Two republished titles sharing the same cover – one a Brazilian classic, the other a philosophical blurring of genres – deliver head-spinning insights into life in the rainforest
In this book … Already, three words into my review, this most straightforward way of beginning seems inaccurate, ham-fisted. Is this a book? Verdant Inferno/A Scabby Black Brazilian is published by Urbanomic, whose stated aim is “to act as an advocate for philosophical thinking as a creative practice”. It is among the first titles in a new series, K-Pulp Switch, which borrows the format and the look of the popular Ace Doubles books, launched in 1952, in which two works would be published together, back-to-back and top-to-toe, so that the reader could hold the volume either way up. These two titles are published in this same format, with a pleasingly lurid cover design that recalls the garish frontispieces of the sci-fi and western novels that made up the original series, by authors including Philip K Dick and Ursula K Le Guin.
Rangel’s half is the more accessible. His sense of the seething beauty and violent horror of Amazonia is riveting
The contents of this new volume are, however, very different from these classics of genre fiction. Verdant Inferno is a collection of short pieces by the Brazilian writer Alberto Rangel, published in 1908 and translated into English here for the first time, with a preface by the renowned journalist Euclides da Cunha; it comprises a series of overwhelmingly intense, captivating and often horrifying snapshots of Amazonian life, human and non-human. A Scabby Black Brazilian is harder to characterise. Originally written in 2017 by the French philosopher Jean-Christophe Goddard, it is a dense and impish blurring of fiction, alternative history and high literary theory. He brings in and weaves together a head-spinning range of times, places and names: Brazilian novelists, anthropologists and shamans, and European philosophers who visited or wrote about Brazil. Real and fictional figures rub shoulders; languages and worlds swallow and regurgitate one another, producing what Goddard calls “a swarm of polyglot… words, names and phrases”.
There is, to say the least, a lot going on in this relatively slim volume – in this (these?) book(s?). Rangel’s half is the more accessible. His sense of the seething beauty and violent horror of Amazonia is riveting, full of haunting images, such as his description of the apuizeiro, the strangler fig tree, “an octopus in plant form”, which envelops and consumes other plants: “every one of its microscopic cells takes the form of a thirsty mouth. And the whole struggle takes place silently, without a whisper”. Goddard is more challenging for the uninitiated, more reliant on at least a passing knowledge of the names and ideas with which he toys. Challenge, however, is undoubtedly what this rich and strange volume intends. Beneath its several authors, its multiple timeframes, its blurring of many genres, is the turbulence of Brazilian Amazonia itself, a place for which the unsettling resilience of the apuizeiro is the perfect metaphor: “Every part, no matter how small, is alive. It cannot be reduced to an individual. It is the solidarity of the infinitesimal, essential, elemental, inseparable and indivisible.” Amazonia is presented as a world that thwarts any attempt at categorisation, any decision as to what is single and what is multiple; this bamboozling and hearteningly ambitious volume is a parallel challenge to our pre-existing categories, not least the category of the book itself.
Source: The Guardian