The Man Who Killed the Writer

First things first: I didn't write the book everyone thinks I wrote, the one that has been showering me with fame and riches since its publication, just over one year go. Although many people might find that strange—while others might say, I knew it, he never fooled me—the work was entirely finished when I found it, scattered in scrawls all over the walls of an apartment just like my own: all I did was edit it. They Kill Writers, Don't They? was written by a fellow called Austino Lemos, who used to be my next-door neighbor, and is today deceased. I am quite aware that once people believe this my conviction will be harsh, unanimous, and fair. This is exactly what I'm looking for.

Thus it is said, and be advised, seasoned reader, this is not a postmodernist mirror play: the man who now addresses you is a fraud, and I hereby declare that the above mentioned is true.

There was a time—almost my entire life—when the literary potential of such a matter would have greatly interested me: reconstructed text, identity exchange and such; to be honest, this is all that would interest me, this literary potential, for that was the way I reacted to any subject. Not anymore. Now that literary potentials make me want to throw up, Austino stands for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for change, and this is the only reason he interests me.

The rest—well, the rest is literature. I long for the moment when I will put a full stop to this confession and get up, no longer a character, but a true subject of great actions: go out into the sun, have a smoke at some street corner, lose sight of myself. But this will take a little while yet. The path to follow before liberation includes a second crime and begins at the Faculty of Letters and Literature—a most appropriate place.

The idea occurred to me and Gabriel Ahlter around the third term and the fifteenth pint of beer: to improve our sex life by creating a workshop where carefully chosen first-year female students could act as inspiration—in the nude or not, but preferably so—for descriptive poems which we decided to name, and I can't recall whose idea this was, "aqualogues." The term was a word play with "aquarelle," and the need to explain it is proof enough of its badness. Being drunk, we found it very funny.

Surprisingly, when applied, the general scheme of things was not bad at all. It worked wonderfully—not in regard to quality, for the aqualogues were almost always poor; but, whether carefully chosen or not, we scored with a lot of girls. Most of them would whisper in my ear: You write, oh, so well . . . I believe it was around that time that I got infected with the damned virus, the disease of believing that life only makes sense when it is woven together with art, and vice versa; Art & Life, in short.

Art & Life? A whore's disease cured by getting fucked, some foul-mouthed reader might say, and he shall be right, in a way. But the truth is that Ahlter and I were not interested in getting fucked. In fucking, yes, fuck we did. I remember a great many supple student backs smitten by our intellectual babble, tentative at first, but soon soaring to a truly artistic level, a point of no return where it, the babble, the come-on, became the work itself, surpassing such by-products as poetry or even sex. Were we cynical? Maybe a little, but all it did was help to build a favorable picture: it hasn't been mentioned yet, but this was the early 1980s, a time when people were still allowed to mix up old hippie stuff, recycled beatnik prattle and trite modernism and re-emerge at the other side, blameless, well-known within a certain circle and carrying an aftertaste of genital fluids. It was my idea—this one I remember, although I can't imagine what would have inspired me—to dub our duo "The Dinosaurs."

No one will remember it today, but there was a time when The Dinosaurs ruled the Earth. We crowded bars with our recitals, gave out autographs on half-naked bosoms, and exhausted several print runs of photocopied booklets while stuffing ourselves with solid, liquid, and gaseous intoxicating substances. We were—please excuse the cliché—young. We were the darlings of the press for a while, until everyone forgot us, naturally, and The Dinosaurs became extinct. Thus begins my predicament.

So much for a predicament, the reader might say, the same ill-humored reader as before. This is only normal, he might argue. We live in a pop fragmentary society where memories are short-lived. Who will remember a guy called Radar, who during his first football match as Flamengo's center forward scored four goals and became God?

Let me tell you one thing: Radar does, Radar remembers. Wherever he might be, alive or dead, I can assure you Radar remembers.

Radar shouldn't have come into this story, but since he has, let him stay: he will be a good symbol of this infectious, acute, and chronic recollection ex-famous people carry to their deaths. This, reader, is where predicaments do come from. As do tragedies. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.

Because if we did get ahead of ourselves I would have to admit that, surely and in spite of what it may seem, the reason for my plagiarism goes far beyond the base satisfaction of a long-nurtured desire for literary glory. Far beyond. If my reading of Austino is correct, his whole body of work was designed to eschew the irrelevance of the written word and take the leap—the unheard-of, the inconceivable leap—toward action. Compared to that, what does a mere issue of authorship mean? In spite of what it may seem this is no attempt at defense, for I swear I don't care for this, rather the opposite: they should condemn me; they should spit on my name. However, you must understand that I was ill, and Austino Lemos cured me. At some point I thought this was his true work, to cure me. He was the murderer of at least one writer: the one begotten in the womb of my own head, an illegitimate ghost in permanent embryonic form, gnawing away at me like a cancer.

Ahlter and I had a fight as soon as The Dinosaurs became extinct—an inevitable fight, perhaps, for we were both witnesses of the other's lost happiness. He left the university, made new friends—Ronaldo Costa Pinto and the gang at Troqueu magazine—and started to diminish what we had achieved. He would laugh and dub our aqualogue phase the "pre-history of literature." This infuriated me to the brink of madness. Why? Well, I sorely missed being a Dinosaur, a prince-philosopher, a really active writer, privy to the mysteries of Art & Life like few others before me. I mean, I also missed the women. But what I missed the most was that second-degree consciousness filtering everything—through eyes, ears, touch, intuition—into the lens of literature. You write, oh, so well . . . I truly believed I was bound to achieve great literary feats, and therefore great feats in life. I was, however, going through some discouraging moments. I was lost and alone, and my friend's jeering tortured me until the day I apparently went too far. Unfortunately I don't recall what I said. Ahlter was truly outraged.

We never spoke again. I graduated and married Daphne, our old university friend, and my ex–Brother Dinosaur did not attend either event; nor did I attend any of his book signing soirées. When Gabriel Ahlter, now a bald man, became "the best Brazilian writer of the new generation," as more than one motherless critic wrote, I was far away. Newspapers would gossip about the womanizing writer's last affair, beautiful and talented post-porn novelist Beatriz Viotti. I stayed at home with Daphne, went out only to attend classes and return carrying loads of papers to grade, and I remained unpublished—except for a brief volume of poetry, Acute Poems—while I wrote and rewrote a novel of increasingly unsubstantial meaning entitled Life.

The repulsion I felt toward Ahlter's first two books was both visceral and rational and, I believe, only partly motivated by envy. I mention these first two books because I haven't read the others: by then back-cover texts and reviews were enough to confirm the guy was a fraud, a fake artist, an outdated magician manipulating a shabby shadow-show. His obscenely high sales figures only heightened this impression. In class, I had to restrain myself from taking offense in the students' comments about Ahlter's renowned "expressionist narrative" or the brilliant character thingification technique he used in Fruits Rotting in the Living Room, for instance.

Daphne also had an unfavorable opinion of him, I mean, as far as Daphne managed to have an opinion on any subject at all. It always seemed to me that my wife had within herself every opinion, finding in each of them a false note which made her discard it in order to examine the next one, and thus successively—as one peels an artichoke, except there never was a tender heart of meaning inside all those layers: there was only Daphne's generous, quivering heart. I liked my wife, but I was exasperated by the fact that, whenever I happened to be in one of those foul moods toward my former friend, she always managed to find some sort of redemption in the bastard's style—it's not that bad, he does know how to use adjectives…

Something she herself did not, but I never said so. I looked contrite and pretended to admire Daphne's odd poetry, at once confessional and undecipherable, five small booklets published during eight years of marriage.

(Ahlter, a cough. Daphne, a sob. For sooner or later, mid-confession, it always comes. There was a time when I would pause to ponder the best way to write a sob. A graphic sign, an exclamation mark? A stumble in the middle of a sentence? Some sort of ellipse?

Or just like that, "a sob"?

But this must have happened in some other incarnation—I am in a hurry, and no longer interested in expressing the sob. I don't even know why I would sob, now that I am almost on the threshold of a new era. Maybe because, with or without a threshold, it is hard to look at one's life and come to the conclusion that your work, your best friend, your wife, everything that was ever important has been reduced by your untalented stubbornness to the most vile and predictable form of subliterature. Envy. Frustration. Betrayal. Death.

This is when confession loses momentum. The words get caught. Sob. They won't come out.)

Like many other geniuses, Austino Lemos was an extremely unpleasant man. His sole quality was making himself scarce. He was always holed up, and when he had to go out on the street to buy some absolutely necessary item such as alcohol or tobacco, he knew how to scurry through the empty moments of the day. It was rare to meet him in the elevator—it was, however, always a nasty experience. He was around fifty, short and squat, with a nose resembling a giant cashew and wandering, almost demented eyes. He smelled. His clothes were dirty. The door to his apartment, on the few times it was opened before me, revealed a patch of living room in a state of grotesque disarray. He didn't work, and no one knew how he made a living, but even though he lived in such appalling squalor, he must have had some kind of income, for he didn't seem to do anything and spent seven days a week locked inside his home. Toinho, the janitor, said he went into the apartment to solve some electrical problem and found there was no furniture, no television set, nothing, only a few chairs, and the rest was rubble.

Toinho would return once more to the lunatic's apartment, this time with company. The doorman and I found Austino Lemos on the floor of his bedroom. His body was scribbled on from top to toe in ballpoint pen, a thing my break-in partner didn't find odd: the lunatic himself had done that, he said, you could tell by the way the letters were arranged. Between us finding the body and the hearse's arrival to take him away to forensics—suspicious death—many hours went by. Hours? Toinho must have had to phone the appropriate authorities, let the manager of the building know what had happened, get someone to keep the children away, I don't know. That time apart from time, the time I spent alone with the dead man, can't be measured in the same way as normal time. I am vaguely aware that it all took a while—in Brazil these things do.

When the hearse arrived, the body was practically in its original position, face down by the bed, eyes vitreous. Toinho came in with the two guys and didn't notice the perhaps insignificant difference in the way the legs were positioned. I was trembling, assaulted by a violent emotion, and hadn't managed to put them right after undressing the corpse and turning each fold inside out to make sure I didn't loose a single word.

Yes, the text was beautiful. As for my act, it was an atrocity no man should ever perpetrate: if anything is sacred, it is the human body. Unless, maybe, it is also a writer.

After arranging the corpse's position, I waited for Toinho's return by walking around the house in a daze. In the kitchen, I saw the key to the back door attached to a key ring shaped like a skull. I reasoned Toinho would not realize it was missing, for we had come in through the front door. And I slipped the skull key ring into my pocket.What followed then is as vivid and remote as one of those newspaper pictures flanked by a text explaining some long action, but showing only a frozen fraction of it. The first thing the hearse guys said was that it smelled like two and a half days. Toinho proceeded to say indeed, he had noticed the smell from the lobby with his eagle's nose—he was familiar with that sweet sickly smell of people rotting—then he thought: I'm going to get someone to go in with me, otherwise, you know, they'll say I was stealing and shit.

One of the hearse guys, an older guy, told Toinho he shouldn't have done that, gone inside like that, it was against the Law. And he gripped Austino's legs to lift him up. The other one caught hold of his arms, and off they went.

This left me in shock. What did I expect, an epiphany? The hearse guys didn't say much. I wanted a fright, maybe, some sort of hilarity, any sign that someone had recognized the splendor of the literary-funerary object rotting before us. The only comment the younger public undertaker managed to utter was: Look at this one, all written up, remember that fag in Honório Gurgel who had a dick tattooed on his ass? He said it when he was leaving. We didn't hear the older man's answer, if answer he did. The two of us remained alone. Toinho observed the apartment was filthy. I agreed this was true: it was filthy, it was a mess, and therefore full of clues to the death of its tenant. The Law would see that it remained that way.

I said this with my hand inside my pocket—this is the picture, the frozen moment—feeling for the small skull. I didn't realize then that I was already acting like a criminal.

Even before transcribing every single part of the scatological text I was able to recall—moving around the house alone in a trance while Daphne was away at the beach, pulling at my hair in frustration for not being able to grasp the exact order of some intercalated sentence trickling from his leg—and thus before re-reading once more my Pierre Menard work and seeing that it was good, but no more than an epilogue, I already knew I had to go back to that apartment. I hid the three sheets of paper at the bottom of my underwear drawer, turned on the TV and waited for my wife to come home. I was calm, aloof in a rather pleasurable way. I remembered the text once more, trying to link each fragment to its corresponding part. For instance, on the palm of the left hand

The murderer wears a mask in the shape of a rough plastic face where one can read the word "mask" written repeatedly in different colors and fonts. The mouth is a slash that cries: "Death to the writer!"

The short passage of that untitled work I had read made me conclude Austino did not condemn all writers to death, only those who behaved like whores, like Gabriel Ahlter, betraying the great writer who might have existed inside them for the sake of social acceptance, money, sex, whatever; those who launched a book a year and filled newspapers with irrelevant articles and statements; death, then, to the prolific scholar overblown with nothing, to the legion of Rubem Fonseca impersonators, to the psychoanalytical fiction writer, to the bearded populist, to the experimental cynical, to the thesaurus scholar, to the author of the decade's greatest best-seller, to the wordy, to the excessively dry, to the vain and to the naïve—death to whoever had once been or might come to be an author of empty words. And I happily thought: this includes Gabriel Ahlter, Ronaldo Costa Pinto, Beatriz Viotti, Cícero Lucas. Among so many others.

The police, of course, carried out no investigation. Our police never investigate anything. They said it was a natural death, heart-related, and some relative was expected to show up, although somehow I knew Austino didn't have any relatives, or those he had didn't wish to see him. The apartment was left to rot. As far as I know, no detective ever paid it a single visit.

I should know. In the following weeks, I often worked late at the university, giving an extracurricular class entitled "From Knut Hamsun to Allen Ginsberg: A Path of Eternal Hunger." The reader is not expected to believe that. Daphne did, and that is enough.

A few feet away from her, stealthy as a murderer, I spent endless nights reading. Reading? Deciphering is more like it: I was hunting, I was chasing the words which made up every inch of every underside of every carpet, every side of every slat of every shutter, every margin of every book lying around the place. Austino's apartment was a point of text whose infinite mass had been shattered into millions of pieces by the Big Bang. Sentences written with razor blade on a cupboard's door were answered in blood on the bathroom mirror, and corrected in bean soup and excrement on malodorous heaps of towels and sheets. Whole chapters had been inscribed on the walls in invisible ink, the words having to be burned in order to reveal themselves, and for that purpose I invented a torch which provided me with both moments of bliss and anxiety; at one point I wondered if that was how the story ended, everything up in flames.

It didn't end like that. I found dazzling aphorisms scribbled on the back of shop receipts and forgotten inside empty beer bottles in the back toilet. I followed dialogues drafted on paper once used for wrapping bread, copied onto the butter's surface, and immortalized on the almost empty fridge, equally etched on each side with grooves I initially mistook for accidents.

The smell of death was alcoholic, pervasive. Ants disfigured sugar metaphors on the kitchen table. Fungus absorbed diphthongs. And everywhere there it was, written, suggested, represented, turned into drama or into a slogan: death, death, death to the Writer. The murderer's motivations were only visible in epiphanies painted here and there, blotches of uncertain meaning, like the shimmer of an inaccessible stained glass window. To Austino, this was the perfect death: the writer bleeding around the home like a wounded animal, oozing final and equally mortal words. In that apartment I learned that the only hope lies in silence.

I believe I was a good restorer, guessing the artist's primitive intention behind the numerous gaps. In less capable hands, the work of extracting the book contained within that home would probably have ended in disaster. None of this is said with any views on justifying myself. I'm not even claiming co-authorship of the masterwork, although I could have done so. I humbly and candidly confess that I would have been unable to devise such an intrigue, much less an extraordinary detective such as Elias, that fat, gauche, and flatulent scholar, historian, literary critic, writer's biographer, and archivist, the only person in the world who insists on reading the text of a malignant and superior mind in the wake of hideous crimes. The scholar's reasoning is that once he determines the monster's aesthetic pattern, he will be able to anticipate his next attack and set a trap for him, arrest him. He obsessively lets himself be caught in the theories he spins, gradually abandoning his other interests, as if the mystery of murdered writers—no longer very interesting to the police, who pretended to believe they were isolated events, and not the work of a single psychopath—provided an excellent subject for the corollary of his career as a scholar.

Our critics' Babelian judgments about the book still leave me stunned. They all read what they want to read, say whatever they want to say, and live as they can— nothing new about that. But none of them accepts it. Like the detective, all critics search for the pattern. They all think they have found it, and each has his or her own version for it. Elias's search, like the critics', is aesthetic, that is to say, moral. The murderer's search goes much further. Yes, the fat detective finally finds the pattern, but too late, when the murderer is already under his bed.

It's pathetic. I am sick of this diseased little world. The threshold, please!

And I'll no longer speak of what is known. As I write, They Kill Writers, Don't They? enjoys the reputation of a contemporary classic, as I didn't doubt it would while I was extracting it from the garbage, giddy with gratitude. To sign it with my own name? It didn't cross my mind. I'd still not begun to understand Austino. Not even when, after two months of archaeology, I'd gathered a skyscraper's worth of notes and the neighboring apartment no longer held any secrets for me, not even then did I begin to understand Austino. All I wanted was to glorify him. I was not the writer, I was the writer's neighbor—only without me he wouldn't exist.

I believed I would tell Daphne everything when the book was finished. In the meanwhile, I justified the nights spent at the office with a lie, saying I'd found the solution for Life, and wow, I was thrilled, dying to finish it. The truth is that I avoided talking to my wife ever since the day I decided to keep silent about the unspeakable: if anything is sacred... Maybe I already knew more than I was aware.

Two more months and the dead man's book was done.

Four months—those who wished to do so have already done the math—four months separate the finding of the scribbled body and the novel's last full stop. Four months way too difficult for Daphne, who at the beginning of the fifth announced she needed time, space, or something like that, and left home on a rainy morning carrying lots of suitcases. One week later, thanks to a picture in the paper, I found out she was banging—guess who. Yes, subliterature—don't tell me I didn't warn you. Ahlter was smiling without showing his teeth, Daphne was showing far more than her teeth. They were in front of an Italian restaurant in Leme.

This day is etched into my memory with DVD quality. I stood there, paper in hand, for an hour or more, looking at the photograph. I wasn't thinking. Then I felt a sudden urge to go back to Austino's apartment and get in touch once again with the text engraved on walls and objects, to rethink the entire book, my entire life. I crossed my living room as if I was drowning and the next-door apartment was a life-buoy in the fog.

I opened the door and almost fell backward.

"Sorry I scared you," said Toinho, closing Austino's door and arranging his broom and mop inside a big bucket. "Place was revolting," he went on, "some folks complained about the smell."

"What?"

"The loony's apartment. I spent hours inside. Tell you something, this was a crazy bastard. You can't imagine the hard work."

" . . . "

"But it's fine now."

" . . . "

The service elevator went "glup" and swallowed the janitor. I stood there, petrified. Looking at the door of the neighboring apartment, a twin to my own, as if in a mirror. Austino now existed only in my transcriptions. My wife had swapped me for the enemy. There was no turning back now. I would publish the book with my name and be done with it.

It was the success everyone knows: reprints, translations into seven languages, interviews even on the hegemonic TV. Some assignment editor remembered the Dinosaurs, that carefree university partnership: who could have foretold they'd have such a success on their own? Then came the tiresome repetition of my enmity with Ahlter, the exhaustive rehashing of adultery, and I became a public cuckold—what's the point in being a famous writer when you are a public cuckold? Otherwise, it was the usual Babel of critics:

"Tragic fable about man's division between culture and nature." —Ivan Silviano, poet.

"A crazy and very funny jet of anti-literary vomit disguised as a mutant crime novel." —Robério Stardust, cultural journalist.

"A divertissement with airs of Kafka." —Aníbal Nabuco, ex-minister.

"Never has toilet paper achieved so noble a weight." —Gabriel Ahlter, but it was natural to have one or two negative opinions.

However, one should not be overly harsh with these critics. Even I only managed to fully understand the book much later, almost one year after it was published, when Daphne got in touch with me again saying she was sorry. I took her in. She said she had been insane, but could see everything clearly now: Gabriel Ahlter had been a mistake, a fuckup, her life was with me. I listened to her. She said They Kill Writers was much better than Fruits Rotting in the Living Room. I fucked her. Smoking a cigarette, she cried and said Ahlter hated me badly, that one day he was seriously coked-up and told her he had seduced her only to humiliate me, and this was why he humiliated her too, in front of everyone, reciting her poems and laughing at them. I listened to her. She said Ahlter hated me so much he had a photo of me printed on the bottom of his toilet, and shat on my head every single day. It was so childish it became funny. Enough, I said. And I kicked her out.

I spent the rest of the night staring at the walls of my office as if my eyes carried some sort of fire which could make the words of redemption bloom from those walls. At some point, when I went to the bathroom and examined the mirror in search of lipstick cryptograms I knew were not there, I saw two bleary eyes stuck in a green face. I was sorry Austino was dead. It would be so good to be able to talk to him.

It would be so good to be able to kill him.

Only then did I understand. What a fool I was. To imagine Austino Lemos would write what seemed to be a metalinguistic crime novel only for the sake of the game, for fun—this meant I didn't know Austino Lemos. Why on earth do some writers think they have to be metalinguistic, as if their trade contained something very magical and very special—the miniature model of the whole universe—while accounting technicians, for instance, don't care for such things? Imagine the prescriptions of a metalinguistic doctor. Fuck metalanguage, Austino was saying. I'm interested in the body.

And thus the confession ends. I lay my feet on the threshold.

What came later, of which I now write, seemed to be already written. I think I managed to avoid Elias by the Cazuza statue in Leblon, for I haven't seen him after that. The digital clock at the corner showed seven past four in the morning. The writer was having a whisky at the back, by himself. Only his table was occupied. I don't remember what we talked about, but I know we exchanged civilized, tentative sentences, as happens when old friends consider a new approach. We left the bar when the ribbon of the horizon was starting to brighten above the ocean. Ahlter was drunk and I, magnificently sober, had an easy task of pushing him down to the sidewalk. I banged his head on the concrete bollard many times, twenty times I think. I banged it on the concrete bollard until I saw the first specks of brain matter spill from that famous bald head.

If anything is sacred, the human body is sacred, I recognized Walt Whitman's booming voice over the waves in Leblon. At last, a writer who had never struck a wrong note in his lyrical exaltation? I was answered by the bard himself: The shallow consider liberty a release from all law, from every constraint. The wise see in it, on the contrary, the potent Law of Laws.

I'm not sure I understood. I didn't care. I knew the crime would feed Ahlter's bonfire, making his mythology eternal and increasing threefold the print run of his stupid books, one thing feeding the other for years on end, and once again I didn't care. I went home and had a bath. Then I calmly packed my bags.

After a few scares, I ended up succeeding in changing my country, my name and my life, but that is the beginning of a story I shall not write. Neither this one nor any other, ever again. Not a single line.

Translation of "O homem que matou o escritor." Copyright Sérgio Rodrigues. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2008 by Fernanda Abreu. All rights reserved.