In the Name of Desire
by João Silvério Trevisan. Translated by Ben De Witte and João Nemi Neto
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Pub Date 17 Oct 2023 | Archive Date 29 Feb 2024
In the Name of Desire, first published in Portuguese in the 1980s, is one of the most important Brazilian gay novels. It traces the remembrances of a man who returns to the seminary where he studied as a child. This visit, thirty years after his sudden departure, evokes stirring memories of his time there: his first love, nascent homosexual desire, the metaphorical agony of Catholic rituals, and the physical harm inflicted by peers and priests alike. As he revisits the halls, his memory wanders throughout the seminary, creating a narrative both liturgical and profane.
João Silvério Trevisan is arguably one of the most important LGBTQAI+ activists in Brazil. Since his first novel in the 1960s, he has addressed same-sex desire and discussed important questions for the queer community. His latest books are Pai and, most recently, Seis balas num buraco só.
Ben De Witte (he, ele, él) holds a doctorate in comparative literature from Rutgers University and currently teaches courses in literary studies and translation at the University of Leuven.
João Nemi Neto (he, ele, él). Brazil. João is a writer, translator, and teacher. His first novel, Os dois piores anos da minha vida, came out in 2021. His latest book is Cannibalizing Queer: Brazilian Cinema from 1970 to 2015 (Wayne State University Press 2022).
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Average rating from 11 members
Written in the format of a traditional question-and-answer catechism, João Silvério Trevisan's novel relays the poignant story of a young gay boy, Tiquinho, living in an austere, Brazilian seminary at the turn of the Second Vatican Council. It is a brutal institution that drives many of the boys to madness. They are rarely permitted to speak; when they walk between classes and chapel, they are told to pray the rosary; they are forbidden from having any personal friendships. In this rigid school of military-grade discipline, the boys have few precious moments of frivolity. Soccer is popular, an opportunity to demonstrate athletic machismo. Once a week, for one hour, they are also allowed to beat up a select victim among themselves in an act of violent humiliation known as the "Bottle Game". Although it is a fervently Catholic seminary, the boys most prize their burgeoning masculinity—some even refuse to shower in order to accumulate smegma under their foreskins, an ostentatious stench and sign of their virility. Pious devotion is mandatory but thuggish brawn still reigns supreme.
Nonetheless, there are, inside this depressingly rigid school, a few boys who prefer mysticism over masculinity. They are maligned as "sissies". Instead of playing soccer, they visit the spiritual director to listen to recordings of Liszt, Rachmaninoff and Tchaikovsky; they read St Teresa d'Avila and St John of the Cross, poring over their erotic mystical canticles. Tiquinho, first among them, is a witty, sensitive boy who gradually becomes infatuated with one of the new boys, Abel Rebebel, and in his naive, horny, earnestly theological mania, comes to believe that the love of Christ must necessarily entail the love of men—a love that has no physical and moral limits. He transposes the "mystery of the Tabernacle" to the "mystery of the bedsheets". "What is the mystery of the Eucharist?" asks the primer; the answer: it is the mystery of semen, the sacrament of communion turned into the liturgy of coitus.
There is a long history of reading St John of the Cross as an early gay writer—John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Carmelite mystic whose poems achingly long not just for God, but his face and body and breath. In this novel, the Songs of Solomon, the canticles of St John of the Cross, even the scholastic dogmatism of the catechism, provide a language for the seminarians to understand and celebrate their furtive sexual experiences. Although the boys are punished for masturbation, expelled if they are found with another boy, the prayers and readings ironically provide Tiquinho with a vocabulary to express and justify his love for Abel. "My Beloved is for me and I for my Beloved", he thinks, quoting Teresa of Avila, quoting Solomon. Paradoxically, it is the Carmelite mystics who express for him his yearning for communion with a man.
A beautiful, unique novel. It reminded me in a way, with less flashy prose, of Robert Gluck's Margery Kempe.