Monday, 27 May 2013

On Two Novels by João Ubaldo Ribeiro

I feel nothing but embarrassment about my ignorance of Brazilian literature. Save for a novelist here and a poet there, I have a lot to discover about the literature of Brazil. My knowledge of its men (no women yet) of letters comes down to a short list of names: Euclides da Cunha, Jorge Amado, Machado de Assis, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, João Guimarães Rosa, Ferreira Gullar, Carlos Drummond, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Rubem Fonseca, Dalton Trevisan. Nothing penned by Mário de Andrade, Clarice Lispector, Manuel Bandeira, Vinícius de Moraes, Rachel de Queiroz, Manoel de Barros, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Autran Dourado, has yet passed under my eyes with the attention they deserve from a reader.

Of those I’ve read there’s one I’m on the fence about: João Ubaldo Ribeiro. A few years ago I read a novel by him called Sergeant Getulio (1971). I think it’s a worthwhile novel about the journey undertaken by a military police officer, Getúlio Santos Bezerra, escorting a prisoner to a town called Aracaju. The prisoner is a udenista, or member of the conservative party UDN, charged with terrorism. Getúlio follows his orders with precision and uses extraordinary violence during the mission to subdue his prisoner and fight off his comrades. Getúlio is a man of poor origins who rose to power thanks to services rendered to a local leader, Acrísio Nunes, to whom Getúlio is fanatically loyal. This loyalty, however, destroys him when the political situation in Brazil changes and the arrest of this udenista becomes troublesome. Getúlio is ordered by one of Nunes’ henchmen to release the prisoner, but Getúlio is so literal-minded that he refuses to take the order unless it’s given in person by Acrísio Nunes. He doggedly continues his original mission, eventually losing his life in an ambush set up by Nunes’ armed men.

Those who find Cormac McCarthy’s lyrical descriptions of violence sublime will find in the fierce and macho Getúlio’s natural propensity for massacre and mutilation the kindred soul of Anton Chigurh. Getúlio gets pleasure from torturing his prisoner, who doesn’t have a name save animal, thing or it throughout the novel. However he never loses sight of the mission, which is to deliver the prisoner ‘half alive,’ so Getúlio only removes half his teeth with the help of pliers and the complicity of a priest; this happens when he’s spending the night in a church. And like I wrote, he’s serious about the orders. When a police lieutenant requests that Getúlio release the prisoner, he replies by cutting the poor lieutenant’s head off. He also reminds me of the nameless and dispassionate narrator of Imre Kertesz’ Detective Story, another torturer for whom violence is routine.

The novel explores the psychology of a conservative to a considerable degree. Getúlio is vividly painted as a loyal fanatic who refuses to accept a changing world, and his strongest values are connected to his rise from poverty to a position of authority: for that reason alone he admires power and authority, looks down on weaker people and has a dogmatic view of law and order. Machismo is the centre of his life: he considers himself the toughest, hardest, strongest of men; he goes so far as to claim it’s better to die young as a brave man than to live a long life with his head down. Although this sounds romantic, as Ribeiro slowly pushes us into the maelstrom of Getúlio’s ugly thoughts, we realize he doesn’t have anything else in his sordid life to cling to but this sense of superiority and cult of machismo. He has no wife or family, no friends, except the cart driver, Amaro, who rides next to him. And even so it’s a friendship of circumstances. He spends a lot of time daydreaming about having children, of creating a dynasty that will take over the world, of how strong his children will be that they can stop bullets with their teeth or throw horses with their own hands. He’s as stoic and principled as he’s pathetic and repugnant.

The novel is as remarkable for Getúlio as it for the dense, difficulty style it employs, since the reader is basically following the protagonist’s stream of consciousness monologue which incorporates his thoughts with dialogues, memories, oral storytelling, abrupt changes in time, and regional vocabulary that make the reading harder even for a native Portuguese speaker. The difficulty of the style is ameliorated, however, by the amusing and unpredictable way Getúlio expresses himself and his bigger-than-life personality.

Although I don’t claim to have fully understood the novel I loved it. So I was a bit disappointed with the second novel I read. O Feitição da Ilha do Pavão (The Spell of Peacock Island, 1997) is a very different novel. The opening paragraph reveals a different tone sets up the novel’s fantastic reality:

At night, if the wintry winds are siccing the waves, the stars have gone out, the Moon stops existing and the horizon hides forever in darkness’ belly, the cliffs of Peacock Island sometimes are glanced from the prow of the ships like a formidable apparition, and no sailor is known who hasn’t fled from it, starting to harbour the most cowardly of memories. Once glimpsed at, these precipices open up whirlpools through its crevices, to which nothing can resist. But, first, from up there, a colossal peacock lights up its tail with unspeakable colours and it’s believed it’s imperious to leave that place while it’s burning, for, after it has gone out and transformed itself into a dark point so thick that not even anything around can be seen, there is no way how.

There’s no doubt the reader will get a fable, a bizarre and magical story with a slightly slanted logic, and a world populated with a cast of unusual characters: the dissolute ne’er-do-well Iô Pepeu, the cunning and insolent Indian Balduíno, the free-spirited witch’s apprentice Crescência, the German scholar and castaway Hans, and Capitão Cavalo, the legendary father of Iô Pepeu and abolitionist. This strange cast enacts a farcical drama on Peacock Island, a nigh impenetrable island off the coast of Bahia. On this magical island there’s an opportunity to create a different Brazilian society, and the drama’s actors work together to make it happen. In fact long before the novel starts steps had been taken to separate its fate from the continent’s.

The black population lives in freedom from slavery ever since Iô Pepeu’s father released his own slaves and the other noblemen reluctantly imitated him. Now they’re free “as if by chance they were Congo negros and as if they were people and had rights,” the aristocracy complains. Not everyone likes the freedom and progressive society of Peacock island. One of its enemies is Afonso Jorge II, son of Afonso Jorge I, a former slaver who crowned himself king of the island’s backlands and continued to govern a society according to the Portuguese crown, where blacks are slaves and whites rule. Due to a complicated series of events, Iô Pepeu and Balduíno have to save Crescência and Hans from his camp. Outnumbered, the cunning Indian uses Afonso Jorge II’s own superstitions against him in what is one of the best and funniest sequences of the novel.

Balduíno is one of the most noticeable characters of the book. Before disbanding the forces of Afonso Jorge II, he has already made great progress against white men’s laws stopping the Indians from living in the city and enjoying the comforts of modernity. In a famous civil war that never came to fruition, he defeats the forces of reaction with laxative.

Iô Pepeu, his great friend, is the son of the famous Capitão Cavalo, a visionary reformer who protected runaway slaves, “in the end making slavery collapse gradually and establishing a nation like no other has ever been seen, where everything is different from outside and contrary to good governance, where the products of the land are usually divided with those who worked it, where blacks and creoles are civil servants and tradesmen and marry white women,” explains a rich man in listing the many things he frowns upon. Capitão Cavalo also declines an offer to become the island’s governor to fight for the restoration of the old order after the noblemen swear revenge on Balduíno. His son is an aimless dilettante who is trying to conquer Crescência, a prostitute who leaves the whorehouse to become a witch in the backlands. Iô Pepeu is an innocent, foolish but well-meaning young man. Capitão Cavalo is happy his dissipate and whoremongering son didn’t know the sad old world, and this is where I have problems with the novel. The idea that this new world is morally superior to the old one, where everything was oppressive and dark in one everything is radiant and tolerant in the other, is quite simplistic. Terra Nostra this novel isn’t, for Fuentes had no romantic illusions about human nature and he laid bare the tapestry of violence and horror that unites all eras, all peoples because they’re our biological and historical heritage.

It all just seems too easy in the novel. The novel depicts the creation of a better society, mixing the culture of Brazil and Portugal with the one of the Indians, a society where Brazilians and Europeans, freed slaves and natives create a perfect place without slavery, tyranny or prejudice, free and full of plenty and safe from the world outside. And it’s not very convincing, particularly because Ribeiro has to come up with some magical stuff to make it work. In the final chapters, when the Island is on the verge of an invasion of the Inquisition, our heroes find at last the legend of the giant peacock that haunts sailors. And also a time vortex that allows them to manipulate time. With this magical device they try to hide Peacock Island from the world.

Perhaps the Great Spell was finding a way of making sure that, on Peacock island, those horrible stories would never happen again, was letting the inhabitants of the island live in freedom and holy peace, without anyone tyrannizing anyone. It was then necessary to remove the Peacock island from the world without taking it from Peacock sea, waters where there’s no shortage of fish (…)

And I think it’s a cop out. There’s a lot of naivety in thinking that isolating the island from the world would allows it to experience a pure rebirth. The problem of every attempts at building utopias is exactly the fact that people don’t behave the way the theoreticians expect them to. Carlos Fuentes understood this very well in Terra Nostra. To a different extent, so did Mario Vargas Llosa in The War of the End of the World. There’s a clear will to make Peacock Island a reflection of Canudos, but Vargas Llosa showed how its utopianism was always shaky and based on a rigid personality cult and totalitarianism. He makes the case that utopias are unattainable simply because utopias can never get rid of people. Ribeiro instead conjures a mystical peacock and magic to do away with these complex problems. All conflicts are easily dealt with, with laxative and theatricalities, as if they were no deeper than the epidermis rather than being deep-rooted ideas and concepts that would take a long time to erase, if ever. This novel is in fact a refutation of Sergeant Getúlio.

That’s not to say it’s a bad novel. João Ubaldo Ribeiro is a master with words and characterisation, and very funny, and he deserves to be read. In fact I’m going to continue to do it. His masterpiece is considered to be An Invincible Memory, an 800-page novel about the history of Brazil. We’ll see how that goes.


  1. Ribeiro sounds like some writer.

    Indeed your description of Sergeant Getulio reminds me of Cormac McCarthy. Unusual but insightful use of the word sublime on your part Miguel. I think that I agree with you, as I would describe the prose used by McCarthy as sublime horror.

    I am also extremely skeptical about utopias. Om the other hand I find that fictional depictions of them often say a a lot that is useful the real world.

    1. I still haven't found the best introduction to Cormac McCarthy. Some say Blood Meridian is his best novel, but after two disappointing novels I'm wary of giving him another chance. Really, I think No Country for Old Men was a better movie than novel.

    2. No country for old men is one of my favorite novels, the definition of page turner, for me. It makes me sad to know you found it disappointing. The movie of No country for old men ruined the book for me because in my head Chirgurh will always have Bardem's face. That's why I haven't yet watched Red Shorgum - and it seems I'll be waiting for a long time. Despite being a different novel from Blood Meridian my guess is probably you won't like it. When I first bought Blood Meridian I thought, damn that was expensive! But when I got through it I felt rewarded.

    3. I still want to read Blood Meridian, many fans of McCarthy, unlike you, have told me No Country is one of his worst novels ;) One last chance for Cormac...