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Marília Scaff rocHa riBeiro

Michigan State University

The relationship between Bernardo Carvalho’s fiction and the reader may be char- acterized by
deception: ​the use of non-literary discourses and references play, in his novels, a central role in
the puzzle that is presented to the reader. In this article I explore the ways in which the novel
Nove Noites (2002) uses anthropological and journalistic discourses as narrative devices to
underscore the artificiality of fiction, ​rather than its ability to represent reality. I argue that
Bernardo Carvalho uses the questions raised by anthropology and journalism about ‘authenticity’
and ‘experi- ence’ to reverse the reader’s expectations about representing identities and cultures.
The novel ultimately does so by appropriating the language of ethnography and mimicking the
methods of journalistic investigation, creating deceptive links with real facts that foreground the
multifaceted relationship between fiction and reality.

Resumen A relação entre a obra de Bernardo Carvalho e o leitor pode ser caracterizada pelo
engano: o uso de discursos e referências extraliterários tem, em seus romances, papel central no
enigma que é apresentado ao leitor. Este artigo analisa as maneiras pelas quais o romance Nove
Noites (2002) usa temas ou referências à antropologia e ao jornalismo como estratégias
narrativas para enfatizar a artificialidade da ficção, e não sua habilidade de representar a
realidade. O artigo mostra como o romance usa questões levantadas pela antropologia e pelo
jornalismo sobre ‘autenticidade’ e ‘experiência’ para reverter as expectativas dos leitores sobre a
representação de iden- tidades e culturas. É através da apropriação de uma linguagem
etnográfica, e também da imitação dos métodos jornalísticos, que o romance cria ligações
enganosas com fatos reais que põem em questão a complexa relação entre realidade e ficção.
In an essay titled ‘Fiction as Exception’, published in the United States in 2010, Bernardo
Carvalho expressed his frustration regarding the reception of some of his works, particularly
Nove noites (2002) and Mongólia (2004). Being two of his most popular novels, their appeal
seems to derive primarily from their reference to true stories (in the case of Nove noites) and to
cultural specificities of a faraway country (which caused some to read Mongólia as travel
writing). ​Carvalho expresses his surprise and dismay that most readers took the real-life
references at face value, reading his literature as an ‘illustration’, or a ‘represen- tation’ of
when his intentions were to use some of the conventions of the non-fiction book as a provocation
intended to mimic a kind of literature that is produced with an eye for the market.

One should, of course, mistrust the writer’s declarations in the article in the same way one
should be skeptical of any of his narrators. But even so, Carvalho’s reaction is intriguing because
he seems to conceive of the relationship with the reader as a game and all his works are at least
partly defined by an intention to deceive the reader. ​In fact, in this same article, Carvalho
states that intention in relation to the conceptual creation of Nove noites: ‘I realized that if the
reader wanted a non-fiction book, I had found something for him or her, but I would deliver it in
a corrupted way, a sort of trap, albeit a playful one’ (2010: 2–3). ​The book included, in its
inception, the relationship between text and reader, which is based on an ambiguous game that
blurs fact and fiction to intentio- nally confuse the reader. ​Nove noites asks of its readers a
complete commitment to the fictional pact, at the same time that it ​lures1 them to participate in
the story as a detective, even though the clues dispersed in the novel do not lead anywhere. That
the puzzle cannot be resolved is not surprising; ​the deception, however, lies in the very invitation
to play the fictional game. ​The seemingly unexpected reception of the novel only comes to
reinforce the nature of the game, and the fact that some readers get lost in it should be a
testament to its effectiveness. Thus, Carvalho’s frustration seems at odds with his intention of
creating a narrative trap as a basis for the novel.

Carvalho has been a prominent figure in contemporary Brazilian fiction. He has received the
most important literary prizes for Brazilian literature (Jabuti and Portugal Telecom, among
others), has had many of his works translated and published abroad, has worked with one of the
most innovative theatre groups in Brazil (Teatro da Vertigem), and has written a column about
arts and culture for over a decade in Folha de São Paulo. An important element for the success of
his work is his ability to incorporate the zeitgeist of our times, infusing his fiction with
symptoms of what he perceives to be some of the most pressing challenges of the contemporary
In this article I would like to focus on the novel Nove noites (Carvalho 2002; published in
English translation in 2007 as Nine Nights) and its use of what I cal​l ‘techniques of deception’.
In this work, the incorporation of the current zeitgeist includes the creation of an ​atmosphere of
obsession and conspiracy, ​which has been intensified since 11 September 2001. The thematic
focus on lies and truth is reinforced by a narrative style that sets the reader up for a game in
which biographical and autobiographical elements are interwoven2 with fiction in such a way as
to cast doubt even on the clearly advertised fictional status of the novel. I am also interested in
the use of ​anthropology as subject matter and of journalism as a pseudo-style. I argue that

La capacidad que tiene algo o alguien de ser atractivo
Bernardo Carvalho makes use of ​non-literary forms as a way of reinforcing the fictional
character of his novel. In other words, he creates a narrative that becomes increasingly literary
the more the novel appears to appropriate non-literary discourses. Nove noites under- mines the
discourses of both anthropology and journalism when neither is able to offer a solution to the
central mystery of the book – the explanation for Buell Quain’s death. ​In fact, those
non-literary forms offer deceptive links with real facts that foreground the multifaceted
relationship between fiction and reality and ultimately underscore the artificially constructed
nature of all fiction.

Clifford Geertz, when analysing the author function in anthropological texts, mentions a kind
of anthropological contract that takes place between the anthropologist and his or her reader,
who ​‘credits the anthropologist with a kind of experience the anthropologist has not in fact had’
(1997: 47–48). For Geertz, the ethnographer’s ability to convey a plausible narrative about
his/her own experience in the field has as much weight as the factual evidence of descriptions
he/she is able to list. It is only the crafted3 retelling of that experience that will guarantee a
positive reception of the anthropological work. In order for the anthropological observation to
become narrative, it needs to be persuasive: ‘Ethnographers need to convince us [...] not merely
that they themselves have truly “been there”, but that had we been there we should have seen
what they saw, felt what they felt, concluded what they concluded’ (1997: 16).

Convincing is also a central part of Nove noites, a novel that has anthropology at its centre.
What is at stake in its plot is the experience of a real-life anthropologist, Buell Quain, who
becomes the focus of interest for the narrator. The narrative revolves around the attempt to find
out what Quain saw, felt and concluded before committing suicide while doing fieldwork among
the Krahô tribe in 1939. While reading an article in a newspaper in 2002, the narrator comes
across a reference to the tragic death of the American anthropologist, whose name seems to him
vaguely familiar, and decides to investigate his life and death in order to understand the suicide
and, ultimately, to write a novel. He resorts to archival research, interviews with people
acquainted with Quain both in Brazil and the United States, the analysis of letters written by and
to him, and a reenactment of the final steps of the anthropologist, which the narrator achieves by
spending time with the Krahô tribe and following Quain’s path in the interior of Brazil, trying to
reach those last experiences. ​The account of the journalist–narrator is intercalated by an
epistolary narrative, written by Manoel Perna, an acquaintance of Quain at the small town near
the Krahô village, with whom the anthropologist spent some evenings – nine nights, precisely –
before the suicide.
What becomes clear early in the narrative is a confrontation between the narrative style of the

journalist–narrator and the general tone of the novel. While he sets forth to find clues about this
anthropologist’s experience and thus convince the reader of his motives and findings, ​the implicit
author works against the grain, scattering elements of suspicion throughout the narrative and thus
questioning the claims of authenticity that the journalistic style strives to​ ​achieve.
The parallel between literature and anthropology has been examined by Roberto González
Echevarría as one of the basic confluences of literary and non-literary discourses in the twentieth
century. He argues that one of the most persistent characteristic of Latin American novels has
been their attempt to seem non-literary, borrowing from non-literary forms of discourse that in
different historical moments were endowed with truth-bearing power by society (the law in the
sixteenth century, science in the nineteenth century and anthropology in the twentieth century):
The novel, or what is called the novel at various points in history, mimics such
documents to show their conventionality, their subjection to strategies of textual
engenderment similar to those governing literature, which in turn reflect those of
language itself. It is through this simulacrum of legitimacy that the novel makes its
contradictory and veiled claim to literariness. ​(González Echevarría 1998: 8)
Anthropology has, in this light, been a privileged means through which Latin American modern
narrative asserts itself because the discipline has occupied a prominent place in the articulation of
the founding national myths there. It is in this context that Nove noites chooses to engage
anthropology (in addition to journalism) as a means4 to discuss and define what literature is and
what roles it may have in relation to reality. By taking up anthropology as the mediating lens, the
book mimics not only the objective reality that the anthropological gaze intends to unveil but
also the very search for such objectivity that the novel deems unsuccessful from the start. The
experience of fieldwork is also strictly related to Carvalho’s skeptical narrator, especially if we
accept Lévi-Strauss’s definition of fieldwork as ‘the mother and nursemaid of doubt, the
philosophical attitude par excellence’ (cited in Sontag 1996: 63).

James Clifford, in his The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature
and Art, discusses how anthropology responds to last century’s ‘feeling of lost authenticity’
(1988: 4) in a world where ‘people and things are increasingly out of place’ (6). Clifford
emphasizes the crise de conscience that the postcolonial critique of subjectivity of the 1950s
brought about in a discipline whose apogee coincided with that of the imperial powers in Africa
and Asia. The new spatial consciousness that the African colonial wars brought to the European
mapping of the world helped transform the understanding and the purposes of anthropology as a
discipline – suddenly, the exotic and faraway places that were the destination for anthropological
studies were no longer that distant. The mid-twentieth century approach to anthropology entails a

change in spatial sensibility, demanding other forms of orientation.
Carvalho, writing about the forest and the Krahô in the twenty-first century, has chosen to
foreground5 the impossibility of engaging in participant observation when appropriating the
theme of anthropology. ​The journalist–narrator goes to the jungle in what might appear to be an
ethnographic expedition. His intentions, however, are not so much to research the Indians as to
investigate the mystery surrounding Buell Quain’s death. ​The anthropologist’s and the
journalist’s concerns might seem interchangeable, but there is a significant difference concerning
the engagement both the journalist and the anthropologist have with the observed culture. ​Central
to Clifford’s argument is the idea that ethnographic writing ‘includes, minimally, a translation of
experience into textual form’ (1988: 25). ​So much that, unlike the journalist, who writes about
what he sees, the ethnographer writes about what he or she has experienced while in the field​.

The journalist–narrator of Nove noites drastically resists having a rapport6 with the indigenous
community. ​His visit to the Krahô tribe in order to find information about Buell Quain is
radically opposed to participant observation, as its focus is not to understand the community per
se, but rather to uncover possible clues to the mystery he intends to solve. He seems to remain in
the comfortable ​position of an outsider who makes contact with the Indians but seems
uninterested in them, other than the extent to which they can become material for his novels.

The narrator’s approach to the investigation of Quain’s suicide, however far from traditional
participant observation, ​shares with the ethnographic experience the expectation that the truth
could somehow emanate from the site of Quain’s last moments. Such mystification surrounding
the death of the anthropologist goes beyond the fact that ‘todo mundo quer saber o que sabem os
suicidas’ (Carvalho 2002: 47); it becomes ​intertwined7 with the narrator’s own experiences with
the Amazon, the sertão and the Indian villages he visited with his father as a child. The
existential question, linked to suicide, is not out of place in Nove noites either. During the
narrator’s search for the vestiges of Buell Quain, the object of his obsession undergoes several
slippages in name: the name Quain is repeatedly confused with Cãmtw’yon, Cowan, and Cohen,
by different informants. For those reading in Portuguese, the variation in the name evokes the
sound of an interrogative pronoun: Quem? This interrogation – Quem? – Who? – is what the
novel seems to scream out of its confusion of names, places and events.
That the existential question implied by the pronoun ‘quem?’ cannot be answered is hardly
surprising, given that the main mystery of the story – the reason for Quain’s suicide – also
remains ultimately undisclosed. ​The novel seems to focus on the impossibility of gaining access

Relación o compenetración
Entrelazado o interrelacionado
to the truth about the suicide, which is in turn reflected in the many narrative traps the narrator
sets up to confuse the reader​, ​blur the facts and create a confusion between archival and fictional

Just as the investigation about the suicide reflects back on the narrator’s own childhood, there
is also a parallel between the characterization of the narrator, Buell Quain, and the Indians. At
first the relationship is vertical, that is, the narrator investigates Quain, who in his turn observes
the Trumai and the Krahô. However, the three will become associated through a series of
coincidences or ‘facts’, ​which show that the interest the narrator presents towards the
anthropologist is in fact also directed at his own biography and also at the Indians from ​whom he
claims to desire distance.
Buell Quain, like the Trumai, was ‘só e desamparado’ (2002: 10). Quain himself noted that
tribe was committing collective suicide, by performing abortions and killing newborns and also
by allowing themselves to be subjugated by the Kamayurá. He felt that their culture had a
‘suicidal temperament’ (57). The Trumai felt oppressed by neighbouring tribes and ‘viviam num
estado de terror permanente’ (59). ​The feeling of terror is a constant throughout the novel​​,
from Quain’s internal turmoil to the Trumai’s fear of collective disappearance to the ‘War on
Terror’ deflagrated at the time the narrator is writing his novel. In a book so saturated with
details and facts about peoples and places, it is difficult not to become overwhelmed by all those
referents. ​In fact, one of the traps of the narrative is, I believe, the temptation to
overinterpret every reference, or to sort out what is really true from what is not.
In this sense, the words that open the page of acknowledgements that follows the narrative of
Nove noites reinforce such a lure: ‘Este é um livro de ficção, embora esteja baseado em fatos,
experiências e pessoas reais. É uma combinação de memória e imaginação – como todo
romance, em maior ou menor grau, de forma mais ou menos direta’ (169). These words by
Carvalho, after the story has reached an end, work retrospectively to reinforce the premise that is
made clear from the first page of the novel. The opening lines of the narrative are part of a letter,
one of many that will be intercalated in the narrator’s account, addressing a reader who will only
be made known much later. But the message is also intended for the reader of the novel: ‘É
preciso estar preparado. Alguém terá que preveni-lo. Vai entrar numa terra em que a verdade e a
mentira não têm mais os sentidos que o trouxeram até aqui’ (7). Surrounded by such warning
signs, no reader would supposedly venture into the novel with the naïve expectation of finding a
biography or a purely journalistic investigation. Not to mention that the genre ‘novel’ is
explicitly stated on the title page. Yet the interference of reality into fiction triggers a game that
the reader can scarcely avoid. Even though we are supposed to accept the narrative as fiction, the
novel seems to challenge readers on how far they can go without attempting to distinguish fact
from fiction and falling, therefore, into the narrative trap.
The first element that has the effect of supposedly bringing irrefutable proof of reality is a
black and white photograph on the flap of the book showing a little boy holding hands with a tall
Brazilian Indian, with the caption: ‘O autor, aos seis anos, no Xingu’. ​Such an image strikes the
reader as proof of authenticity, ​which makes him/her more prone to efface the distinction
between author and narrator and jump into the narrative ready to hear what that little boy, now a
successful novelist, has to say about his real-life experiences with the Indians in general and with
the mystery of the anthropologist’s suicide in particular. Interwoven in the text itself are pictures
of Buell Quain and other anthropologists, as well as references to institutions and people that
root the narrative in verifiable facts. And to his advantage, the narrator–author presents evidence
that he would be indeed a reliable journalist: despite the fact that he says he came ​about the name
of Buell Quain by coincidence​, there are a number of elements that connect him with his object
of investigation. As has been mentioned, he himself had been to Xingu many times and had had
contact with the Indians when travelling to the area as a child with his father. Furthermore, his
connection with the forest and its many tribes are enhanced by his being the g​reat-grandson of
Marechal Rondon, a prominent figure in the early contacts of the many Amazonian tribes with
Western culture. The narrator–author, like Quain, had met Lévi-Strauss, and would be
acquainted enough with the discipline of anthropology to be considered a reputable investigator.

Having been presented with his credentials, however, one cannot help noticing that while the
facts themselves are verifiable, the connection between them becomes deliberately lost in the
narration. ​Some facts become linked together by what is claimed as a coincidence. Some of these
are, however, strikingly artificial and not at all convincing, especially coming from a journalist,
who would presumably have a more straightforward notion of cause and effect. ​This is all part of
a game: while from one point of view the narrator seems perfectly reliable and presents himself
as such, the narrative sequence points in another direction, leaving the reader confused.
One instance in which the interpretive ability ​of the narrator is tested concerns the name given
to Quain by the Krahô: Cãmtw’yon. The narrator has no success in finding the meaning of the
name, except for the information that ‘cãm’ means ‘the present, the here and now’, and ‘tw’yon’
refers to a snail, its body and trail. The anthropologist who accompanies him to the reserve
explains that, despite what white people believe, the Indian names do not always mean
something and that they bear no connection to the personality of the person who receives the
name. The narrator, however, cannot avoid interpreting – in the absence of an explanation, he
creates one for himself:
Eu teria que voltar para São Paulo sem saber o que significava aquele nome. Mas não
conseguia aceitar que não revelasse alguma coisa sobre o próprio Quain, que não
houvesse nenhuma relação entre o nome e a pessoa. Decidi-me por uma interpretação
selvagem e um tanto moral: ‘Cãmt’yon’ passou a ser, para mim, ao mesmo tempo a casa
do caracol e o seu fardo no mundo, a casca que ele carrega onde quer que esteja e que
também lhe serve de abrigo, o próprio corpo, do qual não pode livrar-se a não ser com a
morte, o seu aqui e agora para sempre. ‘Cãmt’yon’ passou a ser para mim ​o rastro do
caracol: não adianta fugir, aonde quer que você vá estará sempre aqui. (Carvalho 2002:
Obsessed by his investigation, the narrator ​finds coded signs everywhere and attributes meaning
to all the information that is presented to him about Quain. ​He not only interprets; he overdoes it​.
Such excess might configure a certain kind of parody (also present in many other works by
Carvalho, if not all), directed towards the very format of a journalistic or detective novel. There
are always signs to interpret, mysteries to solve. ​Carvalho’s fictional universe is loaded with
multiple clues and cues; and cause-and-effect relationships and the characters’ interpretations, as
in the example above, always derive from a biased​ a​ nd arbitrary reading of events.
In an essay about narrative forms and magic, Jorge Luis Borges claims that the central
problem for the novel is causality: ‘Ese recelo de que un hecho temible pueda ser atraído por su
mención, es impertinente o inútil en el asiático desorden del mundo real, no así en una novela,
que debe ser un juego preciso de vigilancias, ecos y afinidades. Todo episodio, en un cuidadoso
relato, es de proyección ulterior’ (1969: 89–90). Borges claims that, unlike in real life, in a novel
every small piece of information has a meaning and a purpose because they are all part of the
writer’s detailed craft. Thus, because the literary text is such a complex web of superimposing
elements, causality figures as the link that paradoxically brings the narrative closer to reality,
giving it a logic that we accept as possible, even as it functions as a controlling device that is not
operative in real life. ​Such an approach is particularly applicable to the writing of Carvalho
because all of his novels deal in one way or another with apparent causalities that are carefully
constructed so as to create the illusion of realism – but in this case a realism full of paranoia and

Besides engaging anthropology as theme and as method, Nove noites also privileges another
non-literary discourse which, ​despite not being mentioned by González Echevarría, might
well be the truth-bearing discourse of choice for the twenty-first century: journalism. In an
eloquent example towards the end of the novel, the narrator decides to travel to the United States
in search of more detailed information about Buell Quain and is surprised by the generalized
climate of conspiracy that followed the 11 September attacks and became obvious in the
media. ​The novel closely paraphrases an actual piece of news that appeared on the New
York ​Times on 19 February 2002:
A ficção começou no dia em que pus os pés nos Estados Unidos. A edição do New York
Times, de 19 de fevereiro de 2002, que distribuíram a bordo, anunciava as novas
estratégias do Pentágono: disseminar notícias – até mesmo falsas, se preciso – pela mídia
internacional; usar todos os meios para ‘influenciar as audiências estrangeiras.’ (Carvalho
2002: 158)
By stating that fiction started the day he set foot in the United States and read about the
Pentagon’s strategy to disseminate false news, if necessary, in the international media, the novel
stresses the parallels between the narrator’s methods and those made possible by the media: both
ultimately ‘disseminate controlled news in an effort to influence the public’. By foregrounding
narrative methods and processes, both fictional and journalistic, Carvalho calls attention to the
fictional potential of any relationship of cause and effect between events, even if they seem
objective and real.”
Journalism has sometimes been considered a menace to other narrative forms. According to
Walter Benjamin, ‘if the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has
had a decisive share in this state of affairs’ (1968: 89). While the amount of news and
information is constantly increasing, these narratives are poor in terms of the kinds and depth of
experience they can convey. In fact, ​Theodor Adorno also compares fiction with newspaper
reports, claiming that just as painting lost many of its traditional functions to photography, the
novel has also had to rethink its role in relation to the news and to the products of the culture
industry (above all, cinema) (1991). However, like Benjamin, Adorno does not advocate a return
to or a rescue of traditional forms of narrative. Rather, both Benjamin and Adorno believe novels
should react to these new narrative modes by engaging them critically, and the most dir​ect way
to do so is by confronting realism. ​Telling a story objectively, in a realistic fashion, is no longer
unproblematic, because the very idea of representing an objective experience is no longer
possible in a world in which that kind of experience has disintegrated. For Adorno, the crisis of
the novel concerns the fact that objectivity is no longer possible, yet subjectivity cannot offer an
alternative in a fragmented and administered world.
It is still this same kind of modernist writer’s dilemma that seems to haunt Carvalho’s fiction.
In the larger context of contemporary Brazilian novels written in the last two decades, one
increasing tendency in fiction has been to mirror reality. T​oday, the journalistic discourse sets the
tone for much literary production, especially that which chronicles urban life and the problems
and challenges of living in big cities. ​Reacting to a contemporary return to realist values, the
choice of journalism as ‘deceiving discourse’ allows Carvalho not only to foreground the
fictionality of his work, but also to criticize the journalistic discourse itself and its claims to truth.
In “Bernardo Carvalho e a questão do ficcional,” Luiz Costa Lima has identified a defining
trait of Carvalho’s novel As Iniciais that also applies, I believe, to Nove noites: the
foregrounding of mystification, and a belief that it is the novelist’s task to make his own fiction
stand out amidst the generalized fictionalization of the world. Costa Lima contends that
Carvalho’s greatest contribution to fiction is ‘fazer do romance, normalmente tido como uma
espécie de divertimento, uma reflexão ficcional sobre o estado do mundo, do mundo da ficção
em particular, e do mundo globalizado; dos vírus, ameaças, mistificações e catástrofes que
particularizam um e outro’ (Costa Lima 2002: 282–83).
As a commentary on contemporary times, the exaltation of invention and the privileging of
fiction in Nove noites serves as a counterpoint for discourses such as the Pentagon’s strategies
mentioned in the passage quoted, whose intentions are to dissimulate, to deceive, to control.
Though fiction shares with those strategies the fictionalization of reality, its purposes are
diametrically different, since it is not based on lies. According to Alfredo Bosi, ‘a literatura, em
ser ficção, resiste à mentira. É nesse horizonte que o espaço da literatura, considerado em geral
como o lugar da fantasia, pode ser o lugar da verdade mais exigente’ (2002: 135). I believe
Bernardo Carvalho’s narratives stand precisely in this position of resistance, and it is in the name
of a ‘demanding truth’ that his fiction makes use of certain techniques of deception, insisting on
the power of fiction to re-imagine identities and historical events.
Works Cited
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Shierry Weber Nicholsen (New York: Columbia University Press). Benjamin, Walter, 1968.
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nations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books), pp. 83–110. Borges, Jorge Luis,
1969. ‘El arte narrativo y la magia’, in Obras completas: Discusión (Buenos Aires:
Emecé Editores). Bosi, Alfredo, 2002. Literatura e resistência (São Paulo: Companhia das
Letras). Carvalho, Bernardo, 2002. Nove noites. Romance (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras).
—, 2004. Mongólia (São Paulo: Companhia das Letras). —, 2007. Nine Nights, trans. Benjamin
Moser (London: William Heinemann). —, 2010. ‘Fiction as exception’, Luso-Brazilian Review,
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Literature, and Art
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Costa Lima, Luiz, 2002. ‘Bernardo Carvalho e
a questão do ficcional’, Intervenções (São Paulo:
Edusp), pp. 273–304. Geertz, Clifford, 1997. Works and Lives: the Anthropologist as Author
(Stanford, CA: Stanford Univer-
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American Narrative
(Durham, NC, and London: Duke University Press). Sontag, Susan, 1996. ‘The
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