MILLER, Chris. “Bruno Tolentino: 12 November 1940-27 June 2007”. In: PN Review 180, vol. 34 n. 4, March – April 2008
The Brazilian poet Bruno Tolentino, who died last summer, was a personage far stranger than fiction. He won the Prêmio Revelação de autor for his first book, Anulacão e outros reparos (1960). Moving to Europe to translate Ungaretti, he apparently worked as an interpreter for the then EEC before publishing the very fine French volume Le Vrai Le Vain (1971): it is a graceful meditation on phenomenology as experience. He subsequently worked at BristolUniversity, teaching Portuguese, before moving to Oxford, where he published a striking but incompletely successful volume in English, About the Hunt (1978), under the imprint Oxford Poetry Now. When I met him in Oxford, he lived a life of Epicurean leisure and claimed acquaintance with the cream of Europe’s literary figures. How much of this was true, I never knew; most of it, I suspect. I know he was friends with Yves Bonnefoy and Eugénio de Andrade and knew Charles Tomlinson and Michael Hamburger. His then aisance was explained some years later when he was convicted of cocaine-smuggling. He partly served his sentence in Dartmoor and was deported to Brazil, where he published As Horas de Katerina (Prêmio Jabuti, 1995) and A balada do cárcere (Prêmio Abgar Renault, 1997). He won a second Jabuti in 2003 for O mundo como ideía and a third posthumously in 2007 for A Imitação do Amanhecer.
Short, slight and handsome in appearance, vain, garrulous, and charming in person, Bruno was a man of prodigious talents. Fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, German and English, he could quote from these at the drop of a hat: Rilke, Machado, Montale, Calderón and Bonnefoy might be followed by Agrippa d’Aubigné or Luis de León. Bandeira, Drummond de Andrade, Cecilia Meireles and Adélia Prado were often on his tongue. When quoting Ungaretti (‘Questi cretini Svedesi’, in relation to Quasimodo’s Nobel), he acquired Ungaretti’s features. His company was always disconcerting since he was a pathological liar. Nothing he said could be assumed to be true. He claimed descent from il condottiere Tolentino and did indeed strongly resemble the figure in the National Gallery’s section of the Battle of San Romano. But he might equally produce bottles of Sainsbury’s Beaume de Venise, announcing airily: ‘From my college’. His charm and astonishment when his lies were questioned meant that incredulity generally went unspoken. I would define his belief-system as ‘cosmological hypochondria’: he combined a vestigial Catholicism with voodoo observances, astrology and almost any other available practice. Promiscuously bisexual, he entertained a coterie of bright young things from the University and a number of moronic hangers-on who seemed only there to allow him to continue talking. This he would do even after one had left the room, reeling one back into the room on interminable sentences.
For my undergraduate self, meeting this cosmopolitan figure felt like an amazing privilege. After graduating, I would often turn up at the door of his Kingston Road house and join the talk that went on into the early hours. He was invariably flattering company, assuming one’s acquaintance with world literature, interested in one’s opinion, and purveying fine wines and drugs. Here was a notion of civilisation rather remote from my experience of Oxford classics and analytic philosophy. He broadened my horizons considerably and introduced me to many abiding literary influences. Later, having apparently fallen on harder times, he came to live in the house I was sharing on Walton Street, and was occasionally visited by mysterious persons bearing cash in brown-paper bags. He would rise at two in the afternoon and breakfast daily on roast rib of beef and tinned potatoes, sometimes wearing a white-paper voodoo hat for the day. Even in this house-share context, his air of distinction (in which one was assumed to participate) was all-encompassing.
I had no contact with him after his deportation. The nature of the remunerative investments he had been offering was made clear by his conviction. He was by then a desperate man. But the advent of the Web meant that I could tune into his activities from time to time. He seemed true to form, inveighing against the cultural decline of Brazil and the fallible linguistic knowledge of his contemporaries. The Web also showed that he had ‘taught at Oxford University’; that About the Hunt had been published by OUP; that Dartmoor Prison was known in England as ‘Devil’s Island’; that he had been both ‘pardoned’ by the British government and ‘acknowledged to have been the victim of an injustice’ (see the obituary in O Globo Online). His works and lies survive him.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum. But that would hardly do justice to Bruno. It is not often that one meets a drug-smuggling poet of distinction. And Bruno was a poet of distinction, one of few twentieth-century poets to have accomplished the feat of writing well in more than one language. Flawed, infuriating, brilliant, he marked my life and I cherish his memory.