I – The Guitar Lesson
II – Radical Reforms
III – News from Genelício
IV – The Disastrous Consequences of an Official Proposal
V – The Figurine
I – ‘The Haven’
II – Thorns and Flowers
III – Goliath
IV – “Stand firm. I’m on my way.”
V – The Troubadour
I – Patriots
II – “You’re a dreamer, Quaresma”
III – … gliding silently back…
IV – The Boqueirão Jail
V – Olga
I’m writing this introduction the day after watching – from a distance of some 5,600 miles – Brazil beat Chile on penalties [28 June 2014] in an extraordinarily exciting match in the world cup. Having got swept up in the excitement myself, I feel slightly disloyal to the author whose undisputed masterpiece Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma I’m presenting in translation here.
The thing is, Lima Barreto detested football. Nowadays, that may seem dreadfully un-Brazilian but, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, he considered the sport exactly that: un-Brazilian. And he was right: it was a British import. (In his book Lima Barreto versus Coelho Neto, Mauro Rosso suggests that, even before Charles Miller famously brought two footballs and a copy of the Hampshire FA rules to Brazil in 1894, boys in Rio had already been trying to imitate the game they’d seen British sailors playing.)
Not only un-Brazilian, however: Lima also considered the game elitist. In this he was also right. Mauro Rosso points to an article in the Sports newspaper of 6 August 1915 stating that “Football is a sport that should be practised only by people of the same [i.e. higher] educational and cultural level.” And the reason “pó de arroz” (face powder) is the nickname of the Rio team Fluminense is, as explained on the club website, that:
Having transferred from the América club to Fluminense, Carlos Alberto was afraid of the reaction of the aristocratic supporters, because of the colour of his skin. In the match that took place on 13 May 1914 he tried to hide his colour by covering himself with face powder. During the game, his sweat washed some of it off and all the supporters shouted “face powder!”
(Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose: nowadays there are plenty of extremely well-paid black Brazilian football players, but very few black faces to be seen amongst the Brazilian supporters at world cup matches – they can’t afford the tickets.)
The Coelho Neto referred to in the title of Mauro Rosso’s fascinating book was one of the most famous authors at the time and also a committed Fluminense supporter (two of his sons becoming famous football players, and one of them scoring the first ever goal for Brazil in a world cup match). The reason for the “versus” is not only that they were like chalk and cheese, but that Lima couldn’t stand Coelho, referring to him on one occasion as “the most noxious individual to have appeared in our intellectual midst.” Whereas Coelho was an adept of florid language and obscure words – not unlike the Dr Armando Borges, with his “classical mode”, in Lima’s novel –, Lima was a proponent of straight talking; and whereas Coelho became a member, and eventually president, of the Brazilian Academy of Letters, Lima applied three times without success.
Nevertheless, one would have to say – returning to the football analogy – that Lima’s team won the derby match with Coelho’s, but only after a period of extra time that extended for years. Coelho’s literary reputation took a severe knock with the advent of modernism in Brazil (heralded by the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo in 1922), and after his death, in 1934, he was largely forgotten – a situation that hasn’t changed substantially to this day.
Lima’s reputation also languished for a long time in the doldrums, with only one work of his – the second edition of Os bruzundangas (1930) – being published between 1924 and 1942. It revived thereafter, however, thanks in great part to the efforts of the journalist Francisco de Assis Barbosa, who published a celebrated biography of the author in 1952 and coordinated the publication of his complete works in 1956. Lima’s reputation has grown steadily ever since.
The reason it took so long for him to be acclaimed is partly to do with the vicissitudes of his life and partly with his actual writing.
He was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1881 (and scarcely left the city during the whole of his life.) His maternal grandmother and great-grandmother had been slaves. His mother, Amália Augusta, died when he was six and, after the proclamation of the republic in 1889, his father, João Henriques, lost his work as a printer, owing to his supposedly monarchist sympathies. In 1902, when he was working as an administrator at a “colony for the insane” on Governador Island in the Bay of Guanabara, João himself suffered a mental breakdown. This forced Lima to abandon his engineering course at the polytechnic in order to look after his father and his three younger siblings.
In 1903 he managed to get a job as a clerk at the ministry of war. The following year he also started writing professionally. The first of his novels to be published – Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha (The Memoirs of Isaías Caminha, Clerk) – came out, in 1909. At that time he was writing articles for one of the main Rio de Janeiro newspapers, the Correio da Manhã. The novel was, amongst other things, a trenchant satire on the newspaper industry, including thinly veiled criticism of the newspaper magnate Edmundo Bittencourt. As a result, Lima lost his employment at the Correio da Manhã and found the doors of other large newspapers barred to him.
In 1910 he was a juryman in the trial of some soldiers accused of murdering a student. The jury found them guilty, in consequence of which Lima was overlooked for promotion in the ministry of war.
During the last ten years or so of his life – he died in 1922 at the age of 41 – he sank into alcoholism and was twice interned in psychiatric hospitals (in 1914, for a few months, and from Christmas 1919 to February 1920). In a memoir he wrote during his second internment, he described the state he’d been in as follows:
I was becoming a chronic drunkard. Sometimes I didn’t go to the office for weeks or months. If I didn’t go into town, I’d drink like a fish somewhere in the neighbourhood. I’d drink before lunchtime, after lunchtime, up until dinnertime, after dinnertime, right up until bedtime.
As for the manner of his writing, its straightforwardness – at a time when Brazil was in thrall to elaborate rhetoric –, together with the priority he gave to content over form, was by no means to everyone’s liking. Something of this can be seen in a eulogy that no less than Coelho Neto published in the Jornal do Brasil on 5 November 1922, four days after Lima’s death:
…One of the greatest novelists Brazil has had – observing with the power and precision of a microscope, writing with masterly assurance, and describing the life of the ordinary people better than anyone else –, Lima Barreto took as little care of his work as he took of his own person and his own life, not seeking to correct its linguistic faults, letting go of it just as it came out – so fluently – from his pen, without the requisite editing, the indispensable polishing, the definitive touch that a finished work of art needs. Despite everything, the beauty he has bequeathed to us, in the way he observed life and painted characters, far outweighs any imperfections – imperfections that affect his work in the same way that stains and cracks can affect a great mural, but are unable to suppress its grandeur…
What particularly marked him out, however, was his enormous empathy for the poor and the downtrodden – he’d originally intended to write a history of black slavery in Brazil – and his unmasking of the pretensions and arrogance of those in power.
Those in power in Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma (or The Decline and Fall of Policarpo Quaresma, as I’ve called it) are the ruling class of the Brazilian First Republic (or “the Old Republic”), specifically in the period just before and during “the Navy Revolt” of 1893-4. The president at the time was Floriano Peixoto, who succeeded the first president of the republic, Deodoro da Fonseca, in 1891. Lima often refers to Floriano as “the dictator” although, from today’s perspective, he seems a rather lower-league sort of dictator in comparison with the champions-league dictators the 20th century was holding in store: he’s a dictator whose main characteristics are hesitancy and laziness, who’s plagued by personal money worries, and who travels – unaccompanied – on the tram.
Nevertheless, it might be said in a nutshell that, in 1889, an emperor – Pedro the Second – who had strong republican sympathies was overthrown by republicans whose leaders displayed a pronounced taste for the trappings of empire. It was also a period when positivism – the motto “Order and Progress” on the Brazilian flag is derived from Auguste Comte – was like a new religion in Brazil; when the government began to encourage immigration from Europe with a view, eventually, to “whitening” the population; when the conferment of the title of “doctor”, on completion of what would now be regarded as an undergraduate course, was regarded as similar to ennoblement; when about 70% of the population was illiterate; when to be over 50 was to be “old”; and when the guitar was regarded as an instrument exclusively of the lower orders.
It’s against this backdrop that Lima creates his eponymous hero, who loved his country “not wisely, but too well” and a tableau of other wonderfully vivid characters. These include Policarpo’s goddaughter Olga and her husband, the above-mentioned Dr Armando Borges (a couple who call to mind Dorothea and Edward Casaubon from Middlemarch); his long-suffering sister, Adelaide; his friend and fellow obsessive, the guitarist Ricardo Coração dos Outros; his neighbour, General Albernaz who, together with Admiral Caldas and Honorary Major Bustamante, wouldn’t have been out of place in a Gilbert & Sullivan opera.
The three parts of the book correspond to Lima’s satirical take on, respectively, the cultural, agricultural and politico/military state of the country. As in much of Lima’s fiction, there is a strong autobiographical element: like his creator, Policarpo is single, works for the ministry of war, and is interned in a psychiatric hospital.
As far as I’m aware, this is only the second translation of this novel into English. [A third, by Mark Carlyon, was published shortly afterwards.] The first, which was published under the title The Patriot in 1978, was the pioneering work of Robert Scott-Buccleuch. In his introduction, Scott-Buccleuch writes:
Generally acknowledged as one of Brazil’s leading novelists, Lima Barreto immediately invites comparison with the father of the Brazilian novel himself, Machado de Assis: both were mulattos, both lived in and wrote about Rio de Janeiro, and the work of both is deeply rooted in the European tradition. But whereas the works of Machado de Assis have been laboriously dissected by departments of Luso-Brazilian studies in Europe and the United States, and in translation made known to a wide reading public, Lima Barreto remains almost entirely unknown outside his own country and Portugal.
Sadly, the last point still holds: Lima remains “almost entirely unknown in the English-speaking world.” I hope this new translation will go some way to redress that situation.
Francis K. Johnson
29 June 2014
- I’ve kept the colloquial forms of senhor (seu, sinhô), senhora (sá) and senhorita (sinhazinha).
- Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma first appeared in serial form in the Jornal do Commêrcio in 1911. It was published in book form in 1915.
- Apart from Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha, mentioned above, Lima’s other novels are: Numa e a ninfa (1915); Vida e morte de M. J. Gonzaga de Sá (1919); and Clara dos Anjos (1948). He also produced a large number of short stories (many of them superb) and articles.
- The suburb of São Januário, where Policarpo lives in Part 1, is where the stadium of the Vasco da Gama football club now stands. I can guarantee, however, that there is not a single mention of football in the novel!
PICTURES OF PLACES (AND A BATTLESHIP) MENTIONED IN THE NOVEL
“The two of them entered the huge building, which rang with the clinking of swords and blasts from bugles; the large courtyard was full of soldiers, flags, cannons, stacks of weapons and bayonets glinting in the slanting rays of the sun…”
“What Quaresma was, before anything else, was Brazilian. He had no preference for this or that part of Brazil, so much so that what made him most passionate wasn’t just the pampas and cattle in the south, or São Paulo’s coffee, or the gold and diamonds of Minas, or the beautiful bay of Guanabara, or the height of the Paulo Afonso waterfall, or the poetry of Gonçalves Dias, or the derring-do of Andrade Neves – it was all of it together, fused and melded under the starry flag of the Southern Cross.”
“Were it not for that demonstrative, fanatical group, the Rua do Ouvidor was much as it had ever been: flirting, and the comings and goings of the girls. Whenever an artillery shell whizzed through the clear, blue sky, they screeched like frightened cats and ran into the shops, where they waited a little before emerging, grinning, the blood returning slowly to their faces.”
“When the tram eventually arrived, they climbed aboard and got off at the Largo da Carioca. It’s lovely to see the city on a day of rest, when the shops are closed, the narrow streets deserted, and footsteps echo as if in a silent cloister. The city has become like a skeleton, stripped of the flesh of movement – the movement of carriages, carts and people. Shopkeepers’ children are outside, riding bicycles or throwing balls, and their games make the contrast with the day before even stronger.”
“The palace had an intimate, relaxed air about it – a spacious eloquence. Here and there… you could see aides-de-camp, orderlies and messengers half-asleep on the sofas, their jackets unbuttoned. Everywhere there was slovenliness. The corners of the ceilings were cobwebbed, and any heavy tread on the carpets raised a little cloud of dust, carried in from the ill-swept streets.”
“With what terror – as if of something supernatural, of an invisible and omnipresent foe – the poor heard the name of that establishment on the Praia das Saudades! ‘Better a quick death,’ they’d say.
“At first sight it was difficult to understand why people were so afraid of the building. Certainly it was enormous, it looked forbidding – half hospital, half prison, with its high railings and barred windows – and it extended for hundreds of metres along the Praia das Saudades, at the mouth of the bay, looking out on the immense, green sea but, when you entered, all you saw were a few men – calm, pensive, deep in meditation, like monks praying.”
“The old imperial palace stood on a little hill. They were facing the rear, older part, dating from the time of Dom João, with the clock tower at a little distance from the body of the building.”
“You could hire binoculars and both young and old would follow the bombardment as if it were a theatrical production: “Fire from Santa Cruz! Now it’s the Aquidabã! There it goes!” And thus, before long, the revolt had become part of the habits and customs of the city.”
“In his opinion, the government should have done everything possible to capture Cobras Island, even if that meant rivers of blood. Bustamante wasn’t sure what he thought, but Quaresma and Fontes disagreed: it would be far too risky and would have no clear benefit.”
“The cannon!” he ordered. “Now! Forwards!” This was followed, in a nervous voice, by, “Hold on a minute!”
“In time, the revolt became a sort of carnival, an entertainment for the city… Whenever a bombardment was announced, the terrace of the Passeio Público would fill up in no time. It was like back in the days when it was fashionable on a moonlit night to go to the old Dom Luís de Vasconcelos Gardens to observe our lonely satellite filling the sky and scattering silver on the waters.”
“She looked at the sky, the air, the trees in Santa Teresa, and she remembered that these lands had been traversed by savage tribes, one of whose chiefs had boasted he had the blood of ten thousand enemies in his veins. That was four hundred years ago. She looked again at the sky, the air, the trees in Santa Teresa, the houses, the churches; she saw the trams passing; a locomotive blew its whistle; a carriage – pulled by two beautiful horses – passed in front of her at the entrance to the common… There’d been all sorts of changes. This park, what did it used to be? A quagmire, probably. There’d been huge modifications…”