Saturday, 29 June 2013

People is race, is culture, is civilization, is affirmation, is nationality, it’s not the refuse of that same nationality: João Ubaldo Ribeiro's History of Brazil

As the end of the month approaches and the two-month showcase of Brazilian literature heads towards its conclusion, I leave for last a monumental novel called An Invincible Memory. João Ubaldo Ribeiro published this mammoth of a book in 1984, nothing less than 800 pages of the fictionalised history of the formation of a Brazilian consciousness and identity, as well as of a national feeling of dissatisfaction that has metamorphosed into a struggle for a better, fairer, more open Brazil.

Those who do not live only to mind their countries’ business may have heard of the recent protests in Brazil. Weeks ago, faced with an increase in public transportation fares, hundreds of thousands of Brazilians took to the streets in a series of demonstrations that spread to the country’s largest cities. The fares were just the straw that broke the camel’s back. In fact the protests served for the people to expose grave social inequalities, denounce the rampart corruption in a political class that lives with impunity, and to question the wisdom of spending money on events like the World Cup (2014) and the Olympic Games (2016), in a display of grandeur that smacks of nothing but vanity, when the population knows only deprivation. The Brazilians have shown they’re not willing to put up with crooked rulers anymore, and it’ll be interesting to know what happens next. But for those interested in understanding where this anger comes from and how it was shaped over the centuries, Ribeiro’s novel leaves very little unexplained.

In the best tradition of Terra Nostra and La Saga/Fuga de J.B., it’s a complex and ambitious narrative that spans four centuries of Brazilian history, from the 17th to the 20th century, introducing in its pages cannibals, Indians, slaves, Dutchmen and Portuguese, disembodied souls and African gods brought to Brazil by slaves. Its focal point is the year 1822, of the declaration of independence, and from there progresses to show everything that went wrong with it. It tells of the war of independence that followed, the war with Paraguay, the transition of the Brazilian Empire to Republic, the Farroupilha Revolution led by Garibaldi, the short-lived Juliana Republic, the Getúlio Vargas dictatorship and the military junta of the sixties, and, for it could not be left out, Canudos. If that’s not enough, we also have the declining role of Portugal in world affairs, the Christianization of Brazil and the rise of capitalism. Four centuries always held together by the same themes: rich and poor, freedom and oppression, progress and conservatism, utopia and disenchantment. After much leaping, the novel settles down in 1939, the year one of the characters celebrates his 100th birthday, and ends with apocalyptic revelations.

First of all, the subplot about a wandering soul. At first I thought it was the weakest part and was going nowhere. You see, the novel opens with second lieutenant Brandão Galvão being killed on a beach by Portuguese sailors of the expedition sent to quell the declaration of independence. The officer is the war’s first casualty and so becomes a national hero. As he dies the narrator describes his soul departing his body and then graces us with a cosmological explanation of souls:

Little souls are like certain particles of matter, also described by the most modern science, that have colour, taste and preferences, but have neither body nor charge. Both the little souls and the particles nevertheless exist, all depending on the unquantity of nothing that doesn’t enter into its incomposition and, with almost all certainty, other scientific conditions, such as pressure, temperature and the presence of good catalysts for reactions of nothing with nothing. Then, in the sidereal amplitudes, immensurable and copious non-masses of nothing flow, obviously without any speed that is inherent to them, to join in the proximities of some perch of souls. If the nothing searches the perch of souls or if the perch of souls searches the nothing, there’s no way of knowing. The fact is, in the neighbourhood of a perch of souls, what happens is nothing, nothing on all sides, an infinitude of nothing unimaginable in all its inextension. Nothing and more nothing and more nothing and more nothing gathers there, until the point so much nothing accumulates it transmutes into a critical nothing and that way something shows up out of that nothing. It’s nothing more, that sudden non-form of nothing, than a new little soul, inexperienced and innocent like every very young creatures, therefore subject to a great number of mishaps, for the only thing it knows is that it must go to the Perch of Souls, to perch with the others and wait for the hour when it’ll have to incarnate to learn.

We’re what, twenty pages into the novel, and Ribeiro proves he’s a force to reckon with in Portuguese-language literature. But anyway, at first I thought this, apart from a parade of verbal imagination, had nothing to do with the novel. The soul ascends to the Perch of Souls and waits for another body to incarnate in. And hundreds of pages pass, and the soul is mentioned here and there, and you keep wondering what the point is. Ribeiro is deliberately abstruse at times. But when the point is made, circa page 500, the reader has to make a bow at Ribeiro’s intricate storytelling, at that moment when every piece of the puzzle finds its careful place in the big picture. In truth the facts were given at the beginning, but the inattentive reader (me) will overlook them; so it was a good thing I kept notes. The soul’s history comes early on:

It was born a female Indian around the time the first whites arrived, having been raped and killed by eight of them before she was twelve. Without understanding anything, no sooner did she leave the girl’s body and started a new climb to the Perch of Souls than another person’s belly sucked it up like a whirlwind and that’s how the little soul was born Indian again and again and again, we can’t know how many times exactly, until the day when, after having lived as a half-breed during the time of the Dutch, hidden in the woods and shallows with three or four women and many daughters and eating the flesh of people, it spent a certain period in the Perch of Souls, fearful of again incarnating in man or woman. And surely something must be written, for that soul, trembling with fear and affliction in the dark space between worlds, made a firm attempt to avoid the Austral Hemisphere on the next fall, but, since it effectively had learned nothing, knowing how to be a parrot better than a person, it ended up flying around in a fatidic manner and, eighteen years, two months and twenty-one days before June 10 of 1822, it found itself in the entrails of the frail woman who would soon birth it, in the body of the future Second Lieutenant Brandão Galvão, hero of the Independence.

When the soul first incarnates in a human, it is as a caboclo, or half-breed, a mixture of black and Indian blood. Listening to ‘cracks, hums and whistles’ in his head, the slightly crazy half-breed Capibora develops a taste for human meat. His story starts in 1647, when he starts hunting Portuguese sailors, only to discover that the Dutch taste better. This section is well worth reading just for the hilarious way the book describes Capiroba’s exploits and view of the world. Married to several women and father of many daughters, he builds a pen in the jungle where he tries to breed Dutch to feed on. Caught by the Portuguese, he’s executed lamenting that Brazil should have been discovered by the better-tasting Dutch, and his family is sold into slavery. Capibora’s soul is important because it’s the first spirit to stand against injustice and oppression and because it contains the mixed identity of the Brazilian being. In short, it grew from the soul of animals into a ‘Brazilian soul.’ Said soul which continues to incarnate in many important characters.

On the opposite side we have Perilo Ambrósio. Born into a rich Portuguese family, although he considers himself Portuguese too he takes up the Brazilian cause when his father throws him out. Through much deceit and ruthlessness he manages to reclaim his estate, gain an aristocratic title and to be remembered as a national hero for the injuries he sustained during the war and for his contribution to its victory over the foreign forces. In fact Perilo never fought in the war. Left with two slaves, he killed one to soil himself in his blood and give the impression he was badly injured. Then he rode to the countryside where the rebel army was fighting and passed himself off as a patriot who nearly gave his life for Brazil (years later he had his other slave’s tongue severed when he started spreading the truth, which no one believed). News of his bravery and patriotism reach the King, who makes him Baron of Pirapuama, after the war made rich by his plantations, tended by slaves (for slavery did not end with independence), and whale hunting. Perilo illustrates one of the two main themes of the novel: the rich ruling classes do not identify with Brazil, hate and consider themselves superior to Brazilians and look upon Europe as the real civilization. But this theme reach its zenith with the saga of his treacherous bookkeeper, a mestizo called Amleto Henrique, even more ruthless than the Baron, and who spawns a dynasty that continues to control Brazil’s economy and progress well into the 20th century.

Amleto is the son of an Englishman and a black woman. He secretly keeps his mother employed as a maid and tells everyone that his mother is a teacher. From before the Baron’s death he was already embezzling funds into secret accounts and stealing as much as he could from the books. After the Baron dies he takes complete control of his family’s finances, practically bringing his widow and children to a state of subservience while he enriches himself. He marries a white descendant of Portuguese people and his children grow up white too. This makes his family have a particular racial contempt for black people. Not only them but everyone below his social position. As a self-made man, Amleto sees himself as a natural leader of his people and justifies his power and fortune in cynical speeches about national salvation:

And I tell you why only the great land-owner can bring progress to all these vast regions. It’s because only he can plead by the authorities, with prestige and political weight, for the necessary improvements, the lagoons to be built, the dams to be carried out and betterments of that calibre, with which the dry season will stop being an obstacle to production. And only the great land-owner can gather the necessary capital, the knowledge and the necessary inversions in order for production to be in a way as to meet the commercial demands, which are ever more complex.

In the end, though, he just hates poor people:

Our people is one of us, that is, one of us like the Europeans themselves. The working classes can not be more than that, will never be people. People is race, is culture, is civilization, is affirmation, is nationality, it’s not the refuse of that same nationality.

He has three sons: one becomes a priest; the younger one, the rebellious and feral Patrício Macário, is sent to the military academy to learn discipline and becomes a decorated officer and war hero. But it’s Bonifácio Odulfo who continues his entrepreneurism. In his early years he’s a Romantic poet and socialist idealist whose heart bleeds for his miserable country. But after Amleto dies he suffers a radical change and becomes a businessman himself. He replaces his love for French culture with his admiration for English acumen. His loyalties change with time. If at first he hated the Republic and defend the institution of the Monarchy, by the time of Canudos he’s already an ardent republican. Ideals, only to money and power. Not like his brother Patrício, a utopian.

But this dynasty’s saga is no more interesting than the lives of a handful of slaves and freed blacks that run parallel to it. After Capiroba is executed, his daughter Vu is brought to serve as a maid in a rich estate. She gives birth to the sorceress Dadinha, who is the grandmother of Vevé, mother of Maria da Fé, the famous sertão bandit. Confusing? It’s easy. Dadinha helped bring up young Perilo Ambrósio, who one day felt like raping Vevé, only because he could. This was after he had been made baron. In revenge for that and other things, the slaves poison the baron with herbs. It’s a slow death and slowly narrated. Before that, after Vevé becomes pregnant the baron sends her away with Nego Leléu, a freed slave who controls the monopoly on fishing and so enjoys a special social status, giving him the opportunity to keep good relationships with the white. Vevé gives birth to Maria da Fé, and Leléu, for the first time in his life discovering something worth living for, decides to raise her as his granddaughter, making sure she has a better life than other black people. But going back to the dead baron: the conspirators – Budião, Merinha, and Dandão (the father of that slave Perilo killed to feign his war wounds) – form a secret brotherhood called the Brazilian People, committed to fighting injustice and creating a better nation. In time Maria da Fé and Patrício Macário will join this brotherhood.

These characters, living in the margins of society, allow us to visit episodes of Brazilian history that are neglected by Amleto’s rich family. For instance Budião leaves for ten years to fight in the Farroupilha Revolution and returns with papers declaring him a freed slaved passed by the Juliana Republic, only for Brazil not to recognise it and arrest him, which causes the brotherhood, now lead by Maria da Fé, to break into the fortress and rescue him.

Dafé, with Patrício, is the heart of the book. She meets the brotherhood as a child, after Vevé is killed trying to stop four white men from raping her. The little girl is left traumatised with the memories of watching her mother being stabbed many times over. One night Nego Leléu kills the four men and confesses his crime to her, hoping revenge will give her tragedy some closure. The child surprises him when she declares that killing them isn’t enough if they don’t know why they were killed. Dafé’s creating a consciousness. Whereas Nego Leléu resigned himself to a dog-eat-dog world where only the strong prevail at the expense of the weak, Dafé starts spending time with Dandão, Budião and Merinha, learning to think of a different world. The fact that she hears ‘cracks, hums and whispers’ inside her head like Capiroba did centuries before, augurs the importance she’ll have.

By the time Patrício Macário is given the mission to capture her, he’s already a war hero. But much like it would happen in Canudos decades later, the army, cocky and abusive, with the population against it, is beaten by her men and he’s made a prisoner, only for her to spare his life and release him. Both fall in love, although years have to pass until they meet again and they realize their mutual feelings. By then, Patrício, the black sheep of Amleto Henrique’s reactionary family, becomes one of the Brotherhood’s sympathisers. During a cannabis-induced trip he also discovers that the soul of Vu has incarnated in his body, and that Capiroba’s resides inside Maria da Fé.

The existence of the Brotherhood of the Brazilian People is explained in familiar Borgesian terms:

There is the Brotherhood, who is the Brotherhood? They were, yes, but not only them. There was something in certain people, a way of walking, a way of talking, a type of voice. There were mysterious helps, some interferences, some agreements without the need of any conversation, some things which were not liked in common. Ah, he knew these things not very well explained, but he knew the freedom of one was nothing without the freedom of all and freedom was nothing without equality and equality must be inside the heart and the head, it can be neither bought nor imposed.

Dandão, the eldest, keeps a basket where he puts objects inside containing bits of information and fragments of knowledge that explain the history of the Brotherhood and its purpose. Each keeper of the basket adds more things, until the day it’ll all make sense (at the end of the novel it even shows the future). Or maybe that day won’t come. In any event the members learn things. What they learn is the discovery of a consciousness and an identity. This is the second force in the novel, opposing the barons and arrivistes who build fortunes on the wretched and oppressed: the existence of a human spirit that craves freedom and dignity. Its own members doubt it exists, but they’re its defenders because it has to exist, because life is unthinkable without it, without the things it makes possible. That’s why Maria da Fé, after being a bandit and a legendary warrior, finishes her days as a teacher in the sertão, teaching pride to her people. “To the black man she taught to be proud of being black, with all the things of blackness. To the Indian she taught the same thing. To the people, the same thing, as well as that the people is the real owner of Brazil.” Or as Lourenço, the son born of union between Patrício Macário and Maria da Fé, explains to his disenchanted father the day they meet for the first time:

“I make the revolution, my father. Since my mother, since before my mother even, we’ve been searching for a conscience of what we are. Before, we didn’t even know we were searching for something, we just rebelled. But as time passed, we accumulated wisdom through practice and reason and today we know we search that conscience and we’re finding that conscience. We don’t have weapons to defeat the oppression and we’ll never have, although we must fight every time our survival and our honour have to be defended. But our weapon will be our heads, each and everyone’s heads, which can’t be dominated and must affirm themselves. Our purpose is not quite equality, it’s more justice, freedom, pride, dignity, good neighbourliness. This is a struggle that will move through centuries, because the enemies are too strong. The whip continues, poverty increases, nothing changed. The Abolition did not abolish slavery, it created new slaves. The Republic did not abolish oppression, it created new oppressors. The people does not know itself, it has no conscience and everything it does is not seen and it’s only taught to despise itself, its speech, its look, what it eats, what it wears, what it is. But we’re making this revolution of small and big battles, some bloody, others dead, others secret, and this is what I do, my father.”

And it’s a revolution that never stops being done since the novel keeps in mystery the fate of the Brotherhood. The narrative of the Brotherhood is storytelling at its most powerful. For a novelist I didn’t care much for before this novel, I’m suddenly at a loss to compare the effect of João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s novel on me. What can I compare it to? To the finale of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, to José Saramago’s Raised from the Ground and passages of Seeing? The depth of feeling mixed with the linguistic showmanship at display in this book, the fine balance between melancholy and hope, are of a calibre I seldom find in literature. There’s nothing else I can add, I’ll just end this with a final passage, a conversation between Patrício Macário and Bonifácio Odulfo:

   “My dear brother, you’re a utopian, that’s what you are. What did you want, that the Republic subverted the natural order of things? The men who are exerting influence do so because they’re qualified for that. Did you want that, with the Republic, the rabble started ruling? What did you want, that the elections didn’t reflect the social and political forces truly significant for the country and for each region? They’re rigged because the electorate in itself has not enough discernment to understand often subtle social necessities and, therefore, it’s necessary that the ruling elite take unto itself the responsibility of organizing power. You don’t know a strong nation without a strong government, a strong nation where the little people, the unqualified, have an active voice.”
   “What bloody little people do you mean? For you, everyone is little people, with the exception of four or five stray cats that you think are on your level. What little people? Everyone? Because it’s everyone, really every Brazilian, that you mean with all that contempt. I don’t mean to that your precious privileges must be taken away, keep them, but understand that you don’t have to enslave the people, to keep him in misery, in ignorance, in sickness. Don’t you see you can’t have a decent country, a strong country, as you say, whose people is one of slaves, miserable, sickly, and starving?”
   “Misery exists everywhere!”
   “That, first of all, is not a justification. Secondly, it’s not true, at least not as much as it is here. We were one of the last countries to abolish slavery and we only abolished it on paper, as you’re tired of knowing. You can’t think of this country as your own property! And, even if you think of it that way deep down, why do you take care of it the way no estate owner takes care of his estate? Why do you give it nothing, why do you only want to receive? Why do you hate it this way, why are you’re ashamed of it and of everything related to it, why do you think yourselves Europeans in exile, and can’t stand the language you speak? Looters, pirates, marauders, you see this land as something that has nothing to do with you, you want to give it nothing, you just want to take!”
   “That’s not true!”
   “It’s true, yes! It’s not the rustics of Canudos who must be considered, as they are, the foreigners. It’s you, you’re the ones who are foreigners, the ones who were never really resigned to being born and living here, that’s you! You pervert anything! The Republic, an ideal of progress, prosperity and justice, it immediately became the vehicle for you to gain more money, more power, to grow richer in every possible and imaginable way, thieves of your own country, traitors of your own people (…)”


  1. Based on your commentary Miguel, this book sounds irresistible. Your comment about the balance between melancholy and hope is one of the things that is drawing me to this book. When I look at the world around me I often feel a tug of war between those forces and thus I often look for it in literature.

    1. It's a great novel, Brian, funny, mysterious, violent, sad, told with an intelligence and sensibility that I seldom see in novels nowadays.