Feeling the Pulse of Brazil with Eliane Brum

By Basak Bingol Yuce

“She is proof that reality can inflict a pain unknown in fiction.” This is how Eliane Brum describes Enilda, one of the women whose story interweaves with many other “living mothers of a dead generation,” the title of one of Brum’s stories. It also explains my response to Brum’s brilliant book, translated into English by Diane Grosklaus Whitty: The Collector of Leftover Souls. The book comprises the field notes on Brazil’s everyday insurrections. 

Eliane Brum is one of the most influential journalists in Brazil today. She is also a writer and documentarist. In her book, she blends the skills of these three occupations and presents a new way of storytelling. The literary world has been more receptive to journalistic writing since Svetlana Alexievich’s reception of the Nobel Prize. I would define Eliane Brum’s book as a perfect example of a new genre that brings together journalism and literature, a way of storytelling that today’s moment of crisis calls for.

By embracing reality, I don’t want to sound like I am belittling imagination. On the contrary, imagination is present in Brum’s field notes. It is obvious in the accounts of the characters she interviews. We all tell our own truths, we imagine ourselves. “Our life is our first fiction. This fiction, which we call reality, is the substance of my stories,” writes Brum. Thus, from these notes of the collector and the accounts of the leftover souls, a sheer, painful truth arises, gets revealed, freed. And this revelation is what we desperately need in this moment of history, of a deep global crisis: the crisis of modernity, ecology, humanity, and health. 

In the introduction to the book, Brum touches upon an important problem: the perception of Brazil in the world. Brazil exists in the stereotypes. However, Brum warns, “Brazil exists only in the plural. In the singular, it’s an impossibility.” She has been roaming in the Amazons, listening to the stories of people, trees and, animals since 1998. Throughout the book, what is striking is the emphasis on listening while roaming, observing and interviewing. Eliane’s silence liberates the truth in these stories. She is silent, but although she refers to herself in the third person throughout the book, she is present, in her words, “as a body”: “I make my body a bridge between such diverse Brazils.”

DIVERSE BRAZILS

The diversity Brum deals with surpasses the first connotations of diversity (as in ethnicity, religion, class). She opens up the diversity within the diverse. In the first story, “Forest of Midwives,” Brum tells the stories of baby-catchers, midwives of the forest whose art is birthing babies. For these midwives, “Childbirth isn’t suffering. It’s a celebration. (…) It needs to be done by an equal.”

In another story, “Burial of the Poor,” she tells the lives of the poor who begin to be buried in life and how even in death they can’t escape life. “Crazy” is the story of a gaúcho on the hobbyhorse. “The Noise” is the story of a victim of asbestos and how horror refuses to be spoken.

The geographies Brum takes us within Brazil are actually unique to the country such as the favela Brasilândia in “A Country Called Brasilândia.” But it also demonstrates how universal the human needs, suffering, hope are; how universal the outcomes of failed modernity are. Then we read the story of Eva, with cerebral palsy. Eva, “the poor thing” in the eyes of the world and our universal assurance “that deformity, like madness, always lies in the Other.” But Eva never gives up: “First of all, I’m not going to give up. Second, life is a risk. Not just for me. But for everyone.” Brum’s stories are full of wisdom distilled from real life. One of the striking conclusions is for Eva’s story again: “Life abounds with paradoxes. Eva’s is that people hate her because they cannot pity her. And the world’s paradox is that the worst deformities are the invisible ones.”

One can read The Collector of Leftover Souls to theorize on literature. The reader is always reminded that the lines between fiction and reality are blurred but that sometimes we readers are standing on this very thin line as well, at that exact moment. As it is in “In Demon Zé’s Brazil”: “This might sound like a magical realist novel, but it’s all real. And it’s happening now in the southern part of Amazonas state.” Then, an airport worker Adail of “Adail Wants to Fly,” throws us back again to a sheer reality: “It’s my dream. But I lost hope. Poor people don’t fly.” A reality that starts to be “a cold knife on the heart” –I borrow the metaphor from Clarice Lispector–, with another story: “Old Folks Home”. We are now in the last stop of the failed modernity, that “values only youth” but “beyond the triumph of science, living is more than breathing.” Then another crack of society opens up and we witness how “the rich don’t want to mix with the poor even in their old age.”

The gang wars in Brazil are always in the news, we see the statistics and get horrified. But beyond these numbers, we don’t have a clue about life in the favela which is a place for tourist attraction for most of the foreigners who visit Brazil. But the “Living Mothers of a Dead Generation” also live there, beyond the walls we see, reminds us, Eliane Brum. We can feel their pain because Brum makes us feel the pulse of Brazil. Through that pulse the reader also understands that these stories are “acts of resistance”, crying over the empty landscape of tomorrow but living on is a form of resistance.

The title of the book comes from a story with the same title in which a lone combatant tosses out the remnants of the people in the city of Bagé in Porto Alegre. The combatant “saves the remnants from the landfill of oblivion”. Just like him, Brum gives voice to Raimundos (of her story “The Middle People”), saves them from oblivion. The unnoticeable Raimundos, the name of everyman in Brazil… But also to Raimundas (as in her story “João Asks Raimunda to Die With Him in Sacrifice”), the makers of meanings, “who lost faith in democracy” and “will never vote again.”

However, this is not a book of despair, this is a book about hope. Its pages are where everyday resistance and insurrection shine, where life persists and its truth liberates us, where the power of literature and journalism reloads, at the right time.

About the Writer:

Basak Bingol Yuce is a world literature scholar, journalist, and literary translator based in the US. She holds a PhD degree in comparative literature from Binghamton University. One of her areas of study is Brazilian literature. Dr. Yuce’s journalistic work focuses on literary and international journalism. She is a regular contributor to Turkish media outlets. Dr. Yuce translated books and articles from English, French and Portuguese into Turkish, among them the works of Clarice Lispector, Terry Eagleton, Antonio Candido, André Aciman, Ken Bruen, and Harold Bloom.

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