Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Letters from a Seducer - Hilda Hilst (translated by John Keene) - 2015 Best Translated Book Award

In our “Introduction”, by Bruno Carvhalho, to “Letters from a Seducer” he explains that when this novel was first published in 1991, Brazil “had emerged from a military dictatorship (1964-1985), and writers no longer had to contend with brutal government censorship.” As a result our writer, Hilda Hirst, “was playing with the readers’ expectations”. He goes on the state that “Letters from a Seducer” is “by no means conventional” and that the “book is divided into three loosely connected parts”…

Our opening line is “How to think about pleasure wrapped up in this crap?” We are in for a tale of pleasure, not a lot of seduction, pleasure, gratification, pleasure and then some more. After a short introductory piece, explaining the “crap” we are about to consume, we have the male voice, the well off, dandy Karl writing twenty letters to his sister.



CORDELIA, FOR SOME REASON you insinuate things I know nothing about. You talk about how healthy father was. Nonsense, Healthy is me. And with this hypothetical healthy you insinuate some terrible things I know nothing about or think that they really aren’t the same terrible things. Those, I know about. Speak clearly: did you fornicate with father? Was I fooled for all of these years? Did you exclude me from the pleasure and hate of hearing your stories or seeing the facts? You’re a guilty crybaby why? You remember those clowns I sculpted in clay and then dressed in white satin and colored ribbons? That’s how I feel. And what do you mean with this “if I remember Nietzsche at the end,” he crying on a crowded street by a broken-down horse? Yes, I remember. And so? I’m no Nietzsche, nor am I the horse, nor am I Lou Salome. You think I’m crazy? Or that I identify with horses and baronesses like you, Palomita? Pay attention. I can be cruel if screwed over.

P.S. I insist: why do you speak of Nietzsche? Why do you think I’m compassionate gentle cruel and crazy like him? And I ask you: talented too? That I should dedicate myself to letters because you feel I am a writer? Without a doubt you want to offend me, Cordelia.


Our twenty stories contain numerous references to incestuous relationships between our writer’s father his daughter and son.

Our work then transforms into Karl writing some short stories (as part of his letters):



BENT. He used to say strange things when he ran into someone on the street. For example he said: not everything can be fixed. The others looked at him and sometimes responded: true, not everything. Or they did not say anything and kept walking and looking back, fearful or simply surprised. They did not know his name. They said that at a certain point he appeared in town. He was well dressed. A sheaf of papers in his hand. Many papers. In addition to the “not everything can be fixed,” he spoke mainly about the difficulty of being understood. The others: you don’t speak of anything else besides that…do you live far away? are you lost? did you have an accident? He repeated: not everything can be fixed. And what was on those papers? They looked. Nothing, nothing, just blank sheets. The people of the village became accustomed to him. An old widow boarded him in her back room. The man slept between broken chairs, tarnished mirrors, peeling chests. They asked the widow: did he say something else today? only that same thing: “not everything can be fixed.”


After our short stories we have a section called “Of other hollows”, apparently written by Tiu or Stamatius, a writer who has lost his fortune, his house, his wife, his teeth and now lives in a shack, collecting shellfish, writing and abusing his partner Eulalia: Apparently a published author after physically abusing his publisher, he if frantically writing, puring the words onto the page, in-between fornication with Eulalia:


You materialized your howl about life and it’s so poignant it was born a woman. And it was born as you wanted to be: poor in spirit. And as you see yourself: a crystalline sensuality. And a touch of pity, a touch of debauchery, and delicacy in sex because deep down you fear that everything degenerates into death.


I found one of the most stunning revelations about this work, was the female author Hilda, writing in a male voice and with so much phallic references, thrusting, pounding etc. it is a bold approach to a very provocative subject matter. This is no ordinary “pornographic” romp, with incest, paedophilia, homosexual (mainly male-to-male) sex a constant, on just about every page.

Our final section is a mixture of voices, with eight short pieces, cutting across all that has come before:


WE HAD ENDLESS DISCUSSIONS. I showed him my texts and he said: you have no breathing room, buddy, everything ends too quickly, you do not develop the character, the character wanders around, has no density, is not real. But that’s all I mean, I do not want contours, I do not want destiny, I want the guy lightly-drawn, concise, rushed for its own sake, free of personal data, the guy floating, yes, but he is alive, more alive than if he were trapped by words, by acts, he floats free, you understand? No.


Yes, we have our writer critiquing the work we are reading.

I can assure you that if you are after character development, or density then skip this work. If you are after a challenge and characters celebrating life, in all its filth and splendour then this is probably up your alley.

Interestingly I find the word “seducer” in the title slightly distracting as there isn’t a whole lot of seduction going on in between these pages, we have gratification, we have desire, lust, as many sexual acts as you could possibly imagine, however the “seduction” is a little light on.

Our translation glides through a difficult structure with lyrical poetry, angry personal letters and euphemisms for body parts all flowing on almost every page, I can only assume the original Portuguese would have flowed as a poetic work and the recreation here is similar.

Not a work you can simply explain, something of a cross between Clarice Lispector and Henry Miller (or maybe Anais Nin), this is not your ordinary read, possibly not one to read on a train or plane unless you are willing to put up with the strange looks from your fellow passengers!!!


  1. Thanks so much for this great review! I'm the translator and really appreciate you mentioning Hilst's novel!

  2. Nice work with this novel Tony. I have had a look at my copy as I said and the euphemisms for body parts are certainly, uh, creative. I do plan to read this and the other 6 BTBA titles I own (+ the 7 I have read that will make 13/25, might add a few more).

  3. Thank you for stopping by and commenting. As mentioned in the review John K, the translation flows smoothly given the use of English words for the body parts. JM - you should be able to polish this off quite quickly as it reads very smoothly. Personally I'm hoping to get to 24 of the 25 on the longlist (I'm skipping the Leopoldo Marechai's "Adam Buenosayres" as it runs to 744 pages!! "Letters from a Seducer" is a lyrical read indeed!!!


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.