The 1950’s poetry of João Cabral de Melo Neto

By Rob Packer

"Morte e vida severina" by João Cabral de Melo Neto

João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999) is, like Jorge Amado or Graciliano Ramos, another of Brazil’s writers from Brazil’s Northeast whose subject is often the poverty of the region. I recently read a Morte e vida severina (Death and Life of a Severino), a collection of his poetry from the 1950’s, including Morte e vida severina, O rio (The River) and Paisagens com figuras (Landscapes with Figures)—as well as the personal Uma faca só lâmina, which I won’t be talking about in this blog. Without a doubt, this collection is the best piece of Brazilian literature I’ve yet to read.

Cabral’s poetry is highly metrical and is clearly influenced by popular Northeast form of cordel (string) literature, a form of illustrated chapbook that gets its name from the pamphlets pegged on a string like clothes hung out to dry. Unlike this sometimes light-hearted genre, Cabral is dead serious and the flow of retirantes, or migrants, for whom “everything had dried out but their sweat”, is a recurring theme in this collection.

In the long poem O rio, the River Capibaribe describes its journey in the first person from the sertão “where only the rocks stay behind” to the coastal city of Recife. The inexorable flow of the river is bound through rhyme and metre to another unstoppable stream of retirantes escaping the sertão. The river passes voracious sugarcane plantations before arriving at the migrants’ destination, but the city is little more than a “desert of swamps” where the driest land is ominously taken up by the Government Palace and prison; and the river—the source of water and therefore life, the “best travelling companion” and mostly sympathetic until then—turns on them becoming their “most intimate friend”, coming into the kitchen and “penetrating into the bedroom”. After a long journey the misery remains and even your old friends can stab you in the back.

Slightly less pessimistic is Morte e vida severina, based on the form of a Christmas morality play in verse and told by Severino, whose name Cabral turns into both archetype and adjective: a ‘Severine’ death is an ambush at 20 or dying “of old age at 30”. As he follows the riverbed to the coast, Severino, expecting life, only finds gravediggers and professional mourners—the region’s only reliable professions. In Recife, things are no better with Severino “only finding, on arriving/ cemeteries waiting”. But just as all seems hopeless, Severino comes across a real-life Nativity scene in a mocambo (a slum on a muddy riverbank), where the proud new father tells him that any “explosion of any life”, even a ‘Severine’ one, is cause for celebration.

Alongside the inspiration of the Northeast, João Cabral de Melo Neto’s poetry is influenced by his long experience as a Brazilian diplomat—above all in Spain where he moved in artistic circles—and this Iberian influence makes itself most felt in Paisagens com figuras, Cabral alternates between landscapes of rural Spain and his native Pernambuco. While the Brazilian state continues producing corpses and is still so unchangingly skeletal you can see the bones, the glimpses of Castile or well-proportioned Catalonia almost come as a relief; but it is this cosmopolitan touch combined with the cordel form that make me find his poetry so interesting and rewarding.

Graciliano Ramos’s Barren Lives

By Rob Packer

Vidas Secas by Graciliano Ramos

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.

Milton Hatoum’s Tale of a Certain Orient

By Rob Packer

Milton Hatoum's Relato de um certo Oriente

Tale of a Certain Orient (Relato de um certo Oriente) is Lebanese-Brazilian writer, Milton Hatoum’s debut novel, and the second that I’ve read by him (click here for my thoughts on his second novel, Two Brothers). Like its successor, Tale of a Certain Orient tells the problematic story of a Lebanese-Brazilian family in the Amazonian metropolis of Manaus and focuses on representations of a matriarch-figure, Emilie.

The novel’s prose is outstanding in places and some particular highlights were lyrical descriptions of an Amazonian sunrise or the Arabic lessons that a son receives from his parents, learning letters in the shape of snails and scimitars. Unfortunately, these are vivid highlights in a narrative that often comes across directionless: each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member or time and it was never clear (to me, at least) who was doing the narrating. Of course, multiple perspectives are normally a strength in narrative (see ‘La Señorita Cora’ in Cortázar’s Todos los fuegos el fuego for a virtuoso performance); but here the family web is so complex and everyone is referred to as ‘my mother’, ‘my sister’, etc., to make the result frustrating.

Tale of a Certain Orient has evocative, descriptive strengths, but overall, it comes to less than the sum of its parts with a leaping narrative that end up bewildering rather than captivating. Hatoum’s perspective on the Amazon and its inhabitants complex relationship with the forest is interesting, but Two Brothers explores similar subject matter with much greater poise.

Julio Cortázar’s All Fires the Fire

By Rob Packer

Cortázar's "Todos los fuegos el fuego"

Julio Cortázar’s reputation precedes him and the blurb for his collected short stories says no less than: “You must read Cortázar. Always. (Hay que leer Cortázar. Siempre.)” Now, this is the kind of praise you end up reading a lot of on book covers, but it’s hard not to agree with this hyperbole after reading any one of the stories in All Fires the Fire (Todos los fuegos el fuego). Each of these eight stories is pretty much perfect.

The premises of these stories sometimes seem so familiar; after all, who hasn’t been transfixed by a particularly beautiful island seen from a plane (‘La isla a mediodía’), or thought of hiding some shocking piece of news from a sick relative (‘La salud de los enfermos’)? What Cortázar does is to take the situation to its logical conclusion and beyond, as the family ties itself up in increasingly horrific and grotesque lies to hide the original untruth. It’s this combination of familiarity and the uncanny that makes these stories genuinely affecting.

My two favourite stories, though, are the two that bookend the collection: ‘Autopista del sur’ and ‘El otro cielo’. In the first, Cortázar describes a traffic jam on the autoroute into Paris that climaxes at almost apocalyptic proportions, while a recognizable society forms itself and the drivers’ identities are completely subsumed into their vehicles. In the last, ‘El otro cielo’ (reminiscent of Hopscotch (Rayuela), Cortázar’s most famous novel), the narrator mixes flâneur-like walks through a snowy Paris with escapism, nostalgia and Buenos Aires (no spoilers).

In English, Cortázar is often thought of as the writer of the story that inspired Antonioni’s 1966 film of Swinging London, Blow-Up—check the meagre selection of works available in English translation if you don’t believe me. For an author as complex, influential and enjoyable as Cortázar, this doesn’t even begin to do him justice and I’d recommend looking up anything of his you can find.

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