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João Gilberto Noll: Harmada (Harmada)

Our unnamed hero/narrator lives in an unnamed country, whose capital is Harmada. When we first meet him, he is crawling around in the mud. We gradually learn that he used to be a actor. I was once in the theatre, do you know theatre? So yes, I was an artist, an actor. And since then, ever since I left the profession or was left by it, I don’t know, since then I can’t do anything else. Indeed, he seems to have fallen on hard times and drags himself round the country looking, as he says, for placidity. Why and what he is doing is never clear.

He visits a woman. Who is she? We do not know. We do know there is another man there. He goes swimming in a river with a crippled man and the man disappears. Has he drowned or did he, as our narrator says, simply disappear in a puff of smoke?

He is not in good shape. He goes to a hotel and looks at himself in a mirror. It is not a pretty sight. But he then goes to see a strange play. There are just two women in the play, playing two people of undefined sex. He will later have first a threesome and then a foursome with the women. One of the women, Amanda, has a baby with her. This baby will later play a key role in the book.

But things are not getting better. There seems to be an earthquake and he is hurt. He manages to get treatment and some food. At this point, things start to improve for him. He gets a job. It is a basic office job, working for an old man. He will later meet the man’s niece, Jane, and, three months later, they will marry. But that does not work out. In a matter of hours, I’ve lost my job and my wife.

He ends up in a homeless shelter, where he stays for many years. He is allowed to stay, as he is able to tell stories to the other inmates and the staff think this is therapeutic. One day a girl arrives at the shelter in a bad way. She had tried to kill herself. She is Cris, the daughter of Amanda. She is the baby we met earlier in the novel. Her mother had died in the earthquake and she had had a hard time since.

Cris wants to be an actress and out hero sees her as his way back to the theatre. They head for Harmada, where he goes to stay with Bruce, an old friend from his acting days. The play, a monologue written by a Mexican author, was about a grieving woman who believed, with all her hatred and despair, in eternity. It is directed by our narrator and does very well. It is clear that both men, despite their advanced years are attracted to Cris though she sees our narrator as a father figure. She never knew her own father.

Once again, however, things are not going to work out well. I couldn’t imagine living in my body now without constantly being afflicted by nausea — it was as if I couldn’t bear the brute material that now constituted me. Bizarrely the novel ends up with the foundation story of Harmada.

As with his Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel), this story is strange, with an unnamed hero/narrator who is unsure of what he wants and where he is going, to whom bizarre things happen. As I said in my review of Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel), nothing is solid, nothing is real, nothing stays and that is more or less the same in this novel.

Publishing history

First published in 1993 by Companhia das Letras
First English translation in 2020 by Two Lines Press
Translated by Edgar Garbelotto