Paulo Scott on Graciliano Ramos


Last year, when I spent a few days in September traveling through Germany on a book tour on the occasion of the launch of my novel Habitante irreal (Nowhere People) in that country, I had the opportunity to speak with several people who were truly interested in learning about Brazil and, in particular, Brazilian literature today.

During these conversations—as I tried to explain the general situation of contemporary Brazilian literature and especially of that produced during the first two decades of the twenty-first century, referring back to the writers and works of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that brought Brazilian literature to where it is today—I would mention Graciliano Ramos in the same breath as Machado de Assis and Guimarães Rosa. To my surprise, and quite in contrast to what happened when I referred to Machado de Assis or Guimarães Rosa, almost no one I spoke with had heard of Graciliano Ramos.

If we were to take stock of Brazilian writers from the first half of the twentieth century—from among those writers who produced the most relevant parts of their oeuvre in the first half of the twentieth century—and ask which writer has had the greatest impact and influence on the way Brazilian writers write today, I have no doubt that the name of Graciliano Ramos would make the top of the list. His presence is undeniable in the works of the most celebrated contemporary writers who are still active today, such as Lygia Fagundes Telles, Rubem Fonseca, João Gilberto Noll, Milton Hatoum, Sérgio Sant'Anna, and Luiz Vilela; similarly, it is crucial to the work produced by contemporary authors younger than fifty, who began writing in the 1990s and during the first two decades of this century.

There is a sureness of style, a narrative vigor, among those writing in Brazil today that owes a great deal to Graciliano Ramos, a character involved with politics (he was even jailed for nearly a year for political reasons, an experience that led him to write his excellent, though unfinished, Memórias do cárcere, published after his death) as well as with journalistic affairs. He was born in Alagoas, one of the poorest states in northeastern Brazil, in 1892, when Brazil was still coming to terms with its recent incarnation as a republic; he was a voice that weighed in almost militantly against the dictates and privileges typical of the power exercised in the country by certain select social groups, including those of which he was part. By the time Graciliano died in 1953, he left an oeuvre that included various novels, short stories, essays, memoirs, children's fiction, and, not least, several translations—among them Camus's The Plague.

His first novel, 1933's Caetés—that's the name of a small town in rural Pernambuco, the word for "ancient woodland" in the indigenous Tupu language, and finally, a reference to the Caetés tribe that occupied part of the Northeast during the colonial period—is considered by some critics as a narrative experiment that led the author to his later novels, in particular his second, São Bernardo, published in 1934. In both works, Graciliano zooms in on the circumstances of private life; he levels criticism at the social and political contradictions of the new order that was instated in Brazil in 1930 and points out the cracks in that fledging republic. Both novels are emblematic of Graciliano's formative years as a writer; this is particularly true for his clarity of vision vis-à-vis his own class and country. Yet, these two early works are of singular importance in evoking Brazil's identity and its idiosyncrasies.

Graciliano's third novel, Angústia, was published in 1936, while the author—thanks to the federal authorities' vindictiveness—was still in the process of serving his prison sentence. To me, it is an important example of a novel in the Brazilian tradition that succeeds in portraying a problematic protagonist, a genuinely troubled hero. And it informs the way I create my own characters, too, since the people at the heart of my stories are all marginalized in some way, finding themselves in extreme situations in which any sense of the normal is obliterated.

In trying to gauge what the story is all about from its title, readers may be in for a big surprise—or a disappointment, depending on how you look at it, but then, it's also crazy to pre-judge a book by its title—because it is a love story in various derivations. Angústia is told from the perspective of a first-person narrator, a lonely government worker who falls for his neighbor. Its rhythm is frenzied (another aspect about Graciliano that I like and that greatly influences my own writing); the story, in turn, is buttressed by a tragic inner monologue. Characteristically existentialist, the novel exposes—through the act of crime at its center—the odyssey of man battling his own dehumanization; even in describing human relations, the narrator goes so far as to use verbs usually reserved for animals. It's not rare for critics to cite Angústia as Graciliano's masterpiece. In this novel, he creates a singular labyrinth, producing an experience that, through the narrative's apparent "fat," compels the reader to log (if we are to use the language of filmmaking) the reasons that may bring one to commit murder—so simple and so complex.


Notwithstanding the importance of these three novels and the other works that make up Graciliano's oeuvre, there is one small book, measuring barely a hundred pages, that stands out to me: Vidas secas, published in 1938. (Thanks to its experimental structure, it could easily be designated a collection of short stories revolving around the same existential conflict.) It is this book that left the biggest impact on me, as a thirteen-year-old reader, when we were forced to read it at school as part of an assignment worth ten percent of the grade, and I am grateful, to this day, to the teacher who gave the assignment. Quite in contrast to many of my classmates, I felt at home with the assigned readings of Brazilian authors to which we were subjected at school.

Graciliano's book narrates the story of a migrant family seeking to escape the ravaging drought in northeastern Brazil: father, mother, older son, younger son, and a dog named Baleia ("whale" in Portuguese). As a writer who breaks with the excesses of what's commonly called "poetic prose"—instead using a third-person narrator who establishes a pact with the reader early on, inviting him to recognize the real world as the scene of defeat—Graciliano reaches, with this work, a striking level of narrative restraint and precision. The drought, as the very scene of hell, becomes the environment where man's brutality—the brutality that guarantees his immediate survival—is something wholly removed from civilization and even language; a place where definitions and clarity are hard to come by.

Under these circumstances, poor families are condemned to obey and accept the violence of their masters (whether that master be a landowner; a trader who sells them an inferior product, not worth the exorbitant price he charges; or the government and its various bureaucratic hierarchies) as if they were domesticated animals searching for a way out of their captivity when it is, in fact, nearly impossible to find such an exit. Here, man is reduced to mere gestures and, in this world of gestures, searches for corresponding words, to formulate sentences, and to construct explanations in speech, that—when articulated well—may constitute some kind of liberation. The novel's protagonists engage in a balancing act between the hope of not becoming irrecoverably beast-like and the impossibility of considering the future as anything more than a dream, so as to avoid being stripped even of their last shred of lucidity. At a certain point in the novel, the father is arrested and imprisoned simply because he's unable to explain himself.

Even as he acknowledges his beastliness—the slave-like condition to which he has resigned himself—the father grows restless in the face of his own incapacity to assert himself, for he knows that asserting himself can cost him his life and any future for his wife and kids. His inability to bring about his own emancipation is an important feature of Ramos's characterization of those Brazilians in the social class just barely above complete destitution, but it also has a wider application, particularly when we consider how it has become a widely accepted notion that people without sufficient education, schooling, and basic human rights are easier to govern and to maintain at the bottom rung of the oppression that guarantees that country's "governability."

The situation Graciliano Ramos brings to life is eerily current, even if today the periods of drought in the Northeast no longer take on the apocalyptic dimension they did in the first decades of last century. Those in power continue to band together to sustain particular economic conventions, especially in those areas far from major cities. And then, there are certain new realities, too—for example, the threats against indigenous lands—amounting to the same dehumanization as before, precluding any possibility of political freedom.

The power of Vidas secas lies in this point and in the novel's choice of theme, but not only in these aspects; the author makes other choices that merit our attention, one of which concerns the fifth member of the family who plays an important role: a dog named Baleia. As an animal surrounded by human characters who are themselves animal-like, Baleia is treated by the narrator in the same manner as the human, and through Baleia he is able to enter and explore the thoughts, perceptions, and emotional states of those four people who are not so much the dog's owners as they are her family. Significantly, the novel originated with a short story entitled "Baleia," and so it comes as little surprise that the dog should be of such relevance. Baleia exposes us to the existence of people at the margins of a Brazilian capitalism that, though still in formation at the end of the 1930s (especially in the desolate region that is the book's setting), nonetheless has consequences.

At one point in the novel, the narrator reveals that the dog—who has already devoured the family parrot (which would have made a sixth family member if he'd not made an exit at the novel's outset)—feels a sudden desire to devour the eldest son. Of course, she does not—but such is the hunger the dog, like the other four members of the family, experiences. In another passage, Baleia disappears in search of a rodent, some prey, so that the other four might have something to eat.

"Dozing, they were awakened by Baleia, who carried some prey in her teeth. They all woke up yelling. The eldest son rubbed his eyes, wiping away bits of dream. Sinha Vitória kissed Baleia's snout, and, as the snout was bloodied, licked some blood, making the most of the kiss.The spoils of the hunt were meager, but they would put off the group's death. And Fabiano wanted to live. He looked toward the sky with confidence. The cloud had grown, now it covered the entire mountain. Fabiano strode confidently, forgetting the cracked ground that battered his toes and ankles.Sinha Vitória rummaged through the trunk, the boys set off to break off a stem from a rosemary bush to make a skewer. Baleia, ears perked up, resting on her rear with her front legs straight, stood watch, waiting for the parts that would fall to her, most likely the animal's bones and maybe its hide."
The dog saves their lives, entertains them, provides stability; she is equal to the human characters who rely on gestures more than words to communicate. This is a decisive choice: it's an approach that at no moment requires the reader to suspend disbelief. On the contrary, I think the dog—as the fabulous character that she is—is the first character in the story's dramatic nucleus to awaken the reader's empathy.

The simplicity of the story—which takes place amid the shift from one specific, concrete reality to another that offers better possibilities—may be the key to its universality, its ability to endure decade after decade, remaining ever current and engaging for readers. The Brazil in this book—a country where people obey the whims and fancies of those in power, that denies them the possibility of actually understanding what is happening to them and that compels them to resign themselves to a life without any rights—still exists; perhaps in different contexts, in new acts of silencing, in other antagonisms. But it still exists.

Lastly, the relationship between husband and wife merits special attention. Unfolding across moments of distancing and re-approximation, it adheres to a peculiar notion of companionship based on resilience, approaching "love as a choice." In the couple's coexistence, what stands out is the wife's capacity for seeking to understand her husband's rhythm, his limitations, and, when necessary—i.e. when she perceives the fragility of the man who, unsure of what to do, battles on as he can—her willingness to step forward and solve the problems they face.

Vidas secas serves as a great first step for those wanting to familiarize themselves with the work of Graciliano Ramos. As I said before, it's impossible to read and contextualize contemporary Brazilian writers without considering Ramos, who, in addressing such stark realities, made great strides toward a spare, elegant narrative that influences my way of writing to this day, and, I'm certain, the writing of the majority of Brazilian writers who are gaining renown and readers today, not only in Brazil, but throughout the world.

translated from the Portuguese by Eric M. B. Becker