WWB editor and translator Eric M. B. Becker remembers the Brazilian writer, who passed away on July 10, 2017.
On Sunday morning, July 9, I was on the island of Sal, Cape Verde, preparing for the last of my panels as part of the Festival de Literatura-Mundo do Sal, the inaugural edition of a festival that brought together writers, editors, critics, translators, and journalists from around the world to discuss, among other things, world literature and Cape Verde’s place in it. Among the many joys the experience afforded was seeing my good friend and Brazilian writer Sérgio Rodrigues. At some point—I can’t recall the exact motivation—our conversation turned to Elvira Vigna, one of the truly enigmatic and irreplaceable voices in contemporary Brazilian literature, we agreed.
Monday night, my TAP Portugal flight touched down at JFK and—every bit as anxious as others on my flight—I turned on my phone to let my wife know I’d landed and found she’d already left me a message. There was the news: Elvira Vigna was dead at the age of sixty-nine, victim of a cancer she had refused to make public.
As it had for all but those closest to her, Elvira’s passing came as a shock, and it hit all the harder for it. I came to know Elvira’s work through a book that earned her second place in the 2015 Oceanos Prize, Por Escrito (In Writing). We struck up a conversation that same year when I was invited by Antonio Aiello to edit an anthology of Brazilian writers for PEN America, Glossolália, for which I translated an excerpt from what would be her final novel, Como se estivéssemos em palimpsesto de putas (our excerpt was entitled “Brasília”). There is a powerful description in this excerpt involving a bauru—a roast beef and cheese sandwich—that has left me unable to eat roast beef almost eighteen months later.
As a translator, my brief experience working with Elvira was one of my most rewarding, professionally and personally. In an age where the uniqueness of each writer’s style is often exaggerated in an effort to create a mystique that might attract readers, Elvira stood out for her truly idiosyncratic form. Her crisp, short sentences defied the stylistic conventions of a literary tradition that is often defined by prolixity. Each short phrase hits the reader like a hammer: never leaving the reader entirely at ease, the final impact a cumulative effect of each quick but certain blow.
This style seemed an outgrowth of Elvira’s personality itself—she was one of the more incisive intellects I’ve encountered, and she could be forceful with her opinions. During our very first encounter, I recall her asking, in reference to a book by another writer I’ve translated: “And did you like translating it?” I paused, before responding yes. “Well, I don’t much like it,” came her frank response. Lest this make Elvira seem lacking in generosity, I feel compelled to defend her: not once did her criticisms descend into personal attacks; her reservations were entirely literary and aesthetic.
And she was generous: when I arrived in São Paulo in February 2016 on a Fulbright, Elvira was one of the first people to invite me to her apartment on Rua Domingo de Moraes for coffee, at the far end of São Paulo’s famous Avenida Paulista, near the Paraíso metro stop. Running late, I stopped off at a corner padaria to pick up pastel de nata, not wishing to show up empty-handed. By any impartial account, it was not pastel de nata at its best, and yet Elvira made a point of commenting on just how delicious it was.
Our conversation that day—like a few others we would have each time I returned to São Paulo last year—was rambling: we discussed Elvira’s work, our collaborations, and the difficult political situation in Brazil. (The specter of a Trump presidency was still far off.) There were moments of awkward laughter, and others where we laughed out loud. I would return two other times for coffee at that apartment, and I always walked back out onto the bustling avenue reflecting on what Elvira had said that day. Her conversation could be as insightful as her literature.
In the opening in Elvira’s last novel, João, the protagonist, arrives in Brasília on a business trip, and amid the monotony of Oscar Niemeyer’s modern city, is able to see past the obvious. After each of our conversations, I often felt as if I’d seen the quotidian from a different perspective, as in the following passage from that book:
Just look at the sky in this city! A sky that refuses to set the sun free, traps the sun in these fucking streaks of pink, yellow. The sky’s got a point, João thinks to himself. Brasília nights must be boring as hell.
So he sits for a while on the bed, gazing out the window at the parking lot, which is what you can see from the window—there’s a lamppost that looks like it’s falling.
It’s not falling, that’s just the clouds rolling past. But if you look at the clouds as though they were standing in place, it’s the post that’s moving backward.”
Elvira’s passing leaves an enormous hole. She also leaves us nearly twenty books and three more that remain unpublished at the time of her death. One thing is certain: the true measure of her impact is still to be felt for years to come.
Obrigado, Elvira. We’re better for having known you and your writing.