With My Dog–Eyes
By Hilda Hilst
Melville House, 2014
$9.71, 96 p., Print
Reviewed by Gabino Iglesias
Hilda Hilst was one of the greatest and most original Brazilian writers of the twentieth century. Sadly, like many other literary giants, she enjoyed critical acclaim and collected Brazil’s most important accolades, but her sales didn’t reflect her talent. In fact, many of her publications were limited editions packed with her artwork and that of her friends and housemates. Because her work was so rich, deep, unique, and avant-garde, it remained untranslated. Now, with the release of With My Dog-Eyes, translated by Adam Morris, Melville House is finally bringing Hilst’s work into English for the first time.
With My Dog-Eyes follows mathematician Amós Keres as he slowly descends into madness and maybe, just maybe, transforms into a canine. Amós teaches at the Whorehouse Church Government University, but has grown very tired of academia’s endless “meetings, asskissers, pointless rivalries, gratuitous resentments, jealous talk, megalomanias.” He’s also struggling to come to terms with and fully understand his role as a father and is frustrated with his marriage. The mixture of all those elements quickly pushes him to insanity.
The beauty of With My Dog-Eyes stems from it multiplicity. The narrative seamlessly weaves together conversations from different points of views, prose, poetry, and strange visions/memories/dreams. It goes from what could pass for reality to surrealism in the span of a paragraph and seems to be a celebration of language as much as a story about a professor spiraling into dementia:
“The green fruit was plucked? Is that what he said? The wall on the other side of the street. There are certain walls that should never be seen before we grow old: moss and ocher, dahlias across some of them, lacerated, sounds that should never be heard, pulsations of a lie, the metallic sounds of cruelty echoing deep down to the heart, words that should never be pronounced, hollow eloquences, the vibrations of infamy, the throbbing ruby-reds of wisdom.”
Amós’ madness comes quickly, but the depths Hilst explores give the narrative a feel of something longer. The writing is dense, but not impenetrable, and that makes each transition into philosophical, surreal, or metaphysical terrain a diverging road: the reader can choose to deconstruct it and try to interpret it or simply take in the imagery and keep reading.
With My Dog-Eyes would be great by itself, but translator Adam Morris also wrote a superb introduction that offers a glimpse into Hilst’s life in Casa do Sol, a countryside home she built for herself on inherited land and which hosted a never-ending and constantly changing group of artists, bohemians, poets, dogs, and lovers. With the context of the author’s reclusive-but-not-alone lifestyle, the writing becomes even more significant.
Ultimately, With My Dog-Eyes is a great introduction to the work of a writer who occupies an important place not only Latin American letters but in world literature as well.