Thursday, February 7, 2013

“Minha Terra”: Ivo’s Brazil

Snakes’ Nest or A Tale Badly Told

But sometimes, it was as if the sea did not exist, and he lived among stones, in a nest of snakes.

“During a dictatorship, all narratives are poorly told…” writes Lêdo Ivo in reference to the rambling, unreliable narration of this short novel. Indeed, as University of New Mexico professor Jon Tolman explains in his helpful introduction, Snakes’ Nest is set in Brazil in the 1940’s, during what was known as the “New State,” a semi-fascist experiment in caudillismo, a cult of personality around the charismatic leader, Getúlio Vargas, that lasted from 1930-1945.  At heart an allegory of good and evil, this “sunny nightmare” rises like a miasma from the streets of Maceió—from the bars and brothels and sugar depots that distinguish this seedy port city in  northeastern Brazil that even today is renowned for its rampant corruption and violence.  As described in a 2011 article in The Economist, “The road from Maceió, the capital of Alagoas state, to its airport passes luxury-car showrooms and shops selling outsize Jacuzzis. In the central reservation, indigent families live under plastic sheeting. Even by the standards of Brazil's north-east, Alagoas is scarred by poverty and extreme inequality. With 107 murders per 100,000 people, Maceió is also the most violent state capital in Brazil, just as, with 60 murders per 100,000, Alagoas is the country's most violent state. It is a place of sugar and cattle, where the sugarcane cutters settle scores with fists and knives and the well-connected escape punishment by using contract killers instead.”  It is this latter world that serves as the setting for this collection of powerfully rendered vignettes about the workaday men and women of Maceió—the lawyers, gangsters, sailors, poets, prostitutes, and nuns—a story, a novel (though Ivo denied it the name) in which the narration flits like a hummingbird from character to character, from place to place, sipping here, drinking there, darting back and forth in time as if drunk on the nectar it finds. In an age when more and more American writers are forced by the market to answer to the same dull master, that is, plot over character, murder and mystery over language and symbol and theme, this novel comes as a positive relief. 

Ivo’s heterodox approach to storytelling, to fiction, should come as no surprise to anyone who knows of him, for he was a poet, first and foremost, a writer who flirted with Modernism before turning his back on it to embrace more classical, more traditional forms. One feels the poetry in his language and rhythms, in the weight and balance of his words, yet there is nothing fussy or self-conscious about his style. Even in English his phrasing has the blunt simplicity, the force and gravitas, of prophesy or scripture, as in this passage describing the moments—the minutes, the seconds—before one of his characters, a manager of a local airline agency, blows out his brains:

It was raining—it was a rain of words.  The wind blew—it was a wind of words.  The world wasn’t made of skies, clouds, cities, sugarcane mills, ports, dams, yards, old cars, streets, power plants, houses, men.  It was made only and exclusively of words—and the people spoke in words. Even the paving stones of Maceió were made of words.  Alexandre Viana ate words, slept words, worked words.  And he felt more alone than ever, as if the very weapon that sketched itself before his eyes would turn into a word.

While Snakes’ Nest is set in the Maceió of Ivo’s childhood, what he calls “minha terra” or “my land,” it is important to note that the period in which the novel was written, that is, the early 1970’s, was actually a more politically repressive time for Brazilian artists and writers than that of the quasi-fascist caudillismo of Getúlio Vargas, evidence enough that such authoritarianism is perfectly at home in the rich Brazilian soil. What makes this significant, what makes it  especially poignant to me, is that I have only just now finished reading the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s book, Brazil: A Land of the Future, a gushing, 250 page hymn to the nation that had given him home and sanctuary as a Jew in flight from Hitler’s Europe. The picture he paints of early 1940’s Brazil and its future in the world is just short of utopian, an incredible feat, given Vargas’ staunchly corporatist, right-wing, anti-Marxist politics, a tyranny over thought and expression that included censorship and the harassment, torture, and execution of leftists.  Somehow, for all of Zweig’s perspicacity as a writer and exile, he had failed to see the forest for the trees. Blinded to the rise of fascism there, in Brazil (in the selfsame period described by Ivo’s novel), by his desperate need to keep faith with the human race, to believe in the possibility of a paradise on earth, Zweig ends his introduction to this Panglossian tribute by writing: “For that reason, one of our best hopes for a future civilizing and pacification of a world that has been desolated by hate and madness is based upon the existence of Brazil.”  That Brazil was indeed a sort of paradise to Zweig is clear; what is also clear—a fact perhaps only acknowledged by Zweig himself on the eve of his suicide in 1942—is that, by the time he’d finished writing Brazil: A Land of the Future, the Serpent was already in. 

Here, to conclude, is one of Ivo’s better known poems:

The Sound of the Sea

Sunday afternoon, I return to the old Maceió cemetery
where my dead never stop dying
their consumptive and cancerous deaths
that penetrate the ebb tide stench and constellations
with coughs, groans, imprecations
and their dark mucus
and in silence I summon them to return to this life
where from childhood on they slowly lived
with the bitterness of long days fixed to their monotonous existence
and the fear of dying of those who witness the close of day
when, after rain, the ants are scattered
across the maternal ground of Alagoas and can no longer fly.
I say to my dead: Arise, come back to this unfinished day
that has need of you, of your persistent cough and your tired gestures
and your footsteps on Maceió’s crooked lanes. Return to those insipid dreams
and windows opening on to suffocating heat.

On Sunday afternoon, among mausoleums
that seem suspended by the wind
in the bluish air,
the silence of the dead tells me they won’t come back.
No use calling them. From the place where they are now, there’s no return.
Just names carved in stone. Just names. And the sound of the sea.

© Translation: 2010, Alexis Levitin

Lêdo Ivo (1924-2012) was a Brazilian journalist, poet, novelist, and essayist who was awarded the prestigious Brazilian Walpmap Prize in 1973.  Born in Maceió, Alagoas, Brazil, the son of Floriano and Euridice Placido de Araujo Ivo, he later married Maria Leda Sarmento de Medeiros and fathered three children.  Ivo’s first volume of poems — As Imaginações — granted him national recognition in 1944. His other works of include Ode and Elegy, Ode to Twilight, Birth of the Sonnet, Language, and The Common Soldier.  In addition to Snakes’ Nest, he write three other novels: Alliances, The Road without Adventure, and The Death of BrazilSnakes’ Nest is published by New Directions Books. 

Peter Adam Nash


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