’t. Fiction, for me, is a “language,” not a compositional form. In fiction there is no “pact with reality” or “presupposition of truth,” which is the essence of essays or journalism, for example. Fiction is an experience parallel to reality, not its portrait.

Folha Online – What led you to write The Eternal Son? What barriers did you have to overcome?

Tezza - Suddenly, more than 20 years after Felipe was born, it occurred to me to write about the subject. I’d never thought of it before, and I can now see the black hole, psychologically speaking. That is, the idea simply didn’t exist – it wasn’t some kind of awareness that I wasn’t ready or mature enough, nothing like that. The hypothesis of the book hadn’t occurred to me. When it did, out of the blue, I spent a long time searching for a way to approach the subject without being destroyed by it. It was a terrible risk. When the idea came to me, the only thing I had to overcome was my fear.

Folha Online – The book itself is very cruel to the narrator, but also very truthful. Was it cruel for you to write this book? Or was it also liberating?

Tezza – Writing it was neither cruel nor liberating. Writing, at least for me, requires a good amount of emotional distance. I write clinically, so to speak. A key thing when I was writing this book was not allowing myself to get bogged down in sentimentalism or pure confession. What helped me was that I was no longer dealing with a personal problem; I think it’s safe to say that my personal problem with my son hasn’t existed for many years. When I started the book, I was actually dealing with a literary problem. Giving a literary dimension to a deeply personal issue. The problem was technical rather than emotional.

Folha Online – Has your relationship with your son Felipe changed in any way since you wrote the book?

Tezza - No, it’s still great, as it has been for many years. You have to remember that Felipe doesn’t have the language skills to read, and this was determinant in the structure and organization of the book. Obviously, if he were able to read, the book would be completely different.

Folha Online – Your interviews have changed a lot since the publication of The Eternal Son. Before, when someone asked if you considered your work autobiographical, or if it contained a lot of autobiographical elements, you used to say no. Now it’s as if everything boils down to you having put your life, or the most difficult part of it, in a book. Do you think that The Eternal Son has changed your relationship with literature? Does it matter to you what the critics are going to expect of you in terms of fiction or autobiography from here on?

Tezza – The success of this book really did take me by surprise. I wasn’t exactly prepared – all I had was a speech up my sleeve in response to what I imagined would be a critical massacre. My pessimism gradually became undone by the reaction of readers and critics. I realized that the book had become bigger than its author, which I think happens with all writers in their maturity; that is, the book ends up “knowing more” that its author. But I don’t think it has changed my relationship with literature, which goes way back. I’m working on projects that were in my head even before I wrote The Eternal Son. As for future critical responses, due to expectations, I prefer not to think about it. But it does affect me a little. I’m trying to immunize myself. The boundary between fiction and autobiography probably won’t be an issue. Like I said, I think I’ve already drained my biographical well.

Folha Online – In your opinion, what role does literature play in the shaping of people today? Do books, as objects, meets the information needs of today’s world? Would you encourage someone to become a writer today, in spite of the string of discouraging rejections that you describe in The Eternal Son?

Tezza - Literature is an unofficial parallel universe, an art form that can encompass, emulate and transform every other art form in the world, without getting mixed up with any of them. Everything can be recreated through literature – history, science, information, ethics, religion – on a much larger scale than originally. It doesn’t strive for the truth, but what people think about it, in a way that no other art can. And from another perspective, literature offers a moment of solitude, an opportunity to breathe amidst all this madness. Books are absolutely fantastic objects, and reading is a demanding process, much more so than all the audiovisual resources of the contemporary world. As for encouraging someone to become a writer, I think it’s a little scary – it really is a choice to be made on one’s own.

(Translated by Alison Entrekin)