Elizabeth Lowe’s translation of an excerpt from Brazilian writer João Paulo Cuenca’s I Found Out I Was Dead appears in the current issue of international true crime writing. Lowe reflects on the transnational nature of Cuenca’s work and interviews the writer.
João Paulo Cuenca is a child of the Brazilian dictatorship in the sense that his writing reflects the experience of that dark period in the lives of Brazilians. His precursors were the writers of the 1960s and 1970s who were censored by the then-military regime, in particular Rubem Fonseca, the master of noir detective stories set on the streets of Rio and São Paulo. Cuenca has gone beyond Fonseca’s brilliant and sardonic social satire, and beyond portrayals of the dark times of the dictatorship, to offer a fresh and disarming view of contemporary Brazilian society. Unlike Fonseca, Cuenca also focuses on the world beyond Brazil’s borders. His novel O único final feliz para uma história de amor é um acidente (The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story is an Accident, 2010) is set in a surreal version of twenty-first-century Tokyo; the protagonist is a Japanese salary man, and the only cultural reference to Brazil is the briefest mention of the singer João Gilberto, whose “nocturnal voice” becomes a refrain in the narrative. Cuenca, like many of his generation, wants to be read as a contemporary world writer, one who is engaged in global dialogue, with a specific social and political focus on what his country is currently experiencing with the return of a populist, right-wing government. In 2007, he was selected by the Hay Festival and by the organizers of the Bogotá World Book Capital as one of the thirty-nine highest-profile Latin American writers under the age of thirty-nine. Granta also selected him for the first issue of Best Young Brazilian Novelists in 2012. He participates as guest lecturer and writer at major world universities and makes frequent appearances at literary festivals and book fairs. He is currently pursuing a master’s degree in the University of São Paulo joint degree program with the University of Cologne, Germany.
Cuenca is among other contemporary writers who combine performance and fictional autobiography. Descobri que estava morto (I Found Out I Was Dead, 2016) and his fake biographical documentary, A morte de J. P. Cuenca (The Death of J. P. Cuenca)—released at the same time—have been described as “parodies of autofiction” that dramatize the writer’s persona. As Lucas Bandeira de Melo Carvalho describes it, in Cuenca’s work, the empirical author remains on the scene and intentionally confuses the voices that speak as “I.” The book and documentary embed autobiographical markers such as proper names, press releases, and facsimiles of documents in the fictional structure. They also launch the character outside of the text into “real-life contexts” that further fuse reality with fiction and shed doubt on the character’s veracity. I Found Out I Was Dead departs from an incident of identity theft that Cuenca experienced in real life: a man was found dead in an abandoned building carrying his identification documents. The author-character discovers that he is “dead” when he is called into the police station over a banal dispute with a neighbor. There, he finds that an unknown woman named Cristiane filed his death certificate years earlier. From this point, the reader is led on a dizzying chase to clear up the mystery. With the help of a journalist and a private detective, Cuenca’s character searches for himself as a dead man and parades a cynical geography of Rio de Janeiro in front of our eyes. The city is populated by intellectuals, Rio’s high society, as well as con men and beautiful women living in decadence and excess. Meanwhile, the writer meets with his editor, obsesses over writer’s block, attends academic conferences (where critics pan J. P. Cuenca’s work), and goes to drug-fueled parties. The fictional Cuenca reflects, “It’s good for a writer to show up dead.” The providential coincidence turns the writer into a performer, present at lectures, events, and films. Cuenca himself wrote and directed the screenplay based on the book and marketed the work energetically through social media. In this space, the figure of the artist is transformed and refracted into multiple selves, while also becoming a consumer product for avid readers of pulp fiction. The device of character refraction also speaks to the theme of alienation: “If in my plans of flight and exile I always wanted to be another in another place, now I had won material proof of this alienation: a cadaver with my name,” Cuenca wrote in 2016.
Paratextual materials become part of the narrative ploy in Cuenca’s fiction and create a simulated “pact” with the reader. The narrative itself sometimes reads like a report, and it contains reports and documents within it. The extranarrative use of social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) extends the book into the virtual (second life) space where the reader can access fragments of it, or reports about it. The autobiographical “pact” assumes a certain suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader and yet invites real-time contact with the author as he retells the story on different platforms.
Cuenca is interested in how the literary experience (for the writer and reader) is becoming ever more affected by the multimedia environment and the ways in which the public performance of the writer becomes part of the work. He says, “By performance, one means: interviews in news outlets and television, appearances at festivals, participation in films, dialogues with other art forms, and interactions on social media. It is evident that this can violently alter the reception of the text,”(Cuenca 2015).
J. P. Cuenca’s writing, for all these reasons, is transnational in nature, illuminating both the cultural otherness and epistemological otherness derived from his experiences as a global traveler and citizen. There is much to connect Cuenca’s translators and readers in the shared experience of his narratives. While the voice is highly original and the product of a bright young Brazilian intellectual who is as at home in Berlin as in São Paulo, there are also deeply embedded cultural experiences that come through in the language and the telling of the tale. His cadences recall the lyrical voices of Brazilian music. In his rendering of dialogue, penchant for the taboo, and syntax, we hear the voices of postmodernist Brazilian and American writers. The translation challenges are mitigated by Cuenca’s direct, straightforward language, which doesn’t require the ephemeral slang of current pop culture. It is Cuenca’s transnationality that makes the task of the translator significant and encourages carrying his text across to English-speaking readers in ways that invite us to rethink globalism in more humanistic terms.
Elizabeth Lowe: Since identity theft is such a concern in the United States but rarely goes to the extent of the victim's death being faked, how did you decide to draw on your experience for I Found Out I Was Dead? What was the process of selection in choosing which details to include and which to invent—where does fiction reflect the facts, and where does it deviate from them?
João Paulo Cuenca: This book only exists because my case of identity theft occurred in the Lapa neighborhood, a place that is the heart of the crisis of Rio de Janeiro’s urban identity. Fundamental to Brazilian culture, it is the birthplace of samba and it is where the most bohemian corners of the country have always been under attack. There is always someone trying to transform Lapa into something else. The place where I was thought to be dead was an abandoned building that had squatters on the first floor. The man who used my name was a black man, a fugitive from the police, who lived there. The novel is the story of these two crossed lives. The main tragedy of Brazil is that people like this man and me only meet in police reports. As for the rest, everything in the book is real. I am creating drama in real time, out of a fictional strategy, and improvising with nonactors to later write a text about the experience. And if I do this, the result will be more or less fiction. The truth is, it doesn’t matter.
Elizabeth Lowe: You recently produced a film based on I Found Out I Was Dead. Many young authors are working in cinema and new media to expand and promote their work. Please share your ideas on the connection between literature and performance.
João Paulo Cuenca: The project of an autobiographical film and book, accompanied by a series of public performances where I acted in character, came from the decision to use extraliterary practices that impose themselves on the life of a modern writer—such as lectures, interviews, participation in festivals, etc.—on behalf of a fictional project. Now that interest in the process of literary creation often seems greater than interest in the book itself, I decided to incorporate activities related to the social role of the writer into the work itself—a work in progress, where discourse is a performance gesture that adds new layers. It’s a game charged with hybridity and combinations of media. I think of Artaud’s “real” theater, in which the literary work never disconnects from real life, where life is transformed into a spectacle and art seems crossed by life. It’s like a kind of “ready-made life,” which brings to mind the inaugural gesture of Duchamp.
Elizabeth Lowe: In the novel, your character ruminates about his compulsion to spend time outside of Brazil. You travel a lot. How has this influenced your perspective on your work in the context of what is happening in Brazil today?
João Paulo Cuenca: I think the experience of spending a lot of time outside of Brazil offered me innumerable opportunities to erase myself and disappear, which I unfortunately did not take enough advantage of. I am still here. Nevertheless, what remains is a perspective that is a little disconnected, in time and space, from the reality of my country. This is present in my books, but especially in I Found Out I Was Dead, which narrates the life of a character and his city from an alienated point of view. Sometimes the book functions as a kind of instruction manual for Rio de Janeiro, as if it were explaining the society to someone from another planet.
Elizabeth Lowe: Social media is an increasingly important vehicle for the discussion of art, literature, and politics on a global scale. What impact do you feel your use of Twitter and other social media—this instant form of communication—has had on you and other Brazilian writers and artists?
João Paulo Cuenca: During the gestation period of I Found Out I Was Dead, 2012–16, certainly my social media feeds, including Instagram, can be read as a paratext for the work. There are many correlations between facts, places, historical data, texts, photographs, aphorisms, travels, news, and the content of the book. Since these were years of political crisis, which are also present in the novel, these means of communication were liberally used to state my positions. Though I have been speaking out in the press against fascists and police violence in Brazil since 2004, I feel many writers of my generation were not very politically outspoken before 2013—it has happened slowly.
João Paulo Cuenca was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1978. He writes for several major Brazilian newspapers and magazines and has been a columnist for O Globo for many years. He is the author of the novels Corpo presente (Body Present, 2003), O dia Mastroianni (Mastroianni Day, 2007), O único final feliz para a história de amor é um acidente (The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story is an Accident, 2010), and Descobri que estava morto (I Found Out I Was Dead, 2016). He was selected by the Hay Festival and the Bogota39 jury as one of Latin America's leading writers under the age of thirty-nine and was selected by Granta for “The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists” (2012).
Carlyon, Mark. Interview with João Paulo Cuenca. Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas. Issue 83, Vol. 44, No. 2, 2011, pp. 270-274.
Cuenca, J. P. Website. https://jpcuenca.wixsite.com/jpcuenca/books
Cuenca, J. P. Descobri que estava morto. São Paulo: Tusquets, 2016.
Cuenca, J. P. The Only Happy Ending for a Love Story is an Accident. Translated by Elizabeth Lowe. Tagus Press: UMass Dartmouth, 2013.
Melo Carvalho, Lucas Bandeira de. “O Autor como Fetiche: A Autoficção em J. P. Cuenca.” Z Cultural.