Thursday, 30 May 2013

The Ineffable Claptrap of Clarice Lispector

Book covers with the author's face: a sign the book has no story


When you decide to write about Brazilian literature for a whole month, you have to buy Brazilian books. I had doubts regarding my first incursion into the literary universe of Clarice Lispector (1920-1977), however  I knew that I needed to read one of her books. But since from what I had heard and skimmed of her she didn’t seem like my type, I treaded carefully and bought the smallest book of hers I could find, a novella called Stream of Life. Even at just 77 pages I found the book too long and I think one of her newspaper articles would have sufficed to say I’ve read her. If I have to despise a writer, I may as well despise her at the end of three or four pages instead of 77.

The book contains a nameless woman’s monologue – an unimportant detail, all the novels I’ve picked up and perused contained women’s monologues – about nothing. Miss Nameless attempts to fool the reader with lofty dissertations about language, identity, God, the senses, all in order to hide the big nothing at the centre of the book. She divides her activities between painting and writing, which makes her babbling about nothing twice as pretentious. Can we attribute a cause to the nameless narrator’s namelessness? I think, I said I think, it has something to do with what she bizarrely calls the ‘mystery of the impersonal which is the “it”,’ an English pronoun that does not exist in the Portuguese language but has tremendous importance to Miss Nameless. Why? I don’t know. To any English native speaker the word it has no special properties. As someone who has used the English language since the age of 9, I merely find it a useful word that lets me discuss inanimate objects, abstract ideas, activities, or people of undefined sex with a community of people who communicate in that language. For Miss Nameless, however, it contains arcane powers that conjure lots of grand ideas about identity, the self, etcetera. In other words, Miss Nameless had a stoner epiphany about this English word, the same way some people oh and ah about god and dog having the same letters, only spelled backwards. Ferdinand de Saussure would point out that, linguistically speaking, there exists nothing extraordinary about this random coincidence. I would add that it, by itself, should not make someone go gaga. Unfortunately this book contains nothing but stoner epiphanies and silly navel-gazing contemplations from a disordered mind.

Besides it other words in the text suffer abusive treatment by quotation marks; the pronoun I and the third person singular of the present tense, in the indicative mood, of the verb to be, vulgarly known as is, have entered the dark gates of Ward “” never to come out again. Is and I (as in me) come a long way, ever since I read Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology and discovered Alfred Korzybski’s General Semantics, and its off-shot, E-Prime, a prescriptive form of English that states that by eliminating the verb to be from language you can eliminate conflicts and logical fallacies. I found these ideas quite seductive during my studies of English Linguistics at the university, but only because understanding E-Prime posed less a difficulty than mastering the workings of Noam Chomsky’s X-bar theory, and because it gave me a focal point on which I could concentrate my rebellion against the teachers who tortured me with endless parsing trees of noun phrases, verb phrases and other horrors. But then I discovered that languages like Russian and Arabic do not have the verb to be, and although so far I’ve written this post in E-Prime, now comes the time to say its inventor, David Bourland, was full of crap. But linguists and pseudo-linguists who know nothing about languages making radical statements about language is nothing extraordinary. Benjamin Whorf, the 20th century’s greatest chemical engineer, great not because of anything he contributed to chemistry or engineering, was also a weekend linguist famous for having formulated the principle of linguistic relativity after studying the Hopi language. Whorf did not speak Hopi, and people who did have debunked his theories, but the principle remains strong in popular culture. Whorf also helped disseminate the myth that Eskimos have thousands of words for snow. Whorf did not speak Eskimo-Aleut languages either, and I recommend Geoffrey Pullum’s The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language for a good put down of that one.

Anyway, I digress – but not as much as Miss Nameless does. Anyway, this is just to say I just can’t stand writers who fetishize words as if they had magical powers. They’re just fucking words. If you’re a talented writer and know how to put words together, they can have an incantatory power over the readers, usually making them go, “Wow, that’s really fucking good writing!” But they’re not magical formulas, they’re not spells.

But where were we? Ah yes, so Miss Nameless spends the whole book talking about the self, identity, the mind, and lots of nouns in majuscules - because we all know that the things words mean become as real as Pinocchio if you write them with a capital letter. Anyway, the whole book is about identity, also known as the most overrated theme in literature ever since cultural studies took over academe. How does literature go from The Odyssey to War and Peace to Stream of Life? When did things go so awfully wrong?

My contention is that Stream of Life is mystical twaddle, besides just not being very well written. It’s not literature, it’s just more of the mumbo-jumbo Paulo Coelho, Carlos Castaneda, L. Ron Hubbard, Allan Kordec, Depak Chopra and Kahlil Gibran spent their whole lives foisting on needy fools, spouting lots of pompous, ponderous words about the unspeakable, the ineffable, and always promising some grand revelation on the threshold of human senses, of flawed human perception, that will change their lives. But it’s not philosophy, it’s not wisdom, it’s just unintelligible snake oil they’re selling. I have very strong opinions about the ineffable. As my good college buddy Ludwig used to say during Philosophy classes, if you can’t speak about something, shut the hell up!


But perhaps I’m letting my anger cloud my judgment. The narrator is clearly insane and I haven’t done anything positive about that. Now I’m genuinely sorry Miss Nameless is suffering from some psychotic breakdown that makes her struggle with her identity, that this episode has damaged her perception of reality, time and space, and that she thinks she’s connected to everything in some great cosmic web, a conception which is but a symptom of her masochistic need for self-flagellating dehumanization. I’m sorry for her, I’m sorry and I want to help her. It's true, I do. And I think the first step in making her sane again is giving her an identity. Normal people have names, and she needs to be made to feel that she’s normal. So I’m giving her a name. It doesn’t have to be her real name, but it’s a step in the right direction. Let’s call her Clarice for now.

One of the problems with Clarice is that after her identity meltdown she began thinking she was a writer. This has become the nucleus of her new non-identity. Still I think it’s encouraging that, in lucid moments, she lets the truth slip out, as if something in the recesses of her broken mind is fighting back the insanity. “I write to you in disorder, I know,” she confesses, aware of her mediocre talents for literature. “But writing for me is frustrating,” she says in another rare moment of frank self-analysis. The first step in becoming sane is accepting you have a problem. “This isn’t a story because I don’t know a story like this,” she says, simultaneously admitting her ignorance of literature and recognizing she has no storytelling abilities. This is the kind of positive attitude we want to focus on. Accept your illness, Clarice, that’s the only way you can have a breakthrough.

Really, at times the text she’s writing seems like a map out of her madness. Of course we all know the map is not the territory (thank you, Count Korzybski), and the text can only give us clues on how to proceed. Another significant moment in her autopsychography is when she’s confronted with her inability to pursue a true vocation as a writer. “There are many things to be said that I don’t know how. The words are missing. But I refuse to invent new ones: the existing ones must already say what can be said and what is forbidden.” I patiently tried to explain to her, real writers coin neologisms frequently. I’m not completely sure I managed to make her understand. She doesn’t completely trust words, she fears them on some pre-rational, primitive level. Sometimes it’s fascinating to see innocent Clarice, previously ignorant of words, express wide-eyed wonder at them. “It’s so curious, to have replaced inks by this strange thing, the word. Words – I move carefully between them which can become menacing.” I want to tell her she’s not a painter, but decide to withhold that; no point fighting in two fronts at the same time. First cure her of one delusion, then another.  Occasionally she subconsciously fights her illness. I find it positive when she associates words with danger, since her fantasy that she’s a writer is but a pernicious effect of her condition. At some ineffable level she’s aware that she’s not well, that she’s not a writer, that she’s living a lie. But how to explain this to her? How to transform these random moments of lucidity into the instrument of her recovery? Modern medicine limps on without answers.

Unfortunately relapses are frequent with the patient. “I know what I’m doing here: I’m improvising. But what’s wrong with that? I improvise like in jazz they improvise music, jazz in fury, I improvise in front of the audience.” And we have to start therapy all over again. Clarice’s brain, you see, is vulnerable and incapable of parsing information; she absorbs random titbits into some invisible order only she understands, the key to it hidden somewhere in her mind. I say to her, it’s important that you don’t confuse things. Don’t disperse. You’re not composing music, you’re writing a book, well you think you are, in the fantasy world you've created for yourself. Inside the whirlwind that is your currently deranged mind, it may be that you came upon a quote you heard one day, who knows how and where, that all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music and now that’s seeping into your condition. Actually novels aspire to be novels, with memorable characters, interesting plots, action, dialogue, humour, drama, tragedy, etc. When I try to prove this by telling her to go read a real book and not the incomprehensible poppycock she scribbles in her cell, she succumbs to attacks of sulkiness and refuses to talk for days.

I’m afraid that if we don’t halt the deterioration of her condition the patient’s identity collapse will progress to more dangerous levels, to misanthropy even. “What colour is the space infinite? the colour of the air.” Although this is gibberish, it shows that Clarice is retreating further and further into an inhuman identity. Clarice is beginning to renege her five senses and claim special powers of perception. Her hatred of her own human body leads me to fear for her well-being, and measures have been taken to make sure she doesn’t mutilate herself while she’s alone in her cell. After the mediocre writer, the abysm of formlessness. Concomitant with the devolution of her human consciousness is the distressing tone she employs in her writing. As her faculties grow dimmer, her language becomes more and more impenetrable, to the point she’s just blabbering mystical humdrum. Her limited vocabulary hinges on a nexus of ponderous words like uterus, roots, mystery, infinite, umbilical, fluids, etc. At one point she even developed a new identity, that of a ‘cat-mother-creator,’ reminiscent of how some artists create personas, like the great painter Max Ernst and his Loplop. Although I was always taught to consider the connection mere romantic excess, can it be possible that a link between madness and genius exists, that the patient Clarice and a genius like Ernst somehow tap into some mysterious pool that exists in the depths of our subconscious? The difference is that the artist taps into this chthonic energy and creates something immortal, art; one could even argue the artist’s sanity depends on this form of conventional insanity. Clarice’s own madness possesses no therapeutic value to her. On the contrary, her head is filled with phantasms that threaten to cause damage to her. Consider, for instance, when she believes to be a messiah. “You’ll ask me why I take care of the world. It’s that I was born ordained.” Clarice thinks higher powers have given her a mission. Her megalomania makes her see herself as a protector and saviour. “But when winter arrives I give and give and give. I shelter a lot. I hold broods of people against my warm breast.” When she’s living out this persona, this super-mom goddess, talking to her is nearly impossible. With time, any communication with her may be impossible. The moment her fantasy reality erases the last vestiges of her sane self, we can no longer bring her back to her pre-Authorial Persona identity. And when that happens there will be no stopping more Streams of Life from coming into existence, forever expanding like the bastard child of an Adolf Wölfli epic, until like the Tlön Encyclopaedia it colonizes all literature, at which point I’ll have nothing good to read.

This post was written for the 2013 Women Challenge.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Nelsinho: a nasty piece of work

My recent travels through Brazilian literature haven’t been without its duds, though. Rubem Fonseca I liked so much I already have three more books lined up to read next; ah, time, where are you? But then my first experience with Dalton Trevisan wasn’t very positive.

Dalton Trevisan (b. 1924) is a reclusive writer who doesn’t like to give interviews, so we shall respect his wishes and skip the biographical lines. After reneging two earlier books, he published the first book he recognises as his own in 1959: Novelas nada Exemplares. This is our starting point. He has written dozens of short-story collections, with only one novel published in 1985: A Polaquinha. He’s considered Brazil’s greatest living short-story writer. I disagree and think that title is better suited to Fonseca, on the merit of what I’ve read so far. Of Trevisan I’ve read The Vampire of Curitiba (1965) and I thought it was weak.

This collection’s short-stories are all linked by the same protagonist, a man called Nelsinho. Nelsinho is crazy about sex. Nelsinho wants to have sex with all women. Nelsinho does have sex with lots of women. The book is only about Nelsinho wanting to have sex with women, and doing it most of the time. It gets tiresome pretty quickly.

Nelsinho is sometimes a teenager, sometimes an adult. Sometimes he has a girlfriend, sometimes he’s on the prowl (not that having a girlfriend would preclude it, not for Nelsinho). Sometimes it’s just Nelsinho, sometimes Doctor Nelsinho, defence lawyer. There is no sometimes about his personality, though. Nelsinho is always a nasty piece of work. I have to give Trevisan credit for how odious his protagonist is, and it’s really one of the book’s redeeming qualities. Nelsinho’s shy with women, but also menacing and not adverse to using force to have his way. What, rape? The devilish rascal takes part in at least two in the book: one by himself, after he tries to flirt with a shop-girl and assaults her inside the store, but it’s left ambiguous whether she liked it or not. So it’s not “rape-rape,” to quote the great Whoopi Goldberg. The other, we’re told, is when he’s thirteen, and he casually comes across  the gang rape of a black girl and asks to join in. In this story it’s made pretty clear she did not like it, so it’s the real thing.

As a defence lawyer he also doesn’t have a problem taking advantage of his female clients. And he’ll gladly go to bed with a girlfriend’s grandmother just to spite her. When it comes to women, old or young, he’s gonna catch ‘em all. Like in Pokemon. Or when he’s spurned, he’ll ruin a woman by telling her husband she’s cuckolding him. Oh yes, Nelsinho is a nasty little piece of work. If you love reading about selfish, spiteful, mean-spirited, insensitive, dissolute lotharios, and I absolutely do, The Vampire of Curitiba is your book.

But damn it, Dalton Trevisan is one lean writer! His range is limited. His situations are repetitive. The characterisation is pretty one-dimensional. And his style is so pared down it looks more like a screenplay than prose. Regarding the range, if you love erotico-comical stories, and I confess many were quite arousing, it’ll be an easy read. Well, it was an easy read, being just over 100 pages, but the lack of variety was disconcerting. Then there’s the repetition. To Nelsinho black is the most erotic colour in the world: black lace, black garters, black underwear, black stockings. But there comes a time when you can no longer hear him dissertate how great black looks on a semi-naked woman. As there will come a time when you start getting fed up of Trevisan describing breasts, thighs, legs, skin pigmentation. The sex starts provoking a sense of ennui. The female characters were overall weak – either virgins or whores. Besides Nelsinho there’s not a memorable character in the book.

But it’s mainly his prose that bothers me, all dialogue and sparse descriptions. And this is one of his earliest collections. There comes a moment when you have to ask if his writing is literature even more. He cuts out so much, scrapes away to the essential, I think we’re left with vestiges rather than a whole thing. I don’t think I’m a fan of baroque, even if José Saramago is one of my favourite writers, but Trevisan is beyond leanness. I ask myself, why not just write for theatre or cinema? If a prose writer is so uninterested in description, if he only wants to write dialogues with a line here and there of prose connecting them, why write prose at all? I’ve read that later in his career his style has evolved to an even more extreme position, with his invention of micro-stories. I don’t even want to imagine. It’s a funny, sexy book, but I don’t think it’s great literature. Perhaps reading more will change my impressions. But right now I don’t feel like giving him another chance so soon. With Rubem Fonseca I can’t wait until I read him again.

Dalton Trevisan received the Camões Prize in 2012. The jury that unanimously chose him compared him to Machado Assis, Edgar Allen Poe and Jorge Luis Borges. The comparisons are risible, except regarding Machado Assis, a writer I find equally weak. Trevisan is apparently more realistic about his shortcomings as a writer. On the note he gave his editor to read during the ceremony, he wrote “I never imagined I was worthy of such distinction.” Indeed he’s not worthy of being in a group that includes José Saramago, Miguel Torga, Vergílio Ferreira, Ferreira Gullar, Sophia de Mello Breyner and Jorge Amado. But he continues. “My awareness of my limitations as a writer forbade me higher dreams.” Seldom is a writer so honest about his talents, oh why did the critics have to disagree?

Borges? As a widely praised short-story whose talent is obvious to everyone save me, it’s not Borges I’m thinking of in the hour of comparisons, but the equally overrated Raymond Carver. Still, thinking about it, I don’t believe Dalton Trevisan deserves my unmitigated ire. He at least entertained me, and even if he’s not a great writer, that is good enough. No, I shall reserve my full wrath for Clarice Lispector, tomorrow.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Discovering Rubem Fonseca

Rubem Fonseca (b. 1925) is a Brazilian writer I recently discovered. Like Ferreira Gullar, he started getting more exposure in Portugal after receiving the Camões Prize in 2003. Fonseca has written novels, short-stories (considered his best work), and also film screenplays (like Exposure, directed by Walter Salles). Although he’s had a long career, he didn’t publish his first book until he was almost forty.

His father was a Portuguese immigrant who started a new life in Brazil. At the age of seven he moved to Rio de Janeiro. Fonseca graduated from Law school and then went to work as a lawyer. In 1952 he joined the police, rising to the rank of police commissioner and also working as inspector and in the public relations department. While studying to join the force he specialised in psychology, and his short-stories attest to his ability to get inside the heads of his characters. During 1953 and 1954 he received licence to travel to New York to continue his studies, and in 1958 he left the police force to work in the private sector. His first book came out in 1963, Os Prisioneiros, a short-story collection. Many more followed, the short-story becoming the genre he’s better admired for, and it wasn’t until 1973 that his first novel, O Caso Morel, came out.

A reclusive writer who nonetheless causes furore in his public appearances, admired by heavyweights like Thomas Pynchon and Mario Vargas Llosa, Fonseca’s novels fall in the category of detective novels; and crimes, murders and violence constantly reappear in his writing. Perhaps in some weeks I’ll write about one of his novels. For now I’m writing about the short-story collection A Confraria dos Espadas.

Rubem Fonseca wins me over with less than 130 pages and just eight stories full of murders, secrets, misdirection, hypocrisy and irony, in a dazzling rotation of forms and topics. Regular prose gives way to one-act plays, and the final story is effectively a poem. Whatever the form used, the talent for psychology, invention, wild imagination, manipulating the viewer, changing the rhythms in a heartbeat are always a part of his narratives.

Fonseca uses misdirection a lot in his stories. He makes the reader think things are one way, and then he shows they’re something else entirely. Here’s a writer who never forgot the old rule of always keeping the reader engrossed. In the first story, “Free Will,” a man corresponding with a woman describes objectively how he helped three women to die. The first lines make the reader think they’re dealing with a serial killer, maybe, but he’s quick to clarify the matter. In his view he was helping the women, who came to him to experience the ultimate act of free will: to choose their own death. “Free will in the act of closing one’s life is only authentic if the person is tranquil, healthy, lucid and likes to live.” Both he and the women are fascinated by the transgression of values. He relates with a precision and directedness that could be mistaken for coldness and is upset at being considered a killer. “Salete’s autopsy, on establishing a nexus between the three deaths, strengthened, evidently, the murderer thesis, a hasty and ridiculous conclusion, for there is no murder without victim. And there were no victims.” It’s certainly a way of looking at it.

Paiva, the character from “The Angel of the Marquee,” is a retired widower trying to find a purpose in his life, fill the void in the middle of it left by his dead wife. Lonely, he wonders at night thinking of ways to occupy his life with. His thoughts eventually lead him to the poor and the homeless, whom he starts noticing. “For many years a driver drove him when he went from home to work and certainly that picture already existed before, only he hadn’t noticed it before. He now knew, thanks to the suffering caused by his wife’s death, that his selfishness had stopped him from seeing the misery of others. It was as if fate, which had always protected him, now showed him a new path.” Wanting to help, one night he comes upon a group people, by an ambulance, seemingly giving assistance to a homeless man. Impressed by their example he tries to contact them even after they ignore him. Eventually he manages to get the Angels of the Marquee, as he calls them, to accept him, but he finds out too late the deadly purpose of their nightly occupation. Again it’s all in the misdirection.

In “The Party” we meet an upper class married woman, Maria Clara, going to great lengths to make sure her perfectly planned party isn’t spoiled. She faces a daunting challenge when her husband suddenly passes away seated in a chair, in the living room, most of the guests unawares. Convening with a few guests in a private room, she discusses what they can do in order not to end the party. The humour of the story is that she’s more worried about the party than her husband being dead.

   Would sneaking him out through the back door be an unworthy thing?, asked Farah.
   It wouldn’t be elegant, certainly, said Maria Clara. For him to go out the front door we’d have to end the party, said Farah.
   Then why don’t we leave him at the party? He always stayed at parties until the end, isn’t it true, Seixas? asked Maria Clara.

Her argument prevails and the guests use the party to say farewell to the dead man. From a human angle, this is certainly the best story, with its subtle ironic attack on the protagonist’s obsession with appearances the way she rationalizes her lack of emotions. A variation on the theme of appearances is “The Insurance Seller,” about a man who kills people for money under the façade of selling insurance, a hitman less concerned with killing than his uninteresting sex life.

In “DT” the arrival of Suzana, an animal rights activist, at a farm makes everyone worried and precautions are taken to make sure she sees none of the usual animal abuses. But above all they want to make sure she finds nothing about what the narrator describes only as the DT. He and Suzana fall in love, and this intimacy makes her reveal her true intentions to him. “Human rights are my field of action. I lied to you. I came here because I got information that in this region there’s the practice of an odious, sadistic form of abuse against helpless people. But I feel in my heart that if that crime is committed in this region, you don’t directly take part in it.” When I discovered what DT stood for, I didn’t know if I should laugh or take it seriously, but when I looked it up on the internet and discovered Dwarf Tossing really is an illegal sport, I was befuddled to say the least.

“Like Goddard” is arguably the strangest short-story in the collection, told in play form, and is about two politically opposed activists, a right-wing reactionary woman, and a mopey left-wing guy, meeting to have what I can only describe as politico-erotico-cultural-intellectual games. The homage to or parody of Goddard would make more sense to me if I had actually seen his movies, perhaps. It was my least favourite of the stories.

“The Fellowship of the Swords,” which gives the book its title, is another good story. It starts with a narrator describing how a secret society invented its name. We think something sinister, especially when they invoke the Masons and the Rosicrucians. And the word Sword in their name seems menacing. But again the story turns the tables and the group is in fact a society of fuckers, sword being nothing but a metaphor for their interests. They’re effectively a society devoted to fucking. “The richer Brothers were its main supporters: the aristocrats are drawn to the underworld things, they’re fascinated by delinquents, and the term Sword as synonym of Fucker came from the criminal world, sword tears and attacks, so is the penis just as bandits and fools in general, see it.” But the short-lived society disbands after the disastrous consequences of using a method or tantric sex that allows men to have multiple orgasms without actually ejaculating. All seems well until their wives start wondering why they no longer reach climax, leading them to accuse the men of cheating on them and no longer having any interest in them. And this leads to a very strange predicament. “We continue to have a woman waiting for us, but that woman has to be replaced constantly, before she discovers we’re different, strange, capable of climaxing with infinite energy without spilling of semen. We can’t fall in love, for our relationships are fleeting.” Yes, that’s a predicament alright.

The final story, “A Day in the Life of Two Participants” is a poem and short enough for me to transcribe it in full:

We arrive at the cinema’s door and she asked
If I really wanted to stay inside the cinema
Three hours and forty minutes watching a movie
about mobsters.
She’d had one or two boyfriends who only fucked
When they had nothing else to do
Why fuck this evening when they could fuck at night
Why fuck at night when they could fuck
tomorrow morning
And why fuck the next day if they could fuck
on Saturday,
And why fuck Saturday if they could fuck
next week,
On the holiday or his or her birthday?
But she knew that with me – with both of us,
For in fact it wasn’t just me who made everything
Be different –
it was something else.
And we walked in a hurry under the sun
For we didn’t want to waste time, afterwards we had
To go back to our prisons and wait
The new encounter, and we went
To the first place closest to us, an apartment
Without furniture at all, and we kept grabbing each other inside,
Most of the time me on top of her
With the knees resting on the floor, and my knees
were left lacerated.
And my dick skinned, and she with her flesh burning, and one of
My front teeth chipped and one of her front teeth
 Chipped, and red marks
Showed up next to old purple marks and the
Dark rings under our eyes became even darker, but I
Didn’t complain nor did she complain. It was a pact of burning,
Against that space of grey routine between
Birth and death which they call

One of the best finds of 2013. Translator Clifford E. Landers has been involved in an uphill struggle to bring Fonseca to English-speaking readers. Before it disappears, I recommend reading The Taker and other stories.

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.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

A poem about João Guimarães Rosa

On November 19, 1967, the Brazilian writer João Guimarães Rosa passed away. Three days later the poet Carlos Drummond published a poem in his honour on the newspaper Correio da Manhã. I leave a translation here in the event it may be of interest to someone:

Someone Named João

João was a fabulist
Mystical sertão burning
in the exile of common language?

“He projected onto the little tie
the fifth face of things
indescribable described?
A stranger named João
to disguise, to farce
what we dare not comprehend?”

Had he pastures, buritis planted
in the apartment?
in the chest?
Was he vegetable or small bird
under the robust skeleton with a dash
of smiling ox?

Was he a theatre
and all the actors
in the same role,
multivocal dance?

Was João everything?
all hiding, flourishing
like flower is flower, even unplanted?
Map with accidents
sliding outwards, speaking?
Did he keep rivers in the pocket
each one its colour of water
without mixing, without conflicting?

And from each drop wrote
Name, curve, end,
and in the general destiny
his fate was to know
to tell without unveiling
what mustn’t be unveiled
and so he wears new veils?

Magical without props
civilly magical, caller
of precipitous prodigies aiding
the general call?
Ambassador of the kingdom
there is behind the kingdoms,
the powers, the
supposed formulas
of abracadabra, open sesame?
Kingdom encircled
not by walls, keys, codes,
but the kingdom-kingdom?

Why did João smile
If they asked him
What was that mystery?
And proposing drawings the reply
Existed less than
Another question to the asker?

He was a party of… (heck do
I know the name) or he was
the human part himself
serving as bridge
between the sub and the over
that shoot each other
from before the beginning,
that get entwined
for better war,
for gibberish party?
We end not knowing what João was
and if João existed
from catching himself.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Whoever’s born in Tocaia Grande is jagunço: Jorge Amado and the shadow of Canudos

Lost somewhere in the Brazilian hinterlands there is a thriving modern city called Irisópolis. It has businesses, institutions, culture. It’s a city like any other. But Irisópolis harbours a dark history written in blood. “In its commemorative texts, literates, politicians and journalists have almost always omitted the town’s primitive town; obvious reasons relegated it to oblivion. Before being Irisópolis, it was Tocaia Grande.” Jorge Amado’s novel Showdown narrates its birth, rise and destruction.

The first man to idealize Tocaia Grande is Captain Natário Fonseca, a fearsome jagunço who serves Coronel Boaventura in the territorial fights for control of the sertão and its fertile lands, where cacao plantation can build fortunes. Natário once killed a businessman in a whorehouse and became a fugitive of justice until he found political protection under the Coronel. Forever obliged, Natário serves in the coronels’ wars lead Boaventura to reward him with some lands. Taciturn but loyal and courageous, Natário is a man with Indian blood, an unrivalled sharpshooter and natural leader of the coronel’s jagunços. Natário achieves mythical status when he sets up an ambush that wipes out most of the forces of Coronel Elias Daltro, giving Boaventura an advantage in the war and bringing peace to the region. The same land where he organised the legendary ambush becomes his to build his home once he decides to settle down and become a cacao planter, making the first steps to build a town there. (Tocaia Grande, in Portuguese, means exactly big ambush.) Despite the place’s ugly history, Natário is attracted to it. “A prettier place, by day or night, with sun or rain, didn’t exist in those parts; better to live in, nowhere.” Natário is a complex man, and opinions about him vary. He’s a loving husband who nevertheless cheats his wife with prostitutes. Some people love him, others hate him, all respect him. Although Tocaia Grande starts humbly, he’s also the first to realize its potential and to promote its development, by encouraging people to settle down there.

Tocaia Grande at first is a storage centre where cacao from the surroundings is kept before being shipped away. Its first inhabitants are the workmen who toil in the fields, the man who sells drinks to them, and of course the prostitutes who work in a nearby whorehouse. Later an enterprising businessman, Fadul Abdala, an Arab from Lebanon (but everyone calls him Turk in the novel) sets up a shot to sell wares to the workmen. Fadul is a true Brazilian self-made man, an immigrant who succeeds thanks to his hard work and because he has a vision of Tocaia Grande as a future great city. Natário is pleased with the Arab opening a shop there and becomes his protector. One of the episodes that demonstrates Natário’s laconic, strict but honourable personality is how he deals with three jagunços who rob Fadul’s store. The three men find themselves unemployed after the war between Coronels Boaventura and Elias Daltro comes to an end. Roaming the countryside, they learn Fadul is away on business and so raid the store, hoping to find money stashed somewhere. No one in Tocaia Grande lifts a finger to stop them, and when Fadul returns he finds his store looted. Refusing to give up, the hard-working businessman reopens his store, although his former joviality has evaporated. A week passes before Natário visits him. Instead of bringing up the robbery, the Captain just makes small talk while sipping cachaça. “Surprised and disappointed by such indifference, Fadul barely contained himself not to transpire the disappointment, the sorrow caused by such an attitude from the Captain, of whose friendship he had bragged.” Only when he’s about to leave does he produce a pocketknife the jagunços stole from his store:

   “Isn’t this yours, friend Fadul?”
   He put the object on the counter’s wood, Fadul Abdala felt a thud in his chest:
   “It’s mine, yes, Captain. If there’s no harm asking, how did it get into your hands?”
   “And how else would it be, friend?”
   He walked to the side of the house, came back with the mule, put his foot on the stirrup, read the anxious question in Fadul’s eyes, mounted and answered:
   “As soon as I knew of the thing, I quickly found them. Three bad brutes, friend Fadul.”
   The Turk’s eyes gleamed, a smile appeared in his mouth, at the same time he felt like crying, nevertheless he wanted to confirm:
   “The three, Captain?”
   “The three, in the same grave. See you around, friend.”

Although Natário stops being a jagunço for Boavantura and becomes a farmer in his own right, he continues to watch over Tocaia Grande’s security as if he had never hung up the rifle. The success of Fadul’s shop is instrumental in grounding people to the settlement. Also, whenever he finds people on the road, Natário would direct them to Tocaia Grande as a good place to start a new life. This is how the first family arrives there, running away from a corrupt senator in another state.

In time, Tocaia Grande became the favourite stopping place of the workers who came from the huge area of the Cobras river that enclosed a great number of properties, amongst them some of the largest estates in the region. The news of the construction of a business shop raised by the Turk Fadul, a clever man, of vision, contributed to the quickness with which new abodes showed up: shacks, cabans, barracks, some of beaten clay, others of wood, the poorer ones of dry straw.

Families in search of a better life start migrating to Tocaia Grande. Other businesses open up: a black man, Tição Abduim, starts providing services as blacksmith and, occasionally, dentist. Slowly Tocaia Grande grows from a mere dormitory for plantation workers to settlement, then a town in its own right. Social rituals and traditions start forming. From Coronel Boaventura’s workers, who refused to move a finger to save Fadul’s shop from robbers, to the population mutually helping itself in the wake of a devastating flood, the inhabitants of Tocaia Grande become more and more imbued with a spirit of community. Questions of identity even become a matter of interest. How to name the citizens? Tocaios, tocaienses, tocaianos? Fuad Karan, friend of Fadul, simplifies the issue retorting that “Whoever’s born in Tocaia Grande is jagunço.” In the sertão, where social mobility is practically non-existent, this is a constant reminder that that Tocaia Grande is always at the mercy of the true masters of that region, the rich landowners.

Nothing seems to stop Tocaia Grande’s meteoric rise until Coronel Boaventura dies and his dissolute son, Venturinha, takes over his affairs. Given to authoritarianism, Venturinha feels slighted when Natário refuses to work for him, claiming that his bond was to the coronel only and that his former patron assured him he’d have the freedom to be his own man one day. Humiliated, Venturinha uses his political influence to make the military police expel the Tocaios from the land. Using a legal loophole, given that Boaventura verbally gave the land to Natário and no signed contract exists, he accuses the citizens of being land stealers and has the law on his side.

Showdown is a novel written in the shadow of Euclides da Cunha monumental book Os Sertões. It’s hard not to see Canudos’ fingerprints all over the tragic story of Tocaia Grande. The Tocaios are on the whole lower-class people, workers, freed slaves, prostitutes, like the heterogeneous followers António Conselheiro attracted to Canudos. Behind the justification of restoring order, a war is waged against the town, defend by its citizens to their dying breath. The novel takes place some twenty years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil (1889), so some ten years after Canudos was wiped out, making the case that violence, political corruption and authoritarianism are linked in the sertão and no lesson was learned.

At the same time the novel portrays Tocaia Grande as an Eden, a promised land of happiness and justice where people could live freely and in peace. This being a Jorge Amado novel, the characters spend more time having sex than fighting, living in a state of innocent communism. It is perhaps telling that the prelude to the war is the arrival of two missionaries, the severe Father Zygmunt von Gotteshammer, and his younger helper, Father Theun, both foreigners. Appalled at the licentiousness of the land, they preach against the prostitutes and the loose customs of the people, and make efforts to replace the local pagan beliefs with Christian values. The transition is relatively painless, even though the whorehouse, an institution of the town, never disappears. The whiff of sexual repression, however, signals more important changes in the values of sertão. Although Tocaia Grande always existed by the grace of Coronel Boaventura, the idea of him breaking his word was unthinkable. Honour was too valuable a commodity in the world of Natário and Boaventura. In the new world of the Bohemian Venturinha, not at all.

Showdown has a lot of the western genre. It’s hard to miss the similarities, with gunfighters riding horses and killing outlaws. But more important to the idea of the novel as a Brazilian western is the theme of the frontier, the remote land still waiting for man to civilize it. Unlike the American western, however, which is invested with a simple mythology of good and evil, the Brazilian western inverts the roles. The outlaws are the good guys and the forces of law and order are corrupt and grubby. These themes we’ll find again in the novels of João Ubaldo Ribeiro.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Canudos, the filthy antechamber of Paradise: Euclides da Cunha and the sertão in Brazilian literature

In Brazil’s northeast territories there’s a semi-arid region, stretching across states like Bahia, Pernambuco, and Minas Gerais, where rain falls three to four months during the year, but droughts can also last from three to seven years. Its isolated populations are chronically afflicted with famine, poverty and unemployment. This inhospitable region is called the sertão, etymologically derived from the Portuguese word desertão, big desert, and in English it’s frequently translated as backlands. In Brazilian literature and imagination this place has achieve mythical qualities. I’m going to try to explain why.

There’s nothing sillier and more irresponsible than making sweeping generalizations about something one knows very little about. It happens, however, that I’ve read in a very short time a handful of Brazilian novels that, without my intention, seem to constitute a subgenre within Brazilian literature. To keep it simple, I’ve dubbed this subgenre the literature of the sertão. This subgenre is written by writers who hail from Bahia, Minas Gerais and the other states that contain the sprawling sertão. Its main features include gunfights and violence; the main setting is the sertão, although it can be metaphorically transplanted to other spaces; the main character is the jagunço, a word for the armed bandit who terrorizes the byways of the sertão, but also the bodyguard of the coronéis, the rich land-owners who use these tough, taciturn men of action as private armies in political conflicts. Main themes include loyalty, honour, bravery, for the jagunço is old-fashioned and romantic in his moral values, like most thugs and ruffians tend to be; but also themes like the clash of civilization and primitivism, city and countryside, law and anarchy, plus utopianism, modernization and political corruption.

I first started putting this notion together when I began comparing some novels written by Jorge Amado, João Ubaldo Ribeiro and João Guimarães Rosa and found recurrent themes in them. To the novels we could also add some poems by João Cabral de Melo Neto and Carlos Drummond, who have sung of the sertão’s flora and fauna and its inhabitant, the grave sertanejo. Now if my premise has any substance behind it, I think we can trace this subgenre’s foundation to a book by journalist Euclides da Cunha – Os Sertões: Campanha de Canudos. Ironically Euclides had been born far away from the sertão. In English this book is known as Rebellion in the Backlands and, in a more recent translation from Penguin, as Backlands: The Canudos Campaign.

Euclides’ book is mainly concerned with the War of Canudos, a civil war that occurred from 1896 to 1897 in a part of the sertão within the state of Bahia. This catastrophic event, we could argue, forms the basis of the literature of the sertão and reappears in it, transformed, under different guises. As a war correspondent for the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, in 1897 Euclides travelled into the sertão, to the front where thousands of soldiers had been holding a small town under siege for months, and he stayed there almost until the tragic conclusion. Returning to Rio de Janeiro, he laboured on his book for five years before it came out to extraordinary reviews, making him into one of Brazil’s most important men of letters overnight. But Os Sertões was more than reportage. It is a totalising book, one of those rare books that contains all the sciences and areas of human knowledge, a broad-ranging tome that discusses geography, geology, botany, politics, history, sociology, biology, anthropology, economics, war, theology, even mythopoeism. It’s also literature in the grand tradition of Homer and Tolstoy, narrating past history and heroic feats of war. It’s considered Brazil’s national epic and a treatise on Brazilian identity, for the attention Euclides gave to the sertanejo. It’s also a dark, apocalyptic narrative. Published in 1902, the same year Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness came out, I believe without hesitation that the Brazilian classic shows a more chilling descent into total horror, barbarism, carnage, and paints a more urgent warning against the dangers of idolatry.

Now before I try to argue for the influence of the Os Sertões on a subset of 20th century Brazilian literature, some facts about the War of Canudos are in order. In the 1870s a preacher emerged in the sertão. Official documents of the time already knew him by the name history would remember him: António Conselheiro. The Counsellor had long hair and beard, wore a dark wool tunic, and was a gaunt, mummy-like figure who ate very little and always travelled accompanied by followers, praying with him in their wanderings. Although the sertão was no stranger to prophets, mystics, and seers, the Counsellor managed to exert a strange, powerful influence on the sertanejos: they gathered around him to hear him speak, and many abandoned their ordinary lives to follow him. The local clergy disliked him and was his first opponent. As early as 1882 the Archbishop of Bahia had taken notice of him and of his “excessively rigid moral,” and had made efforts to warn the authorities of this preacher’s danger to authority. António Conselheiro barely avoided being committed to a madhouse in Rio de Janeiro; lack of room dissuaded authorities from acting.

The Counsellor started his messianic career during a period of transition in Brazilian history. In 1822 Brazil had declared independence from Portugal but remained an empire until 1889, the year in which it finally became a republic, although the first governments were military dictatorships. António Conselheiro opposed the republic and hurled invectives at its new laws and on the matter of laicism and censuses. Since the end of the 1880s he had also been prophesying the end of the world, the republic being a sign that the end was nigh. The Counsellor’s strange brand of mysticism predicted the return of D. Sebastião, a Portuguese king who in 1578 disappeared in a Moroccan city called Ksar el Kebir, putting an end to his ill-fated crusade to convert North Africa to Christian faith. D. Sebastião’s death marked Portugal’s decline, leaving the country in a crisis of heirs – only 24 years old, and allegedly homosexual, he didn’t leave the Queen pregnant before sailing to Africa – and that resulted in the kingdom being ruled by the Spanish Philips (the Filipes from Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra). In popular culture, D. Sebastião became a mystical figure, ironically the saviour who would one day return to steer Portugal in the direction of glory once more. Centuries later the Counsellor latched onto this myth and told his followers that the ancient king would come back to lead them in the final war against the Antichrist, personified by the republic.

The Counsellor and his sectarians started making preparations to gain entrance in paradise. In 1893 they settled in Canudos, a muddy, desolate valley next to a river deep in the hinterlands. There they started building houses and a church. The settlement grew quickly in size. The Counsellor’s words attracted people from every corner of sertão. The republic had finally abolished slavery in Brazil and the sertão’s byways and roads were teeming with freed slaves and unemployed workers. To them the preacher’s messages offered guidance and comfort. Families sold their houses and belongings and travelled in droves to join this new community. There they lived under a form of communism, without private property and sharing everything, and also practised free love. Canudos also attracted many jagunços, who became the Counsellor’s personal guard and the enforcers of authority. These jagunços also directed raids on local farms and towns, which made the surrounding authorities wary of Canudos.

The final cause that provoked the war, however, was absurd in its smallness. Around October 1896, the Counsellor had ordered a quantity of timber from the town of Juazeiro for repairing the church. But the business was conducted with a local judge who had past grievances to settle with António Conselheiro: once he had been scared out of a town by his followers. So to get even he withheld the shipment of timber to Canudos, and then started spreading rumours that the jagunços were going to attack Juazeiro to reclaim it by force. The government replied to his appeals by sending soldiers to disband the settlement. Overly confident but badly equipped to travel 200 kilometres through the sertão, the military expedition was attacked halfway through by Canudos men, who had been warned in advanced of their coming. Instead of disbanding in terror, these fanatics, their heads filled with stories about the end of the world and the final war between Good and Evil, marched into battle like crusaders in a holy war, singing, praying and shouting the name of Jesus Christ. The soldiers were not ready for the fierce resistance they put up, and were violently repelled. Although only ten men died on the regiment’s side, against some 150 casualties on Canudos’, the officer in charge called the retreat. And when they returned to Juazeiro four days later, covered in blood, wearing rags, maimed and famished, “the telegraph lines transmitted to the whole country the prelude of the war in the backlands…”

At the time many Brazilian believed Canudos was part of a royalist conspiracy to overthrow the young republic and restore the monarchy. According to popular belief, Canudos was preparing a rebellion with the help of foreign powers. Perhaps these fanciful rumours were just orchestrated to justify the existence of the military dictatorship. Maybe these concerns were heartfelt. Be as it may, the threat Canudos represented was greatly exaggerated in the press and the popular imagination, resulting in national hysteria and panic.

For the young republic, Canudos posed a challenge that threatened to revert its social progress. In fact most failed to understand what motivated the Counsellor and his acolytes. They tried to find modern reasons for the rebellion, but, as Euclides defended, Canudos was a break with the modern world, and its mentality unintelligible to the politicians who feared a monarchist plot. Thinking they were dealing with ordinary rebels or criminals, and not religious fanatics, they never realized the spiritual value Canudos had to these people – for them it was holy ground, New Jerusalem. Threatened, instead of running away, the acolytes entrenched themselves and literally fought to the last man, prolonging the war for more than a year and nearly bankrupting Brazil, which had to finance and organize three more expeditionary forces before Canudos was completely exterminated in October 1897. On the final day of the war, the fanatics were reduced to four men, firing away with rudimentary muskets at five thousand soldiers equipped with the most advanced firearms and artillery at the time.

The War of Canudos was a calamity that claimed some 30,000 lives. What it did to the Brazilian psyche can never be fully ascertained, but it can’t be denied that it left an indelible mark on the imagination of the Baianos. From then on the sertão would remain a place of violence and thwarted utopian aspirations, ideas that literature has appropriated ever since. Novels in line with this tendency include Jorge Amado’s Showdown (1984) and João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s O Feitiço da Ilha do Pavão (The Peacock Island Spell, 1997). Amado’s novel narrates the birth and destruction of a town called Tocaia Grande. Tocaia Grande begins as a settlement founded by a jagunço called Natário Fonseca, on lands he receives as reward for his loyalty to a local coronel (in Brazilian Portuguese, the word coronel means both the military rank and owner of large farming estates) during a war for control of the sertão. Tocaia Grande begins as a stop for plantation workers and prostitutes. But in time it attracts businessmen, respectable families, artisans, until it becomes a real community based on cooperation and freedom, a corner of peace and civilization inside the violent sertão. Then a jealous coronel accuses the people of Tocaia Grande of trespassing private property and uses his political influence to get the army to expel them, resulting in a final massacre. The similarities with the fate of Canudos are more than obvious.

Peacock Island is no less utopian than Tocaia Grande. The novel does not take place in the sertão, but on a magical island off the coast of Bahia (a key state), a remote, secluded place where prostitutes, Indians, freed slaves, Europeans and Brazilians work together to create a new society that does not have the vices of Europe and the rest of Brazil in terms of slavery, class difference and authoritarianism. Like Canudos and Tocaia Grande, Peacock Island is in danger from the forces of authoritarianism and conservatism. Peacock Island also reserves for itself a sense of exceptionalism, more progressive, more open-minded, than the rest of Brazil behind the high cliffs that hide the island from the world. Another theme in these novels is the wide gap between the rich and the poor, especially of the sertão’s poor forever being at the mercy of the powerful.

The irony of Tocaia Grande and Peacock Island is that Canudos was not a utopia at all. A missionary who stayed in the settlement in 1895 counted eight to nine deaths every day, from famine, sickness, and poor living conditions. People lived in abject poverty. Although the acolytes lived in freedom in some matters – free love was permitted there – and in communion of goods, law-breakers were punished with the death penalty by jagunços who enforced the Counsellor’s authoritarian regime. In hindsight, Canudos may sound like a history of underdogs, a romantic undercurrent feeding the novels of Amado and Ribeiro, but the Counsellor himself had more to do with Reverend Jim Jones, and Canudos was but a precursor of the Waco siege. “Canudos, filthy antechamber of Paradise,” that’s how Euclides described it. At best the Counsellor was a benevolent tyrant. However none of this matters in the hour of forging myths. Like Canudos, Tocaia Grande becomes famous for its licentiousness, and Peacock Island becomes a haven for freed slaves and the birthplace of a modern, democratic conscience. If not themes, then whole episodes are transplanted from history to fiction. The Capuchin priest who stayed in Canudos in 1895, trying to establish a mission, often reappears in the novels of the sertão. This religious man was alarmed at the state the people there lived in, lawless, like animals, amidst filth. He gained an audience with António Conselheiro, and was surprised to see him protected by armed men. “It is for my safety that I have these armed men, because Your Excellency will know that the police attacked me and wanted to kill me in the place called Massete, where there were deaths on one and the other side. In the time of the monarchy I let myself be arrested because I recognized the government, nowadays no, because I don’t recognise the Republic.” The Capuchin priest received permission to formalise marriages, conduct funerals and baptisms, and to preach in the new church. But in his sermons he exhorted the people to abandon Canudos. At the same time the Counsellor started a disinformation campaign against him, scaring his followers with tell-tales that the priest was going to bring the army to Canudos, arrest António Conselheiro and kill everyone else. In no time the missionary was expelled. Dissidence was not tolerated there. What this shows, along with the Archbishop of Bahia’s attempt in 1882 to have the Counsellor committed, is that the church was his first enemy. The priest who opposes utopia in the sertão and is synonymous with law and order, instead of natural innocence, goes by different names in the novels: Father Zygmunt von Gotteshammer, Father Theun and Father Tertuliano, who tries to reinstate the Inquisition in Peacock Island. Even Grande Sertão: Veredas (1955), a novel that doesn’t wear the myth of Canudos so plainly, has an episode narrating how a missionary berates a prostitute during a mass, echoing the uneasy relationship between the pious populace and the clergymen of the other novels.

The jagunço is another mainstay of the literature of the sertão. He’s in Showdown and Grande Sertão: Veredas, and although he’s not in O Feitiço da Ilha Pavão, he shows up in another Ribeiro novel, Sergeant Getúlio (1971). The jagunço was already part of the sertão before Canudos, but Euclides da Cunha’s book was the first great narrative to put him under the spotlight. João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas is the definitive book of the jagunço, a novel fully narrated by a former jagunço, Riobaldo, now an old man talking to a nameless listener of his life as an armed man roaming the byways with other bandits. Throughout the novel Riobaldo fulfils many roles that show the tension between order and lawlessness in the sertão. First he rides with a posse working for the government, fighting other jagunços in order to bring stability to the region. Then he joins a group of bandits; and finally he heads a group that chases a traitor that killed their beloved leader. The jagunço is the repository of romantic ideals like loyalty and courage, and the sertão is a backward corner that needs to be civilized by force. These concepts, already elaborated in Euclides’ book, reappear in the novels. In Showdown the justification to wipe out Tocaia Grande is that bandits have occupied the lands of a coronel. Peacock Island is also the setting of a small-scale civil war when a reactionary party asks outside help to quell a rebellion of Indians. Then we have Sergeant Getúlio, a novel that is all about the violence of the sertão and its dynamic politics. In the novel, Getúlio, a violent military police sergeant, is tasked with escorting a political prisoner across Bahia. During the journey, Getúlio has to defend himself from his followers. Halfway through, political circumstances change and Getúlio is ordered to release the prisoner. But the violent jagunço ignores and marches on. Getúlio only obeys orders from Acrísio Nunes, the politician he owes everything to. Since he does not receive the orders from Nunes himself, Getúlio carries on, eventually having to defend himself from the police and Nunes’ own jagunços. If Tocaia Grande influenced Peacock Island, it could be said that Getúlio influenced Natário Fonseca.

Os Sertões and later Grande Sertão: Veredas established the sertão as a sort of Brazilian Wild West, in need of law and order and in a slow process of modernization through armed violence by men riding horses who come into town to kill criminals. They’re very much like cowboy movies. At the same time the books have something of the frontier, the virgin territory where free men can start a new life. Frequently these two views of the sertão clash. There is also a considerable difference from the American Wild West. In the American myth the community is terrorised by an outlaw and needs an honourable hero, a sheriff, to deliver it from tyranny. In the more sceptical Brazilian literature, authority is corrupt and modernization is just a sham to intrude upon people’s freedom. The Counsellor, let us remember, originally railed against the republic when it started taking censuses of the sertanejos. A curious exception in American literature is a short-story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, "The Maypole of Merry Mount," exactly a tale about a happy community in the early days of American history overtaken by a gloomy, oppressive posse of Puritans led by John Endecott.

I will discuss all these books more in depth in the coming days. What I hope to have made clear is that Euclides da Cunha’s book has been an unavoidable influence on Brazilian literature. Its sphere of influence extends even beyond Brazil. For me Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World is probably the best achievement of this subgenre I made up, perfectly integrating all the themes I list above in one single epic novel. Even so, nothing substitutes reading the one and only Os Sertões: Campanha de Canudos, an inexhaustible narrative of war, death, faith and madness.