To strip a person’s name is to deny them a part of their humanity. But in A Cup of Rage by Raduan Nassar, a 1978 novella recently translated by Stefan Tobler for Penguin Modern Classics, the two nameless antagonists of the story—only known to us as a young journalist and her older lover, the latter living isolated, on a farm in Brazil—strip each other literally and figuratively in a cruel exhibition of just how human they are. Everything about Rage is an exercise in observation; at its extreme, it resembles a panopticon. ‘The Arrival’ of the man finds him coldly observing his own movements as well as his lover’s reactions in order to maximise her impatience. Building her to erotic desperation—by no means loving—he continues in bed to play out a game of sexual strategy, each gesture and thought a vain reflection of what he sees as superiority. Nassar’s use here and throughout of a relentless, stream of consciousness style acts as a first unwelcome, then unbearable, insight into the darker nature of both man and tryst that we want to, but can’t, look away from. But the real pleasure for the pair comes the morning after: ‘The Explosion’—a single-sentence fight lasting almost thirty pages—set off by a plague of ants devouring a privet hedge, one mirroring the other in its destruction and the nourishment gained from it. The lovers flay each other with words, Tobler’s translation superbly capturing the whip-crack breathlessness of fury: ‘you shitty little journalist … why insist on trying to teach me when the little that you learnt in life you learnt from me’—the sharp sting of tongues lashing out, revelling in the sexual pleasure of a different kind of pain, and the ravenous need to dominate at all costs. A physical blow experienced like an orgasm marks the journalist’s departure, but what follows—in a second ‘Arrival’ at the end, from her perspective—is our shock of realisation that rage is what they need. She is ‘unable to dispense with the rewards a visit would bring’, and likewise, he will always welcome her, both continuing to drink from the cup that leaves them forever thirsting.
Image: Tomoé Hill. Close-up from The Temptation of St Anthony by Domenico Morelli, Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Rome.