Bernardo Carvalho’s Nine Nights

By Rob Packer

"Nine Nights" by Bernardo Carvalho

Buell Quain was a young American anthropologist who committed suicide in 1939 while journeying from a Krahô indigenous village to Carolina, a remote Brazilian town on the edge of the rainforest. This historical mystery becomes the focus of Nine Nights (2002) by Bernardo Carvalho (1960-), in which two unnamed narrators recount their stories of the anthropologist’s death: one obsessively investigating the details and motives in the present after coming across Quain’s name in a lone sentence in scientific periodical; the other giving an enigmatic and rambling account of his friendship with Quain in Carolina.

At its best, the novel chronicles the enormous changes in Brazil’s interior and the indignities suffered by its natives over the book’s 60 or so years, as the modern-day narrator remembers his 1960’s childhood in what he calls “hell”: his father’s properties in the cerrado, where the forest was cut down and burnt and the mud “road” undulated across country ending in a wall of virgin forest. As sad is the story of a once proud warrior tribe reduced to 50 people, living in constant fear of being attacked by their indigenous neighbours and unconsciously committing collective suicide. This is be echoed the year after Quain’s death, when the tribe he studied would be massacred by cattle ranchers to “teach them a lesson”, or when they are poisoned by untreated waste from a hospital upstream.

At these points (almost entirely in its middle third) this is both gripping and affecting, but as a whole the novel is strangely uneven. The narrator describes his obsessive research into Quain’s death with meticulous detail and ponderous supposition: the ultimate impression was that these parts were like excerpts from a stream of consciousness novel on someone writing a university dissertation in history. Equally incongruous was the melodramatic description of the narrator and his sister trying to rescue their seriously ill father from the machinations of his mistress—yes, just like in a telenovela.

Ultimately, this all came across as a mishmash of narrators and tone, rather than successful fusion. And I think this is because the central premise of the narrator, whose obsessive research is all we really know of him, failed to be believable and felt both tiresome and, once the truth is revealed, disingenuous.

Even worse is that this mixture of fiction, history and memory, with its narrow point of departure and the three black-and-white photos, is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald. This is an unfortunate comparison: Sebald’s books are unparalleled masterpieces of narrative and Nine Nights doesn’t come close.

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