December 23, 2011 1 Comment
By Rob Packer
The Northeast is culturally a long way away from Brazil’s more industrialized southern regions. It is a region famous for the cultural synthesis and religious syncretism that fuses African gods with Catholic saints and created capoeira, it was the focus of the Portuguese colony (with a short Dutch interruption, during which Recife briefly hosted the first Jewish community in the Americas) and has a vast, empty and arid interior, the sertão. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this rich cultural diversity has supplied a [disproportionately?] large number of writers to the national canon.
Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953) was part of a generation of realist Northeastern writers, whose novels often depict the region’s poverty and injustices—Jorge Amado is the most famous. Vidas secas (1938, Barren Lives is the English title, although I think “arid lives” is best) is often considered Ramos’ masterpiece and the book portrays the brutal poverty and precariousness of life in the sertão.
We first encounter Fabiano, Vitória, their unnamed sons and dog, Baleia, wandering seemingly aimlessly in a desiccated desertscape littered with skeletal animal carcasses. We don’t know how the family got there or where they’re going; it’s not really clear that they even know. And once Fabiano convinces a ranch owner to take him on as a cowherd and the family settle, all past seems forgotten: except for the terrifying and constant fear of drought that sometimes seems to be the only thing that marks time in the episodic chapters.
This dried-out existence is hardly a happy one: the couple’s sons are unschooled—the idea occurs once to Fabiano and is soon forgotten—and have difficulty expressing themselves verbally, even to the family dog. Vitória, in a vaguely misogynistic turn, is ill-tempered and pines for material possessions. Fabiano, on the other hand, sometimes comes across a taciturn philosopher who can barely count past five; he repeatedly feels taken advantage of, yet is almost mindlessly obedient to authority whenever it appears. Only Baleia, the dog, succeeds in uniting the family.
As the book continues, it becomes more and more clear that the family is trapped destiny and a debt to the ranch-owner. The family’s superstitions come to the fore after Baleia is (particularly grotesquely) put down and Fabiano imagines her as an avenging spirit. Equally haunting is the image of Fabiano shooting at a flock of birds that presage the coming drought. When the drought inevitably does come, the family move off as if on autopilot towards a city where they know nothing will be better. And the inescapable cycle of life in the sertão goes on.
Vidas secas is a harsh story that romanticizes nothing: the cycle of poverty and its effects are constant and inevitable, whether in the sertão or in the city. No solutions are offered in the text, although Ramos’ relationship with communism is a strong hint. Whatever the politics, though, the book’s strength lies in its portrayal of poverty, all the more so because part of you knows it’s true.