Sunday, 12 May 2013

Ferreira Gullar, Architect

Portugal and Brazil share the same language, but the scarcity of Brazilian books in our bookstores make the two seem like strangers to each other. I don’t have the ability to assess the popularity of Portuguese writers on the other side of the Atlantic, but I hope it doesn’t mirror what happens here. Putting aside the classical Machado de Assis, the perennially popular Jorge Amado, and the mediocre self-help guru Paulo Coelho, Brazilian literature has trouble finding room in our market. As it tends to happen, prestigious awards, namely the Camões Prize, can make the difference between a writer being discovered or remaining in obscurity. Even though this award tendentiously goes mainly to Portugal and Brazil, as if no other country wrote Portuguese-language literature, thanks to it the books of João Ubaldo Ribeiro and Rubem Fonseca are in our bookstores. Thanks to it I managed to read a book by Ferreira Gullar.

Ferreira Gullar (b. 1930) is a poet, essayist, playwright, and short-story writer. Some will argue he’s the greatest living Brazilian poet, in competition with Manoel de Barros (b. 1916). In 2010 Gullar received the Camões Prize. Since then his work has gained wider visibility in Portugal, with recent releases including Em Alguma Parte Alguma (2010), his latest poetry book, Rabo de foguete - Os anos de exílio (1998), his memoirs of the years in exile, during Brazil’s military dictatorship, and Poema Sujo (1976), his most important poem, exactly written during this exile. Gullar is a poet, then, but today I’m writing about his short-story collection, Cidades Inventadas.

A rare incursion into prose and narrative, Cidades Inventadas (Invented Cities) collects stories about fabulous cities that never existed; Gullar wrote the first story in 1955 and continued to add more stories, each named after a different city, for more than forty years until the book came out in 1997. Similar to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, these stories lack the unifying frame narrative but they’re every bit as fascinating and wondrous.

If there’s something holding the stories together, we could say it’s a theme: the apocalypse of cities, as centres of life and culture. As a whole, the book is an imaginative exercise and a satire about modernity but also the strange predictability of human history. The book’s main thesis is that, no matter how we organize ourselves, we’re fated to disappear. A civilization, it matters not the geographical location, the history, the technological feats, is always at the mercy of Nature, of human barbarism, and of progress which contains in itself, many times, its own destruction. The stories have a cold, analytical tone, of someone narrating distant events. Only one of the stories is narrated in the first person.

The first story, “Odon,” establishes this theme; here we see a city brought low by Nature. “Odon is a collection of old houses in the middle of a desert – the Uz desert. A primary school reading book, adopted some fifty years ago in city’s schools, described it thus: ‘Odon, our progressive city, is on the fertile valley of Uz, on the margin of Gôni.’ In truth this description hadn’t corresponded to reality in, maybe, two, three centuries. The reading manuals today speak differently: ‘Odon, our beloved city, is in the desert of Uz, where once upon a time there was a fertile valley’”

Odon subsisted on its agriculture, and worshipped the tobacco god, Igork, a very profitable crop. But with time the cult of Igork dwindled. Then there was a cataclysm that turned the valley into a desert; some interpreted the catastrophe as Igork’s punishment. Be as it may, the fact is that Nature, in the past the city’s main source of income, turned against it unexpectedly, overnight, leaving it a decrepit city, never to flourish again. This is the power of Nature and the fragility of all human endeavours.

Gullar explains, in the introduction, that the first story was about the past and he decided to write a second one about the future. That is “Ufu,” also the name of a marvellous city, a masterpiece of science and technology, “the vastest city ever built by man, and it continues to grow.” But this miracle of progress contains a threat as dangerous as Nature: oblivion.

Ufu has a history, even if its citizens don’t remember it, being so absorbed in their current life. In some point in the city there’s a building where the Museum of Ufu functions. It’s true that, given the city’s growth, the museum’s services are almost fully devoted to the impossible task of recording its frantic present: electronic devices work tirelessly photographing new documents, computing data and searching for an order capable of keeping the material vestiges of History, which flies feverishly towards forgetfulness. But, in some corner of the museum, one may find a picture of Ufu, when it was a city with just one million inhabitants, fifty years ago – which in Ufu is the same as a very remote time. Some older documents will reveal that the city isn’t even two centuries old and that, underneath the first house, there was just material ground, without myth and memory.

Ufo grows at such a breakneck pace it no longer has history, and its limits expand, without an end in sight. “The closest cities were absorbed by Ufu, they became its suburbs.” Cultivation fields were turned into roads. Distant cities were “murdered by Ufu, which turned them into gigantic farms for the production of cereals, oxen and sheep, eggs and fowl, which it consumed voraciously.” This development is only sustained thanks to the “extermination of the country’s other cities, whose inhabitants flee to Ufu.” This manic growth is a threat that endangers mankind itself, a city that seems to have developed an internal logic of its own, self-aware, following an order its citizens no longer understand or control.  Ufu consumes the resources of other cities and then transforms them into objects the inhabitants “didn’t even think existed or let alone thought they needed.” So it marches on, Ufu, absorbing the world around it, replacing everything, like a consumerist version of Jorge Luis Borges’ Tlön. This is the main axis of the book – Nature and technology/barbarism – and the stories follow one after another with several variations. For instance, the city of Alminta is defeated by “wild grass, rats and bats” after a slave revolt leaves the city ransacked. In “Iscúmbria” (similar to escombros, or debris), a whole city is destroyed as an act of punishment.

The story “Texclx” is a metaphor of the Inca people, or of pre-Columbian civilizations, also decimated by conquerors who “crossed the unknown ocean.” Texclx, like the aforementioned Ufu, is a city that swallows other cities, conquering people, sacrificing them to its gods, until the Europeans arrive and obliterate it. Power is a relative thing in the relationships between peoples and civilizations. A more stringent metaphor about South America’s history is “Fraternópolis,” a satire of USA. Fraternópolis (the city of fraternity?) is an “economic power that, backed by internal development, turned the neighbouring cities into markets for its goods and, at the same time, suppliers of raw matter for its industries. They sold it, at a low price, iron ore, copper, bauxite and oil, and bought from it manufactured goods, at high prices. That way Fraternópolis grew richer while its neighbours grew poorer.” This is basically the history of USA/Latin American relationships, only leaving out the coups and dictators orchestrated and supported by the United States over the decades. It’s worth mentioning once more that Gullar himself had to run into exile from the military dictatorship that counted with the USA’s support. Fraternópolis even has a governor, whose motto is that inequality is the engine of economy, named Rigã, a name whose likeness to a former American president’s requires, I think, no explanations. Many of the cities are victims of the ‘miracle of progress’ which, like destiny, is flexible. Progress can be a blessing or bring new difficulties and challenges a society is not prepared to respond to.

Besides the dangers of progress and technology, another constant threat to cities is Nature and geography, like in the case of Aldrova, home to blacksmiths. “In the glassy and metallic soil, where bushes grew like wires, and flowers had dust for pollen, in the shadow of the dark mountain range, iron through and through, raised up to the clouds like a wall, and down there, in a vast crater, they placed the city, whipped by rays during the storms.” This city also ends up destroyed ands people are made nomads, to wander the desert. Another city ruined by Nature, that scourge, is Minofagasta, which subsists for centuries on whale fishing, until this huge mammal suddenly disappears from its waters. Later, a plague of pelicans, who cover everything in shit, becomes an opportunity to grow rich again when the citizens discover they can extract sodium nitrate from the droppings, a valuable substance they start exporting. But after science discovers a cheaper process to synthesise it, the city enters in economic collapse again.

From reading these stories ones gets the frightening impression that cities exist, are created, to dominate, that that is their only purpose and destiny. Building cities, laying down roots, conquering the fertile soil, and then the neighbours, or to destroyed by nature, external enemies, or its own hubris. Perhaps, we could say, the city exists exactly to be destroyed, that violence is inescapable. One city, Bela (a pun, bela means beautiful in Portuguese but also sounds like the Latin bellum, war), is famous for worshipping war and violence, like ancient Sparta. Ironically, Wen-Fen, besieged by Genghis Khan himself, of all conquerors, is one of the book’s few surviving cities.

Another danger to cities, after nature and technology, is the utopian ideals of its rulers. One of my favourite stories is “Adrixerlinus,” whose government tries to create a city according to the principles of “objectivity, rationality and pragmatism.” Poets, homeless and bachelors are expelled from inside its walls to go live in nearby camps. Similar to Plato’s idealized city, Adrixerlinus becomes an unbearable place to live in and the citizens risk their lives trying to flee it to the join the merrier, more interesting camps with the poets. “Perhaps the mistake,” concludes the narrator, “is in projecting cities instead of letting them be born spontaneously,” and I think we can see here a criticism to urban planners like Le Corbusier, father or modern architecture, inventor of suburbs and chiefly responsible for so many of our modern urban problems, as well as his acolytes, like Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer, who planned and built from scratch Brazil’s capital, Brasília, a city reputedly unliveable. Maybe the problem is that these urban centres, instead of growing along the lines of rituals, traditions and the normal necessities of their inhabitants, are planned by architects and urban planners who see only theory, thereby uprooting people from invisible orders that ground their existence in a place they call home.

Other stories are less critical of modern problems. I love for instance “Rti,” the tale of an underground miniature city discovered by an Englishman in India, in 1630. This explorer, one Georges Sams, finds a city whose inhabitants would be four centimeters tall, but were obliterated by some war. However subsequent expeditions fail to find traces of Rti, leading some to believe that Sams’ Rti and the underground civilization is an elaborate hoax, which, nevertheless, inspired future writers like “Swift, Jorge Gorbes, Dub Sert, Wells and Llagur, amongst others.” Gorbes is Borges, of course, and Llagur is Gullar. I’m still trying to identify Dub Sert, it has to be someone!

Another made-up book that relates the existence of a city, Vat Phan, is Storia di cittatti immaginari, written in the 3rd century but published only in 1702. Its author, the Italian Giuseppe Spudorato, may be a nod to Calvino himself. If these fictional books make the reader automatically think of Borges, I should add most stories are accompanied by end notes that refer to more fictional books, historical dates and cultural information about the cities. Even Peruvian poet César Vallejo is credited with having written Canciones y leyendas del pueblo Siian, a work of reference about Vat Phan. “Aldrova” also has another possible nod to Calvino, when a legend is related about an armour and helmet forged in Aldrova that could move by themselves, without a man inside it, much like the armour in The Non-Existing Knight. Cidades Inventadas would certainly not be out of place in the library of lovers of Borges and Calvino.

This is a small book full of big ideas, very well written, that speaks about modernity and its most pressing questions – dehumanization, globalization, war, barbarism, scientism, the cost of progress itself. Furthermore it’s a remarkable compendium of all the possible ways of destroying a city. One gets the impression the whole of human history is contained in its 130 pages. Not even the atomic bomb fails to make an appearance, as shown in “Mori,” a reflection of Hiroshima. Strangely enough this is one of the most upbeat stories, with due irony, because of the city’s magnificent rise from the ashes. After a fantastic description of the explosion, the narrator says:

But Mori didn’t die. The survivors returned, later, to the city to rebuild it and make it into a centre of peace and culture. Mori today is a tourist attraction centre, where people go to scare themselves with the products of man’s new destructive power: stones that grew wrinkles, steel sheets than turned into lace, bones melted like wax, human skin that strangely unglued itself from the body. In the city’s suburbs, tourists can also admire some specimen of fishes that turned into birds and that now live perched on trees.

I wrote above that forgetfulness was as much a danger as war and nature. This story shows why: from peace centre to tourist attraction, tragedy turned into grotesque entertainment, what do people learn and retain?


  1. I like the idea that Gullar seems to understand and to consider real historical and social trends as you mention with fashioning his cities and societies.

    1. There's a good deal of historical knowledge in the book, but refined by metaphor and satire.

  2. I'm disappointed to find that this is not available in translation, not even in French. as it sounds right up my alley. I'm going to have to learn Portuguese.

    1. It's a great book that sneaks up on you. The premise seemed only fabulous at first, but as I started reading it I realized I was holding a modern masterpiece of the short-story.

      I'm going to try his poetry next.