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Avant-Garde Madness, Seen Through 'My Dog-Eyes'

Oftentimes, madness breeds the finest art. It's factual. Some of the most historic and well-regarded pieces of literature have come out of a sort of psychosis. From the works of Edgar Allan Poe to Tennessee Williams and a host of others, the evidence is there. And I find it celebratory — the way the mind overcomes itself to render something beautifully charged.

"God? A surface of ice anchored to laughter."

This is how With My Dog-Eyes, Hilda Hilst's bizarre tale of a college professor's rapid mental decline, begins. Hilst — the late poet-turned-novelist — was for many years one of Brazil's exceptional writers; during her lifetime, she amassed all of her country's most distinguished literary awards and accolades. Her genius, along with her unwavering work ethic, were not to be questioned. By anyone. The sheer inventiveness she employed when it came to language demanded respect, and artists and poets from all over Brazil would congregate at her home — Casa do Sol — just to work and soak in her energy.

Born into a family plagued by dementia and paranoid schizophrenia, she boasted an authority of voice that could only be had by someone who'd been there. Hilst championed a style slightly reminiscent of Georges Bataille, which, in its intensity, also shows traces of D.H. Lawrence. The discerning reader will quickly find, however, that Hilst defies comparison and, for that matter, classification. You can't simply pigeonhole her work as experimental or feminist; she operated on a completely different playing field.

Rejecting the structure of a traditional plot, With My Dog-Eyes — translated by Adam Morris — reads like a long poem, one with utter insanity pervading each and every page. The vivid, disjointed prose mirrors the troubled mind of our protagonist, Amós Kéres, an expert in pure mathematics who is losing his grasp on reality. Something has happened to him. Some vision beamed in from afar has completely set him off, altering everything around him.

"Poetry and mathematics. The black stone structure breaks and you see yourself in a saturation of lights, a clear-cut unhoped-for. A clear-cut unhoped-for was what he felt and understood at the top of that small hill. But he didn't see shapes or lines, didn't see contours or lights, he was invaded by colors, life, a flashless dazzling, dense, comely, a sunburst that was not fire. He was invaded by incommensurable meaning."

So it goes. The dean of the university where Amós works approaches him about rumors that have begun to circulate — rumors concerning his "aloofness" during class. His sentences, as of late, have apparently been breaking off, trailing, making it difficult for his students to understand what they're supposed to be learning. Amós' "condescending smile" lets us know he himself doesn't quite understand what all the fuss is about. He does, though, find himself despising, or, rather, "denouncing" everyone — from his colleagues to his wife and baby son. Shifting back and forth from past to present, Hilst lets us in on some details about Amós' upbringing and his strange study habits, which saw him frequently enjoying the "early morning brothel silence" as a young boy.

At one point, after having fallen deep into his own mind, Amós up and leaves home. He soon finds himself at his mother's house. "I should have said my good-byes," he laments to her. "I should have told them about the dark-gray despair streaked in black, a viscous substance taking me." From his mother, Amós learns things about his father's personal history that he had never suspected. And what he learns sheds some much-needed light, to the reader at least, on Amós present state. The final pages of this little book come across as dream-like — the events becoming more and more unsettling — and the poetry bordering on the terrifying. A final paragraph, then a cryptic doodle. And it's all a pleasure to see and read.

"With my dog-eyes I stop before the sea."

Juan Vidal is a writer and cultural critic from Miami. He tweets at @itsjuanlove.

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Juan Vidal