Reevaluating the Urgent Political Relevance of 20th Century Brazilian Novelist Lima Barreto

"He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica."

Authors forgotten in their lifetimes sometimes resurface decades later, telling us stories that resonate far beyond their original historical moment. One such writer is Lima Barreto, whose poignant renderings of working class Brazilians from the turn of the twentieth century reverberate with contemporary relevance. Today, anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz tells Asymptote about her experience researching and writing the new biography of Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, released in Brazil in July 2017.

Lara Norgaard (LN): In the biography you recently published, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, you read Lima Barreto’s fiction through the lens of history and anthropology. How was the experience of studying literature from that perspective? Why is historical context important for reading Lima’s work?

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz (LMS): Disciplinary contact zones are engaging spaces, but they are contested. I place myself at the intersection of anthropology, history, and literary criticism. It was a great concern of mine not to see literature as a direct reflection of reality, since we know that Lima Barreto, while reflecting on reality, also created his own. At the same time, Lima said he wrote literaturamilitante, a term he himself used. That kind of committed literature dialogues with reality.

Lima even suffered for that approach in his time. What we now praise as high literature used to be considered unimaginative. Can you believe that? His contemporaries said that because he referenced reality and his own life, he didn’t have imagination. For me, that was a big step. I thought, I’m going to write this life by engaging with the reality that Lima lived, just as he himself did. Take his first novel, Recordações do EscrivãoIsaias Caminha, which is the story of a young black man, the son of a former slave who takes the train to the big city, as Lima did. In that city he experiences discrimination. And the second part of the book is entirely a roman à clef, as it calls attention to journalism as the fourth estate. The novel was so critical that the media blacklisted Lima, and the book was terribly received. His story “Numa e a Ninfa” critiqued politicians and his second novel, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, critiqued president Floriano Peixoto. Peixoto is part of the book. History enters the novel. And in that sense these novels dialogue with reality and invite the historian.

I also read the excellent North American biographer of Dostoevsky, Joseph Frank, who calls attention to how it’s possible for novels to structure a biography, not the other way around. So I tried to include Lima Barreto’s voice in my book. He’s the writer, and rather than explain something in his place it would be better to let him say it. And so, looking at the biography, you’ll find that I often intersperse my voice with Lima’s. Those were the methods I used working in the contact zones between disciplines.

LN: How did you choose the excerpts from Lima’s novels to include in the biography?

LMS: They were actually very easy to choose, so much so that I had the opposite problem. The excerpts aren’t hidden. They form the inner framework of my book. It’s a long biography, but when I finished the first version it was twice the size. When I started writing it, all I really wanted to do was arrange excerpts of Lima Barreto’s work.

Here’s the important thing. Lima Barreto isn’t an unknown author at all in Brazil. On the contrary, he’s the subject of very important critical texts. Consider his other biographer, Francisco de Assis Barbosa, who was so fundamental that I even made him a part of my own biography of Lima Barreto as a sort of voice of wisdom, you could say. But there were many generations of critics: Nicolau Shevchenko, Beatriz Rezende, Arnoni Prado. And more recently Nelson Botelho and Felipe Botelho.

So what I did was ask new questions about a well-known author. I asked questions about civil rights. How did Lima approach gender? How did he approach urban space, from the perspective of poor suburban neighborhoods? What was his relationship to social spheres like his generation of writers, the Esplendor dos Amanuenses? What was his relationship to race?

For me, questions like race were especially important. Race is still a problem in Brazil today. I thought to myself, if I simply state that Lima constantly confronts race, people might say I’m lying. So I have Lima himself speak and prove that racism and skin color were in fact very important to him. What’s the way to prove that? To bring in Lima Barreto’s narratives, his voice, his rhetoric. It was easy to choose those excerpts because Lima’s rhetoric formed the basic architecture of the biography.

LN: Translation is generally considered something that occurs between languages, but in some sense it can also take place across time periods. While writing the biography, did you find it difficult to translate issues of race, gender, or politics from Lima’s time period for a contemporary audience?

LMS: Anachronisms haunt the historian. Lima Barreto wrote during the First Brazilian Republic, the post-abolition moment in which the country promised inclusion but delivered social exclusion. That much was clear. But you can’t suddenly call Lima a feminist, for instance, when discussing the topic of gender. Lima Barreto was very ambivalent. He began a huge, wonderful campaign against femicide, telling husbands, boyfriends, and lovers: look, you can fight but don’t kill. At the same time, Lima was not a feminist. He placed himself in opposition to the feminist party. Now we can translate what this meant. As we know, there are different kinds of feminism, and intersectional feminism exposes white feminism as an elite feminism, one that discounted the lived experiences of working women. It’s not that Lima was against feminism, but he wasn’t totally in support of it, either. He thought it to be a movement of the elite. So what do you do? It’s really not about applying our notions of gender to the turn of the century. It’s about trying to view gender in terms of how it affected Brazil at that time.

The same goes for the question of race. We can’t impose our current understanding of race on Lima Barreto, but it is impressive how modern Lima was on the topic. In his time, he said things like, “I was invited to a reception on the marina. Upon arrival, no one was asked for their tickets. But they asked me. That bothered me.” Here, it’s remarkable how Lima discusses discrimination at a time when Brazil, after abolishing slavery, said everyone should be happy. Another amazing thing is how Barreto works with the social construction of race, a very new idea. You see this in the character Cassi from the novel Clara dos Anjos. Lima says, “Cassi was white in the language of poor suburbs. When Cassi went to the city center, he became black.” So you can see how this idea of the social construction of race that we work with now was something that Lima Barreto already defined, in his own way.

I think that the popular reception of this biography and the attention it received at FLIP is due to the fact that Lima writes about very current issues. He doesn’t require much translation across time. He’s the author who picks a fight with the republic, demanding more res publica, stronger institutions, and more representative institutions. He’s the author who picks a fight with the failings of our democracy, questioning how we can be a republic with so much racism and so much violence. He’s the author who supported the strike of 1917 and accused the public of oppressing immigrants in the way they oppressed slaves. So you see that he’s an author who raises important issues for today’s Brazil. There’s not much danger of anachronism. It’s enough to just turn the reader on to Lima Barreto as an excellent writer.

LN: During his lifetime, Lima Barreto had a lot of problems with his reception in the Brazilian Academy of Letters. But now, as you mentioned, he was the honored author at FLIP. What has changed in the Brazilian literary establishment?

LMS: It’s true. The academy did not receive him well. I always say that Lima Barreto deserves more than victimization. He was a victim, but he was more than that because he had various goals. One was to enter the literary establishment as a contrarian. His first book, as I said, attacked journalists. His second, politicians. His third, the military. He went about creating a sort of anti-reception, a censorship of his own books. The guilty party was Lima Barreto himself. Not exactly guilty. I tend to use the North American term “agency” instead. People usually think of agency as something consequential, but here it was an agency that failed in Barreto’s lifetime.

As I explain in the biography, Barreto had issues with the 1922 movement of modernists in São Paulo. He wrote a story criticizing Klaxon, their magazine, which he called a copy, a pastiche, in that ill-humored way of his. Their response was spiteful. The modernists, not the movement in 1922 but the movement in 1930, labeled Barreto a pre-modernist. “Pre” is a terrible category, one that suggests he isn’t what came before or what would come next. But Barreto’s group of writers was in fact modernist. It was a group that used orality, that was against Parnassianism, but he just wasn’t seen that way in his time.

Barreto would only be reevaluated in the 1950s with Francisco de Assis Barbosa’s biography. Even then, he didn’t gain visibility. I think that now, in a moment when we’re extensively discussing civil rights, Barreto has the chance to re-emerge. Incredible, isn’t it? A century later and we finally see the author as modern. Those are the twists and turns of history.

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz recommends that first-time readers of Lima Barreto begin with the novel The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma translated by Mark Carlyon or, for the Portuguese-speakers out there, Lima’s short stories such as Numa e a Ninfa”, “Clara dos Anjos,” “Nova California,” and O Homem Que Sabia Javanês.

Translated from the Portuguese by Lara Norgaard. The interview was edited and condensed for clarity. 

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz is a Brazilian historian and anthropologist whose research focuses on race, the history of slavery, and the history of anthropology. She is a professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of São Paulo and a Global Scholar at Princeton University. Her biography of Brazilian novelist Lima Barreto, Lima Barreto, Triste Visionário, was released this July. She spoke about the author at the 15th annual Festa Literária Internacional de Paraty (Paraty International Literary Festival, or FLIP).

Lima Barreto (1881 – 1922), commonly referred to as Lima in Brazil, is a novelist who wrote in Rio de Janeiro during the First Brazilian Republic. His mother was a professor and freed slave and his father a typographer. Writing as a mixed-race man in a post-abolition era rife with discrimination and theories of scientific racism, Lima Barreto wrote short stories and novels that exposed the corruption, inequality, and discrimination underlying Brazil’s young democracy. Unrecognized for his talent during his life, Lima Barreto has only gained notoriety in recent decades. This year, he was the honoree at the 15th anniversary of Brazil’s acclaimed literary festival, FLIP.

Lara Norgaard is a recent graduate of Princeton University in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America. She teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017—2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.


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