Can Money Buy Style?

By Rob Packer

As part of the off-and-on blog series of  “tourist knick-knacks that are funny until you look at the price tag” (see this silver gorilla on a surfboard in Mexico), here are some tropical birds in semi-precious stones that Brazilian kitschmeisters Amsterdam Sauer keep in their shop at the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.

While the workmanship is evidently impressive, the results show—as with so much in life—that less really is more. A pink bald eagle touching down on an outcrop of quartz (or whatever it may be) might be a bold visual statement, but as far as I’m concerned it  sits somewhere on the line between bathetic and downright hilarious. Well, actually mostly hilarious and I couldn’t help wondering if the strategy behind the shop’s location is that the beautiful view numbs your credit card hand and makes you start thinking about clearing out that space on the mantelpiece for a colourful new addition.

What do you think?

Sugarloaf

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;
here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery:
impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,
sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

from ‘Arrival at Santos’, Elizabeth Bishop

Photos from two trips to Sugarloaf Mountain this year. The best thing about a visit up the Pão de Açúcar—apart from the view obviously—is the little piece of forest that hovers at the top of the mountain nearly 400m above Guanabara Bay: it feels like spending an afternoon on Laputa from Gulliver’s Travels. Only without anyone trying to extract sunlight from cucumbers.

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Urca Window

By Rob Packer

A window in Urca, the bairro of the city just under Sugar Loaf Mountain.

Rui Barbosa’s Garden

By Rob Packer

Photos taken on a rainy afternoon in the Rui Barbosa House-Museum in Botafogo, Rio de Janeiro.

A Life-Time First

By Rob Packer

The first time I came to Brazil was only two years ago, but in all that time I’ve never been to one of the country’s true passions: futebol. Until tonight, that is.

We went to Fluminense, one of the Rio teams, against Ponte Preta from Campinas. The experience was—in a word—mind-blowing.

Here are some photos:

Under the Fluminense flag.

Dressed for the match.

The crowd begins its celebrations as Fluminense goes from 1-0 behind to win 2-1

Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis

By Rob Packer

"Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas" by Machado de Assis

While reading Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (Memórias Póstumas de Brás Cubas) by Machado de Assis (1839-1908), I constantly had to remind myself that it was written in 1881. The book—also Epitaph of a Small Winner in English—feels far more modern, and modernist, than its age would suggest. Even the basics suggest this: the narrator, Brás Cubas (a writing dead man rather than a dead writer), is telling his life story from his coffin and the novel is dedicated to “the first worm to gnaw the cold flesh of my corpse”.

But the story isn’t morbid; the narrative is playful in a style of ironic distance, and in parts feels very much surrealist. Within the first ten pages, Brás Cubas introduces us to his former mistress, who only has a few grey hairs because “she’s one of those stubborn types”. And while he’s lying on his deathbed speaking to her, a talking hippopotamus bursts into the room and takes him through a snow-covered landscape to the “origin of the centuries” to meet Pandora and have his life (and the whole of human history) flash before his eyes. It is touches like these that help the book feel so modern and make it an exhilarating read.

Towards the end of the book after a number of unsuccessful careers, Brás Cubas falls under the spell of Quincas Borba, a beggar become cod philosopher. Borba has created a woolly philosophical concept called Humanitas, a parody of the philosophical ideas of the day. Magpie-like, it “excluded nothing” and its key formula is the (frankly nonsensical) “Humanitas wants to replace Humanitas for the sake of Humanitas”.

Machado de Assis is, without a doubt, the most influential writer in Brazilian literature and his figure of the ironic narrator still lives on today—Moacyr Scliar is a great writer and an obvious example. But I feel he should also be thought of as much as a great writer of world literature: Brás Cubas feels mould breaking both linguistically and thematically, while it is also grounded in the 19th-century realist movement and the Western literary tradition as a whole and jumps effortlessly between references to Laurence Sterne, Molière, Voltaire and Dante. Doing all this is some feat and, quite simply, Machado de Assis deserves to be read.

Bernardo Carvalho’s Nine Nights

By Rob Packer

"Nine Nights" by Bernardo Carvalho

Buell Quain was a young American anthropologist who committed suicide in 1939 while journeying from a Krahô indigenous village to Carolina, a remote Brazilian town on the edge of the rainforest. This historical mystery becomes the focus of Nine Nights (2002) by Bernardo Carvalho (1960-), in which two unnamed narrators recount their stories of the anthropologist’s death: one obsessively investigating the details and motives in the present after coming across Quain’s name in a lone sentence in scientific periodical; the other giving an enigmatic and rambling account of his friendship with Quain in Carolina.

At its best, the novel chronicles the enormous changes in Brazil’s interior and the indignities suffered by its natives over the book’s 60 or so years, as the modern-day narrator remembers his 1960’s childhood in what he calls “hell”: his father’s properties in the cerrado, where the forest was cut down and burnt and the mud “road” undulated across country ending in a wall of virgin forest. As sad is the story of a once proud warrior tribe reduced to 50 people, living in constant fear of being attacked by their indigenous neighbours and unconsciously committing collective suicide. This is be echoed the year after Quain’s death, when the tribe he studied would be massacred by cattle ranchers to “teach them a lesson”, or when they are poisoned by untreated waste from a hospital upstream.

At these points (almost entirely in its middle third) this is both gripping and affecting, but as a whole the novel is strangely uneven. The narrator describes his obsessive research into Quain’s death with meticulous detail and ponderous supposition: the ultimate impression was that these parts were like excerpts from a stream of consciousness novel on someone writing a university dissertation in history. Equally incongruous was the melodramatic description of the narrator and his sister trying to rescue their seriously ill father from the machinations of his mistress—yes, just like in a telenovela.

Ultimately, this all came across as a mishmash of narrators and tone, rather than successful fusion. And I think this is because the central premise of the narrator, whose obsessive research is all we really know of him, failed to be believable and felt both tiresome and, once the truth is revealed, disingenuous.

Even worse is that this mixture of fiction, history and memory, with its narrow point of departure and the three black-and-white photos, is reminiscent of W. G. Sebald. This is an unfortunate comparison: Sebald’s books are unparalleled masterpieces of narrative and Nine Nights doesn’t come close.

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.

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