Existential Endeavors

When is the last time you came across a piece of literature that rendered emotions or sensations in such a way as to elicit a physical response in you? How do you imagine the writer effected this alchemy? Recently I found myself discussing the potential emotional properties of fiction with a group of writers. Not surprisingly, we strayed off topic, and the theories bandied about suffered both generalization and hyperbole. In this context, someone proposed the idea that certain authors attempt to reproduce in their readers the feelings or sentiments they foist upon their characters, suggesting a sort of emotionally manipulative intent on the part of such writers. I do not believe that this is often, if ever, the case. Nonetheless, the comment resonated for me later that night when I noticed myself actually cringing while reading a particularly harrowing section of Cecile Pineda’s recently reprinted first novel, Face.

Originally published in 1985, Face received critical acclaim and several awards, including one from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. Not long thereafter, this intelligent and decidedly un-mainstream book went out of print. Thanks to San Antonio’s Wings Press (under whose copyright all of Pineda’s work is now available), Face is back on bookstore shelves.

The deceptively simple story of a man who survives a terrible accident in which he literally loses and then attempts to reconstruct his face, Pineda’s novel provoked responses ranging from grimly visceral to probingly existential. Rather than making me feel that I had just run a scripted emotional gamut (or been victimized by treacle), Pineda’s finely crafted prose delivered me to an open space that catalyzed my imagination to fill in the blanks. The blanks in this novel being the shocking loss of identity and surfeit of physical pain suffered by Pineda’s protagonist, ironically named Helio Cara (“cara†meaning “face,†but also used as slang for “guy†in Portuguese), when life robs him of what is arguably, in physical terms, a person’s first and last claim to being human.

I wonder to what extent we can thank Pineda’s background in experimental theater for the imagistic quality of her prose and her powerfully spare dramatic sensibilities. Pineda was director of a theater company when, in the back pages of a newspaper, she encountered the story around which she wrote her first novel. Long fascinated by defining concepts of identity in a postmodern world, she writes in her introduction that the ramifications and potential consequences of this story came “to fester like an unhealed wound.†An apt simile for the genesis of a novel concerned with wounds whose healing leads only to injury of another type.

Set in Rio de Janeiro’s Whale Back slum, Face opens with the climactic event of Cara’s accident. Thus we only know Cara as a man without a face. Cara is haunted by dreamlike refrains from a past in which, he now understands, his rather unexceptional arrangement of eyes-nose-mouth made the difference between humanity’s recognition of him as one of its own, and its persecution of him as a monster whose very existence it treats as an act of aggression. Cara’s predicament subtly forces us to ask what it is precisely that makes a person human, to question if our own belief in our humanity means anything in the absence of society’s corroboration. Missing limbs may inspire curiosity, pity, or even discomfort, but how do you interact with a person who is, literally, faceless? In the world Pineda creates—one that is otherwise neither particularly cruel nor kind—you simply don’t. From his fiancée, Lula, to strangers in bus depots, every person Cara encounters wants only for him to remove the burden of his deformity from their space, to erase the unwelcome knowledge that such a thing could happen:

The white zone has its particular density: whispers, furtive glances, the panicked cries of children, all exile him. Each movement, gesture, sound is known to him. Now that man will hunch a little deeper into himself, now another will blow his nose. Now a woman will take reassurance from it: he has a nose at least, let alone a face… Like the pipers pecking for mollusks in the surf, sensing the imminent threat of the encroaching wave, hurrying to stay just clear of it, so the waiting room adjusts to the huge intrusion of his handkerchief, his hat.

At this point you may be asking how a person can “lack†a face. Surely something fills the space between Helio Cara’s neck and crown. It obviously isn’t attractive, maybe not even recognizable, but what is it? Pineda employs elision more than description to depict what is under the handkerchief and hat that Cara wears to hide his deformity. The voice Pineda grants Cara-the-narrator immediately impresses with its clarity and strength, a honed minimalism accented by a beautifully restrained imagistic quality. It is a voice uniquely suited to telling this story. Instead of detailing the novel’s potentially abundant physical (and emotional) gore, Pineda casts a spell of tone, offering only enough information so that the reader’s imagination can do the otherwise impossible work of grasping the violence, horror, and estrangement of Cara’s predicament:

They have arranged the dressing to yield on cue, like an important unveiling. “And here, Gentlemen, after almost two months…†(he holds his breath.) The bandage lifts, the sunlight of morning stabs his eyes. To him, their intake of breath is like a roar. When has he heard this sound? at his birth? at his death? I saw the angel in the heavens and the sound of the great trumpet came to me. When? “We have the face of Senhor Helio Cara!†Who is he? Who has become, with his name of a stranger? “Yes, Cara. The irony is not lost on you, I see.†But already he has held his breath too long. He feels the hot tears. And hears the voice: “Never has this service seen such an injury…†and the swallowed giggles of the medical students, standing at white starched attention, suppressing the whispering of their linen, “…such an injury.â€

Abandoned by the public healthcare system which saved his life but deemed the completion of the job “cosmetic,†rejected by lover and neighbors, let go from his employ at the barbershop where he had worked for years, Cara burrows ever deeper underground, rooting through trash bins to feed himself, living by night to minimize encounters with human society. Not incidentally, I suspect, Pineda hurls Cara into a world marginalized on every level imaginable. The third world stage of the Whale Back slum speaks for itself with its shacks “tumbling scrambling like clumsy, eyeless dwarves,†its gutters running black with slime. As though adding insult to injury, it is this beleaguered society that rejects Cara—cannot tolerate his existence, wills him into invisibility. Eventually society’s relentless denial bears fruit, and Cara discovers a dark self whose brutal nature rivals the severity of his physical disfigurement.

Cara’s attempt to regain his humanity, then, becomes an obsession with remaking his face. After failing to receive help from the medical system, Cara retreats to his birthplace. It is in that rural hinterland where, almost out of money and entirely alone, he quite literally takes matters into his own hands. Metaphors abound in the insanely courageous and desperate act of self-determination that ensues. We might question the believability of Cara’s undertaking, but that would be to miss the point. Additionally, Pineda’s surprising use of medical explication in this existential narrative offers just enough concrete detail to assuage anxieties over verisimilitude (and, earlier on, provides some chilling clues to the nature of Cara’s disfigurement). For me, these final chapters of self-reconstruction were gripping almost to the point of being hallucinatory. Credit goes to Pineda’s masterful control over language and the choices she makes to conceal rather than reveal.

Reading Face is an unsettling and thought-provoking experience (and an endeavor that, for all its effect, can be accomplished in one or two sittings). The book is a masterful example of why authors should allow themselves to trust their readers. It is also a powerful testament to what can happen when brilliantly crafted language meets a receptive mind. Face is a book that imperceptibly cues your imagination. Don’t be surprised if your own response mirrors that of Cara at the end of the novel. As Pineda writes of her unsettling protagonist, “He has imagined this meeting over and over, has elaborated its circumstances. But when it actually happens to him, it is unlike anything he could have foreseen.â€

Lee Middleton is finishing her M.A. in Creative Writing at UT-Austin.

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