by ANVITA BUDHRAJA
Fernanda Torres; trans. Eric M.B. Becker, Glory and Its Litany of Horror (Restless Books, 2019), pp. 240.
This review was originally published in the Fall 2020 print issue of Carolina Quarterly.
“I was happy in the beginning, at age twenty, and again at thirty, when I left the theater behind and put together a string of TV hits. Having reached fame, I lived at the height of arrogance.”
Icons are forever frozen at the age they become famous, claims an adage of show business. This is certainly true of Mario Cardoso, an acting icon in decline and the leading man in Brazilian novelist Fernanda Torres’ second book, Glory and Its Litany of Horrors. The novel explores fame’s fractured relationship with time through an intimate portrait of Cardoso who is stuck in the past, uncertain about the future, and never fully committed to the present. In the novel, Cardoso approaches the nadir of his career and is beset with familial problems—a modern-day King Lear. He makes a series of regrettable decisions to buoy the twilight of his career, and he forsakes the few people who truly loved him for another chance at fame. He fails, and escapes his reality by reminiscing about his short-lived fame, almost willing himself into the past and to the dizzying days of his glory.
When it comes to the tumultuous world of actors, Torres is on well-informed ground. An accomplished actress and a household name in Brazil, she is descended from a legacy of actors and has written for and worked across television, theater, and film. In her 2017 debut, The End, five friends look back at their hedonistic lives in their final moments and both her novels draw heavily from social life in Rio, past and present. Glory is peppered with names, places, and events of Brazil’s political past as Torres exuberantly weaves her country and her city into the fabric of her story.
“Fear, surprise, joy, hate, disgust, and sadness, that was my range as an actor, the basic emotions any child can imitate; but infinite sentiments exist between these, beyond these, the finer points of my profession…”
Unsurprisingly, Torres writes effortlessly about acting, both as a profession and as a lifestyle. Her prose sparkles with details and wit in the sections about theater rehearsals, TV sets, even edgy film productions. Through Cardoso, she brings us behind the scenes of open-call auditions, introduces us to the eccentricities of directors, and startles us with the depths of an actor’s submission to his/her craft. One of the novel’s most memorable sections is Mario’s catastrophic relationship with an actress who disintegrates before our eyes, unable to distinguish herself from her characters.
“Shouting is easy, Mario, what is difficult is to be born into hearing,” coaches a director as Cardoso stumbles into his first big theater role and eventual stardom. It is the sort of inside look into this world that only one admitted to its ranks can provide. Torres’ insights into acting and directing are enjoyable and her portrayal of fame, talent, and above all luck feels delightfully real.
But what truly sets her prose apart is the novel’s irreverent tone, which readers of The End will recognize. In the opening pages, Cardoso, as King Lear (set in the Stone Age), dissolves into mad, uncontrollable laughter and derails the entire production. It is a moment resonant of Torres’ own experience in a terrible Lear production and it establishes the raucous and absurd tone of the novel. She indulges in farce, from delusional acting camp leaders to rowdy accidents with cameras on film sets to Shakespeare productions in diapers. The novel has a boisterous energy, which can be tough to read if one does not have a taste for it. But baked into the story is a critique of the binaries of high and low art—serious and frivolous, pretentious and lucrative—and Torres’ tone drives the critique home. Take it all a little less seriously, the novel seems to say.
“Between love and self-love, I always chose the latter. That was the measure of my smallness as a man and as an actor.”
The novel’s back and forth between reflection and present-day narrative reveals Cardoso’s unstable mind as timelines, jobs, names, places, and characters get muddled, both in his consciousness of himself and the reader’s experience of it. It can make for a confusing read however, as the shifts are not marked, sometimes not even with a change in tense.
Ultimately, Torres’ talent lies in plumbing the depths of Cardoso’s unlikeable character. He is selfish, arrogant, even callous at times. His declining career, the demands of reinvention, and being dethroned by younger, more savvy actors, are sympathetic for a moment, but his arrogance overwhelms the prose and gives the reader a protagonist she does not want to root for. After a disastrous stint under a delusional leftist, Cardoso gives up all illusions of social obligation and gives in to the bohemian debauchery of theater. His crisis of conscience influences every decision he makes, from his lust for glory to his cruelty in his marriage.
Yet, Torres understands Cardoso’s complexities and weaknesses. “I was such a shallow actor,” Cardoso muses after a personal loss. “I should have given my Lear the same depth that she possessed, but I was too vain to understand the exile of one’s ego.” In brief moments of connection with family or momentary lapses from his selfishness, we get a believable portrait of a man who was lucky in fame but average in everything else.
Despite his remarkable self-awareness, it feels as though Cardoso is merely nostalgic. Lessons have been bitterly realized but to learn them requires change and Cardoso is unwilling to change. “I missed me,” he says and then attempts to go back, very literally, to the haunts of his past—to places that have transformed and to people who no longer exist, including the young Mario Cardoso. Drowning in despair, he longs for a maternal figure to help him through the night; here as always, Cardoso is stuck in his adolescence, never fully growing up from the young adult he barely was when he first became famous on stage.