By Padma Viswanathan
Why is Graciliano Ramos not read more widely outside of Brazil?*
All educated Brazilians have read at least one of his books and more avid readers will readily name a favorite among his novels. In 1941, a national literary poll in Brazil named him one of the country’s ten greatest novelists—one of only four living authors on the list—and his reputation seems only to have increased in the sixty years since his death, with all his books still in print, special issues on anniversaries, and beautiful boxed sets.
Paulo Scott, a rising Brazilian literary star, opens a 2012 essay about his literary hero in Asymptote by marveling at how little-known Graciliano is in the wider literary world. It’s unjust: “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.” In Brazil, in other words, in literary circles at least, a mention of Graciliano Ramos almost inevitably elicits passion. A mention of him in North America elicits a blank stare.
Why? As with any writer we feel is overlooked, this has something to do with taste and something to do with luck. Graciliano’s novels are sinewy and subtly ironic and so don’t, perhaps, dovetail easily with how much of the world wants to see Brazil, whether as a land of beaches-caipirinhas-bossa nova, or vibrant cities fed by coffee plantations abutting the exotic Amazon. His characters ply Brazil’s arid Northeast; they are prickly and solitary; and his books’ claustrophobic atmospheres emanate from a singularly honed linguistic discipline, hard to pin down.
Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953) was born and raised in the Brazilian state of Alagoas, where most of his original works are set. He went to Rio de Janeiro in 1914 to work in newspapers, but returned home the next year, starting a family and, like his father before him, running a general store. He published four highly regarded novels between 1932 and 1938, going on to write children’s books, short story collections, and two memoirs, a career seemingly barely interrupted by his imprisonment by the Vargas dictatorship from 1936-1937, on suspicion of participating in a communist revolt. (He eventually joined the Communist Party—in 1945.) His monumental prison memoir was published in 1953, the year he died of lung cancer.
Before I started reading Graciliano, I had vaguely heard him referred to as writing in a social-realist vein, sort of like John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s popularity didn’t suffer for this, but I didn’t understand Graciliano to be as central, necessary, and influential as I eventually learned he was. Perhaps because his last and best-known novel focuses on a disenfranchised family, or because he was writing in a time and from a place when a lot of overtly political literature was produced, or because of his imprisonment and Communist Party membership, there is a wide strain of critical commentary that has characterized his work as message-fiction. In an award-winning monograph, scholar Darlene Sadlier argues against this, saying that his style was not merely a “way of disguising his social and political concerns” but a “deliberate artistic strategy and ‘an ingenious method of combining the social and the psychological.’” When she, as others have, compares Graciliano to the American writer William Faulkner, she notes that, despite the similarities in their themes and formal strategies, North American critics have tended to focus on Graciliano’s regionalism and implicit social criticism, while Faulkner is granted an “aesthetic realism.”
If I can say this as someone who is attempting to retranslate him, I suspect Graciliano may have had the bad luck to attract translators whose interpretations of his work were similarly distorted. Of his novels, only the last, Vidas Secas, is still in print in English, and that only in print-on-demand, as Barren Lives. (Subject to a now-obscure form of contract, the book’s English-language rights are held by the American publisher; they’ve refused to permit a new translation.) The book follows a family of sertanejos—peasants from the sertão, the drought-stricken regions of Brazil’s interior Northeast, the region where Graciliano himself lived most of his life. The book is formed of 15 independent pieces that can be read out of sequence, apart from the first piece and the last: the book opens with the family setting out in search of farm work and concludes with them headed toward the city in search of brighter horizons, which we readers know they are unlikely to find. It’s not hard to read this as a cry against the pervasive economic injustice that still afflicts the Brazilian underclasses, but close attention to this and Graciliano’s other novels suggests that while injustice is a received fact of these characters’ lives, it was more the mysterious interplay of language and psychology that motivated the writer.
Vidas Secas was Graciliano’s only novel written in the 3rd person. For it, Graciliano—an erudite autodidact who would go on to publish translations from English and French—employed a restricted vocabulary to “sound out the soul of those roughly-formed, almost primitive beings who live in the most backward part of the sertão, to observe the responses of this untamed spirit facing the wider world—that is, the hostility of the physical surroundings and human injustice…” as he put it. “It was this sort of psychological investigation that I was attempting.”
In Graciliano’s second-to-last novel, São Bernardo, he attempted a rather different investigation: this book tells the story of Sr. Paulo Honório, a former laborer who buys and restores the now-decrepit property where he was once a field hand. The book is premised, in other words, on dramatic irony. Smaller ironies thread it throughout. Sr. Paulo learned to read only as an adult: he had the time and the opportunity to do so because of a stint in jail. After the tragic loss of his wife and a serious downturn in his fortunes, he writes a memoir, which he titles São Bernardo, the name of his property, even though he disparages literature and literary pursuits. He has been told no one can write the way they speak, but that’s exactly what he does: tells his own story in his own rough-hewn voice—exclamatory, spontaneous, colorful.
Graciliano was inspired by the types of men he grew up with and did business with—ambitious thugs who aspired to become a Brazilian nouveau riche—and by a criminal psychology, murderous impulses that he said he suspected lurked also in the heart of the writer. But it was the terrain of exploring a new language that most excited him. “São Bernardo is done, but it was almost entirely written in Portuguese,” he wrote to his wife. “Now it’s being translated into Brazilian, but a complicated Brazilian, very different from that which appears in city-folks’ books, a backwoods Brazilian, with a huge number of unpublished expressions, treasures that I had no clue even existed.” He thought gleefully about how the book would befuddle sophisticated readers and thought it might even shift the evolution of Brazilian Portuguese, imagining that “idiots studying grammar will nod drowsily over São Bernardo, looking to Sr. Paulo’s monologues for examples of good language.”
Although it’s unlikely any schoolchildren were ever taught to speak like Sr. Paulo—he is one of a kind—Graciliano’s books did come to represent a world of linguistic possibilities. As American scholar Fred Ellison said, “With Ramos, language is a precision tool with which effects hitherto unrecorded in Brazilian literature have been made.”
Which feels like a gauntlet thrown down for new translators. While several of Graciliano’s books have been translated, many remain unavailable to English readers, and every great book not only deserves many readers but opens itself to multiple readings. It’s my hope that Graciliano Ramos’s moment in the Anglophone spotlight has arrived.
*(Note that, for this article, I have used the Brazilian convention of referring to the writer under discussion by a given name.)
De Moraes, Dênis. O Velho Graça: Uma Biographia de Graciliano Ramos. São Paulo: Boitempo, 2012.
Ellison, Fred. Brazil’s New Novel: Four Northeastern Masters. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1954.
Excerpt from São Bernardo, by Graciliano Ramos (translated by Padma Viswanathan)
Before I started this book, I thought division of labor was the way to go.
I approached several friends and most of them heartily agreed to pitch in for the betterment of our national literature. Padre Silvestre would look after the moral side and the Latin quotations. João Nogueira took on punctuation, spelling, and syntax. I promised Arquimedes the typography, while for literary flair, I invited Lúcio Gomes de Azevedo Gondim, editor and director of The Cruzeiro. I’d outline the plan, insert the basics of agriculture and cattle-raising, cover the costs, and put my name on the cover.
It was an exciting week, meeting with my main collaborators. I could already see the volumes on display, one thousand sold thanks to the eulogies I’d placed in the stick-thin Gazeta on Costa Brito’s recent death, trying to gain some advantage. Anyway, my optimism went up in smoke when I realized we weren’t all seeing eye to eye.
João Nogueira wanted a novel in the language of Camões, with sentences turned back to front. Count me out.
Padre Silvestre gave me a chilly reception. After the October revolution, he turned fanatical, demanding rigorous investigations, and punishments for anyone who wouldn’t wear a red scarf. He gave me the side-eye. And we were friends! Those patriots. It’s fine—everyone has their obsessions.
I dropped him from the plan, and set my hopes on Lúcio Gomes de Azevedo Gondim, a good-natured journalist who writes what he’s told to.
We worked for a few days. Afternoons, Azevedo Gondim would leave the newspaper to Arquimedes, lock the nickel-and-dime drawer and pedal his bicycle out to São Bernardo, half an hour on the roadway that Casimiro Lopes had been trying to fix with a couple of other guys. He’d comment on the day’s headlines, denounce the government, drink a glass of brandy Maria das Dores brought him, and, feeling important, meekly command, “Let’s get to it.”
We’d go to the porch, sink into wicker chairs and work out the plot, smoking, looking out on the caracu heifers grazing in the pasture below and farther out, at the edge of the woods, the red roof of the sawmill.
At the start, everything went well. We were in perfect agreement, had long conversations. But each of us was turned out to be listening to himself, not taking what the other said seriously. Warming to my subject, I forgot what Gondim was actually like. I saw him as some kind of blank page receiving the confused ideas boiling up in my brain.
The result was a disaster. Two weeks or so after our first meeting, The Cruzeiro’s editor presented me with two typed chapters of nonsense. I lost my temper. “Go to hell, Gondim. You’ve made a mess of the whole thing. It’s pompous, it’s fake, it’s idiotic. No one talks this way!”
Azevedo Gondim switched off his smile, swallowed the insult and swept together the shards of his meager vanity. Sulking, he objected that an artist can’t write the way he talks.
“He can’t?” I asked, astonished. “Why not?”
He can’t because he can’t, Azevedo Gondim replied. “It’s like this because it’s always been that way. Literature is literature, Sr. Paulo. Folks argue or fight, go about their business, in a natural sort of way, but arranging words colorfully is something else. If I wrote the way I talk, no one would read me.”
I got up and leaned on the balustrade to get a closer look at the Limousin bull Marciano was leading into the cowshed. A cicada started buzzing. Old Margarida was coming along the wall of the dam, bent double. In the church tower an owl hooted. I shuddered, thinking of Madalena, and filled my pipe. “It’s the devil’s own job, Gondim. It’s all gone to pot. Three failed attempts in a month! Drink your brandy, Gondim.”
About the Writer:
Padma Viswanathan is the author of two novels, The Toss of a Lemon and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, published in 8 countries and shortlisted for major prizes, and short stories published in such journals as Granta and The Boston Review. She has also written plays, personal essays, cultural journalism, and reviews. Her translation of the Graciliano Ramos novel São Bernardo will be published this month by New York Review Books.