Urban Protest in Brazil: the City and the Politics of Luiz Ruffato

What annoys me sometimes in literature is when you try to show me a world which is only a violent, terrible world. I know this already.

‘Our political history is a succession of dictatorships.’

                                                                                            —Luiz Ruffato                                                        

The fiction of Luiz Ruffato tackles the grave injustices found in Brazilian society: the deep chasm between rich and poor, the endemic corruption, the cheapness of life in the sprawling poverty-stricken peripheries of the major cities. He is the kind of outspoken writer that tumultuous Brazil needs right now. The country is in crisis following recession, a massive corruption scandal and the impeachment process of its President Dilma Rousseff.

It is the poor who will suffer most from this debacle. After just a week in power the administration of acting President Michel Temer began scaling back social policies that the left-wing Workers’ Party had put in place over many years. The Guardian reports that ‘moves are under way to soften the definition of slavery, roll back the demarcation of indigenous land, trim house-building programs’[1].’

Ruffato gave presage to all this in his 2013 speech to Frankfurt Book Fair, presenting Brazil not as an up-and-coming economic success story, but a country in which the shackles of slavery had not been shaken off, describing the abject state of the majority of the population as ‘invisible…deprived of the basic rights of citizenship: housing, transportation, leisure, education, and healthcare…a disposable piece of the machinery driving the economy.’

Ruffato is in a position to talk of these matters. The son of an illiterate washerwoman and a popcorn seller, he slept rough for a month in a bus station when he first moved to Sao Paulo, making his subsequent literary success all the more remarkable. His most famous novel, There Were Many Horses, published in English in 2013, has been hailed as a defining novel in the history of Brazilian literature, winning both the Brazilian APCA Award for best novel and the Brazilian National Library’s Machado de Assis Award. In 2016 Ruffato won the International Herman Hesse Prize for Literature in Translation.

Set in São Paulo, a metropolis of over 20 million people, There Were Many Horses roams across the cityscape and its underbelly, investigating the lives of the homeless, the broken, the lonely, the corrupt and the evil. It is an important book for its political and social statements but also a rare example of a novel which engages completely with the concept of the developing world megacity: in characters, imagery, and structure. A series of 69 vignettes which happen over the course of a night in São Paulo, it began as an experiment, an attempt to capture the sprawling city in a way which Ruffato felt traditional novels had not done. Ruffato argues that the book’s experimental form mirrors the splintered infrastructure of São Paulo and the fragmented lives of Paulistas more effectively.

This interview was conducted in two parts. The first meeting happened in Sao Paulo, at the home of Ruffato. The author lives in an old-fashioned apartment block on the quiet crest of one of the city’s steep hills, in the upper middle-class neighbourhood of Perdizes. The narrow marble corridor that leads to his apartment, filled with potted plants and hanging ferns. Inside, the apartment is neat, with few ornaments. Opposite to a shelf of novels and books on art, a sofa sits by a window looking out across the city. The streaming lines of cars, the expanse of blue sky, the poor peripheral sprawl that goes on and on, blurring into the horizon: all of this made a fitting setting to talk about São Paulo itself, the genesis of There Were Many Horses, the challenges of writing about Brazil and developing world cities. 

The second part of the interview happened over the internet, after the recent suspension of the President Dilma Rousseff. This time, the author focused on politics and on uncertain future of Brazil. The bold red typeface in which he answered questions was perhaps an indication of the fear he feels for the dangerous position Brazil finds itself in today.

Kathleen McCaul (KM): Tell me how you came to write There Were Many Horses?

Luiz Ruffato (LR): There Were Many Horses, started first of all, like a stylistic exercise. I was thinking the following; for me, to write about São Paulo, or any other megacity, is almost impossible. The idea of a novel is closed, it’s a closed structure, and with a closed structure, you need to make choices, you need to make edits. I thought that these edits were precarious. I was wondering in what way I could get the city in the way that we (Paulistas) get it. I stayed thinking about these questions. The two basic units/concepts of a novel is time and space and I was thinking how does time and space work in a megacity? It’s not the same in a small city—space and time are different there. And space and time in São Paulo and London are different, for example. These two questions were the first things I was thinking and then I started to think how to put these things into São Paulo, how to create a novel, thinking about time and space, set in São Paulo.

I wanted to write a novel that wasn’t consecutive but simultaneous, in lots of different places at the same time, so you could be in various times and various spaces at the same time. We live in different times in São Paulo, if you go to the periphery, right into the periphery, you’ll find people living as if in the Middle Ages in Europe. And here in Perdizes, you are living the same life that you are living London. Time is completely different and space is completely different.

I was trying to create a novel based on these questions. Also, I was trying to bring in a thing which I find curious. In a megacity you don’t know the whole story. You only know pieces of the story, because of the speed of the time and space of the whole megacity. So based on these things I started to structure the book.

I can call it a novel, because it obeys these two things, time and space. Space—that’s the city of São Paulo and time—one day. The novel also has a main character: the city. So even if it isn’t a traditional novel, it’s a novel.

KM: What questions of time and space are pertinent for São Paulo particularly?

LR: A novel is a genre made for and capitalism at the edge of the world is not the same as the capitalism at the centre of the world. From that point of view, this novel had to give an account of the characteristics of capitalism at the edge of the world. The first thing is this abyss in the peripheries. You have it in America and England but you don’t have it as we have it in Brazil. In Brazil the plunge into poverty is deeper and stronger.

What, for me, also marks this kind of capitalism is the precariousness of everything. You can have money, jewelry, live in a mansion but your life is much more precarious in São Paulo. You can go out onto this street now and be murdered. I wanted to explain that when you live in England, for example, you might have worries about money, food. But in England you don’t worry about coming home alive. This lack of security changes everything, changes your perception of the world, it changes the way you have relationships with things and people.

KM: It was really impressive, for me, how light this lack of security, this danger and precariousness is portrayed in the book. It wasn’t a violent book, or a book about crime, but it had these points of violence that held up a mirror to the way São Paulo functions.

LR: Great. And you see, you can only show it’s real in such a way because of the precariousness of the form. The form is like this way of life. What annoys me sometimes in literature is when you try to show me a world which is only a violent, terrible world. I know this already. The image of a child crying a favela, I know it. It’s not new.

KM: What effect does writing in a developing world megacity such as São Paulo have on the poet or the novelist? Walter Benjamin said of Baudelaire’s flâneur character that it could have only been created in Haussmann’s Paris, with its wide boulevards so suitable for wandering. This figure of the strolling observer is strong in the tradition of the fictional European city but you can’t wander so easily in São Paulo. Some areas don’t have pavements at all. And there are many walls; real and of the mind. The city is full of fear, because of the violence and lack of security we have been talking about. Is this a problem?

LR: It depends. I agree with what you are saying. There really are walls. But I love what you said about Baudelaire and Benjamin reading Baudelaire, because with the flâneur he was talking about the birth of a vision of a city. The flâneur is exactly what I want for me. Sometimes, I feel angry when a writer just writes about the periphery, only seeing what is around him in periphery and the writer who lives in Perdizes simply sees Perdizes. For me, a writer is the one who needs to ‘flâneur‘. If I don’t put myself in the other person’s place there won’t be any literature. You can have reports and journalism but you don’t have literature. I think in a place like São Paulo, in a megacity, we are losing the ability to feel what other people feel. We are not affected by other people’s lives in the same way. This is where the mental walls appear. The literature of the middle class is all about me. Me, me, me.

KM: You need a certain level of education to be a writer. It’s difficult to write a book of quality if you are poor and uneducated, more difficult than being a football player for example. Do you think middle class writers in the academy, in São Paulo, are able to write about the whole Brazilian experience?

LR: There exists a middle class here; there exists a class of the abyss. The middle class in Brazil is the same as anywhere. The middle class writes about the same things. The latest novels of São Paulo last year are all really similar, but if you look at London it’s probably the same. People in the middle class like the same things. As a writer, you need to go out of this world. If you are English, American, Brazilian, you need to break the walls.

But in England a son of a truck driver who lives in the periphery of London can become a writer, because you have a system of education there which works. And when he becomes a writer he can write about this world. In Brazil it doesn’t work like that. The guy from the periphery can write, but not to a good standard, or he can simply imitate middle class books. You can never understand Brazil through its literature because of this. The system of education isn’t good enough to produce writers of quality from all walks of life. By reading Brazil’s literature you are going to understand only a little bit of Brazil and you lose all the other parts of Brazil.

KM: I’d like to talk about the characters found in There Were Many Horses, which are from all walks of Brazilian life. Many of the characters are broken down by a morally depraved society—homeless, victims of crime, driven mad by misfortune. The people who are successful are corrupt: the arms dealer, for example, or the senator who arranges orgies with female students. It’s a bleak vision of the city—and of Brazil. Could you talk a little about this please?

LR: There Were Many Horses, like all my other books, tries to paint a realistic portrait of contemporary Brazil. And Brazil, unfortunately, is a complex and complicated country. Brazilian society is marked most by its social abyss, the terrible system of education and health, the racism, the machismo, the homophobia, the corruption, lack of care for public property, contempt for the environment. With each new turn of events there is more evidence that we are a country, but that we don’t constitute a nation.

KM: You’re a political writer in many ways. In your fiction you grapple with the huge discrepancies found in Brazilian society. You used your opening keynote speech at Frankfurt Book Fair to talk about what you call the country’s social abyss, the great chasm between rich and poor, calling Brazil a ‘paradox country’. Do you think that the recent political agitation will make these paradoxes more apparent, or less so?

LR: We don’t actually have a political agitation. We have confrontations between groups that are in power and don’t want to leave, and those that are not in power and want to enter. There doesn’t exist, unfortunately, an organized social movement that can channel the various layers of population that are excluded from central decisions. Brazilians are individuals in the extreme. We don’t think like a community, much less about the long term. Unresolved issues in our history have built up and left us unable to react rationally. We are only content to survive. Our political history is a succession of dictatorships—this (recent) repressive trauma conforms to our collective memory.

KM: What’s the role of the writer at times such as these?

LR: There are two different parts to the life of a writer. In his books, the writer should transcend or should aspire to surpass the moment and the place in which he is inserted, because literature is an aesthetic expression. The reader should not demand the political position of the writer, to do this would be an authoritarian act. But now (in Brazil), writers are citizens at the forefront, they are privileged citizens, because they can intervene socially as mouthpieces of ideas and ideals. To want to use or not use this privilege is an individual decision. For me, it is essential to participate in the public life of my country, be it writing my novels, or in my weekly columns for the Brazilian edition of the Spanish El Pais, or in conferences at fairs and literary festivals, or in dialogues and interviews. But each writer should position himself in the way he thinks best. If we do not take a position this is also a declaration of the place we occupy in the world.

KM: How active have writers and poets been in protesting against the recent upheaval? Do you see artists galvanising into a political group, as the Tropicália movement did against the military dictatorship in the 1960s?

LR: This moment, post-dictatorship, is very different to before the military dictatorship. The writers and poets today have no importance in the Brazilian political scene—readership in Brazil is terribly low and the image of the artist does not have the strong significance sufficient to become emblematic of a specific political position. In addition to that, in general, Brazilian writers and poets are cowards and egocentrics: they preoccupy themselves in not creating friction with the people of power to guarantee crumbs of some subsidy, instead turning their energies solely to constructing what they consider their work of literature or poetry.

KM: Reports are coming out of police brutality against peaceful protests, and of veteran journalists such as Paulo Henrique Amorim being silenced for speaking out. Are you worried about this news?

LR: I am not only worried about freedom of the press, which is in real danger, but about all the small victories we obtained during this short and troubled period of democracy. The economic power, in which Brazil is confused with political and media power, uses all methods to silence dissident voices. We have to be attentive to the maneuvers that are being made in the National Congress to silence some sectors of the judiciary that are developing important work to combat the corruption. Also, to maneuvers that are going on to repeal legislation favourable to minorities (women, blacks, gays and Indians), to the environment, to the diminution of the penal age, the restriction on arms, agricultural reform, social funds, quotas in higher education. In the end, there are many fronts being attacked, led by powerful industries that we call the stall of BBB (bullet, bull, bible), parliamentarians that defend the interests of the arms industry, the landowners and the fundamental Christians.

KM: How are these events affecting your work as a writer? Are they affecting it all?

LR: In literary terms, they have affected nothing, because for me, literature cannot submit to present history. Of course, all the events that I live through as a citizen will become part of my own memory, which is an integral and substantial part of the collective memory. It could be that the day comes when I use this material in my prose fiction, but I also could not.

[1] Watts, Jonathan, The Guardian, May 20th 2016.

Kathleen McCaul is the author of two novels. As a journalist she has written for the BBC, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and The London Review of Books. She is currently working towards a CHASE funded PhD at the University of East Anglia, writing a novel based in São Paulo and a thesis which investigates the influence of São Paulo’s architecture and infrastructure on the fiction written within the Latin American megacity.


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