Érico Veríssimo, the writer from the South of Brazil

By Dr. Cíntia Schwantes

Érico Veríssimo was a Brazilian writer born in the extreme South of Brazil, in the city of Cruz Alta, on December 17, 1905. His father, the owner of the local drug shop, went bankrupt and he had to take care of his mother and younger siblings at an early age, following his parents’ divorce. Not being able to study anymore, he nonetheless continued to read extensively, not only in Portuguese. His first published work was a short story with stark social criticism; he started working at the Globo Publishing House and continued to read and write. In 1931 he married Mafalda Halfen Volpe. They had a son and a daughter.

Verísismo translated literary works from English to Portuguese as a means of complementing his income. Unable to write poetry (in his words, “tengo la pata muy dura”, “my hand is way too heavy) and not following the short narrative as well, most of the titles he published are novels. His first novels deal with a wealthy family which went bankrupt (as his own), alternating with independent narratives. His second novel, Caminhos Cruzados (Crossed Paths, 1935), utilizes Aldous Huxley’s technique of counterpoint, crossing the stories of a number of characters who live in Porto Alegre, the main city of his home state of Rio Grande do Sul.

His first novel, Clarissa (1933), tells the story of a young girl who studies in Porto Alegre. The writer portrays panels of characters who function as a microcosm of society. The protagonist goes to school and undergoes an informal education provided by the various people she meets. In his third novel, Música ao longe (Music From Afar, 1936), Clarissa is back home, in the imaginary town of Jacarecanga, working as a teacher and living in her parents’ house, musing about the meaning of life. Now, family and friends provide the microcosm in which the young Clarissa tries to assert herself. Um lugar ao sol (A Place in the Sun, 1936), the fourth novel, follows Clarissa, her mother and her cousin Vasco to Porto Alegre, after the death of her father in a political fight and the loss of the house, as the family was ridden with debts. Again, the city and its various inhabitants are an important part of the novel, presenting more than one way of dealing with the hardships of life, with various degrees of success. In Saga, his sixth novel and the last one of this cycle, Vasco departs to Spain, to fight for the loyalists, the supporters of the elected left-wing government battled by the General Franco with the aid of the Luftwafe. Back to Brazil he marries his cousin Clarissa, his long-time sweetheart and finally finds peace. His fifth novel, Olhai os lírios do campo (Behold the Lilies of the Field, 1938) is not related to the cycle.

His main work is a roman-fleuve O tempo e o vento (The Time and the Wind), whose first volume, O continente (The Continent), was published in 1949, the second volume, O retrato (The Portrait), in 1951 and the third, O arquipélago (The Archipelago), in 1962. The novel narrates the story of a family living in the south of Brazil from colonial times to the 1950s and covers the wars for territory, the many revolutions that part of the country underwent, the two global conflicts of the twentieth century and Vargas dictatorship. Apparently, when the narrative started to cover his own times, it became less clear to the writer what was essential to be put in the book. Also remarkable is the fact that the really important characters in O tempo e o Vento are the many women, matriarchs who raised their offspring alone. The men were either dead or were going to die in a war or revolution whereas the women work hard and have little time for love and other luxuries. According to Veríssimo, women are the land (the family name is actually Terra meaning land), the stable element. Men, oppositely, are the wind.

The writer was also a prolific writer for children, with the following titles: As aventuras de Tibicuera (1937), O urso com música na barriga (1938), A vida do elefante Basílio (1939), Outra vez os três porquinhos (1939), Viagem à aurora do mundo (1939), Aventuras no mundo da higiene (1939) and Gente e bichos (1956).

HIS STAY IN THE US

Érico Verissimo lived in the US three times during different periods. In 1941, he stayed for three months, and in 1943 he returned with his family. He was invited by the Department of State for both sejours. His second stay was extended for two years, which he spent teaching Brazilian Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. Both periods rendered two travel books, Gato preto em campo de neve (Black Cat in a Snow Field, 1941) and A volta do gato preto (The Return of the Black Cat, 1947). In the third period, from 1953 to 1956, he lived in Washington D.C., with his family, as the director of the Culture and Tourism Section of the Organization of American States (OAS).

His experience living in the US also rendered two novels, O senhor embaixador (His Excellence, the Ambassador), published in 1965 and O prisioneiro (The Prisioner), published in 1967. In the first novel, the main character, the ambassador, is a man of poor descent who married a wealthy family and became ambassador of his (imaginary) Latin American country due to his wife’s family connections. Here, the staff of the embassy works as his usual microcosm. O prisioneiro deals with the Vietnam War, at the time a sore point. The main character, a mixed-race Lieutenant who serves in an unnamed Asian country under intervention, ends up killing a prisoner during interrogation, albeit unintentionally. Talking to his only friend, a French teacher, he faces his own problems with his black father, the pain of racism, and the fact that he killed a person to keep the system which hurt and oppressed them both. He ıs portrayed as a character who is fighting to be free, and altough he played by the rules all his life, he ends up with a piteous result: becoming a killer.   

FANTASTIC FRAME TO DEPICT INEQUALITIES

Verisismo’s last novel was published in 1971. Written in a hurry (he knew his health was declining quickly), Incidente em Antares (Incident in Antares) is engaged in accusing the violence and brutality of the military dictatorship. The novel was written in the “dark years” of the dictatorship (1968-1972). In the novel, he uses a fantastic frame to depict the inequalities of society and the brutality of the repressive machine. A group of recently deceased corpses, citizens of an (even another) imaginary town in South Brazil is left unburied due to a general strike, their coffins just next to the graveyard. They decide to go downtown to finish the business they left unattended when died. The corpses of different social layers here work as the microcosm, which includes the matriarch of the main families in town, the social leader, killed under torture, who endeavors to put his companion, who is pregnant with his child, in a safe place in the neighboring Uruguay, which was still not plagued with a dictatorship of its own in 1963 (the year previous to the coup in Brazil, and also the year when the action takes place), a prostitute who denounces her clients in the middle of the hypocritical crowd, and a local drunkard. All of them have an accusation against the life in town.

AUTOBIOGRAPHY PUBLISHED POSTHUMOUSLY

The first volume of his autobiography, Solo de clarineta, is published in 1973. He depicts his childhood in the inlands of Rio Grande do Sul, his shyness, his conflicts with his father, the important local, national and worldly events of the times. His first years in Porto Alegre, his job and marriage are also covered in this volume, as well as his stays in the US. The second volume narrates his travels. Veríssimo died of a heart attack in 1975, before completing this book, which was posthumously published in 1976 by professor Flávio Loureiro Chaves.

Veríssimo was very careful in his writing, researching widely in history, sociology, and psychology to compose his characters. Also, as an avid reader, he had a deep knowledge of the literary language. Despite the quality of his work, critics of Brazilian literature usually considered his works as minor literature. There are several reasons for this tendency. Veríssimo lived out of the Rio-São Paulo axis where the cultural life of the country takes place. Despite being left-wing oriented, during the polarized years of the post-World War, he refused to support the left-wing parties, deeming himself as a “humanist”. Most importantly, he was not only a very prolific writer but also a well-read one. All these reasons made his work to be considered as popular literature, best sellers of low quality with little consequence. On the other hand, lately, a movement to rescue his work from this unfair criticism is being undertaken.

Editor’s Note: Veríssimo’s Time and The Wind which was translated by L.L. Barrett Veríssimo in 1951 is available in English.

ABOUT THE WRITER:

Cíntia Schwantes was born in Tuparendi, Rio Grande do Sul, in 1960. She graduated in Letters in 1981 and got her masters degree in 1988 from the University of Brasilia. Her doctorate in Gender Studies was finished in 1998, at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul. She currently teaches in the Department of Literature at the University of Brasilia (UnB). Her research focuses on gender studies and comparative literature.

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