Sunday, 30 June 2013

Brazilian Literature: the wrap-up post

St. Orberose’s informal Brazilian literature event concludes for no better reason than that I’ve ran out of books to write about. The small collection I amassed during the May-June Lisbon Book Fair has been consumed, and it’s time to resume normal service. But first I’d like to explain how what I at first thought would be a theme week escalated into a two-month event.

Sometime in the final months of 2012 I realized that no Brazilian writer had yet graced St. Orberose with his presence. That was hardly a surprise since, contrary to evidence, I’m not in the habit of reading Brazilian literature. But I reasoned that, much like the unknown Portuguese authors I enjoy divulging, I was in a position to bring some attention to a couple of Brazilian writers unknown to English readers. So I decided to store reviews until I had enough to devote a week to Brazil. My ego was smaller in the past. I remember the first, and for a long time only, review I wrote was for Ferreira Gullar’s Cidades Inventadas.

Then last January Richard e-mailed me, inviting me to join the Grande Sertão: Veredas read-along. The epic story of how I acquired a copy of this illusive book has been narrated before, though not in octaves and heroic decasyllables. Anyway May was approaching and I figured I could use the weeks prior to the read-along to finally showcase some Brazilian literature. The occasion seemed perfect. The positive aspect of this is that I finally got a good reason to read Tocaia Grande and O Mistério da Ilha do Pavão, books I had forgotten in my vortical (and vertical; this redundant aside only exists because my word processor keeps correcting vortical to vertical and to redly tell me vortex does not have an adjective. [An even more redundant aside: since vortical is the adjective of vortex, I checked the dictionary to see if vertical could possibly be the adjective of  vertex; and what do you know? It is! But my word processor does not consider vertex wrong. Does that mean vertex is more popular than vortex?]) book pile since the 2012 Lisbon Book Fair.

The tragic irony is that I enjoyed reading these books better than João Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão: Veredas. In fact the read-along was weeks away and I was realizing I had no interest in finishing the novel, which I had already speed-read from page 200 to 400, hoping something of interest would start happening sooner or later, let alone write a series of posts about it. I had nothing to say save that it was a waste of my time, and that important announcement I could reserve for this moment. So I just scrapped the original idea and decided to focus on Brazilian literature. My failure to appreciate this seminal novel, nonetheless, takes nothing away from the fine posts Richard, Scott and Rise have been writing about it.

So without a main book to write about, and with only a handful of reviews ready, in order to add more to the mix I hastily put together a few lines from what I still remembered of my readings of Carlos Drummond, João Cabral de Melo Neto and Euclides da Cunha. I calculated that, if I managed my time and posts well, I could keep May active with posts long enough to restock at the book fair.

More than half what I’ve written about was eventually purchased there as I looked around for books by Rubem Fonseca, Ferreira Gullar, Clarice Lispector, Mário de Andrade and the others. Save for a few disappointments, I made an excellent selection. I did not have a particular criterion except that I wanted to try several of the Camões Prize recipients. Most I blind bought. But although not looking for a direction, I was nevertheless amused to find in so many of them the spectre of Canudos and recurrent themes: utopianism, the romanticization of bandits, the view of the army as invader, the brutal process of modernizing the backlands, themes that João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory put for me in a wider historical context of which Canudos is but one side.

Although Jorge Amado and João Ubaldo Ribeiro are the heirs of the romance nordestino (Northeast novel), with a preference for the countryside, I’m glad my purchases also included some books in urban settings, like Agosto and The Vampire of Curitiba. Considering Brazil has gigantic metropolises, it’d be misleading to give the impression every Brazilian lives in a little village in the middle of the jungle. Looking back, I think I made an inclusive selection. There were novels, short-stories, novellas, a memoir, reportage, and poetry.  Poetry seldom receives its due, which is a mistake since it’s the exponent of any literature. Therefore I was happy for sharing whatever I could of Carlos Drummond, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Vinícus de Moraes and Ferreira Gullar. I noticed my post about Dirty Poem was one of the least read posts of the month; that’s understandable since I was in a bad mood when I wrote it. Regardless it’s one of the most exceptional poems I’ve read in recent memory.

These last two months were quite demanding but also worthwhile. I am, however, anxious to return to a milder rhythm in July. Nevertheless I thank everyone who followed this informal event and left a comment. As for João Guimarães Rosa, perhaps we’ll still see him in my blog one day, maybe when I’m feeling more patient, or maybeI’ll try Sagarana. But enough obscure Brazilian writers for now, it’s time to go back to obscure Portuguese writers for a while.

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 (…)”

Friday, 28 June 2013

Mário de Andrade: Macunaíma

Macunaíma, published in 1928, was written in just six days. The mean side of me would add that it shows. I should immediately declare that I consider this novel a failure. But there’s plenty of time for that.

First and foremost we need to understand what Macunaíma is about. I leave that to a passage Mário de Andrade wrote in a preface to the novel that was not published in his lifetime:

What interested me in Macunaíma was undoubtedly the concern I live in of working and discovering as much as I can Brazilian people’s national identity. Why, after much struggling I realised something I think is certain: Brazilians have no character. (…) And with the word character I don’t determine just a moral reality, no, instead I mean the permanent psychic identity, manifesting through everything, in the habits the external action the feelings the language the History the gait, for good as well as evil.

If national identity is the novel’s theme, one has to admit, first and foremost, that the author has a remarkable idea of what constitutes the Brazilian identity. Macunaíma is a black Indian born into an Amazonian rain forest tribe; he’s a liar, a bully, a coward, a schemer, a whoremonger; he’s proud, vain, greedy, treacherous, ignorant. There’s another novel I read recently, João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s An Invincible Memory, that is also about Brazilian identity. It radically opposes Mário de Andrade’s thesis, so the matter is all but settled.

All literature is full of ironies, and an irony about this novel is that the author, to put his subject under the microscope, found inspiration in a German naturalist’s narration of an expedition up the Orinoco river, namely Theodor Koch-Grünberg’s 1917 book Vom Roraima zum Orinoco. One has to find at least amusing the fact that the Brazilian novel that breaks with Portuguese and European literature, has its starting point in a German book. But literature also changes literature, and I write this review in light of Ribeiro’s novel, and I realize something. The Brazilian educated class of 1917, “Europeans in exile” to borrow from Borges, despised the culture and history of blacks and Indians so much, a book about Indian myths, language and folklore could only have been written by a curious outsider, a role that, much as it may bother some people, was often played by white Europeans.

From the German naturalist’s book Mário de Andrade procured legends and gods to form the adventures of the protagonist, writing in the process a proto-magical realist novel. The novel also reminds me at times of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Storyteller, a novel split in two narratives: one about a man narrating a person he knew who disappeared in the Amazonian jungle and became a tribal storyteller; and another narrating the tales this figure tells. I liked the first narrative; I found the second one totally incomprehensible and unlikeable. So perhaps I just don’t understand this type of storytelling. I also see a similarity with Voltaire’s Candide. Italo Calvino, in Why Read The Classics?, has an interesting essay about it that brings attention to the novella’s lack of substance, the neglected details of time and space, the events compacted and subordinated to a narrative that moves at a breakneck pace. I noticed the same technique in Macunaíma, but far more unbearable.

I think the main reason that explains my disgust with this novel is that it’s not written in any language I recognise. Not just that but I have no sense of references in the book, as if I dropped into an unknown country without a map. The novel mixes Portuguese, Kimbundu and Tupi words, coins neologisms, and draws incidents, characters, names and episodes from Amazonian and Ioruba myths and legends, some of which, thanks to the plays of Wole Soyinka, I proudly recognised. But I confess I didn’t understand the novel on a simple episode-to-episode basis. Things are described, things happen, characters move, do things, etc., but I couldn’t visualize anything in my mind. Another similarity: Benjamin Péret’s La Brebis Galante, an abstruse and I’d argue worthless surrealist book about, I think, nothing. To Mário de Andrade’s credit, his novel is about something.

From what little I could gather, Macunaíma has two brothers, Maanape e Jiguê, names a handy footnote tells were taken from old Indian myths. The hero falls in love with Ci, who one day soars to heaven and turns into a star. Macunaíma and his brothers go after a muiraquitã, a talisman she gave him, only to discover it’s being kept by a man-eating giant. The novel, after many episodes where the hero mocks modernity, foreign fashions, technology, etc., becomes the Great Bear constellation in the sky. Macunaíma performs super-human feats, like kicking something from one country to another, and is constantly credited with inventions of supreme importance to Brazilian culture, not least of which football. He’s also constantly bedding women; the novel is full of sex, which is a main feature of Brazilian literature. It’s everywhere: in Jorge Amado, in Dalton Trevisan, in João Ubaldo Ribeiro, in Rubem Fonseca. A lot more than in any other literature I know of. Apropos of his incredible powers, he even dies and comes back. From time to time a fragment of interest. Macunaíma to his red-skinned son: “My son, grow up quickly so you can go to São Paulo earn lots of money.” After arriving at a city and enumerating several technological wonders. “They were machines and everything in the city was just machine!” And his definition of money – ‘Civilization’s curriculum vitae’ – is one for the books.

For many years this novel excited my imagination because I had read that it was a precursor of magical realism, a type of literature I confess I used to like more than I do now. Even so I find it problematic to rank Mário de Andrade amongst Juan Rulfo or Gabril García Márquez, writers I think were truly possessed of genius. Nowadays it’s also considered important to the formation of the Romance Nordestino (Northeast Novel) of the 1930s, practiced for instance by Jorge Amado, and later by Guimarães Rosa. Mário de Andrade put the spotlight on Brazilian themes, regionalism, and Brazilian grammar and orthography. It’s a novel with a true Brazilian flavour and content. That alone makes it an historical landmark.

And I think this is a case where the historical importance has overshadowed the actual merits of the book. The novel is famous for its linguistic rupture with Portuguese from Portugal. According to the introduction, “Mário de Andrade defended the imposition of this ‘Brazilian speech’ as a form of expression that demonstrated the singularity of that country’s modernist literature in relation to Portuguese literature.” It is curious, or maybe not, that Brazilians have a long tradition of accentuating the differences between their Portuguese and Portuguese from Portugal. Paradoxically, both countries have over a century’s worth of spelling agreements to unify the spelling of the Portuguese language worldwide. As late as 1911 Portuguese, in Portugal, did not have a standard. Writers chose their spelling depending on the criteria they preferred, phonetically or etymologically. Some words were written the way they sounded. But Fernando Pessoa, for instance, wrote símbolo as symbolo (probably because he had had an English upbringing: symbolo/symbol). There were also those who favoured the Latin roots of Portuguese, so inscrição was inscripção (inscriptĭo). But the Republic, in 1911, decided to pass a spelling reform that established rules on how Portuguese should be written. One of the problems is that Brazil was not consulted and people on the other side of the Atlantic continued to write with different rules. Throughout the 20th century the two countries tried to establish agreements to harmonize the spelling, but they always fell through because the Brazilian refused to adopt them. One of them, in the 1940s, was because of something as simple as a stress mark. The Portuguese write António and the Brazilian write Antônio, and they wanted to keep their circumflex mark, or as we call it, the hat.

Most probably won’t know, but the two countries are currently in the final stages of a new agreement, one that has been causing a lot of polemic because the majority, in Brazil and Portugal, are against it. Brazil, a rising world power, thinks it’s time the UN adopts Portuguese as one of its official languages, and believes the main obstacle to that goal is a double spelling. Never mind the fact the UN has shown no signs of wanting to adopt Portuguese as an official language. The masterminds of the agreement also believe that this double spelling is what’s been holding back the Portuguese language from an important place in world culture. That’s right, because of a few cees and pees, publishers and translators across the world have been too confused to give Portuguese/Brazilian literature the attention it rightly deserves. This is only comical until the moment you remember people in positions of power – presidents, prime-ministers, ministers, ambassadors, MPs, editors, teachers, journalists, linguists – actually believe this tripe. And you have a sudden epiphany: maybe this is why Portuguese/Brazilian literature doesn’t have the attention it arguably deserves. And so we reach the current situation when two thirds of the Portuguese don’t want the new spelling agreement and the Brazilian have gathered signatures to delay its implementation. The reason, however, is what I find interesting. Whereas we see it as a former empire submitting to a former colony, the Brazilians want to retain the differences in order to accentuate their identity against their former masters. There are Brazilians so proud of their linguistic differences they not longer even speak of Brazilian Portuguese, but of an actual Brazilian language. And who’s to say they’re wrong? So they pervert the language to give it its own mark, its own identity. This is not too different from the motives that led Mário de Andrade to write Macunaíma in 1928.

His great innovation was writing phonetically, the way Brazilians speak the words, like para to pra, se to si, etc. But when he starts building neologisms from Tupi words, I’m treading unknown territory, at night, with a broken compass. To mark the difference he goes beyond mere phonetics, he plumbs into the languages of Brazil before the arrival of the Portuguese. The Portuguese reader trudges through a bizarre language that is neither Portuguese nor anything recognizable to him, that is, other Latinate languages. When Mário de Andrade starts enumerating things then I was truly lost. And there are lists for everything: fruits, fishes, birds, animals, plants. The book is summa of botany and fauna to rival Euclides da Cunha’s masterpiece. According to my glossary at the end, many of those words come from Tupi, an indigenous language of Brazil, what you could call true Brazilian. Then there were the African words. The only time I didn’t feel disoriented was during a chapter written deliberately in Portuguese from Portugal. Ironically the chapter is an attack on, according to Mário de Andrade, the arcane and precious literary style of Portuguese, although I think the parody was off by a few centuries, since he seemed to be writing a bad imitation of 18th century Portuguese, nothing similar at all with Eça de Queiroz or Aquilino Ribeiro, and certainly not with the neorealist revolution of the 1930s. Still, I think the use of Tupi in itself is interesting if only to show how far he was willing to go in his rupture. Imagine if an American written had written a novel half in Hopi just to spite the English. You can’t imagine it because it doesn’t exist, to my knowledge. Curious, then, the different relationships these former colonies had with their former metropolises’ languages.

At the same time I think it’s a novel that would be defeated by a translation. This novel was written to be misunderstood in Portuguese. Changing it into another language would make it too comprehensible and so ruin the desired effect. João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão: Veredas, compared to this, isn’t anything special. It’s dull, but at least it’s written in a language I understand. His neologisms aren’t anything I haven’t encountered before in a Mia Couto book. It is to Macunaíma what Alice in Wonderland is to Finnegans Wake in terms of difficulty. Macunaíma is basically impenetrable.

It’s a book I regret I didn’t like, since I had high expectations for it, but it’s a book I had to read anyway. I think it’s a failure, but at the same time it’s a failure that had to exist. If the novel had to be so bad, I don’t know, but a Brazilian book had to exist that caused a rupture with Portuguese from Portugal. I just wish it had been good while it was doing it. But let us feel glad that another piece in the jigsaw of Brazilian literature has found its place. More enjoyable pastures lie ahead.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Solving crimes, the Mandrake way

No, no, not that Mandrake, the top hat and tuxedo-wearing magician created by the legendary Lee Falk for the newspaper strips. I bow to one of the fathers of American comics, but that topic is for another blog.

It’s really Mandrake the defence lawyer. After reading a collection of short-stories and a novel, my third incursion into Rubem Fonseca’s work brings me to his novellas. And as I’ve come to expect from this Brazilian writer, in spite of the short time I’ve been acquainted with him, they’re tense, sardonic, excellent narratives. Here’s an irony: although I lambasted serial characters in a previous post, Fonseca is the creator of a character who reappears in several of his books. I don’t know when he first showed up, but Mandrake plays a role in the novel High Art (1983), still unread, and the novella E do meio do mundo prostituto só amores guardei ao meu charuto (1997), already on my book pile. But today I’m writing about Mandrake – A Bíblia e a Bengala (2005). This short book collects two interlinked novellas where Mandrake has to use his wits, connections in the police department and knowledge of the Rio de Janeiro underworld to solve two bizarre, dangerous cases.

Mandrake is a womanizer and red wine connoisseur whose partner, Weksler, is a Jew who lost his parents in Buchenwald and whose best friend, the chief of police Raul, breeds frogs when he’s off-duty. It seems to be a trademark of Fonseca that the protagonist is an erudite man who appreciates art and literature and has a knack for remembering sayings by philosophers and writers. And in spite of his weary cynicism he’s a kind-hearted lawyer. His main weakness is women, the cause of all his troubles in both novellas.

The first novella, called “Mandrake and the Mainz Bible,” is my favourite because it’s an off-kilter crime story set in the shadowy world of rare book thefts and the criminal rings that sell them to rich collectors. But why explain things when the second paragraph does such a good job?

How could I imagine I’d get involved with the story of Gutenberg’s incunabulum, with the midget, with Lil’ Skull, with the Fichet safe, with the murders, especially with the one of the poor mature woman who for the first time in her life was in love, a woman who loved books and cats – every woman likes cats, even the ones who don’t like books.

Very well, I’ll explain some more. Karin Altolaguirre, a rare book collector, hires Mandrake to find out what happened to Carlos Waise, a midget who works in the Antique Bookstore and who disappeared without trace. Karin knew Carlos because sometimes he gave her good tips about rare books to buy. She goes to Mandrake instead of the police because ‘crime lawyers have ways of investigating these things without involving the police.’ Now why doesn’t she want to involve the police? Can it have something to do with a Mainz Bible stolen from the National Library? The funny thing is that the first thing Mandrake does is call his former Law school colleague and current Homicide cop, Raul, for help. Things get better because, as Raul starts rounding up suspects, they all go to Mandrake for legal defence, meaning there’s a bit of professional friction to their friendship. Oh, speaking of cops: “I think Victor Hugo described the perfect cop, every good cop has to be a merciless Javert.”

What makes the novella so good is Mandrake’s voice. Rubem Fonseca has a special way of using words, of mixing a direct and austere style with sophistication and unexpected humour, although once you get into the rhythm it stops being so unexpected and becomes one of the text’s main pleasures. And the character work is so good in this, so flawless. I could listen to Mandrake forever. On drinking with Raul: “For people like me and Raul, whose pleasure on drinking is getting slightly inebriated, the second bottle is always better.” This is him after lying to his girlfriend: “Every liar’s doubt: when we lie is it always good if half the lie is true, or is it better if everything is a lie?” And his description of finding Carlos in a bar and scaring him away. “I followed him, walking. I confess I felt shame running after a midget in the street.” And so he loses him. In the whole history of detective fiction who ever heard of someone losing a murder suspect because he was ashamed of running after him? This is what makes Rubem Fonseca special.

Everyone else is well developed too, regardless of the length of their presence in the narrative. Karin, for instance, is a serious book lover. How serious? So serious she broke up with her fiancée after a dispute over an edition of Montaigne’s Essays. How can one not love this detail? But does this mean Karin is capable of killing someone for a book? That’s what Mandrake starts suspecting the deeper he’s pulled into the mystery and its many ramifications. Ah, here’s what he thinks of rare books:

If someone were to give me a present and asked me to choose between the first edition of The Divine Comedy and any book by Fernando Pessoa published yesterday, I prefer Pessoa. This contempt of mine includes stamps, cars, porcelain vases, pens and inkpots, and rare trombones.

See, Pessoa, a man with good taste obviously. He doesn’t see the point of anyone caring about a book just because ‘they have three hundred years.’ I subscribe completely. Still apropos of Karin, Mandrake has a girlfriend called Angélica, and he feels miserable because he’s falling in love with Karin and is afraid of hurting Angélica. Of course he ends up cheating on her, he’s a good man but not a saint.

Then we have the descriptions. I didn’t write anything about the descriptions in my post about Agosto, but Fonseca likes describing very graphic and violent things with his sober, gritty realism. One of the best scenes in that novel is how a killer methodically disposes of a body. Here we have the autopsy of a dead woman, a librarian innocently caught in a scheme to steal rare books from the National Library:

Without waiting for an answer, he placed the brain in a container and next, after laying the corpse belly up, made a deep incision on the dead woman’s body, from the throat to the pubis. The abdomen’s interior appeared, a mass of viscous forms connected between them, of several hues. Now I’ll make the costectomy, he said. With a sort of large scissors he started breaking the ribs, and the bones cracked, and then all the viscera, from the lungs to the intestines, revealed themselves with exuberant impudence. He examined the organs before eviscerating them.

This goes on for another page, until Mandrake gets sick and leaves the room.

The disappearance of Carlos soon turns into a complex case involving a stolen Mainz Bible and the murder of Eunice, the librarian, who may or may not have been killed by Carlos. Stolen from sophisticated Fichet safe, the Mainz Bible is one of the oldest printed books in existence, printed directly by Gutenberg’s printing machine, giving it a symbolic and historical value in the West. Only a few dozens exist in the world. Mandrake also sprinkles the narrative with interesting insights into the business of art theft:

It’s hard to find someone to buy a very famous work of art. And kidnapping a painting or a book is a lot easier than a person, you don’t need guarded captivity, and the painting or book doesn’t needed to be fed, doesn’t run away and doesn’t identify the criminal, who pays a minor fee if he’s caught. The amount of the ransom is always bigger.

The novella even explains when and where the first library catalogue in history was made: 2000 BCE, in Sumer, in Ur’s third dynasty. It’s a crime novella tailor-made for book lovers.

The second novella, “Mandrake and the Swaine Walking Cane,” is not as strong or original. It has a good premise, though, because Mandrake sees himself suspected of murder. His interest in married women backfires on him one day when the husband of the woman he’s having an affair with shows up dead, killed by a cane belonging to him. The cane in question is one made by Swaine Adeney Brigg, a British cane manufacturer for over two hundred years now. It’s a luxury item. I think one of the flaws of this novella is that this aspect of the cane never becomes as important to the plot as the titbits about incunabula and ancient library catalogues. But the novella never lets go the tension and aura of mystery, so it’s a gripping read nonetheless.

Three books, three hits. I don’t think it’s too soon to declare that Rubem Fonseca my best find of 2013.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

While it lasts I’m given the infinite universe constellated by quadrillions and quadrillions of stars: more poetry by Ferreira Gullar

Ferreira Gullar’s last poetry book came out in 2010: Em Alguma Parte Alguma. He hadn’t published one since 2005. Besides Dirty Poem, this is my only exposure to Gullar’s poetry. And it continues to reinforce my belief that Gullar is one of the world’s best living poets.

Em Alguma Parte Alguma is a heterogeneous book about so many things: bugs and the universe, the ineffable and the irrepressible need to communicate, cosmic distances and our brain. It has recurring images like rotten fruit, Gullar really loves that, and many poems about his body (Gullar is starting to realize he’s getting old). It’s a sad book, too, for Gullar, like all great poets, knows there’s nothing sadder than dead cats.

Let’s do this by themes. The poem opens with “The Unsaid Said,” which is too long to translate in full, but starts like this:

the poem
   before written
is not in me
   more than an upset
before the white sheet

This, notwithstanding feline elegies, is another very popular theme in poetry, the poem about the difficulty of writing the poem, the terror of not having anything to say in the poem, the inability to express something in a poem. Somehow it just leads to many inspiring poems. He pursues the theme in another poem, “Disorder:”

my business for now is disorder
            what refuses itself
                        to speech

what escapes
the meticulous elegance
of saying
                        the dregs
                        the leftover
                        the scoria
                        the untidiness
                        the cannot-be-fit

or perhaps
            - even worst -
            what language
            didn’t say
                        for not saying

Although poetry can’t express what must be said, nevertheless it must continue to exist. In another poem the poet shows his certainty that poetry won’t disappear:


It’s carnival,
the earth trembles:
a couple of poets talks
on the Leme beach!

The two talk of poetry
and the bathers
who never read Drummond or Mallarmé.
“And will they read my poem?”
she asks.
“Someone will.”
“Well even if they don’t
I won’t stop saying
what I see on this beach
which they trod on unseen.”

And the older poet
smiles comforted:
poetry is there
reborn by his side.

Then we have the poems about his body. “Reflexion about the bone in my leg” is very good, here’s an excerpt (he likes long poems):

The most durable part of me
                        are the bones
                        and the hardest too

like, for instance, this bone
            in the leg
            which I feel
            under the soft active
of flesh and bone
            that dresses it and fully
            covers me
            from head to toe
                                   this living and fleeting

yes, this bone
the hardest part of me
lasts more than everything I hear
and think
more than everything I invent
            and lie
            this bone

His leg bone continues preoccupy him in “Living room accident:”

I move the left leg
            in a bad twist
and the femur’s head
                                   against the pelvis’ bone
I suffer a commotion

and I hear myself
            did it happen to me
or to my bone?

and another question:
            am I my bone?
            or am I just the mind
which doesn’t bond with it?

and another:
if the bone doesn’t ask,
            who asks then?
someone who isn’t bone
            (or flesh)
            inhabits me?
someone I never hear
            except when
            in my body
a bone rubs against another bone?

In“Perplexity” he progresses from the physical body to transient conscience:

the most fleeting part
in me
is this awareness that I exist

and all existing consists in that

is it strange?
and even stranger
                  my knowing it
and knowing
that this conscience lasts less
than a thread of my hair

and even stranger still
            Than knowing it
is that
    while it lasts I’m given
     the infinite universe constellated
     by quadrillions and quadrillions of stars
being that some of them
I can see them
            glowing in the past’s present

And not neglecting his timeless responsibilities as a poet, the cat poems:


Kitten, my friend,
do you have any idea what a star is?

They say this whole immense planet of ours
            covered in oceans and mountains
            is less than a grain of dust
            if compared to one of them

Stars are chain nuclear explosions
in a sequence that lasts billions of years

The same as eternity

Nevertheless, Kitten, I confess
that I barely care
            how much a star lasts

I care about how much you last,
                        dear friend,
                        and those sapphire-blue eyes
                        you stare at me with

But the greatest of them all is “Pained Joy,” grater than many classic epyllia:

For years
he was my constant company
where I was
            he came
            and purring
nestled on my lap

Until one day…

It’s been years since the house is empty

But lo,
                        he comes back again
and lies next to me

I don’t dare
look at him
            For it’s better not to see him
Than not seeing him

I ask nothing
            only live
            the pained illusion
of having him with me

I have no doubts that so long as cat poems continue to exist poetry will not die. So long as cat poems continue to exist.