The Making of a Novel

In Search of Rio de Janeiro beyond Clichés 

September 1 -- September 21

September 1-6 After months in the North and North-East, the shock of this five-million metropolis is emotion-tattering. Accustomed to absorbing smaller, more definable places, as big as Salvador, as small as São Raimundo Nonato, one consciously tries to do the same here, little realizing that within only one or two blocks lies a similar challenge.

 All the labels attached to Rio drift past me with little impact. Months ago I decided that beyond historical reference I would not become involved with ““Rio”” - a cliche that hides so much of what Brazil is (and was.)

 God! The noise in this hotel! At any moment, you hear several conversations underway around you, children shouting outside, music blaring, cups clattering in a nearby kitchen, people hollering at each other, the way they “talk.”

First word association with Rio is “Carnival,” the 20th century Roman Bacchanalia. Second is football - a “forum” in the shape of 200,000-capacity Maracana Stadium. Third is Copacabana and other beaches and their beautiful women. Okay, so maybe my mind is filled with unremitting harshness of the sertão, maybe my appreciation of “beauty” is at a different level, but I've yet to see the gorgeous women of Rio. Possibly because I see beauty as more than “flesh,” the intuitive sense that there is spirit, too, a presence and elegance. Something many Brazilian males, among the world's worst MCP's, would not see...

Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro
Copacabana Beach, Rio de Janeiro

Not difficult to comprehend from historical point of view, for no doubt within first hours of Cabral's landing, they had their "conquests." Imagine. Some of the degredados of Europe arriving to find scores of willing Indian maidens, men who'd often spent years in prison freely offered these virgins of the forest. Girls who bathed their nakedness twice daily, who made love like unbridled creatures of the wild.

Rio - the city that reached for the sky and lost its soul? I wonder. Beyond towering buildings, glittering storefronts and sweep of world-famous beaches, what is Rio? Everyone here says Rio is the greatest city in Brazil but in comparison with the greater Brazil beyond, I wonder? Take Carnival, for example: Once, long ago, it was doubtlessly a true expression of “Carnival,” of unrestricted, uninhibited festivity. Today I see it as a mask, an artificial stage for its orchestrated players.

Certainly, I write these notes sitting alone in a seedy, backstreet hotel. - Got the front desk man to smile for the first time in a week. - I ask myself whether I would feel the same way if I was in a suite at the Copacabana Hotel waiting to be chauffeured to someone's villa for lunch?

I ask that but remember, too, that I'm an observer not a participant and have to call the shots as I find them. After sixty days of travel, thought, talk, personal “debate” I'm also arriving at some critical observations of Brazil. They are criticisms that give me an urge to write and share with my readers, to let them know far more than they've ever imagined about this green paradise -- or hell...

The urge to be at work on the book is an excellent sign; this feeling that this observer's tour must soon end, for I want to start writing.

First, though, I'll need to throw myself into a massive reading session: Again and again, it's been made clear that many of the best sources, the most free and critically valuable records and observations from earliest times onward are the writings of foreign travelers and scholars, historic, geographic, social.

Rio de Janeiro,  Stereooptic view, 1910s
Rio de Janeiro, Stereooptic view, 1910s

Brazilian Frock Coats and Men of Letters

Fine Brazilian writers there certainly are, but too often they're not prepared to get their hands dirty. The “brilliant intellectual and poet” type in fine gray suit and polished shoes and with special concern for what A, B or C may think and whether D, E, F will invite same scribe to their next soiree. “Men of letters,” they are called. “Men of Life,” too often, they are not. You don't live it in comfortable salons.

An alternative to the older, gray-suited “salon” type is the bizarre young intellectual who sees himself as avant-garde and tries to outdo the next man with the eccentric and the unusual. Far and few between are men of realism like Euclides da Cunha or Freyre. Probably because the ones that could rise toward that realism have not the opportunity, being trapped in the sea of forty-five percent illiterates.

The criticisms above are of contemporary nature but important in that past events, disasters and triumphs must of necessity build toward the keys to modern Brazil.

Reminds me - such “interruption” comes from hours of free-flow mind dredging - I was thinking earlier of perfect example of Rio-type: "LdJ," neurotic, disillusioned at 40, a poet, a fanatic devotee of the Rio cult, truly representative of those Brazilians who live in blissful isolation from so many of their brother and sisters.

I am and will be eternally grateful for having had the sense and understanding to start my work “up north” and avoid my deeper impressions being clouded and obscured by places like Rio. Ask yourself why Michener chose a small town like Centennial to tell the story of two hundred years of the USA? Precisely why the Cardosos (Cavalcantis) and da Silvas will stay away from the house of LdJ and the likes! Or they might as well be Brazilians living in New York and chatting about the old days for all the feel and sense it would give a reader of Brazil's past.

The damn radios and music and noisy kids are beginning to break into my mind so I'll leave off this entry. Almost two weeks remain in which to “discover” Rio but since I've no interest in (or money for) samba-ing my way through its stony heart I'm resolved to seek out a number of serious sources — Lacerda, Resende, a rain forest and an Indian expert, perhaps a Jesuit historian. These five objectives achieved will give me all I need and want from Rio.

Remembering the brief sorties Michener and I paid to Johannesburg and Cape Town in The Covenant, I tell myself that this is precisely on track. Foolhardy to attempt going beyond the simplest physical contacts with this city as it is (and probably the same goes for São Paulo.) Much more important to stay far out there with the “people” for, in so many ways, the key to Brazil's story is the “people” and the land - the vast, encircling, intimidating land.

Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro
Rocinha favela, Rio de Janeiro

Contradictions of Brazilian North and South

September 7 Brazilian Independence Day celebrated with massive military parade in several cities. Rio's was staged by 1st Army and lasted for three hours. Impressive performance by soldiers, marines, air force but perhaps indicative of Brazil today were two “special” companies: the fire brigade armed with side arms and sten-guns and a company of riot police looking like 20th century Roman gladiators with Perspex masks and body-length shields. One noticeable thing: Though all the generals and top officers are white, a very high percentage of blacks in the ranks, suggesting army is most advanced institution in “integration.”

In afternoon I walked miles from Centro to Botafogo and back to monument to World War II soldiers, where outdoor symphony concert was held to mark 159th anniversary of Cry of Ypiranga. Poorly attended probably because of chill but striking contrast to April 25 celebrations in Coimbra, Portugal - no comparison in the class and depth of the Brazilian celebration. But, as ever, preponderance of the military, their presence is exaggerated, of course, because it's “military” everything: firemen, ordinary and traffic police, even park-keepers in military-style uniform. Otherwise, somewhat dry day as these notes reflect. Plan for early night to prepare for onslaught next week.

(Next fortnight in Rio de Janeiro was devoted to interviews with contacts, among them Ambassador Antonio Fantinato Neto, historian José Hónorio Rodrigues, naval expert Max Justo Guedes, botanist Carlos T. Rizzini of the Jardim Botanico. My journal's pages are filled with excerpts from the interviews and reflections on their content. A few examples follow.)

Ambassador Fantinato Neto on difference between people of North-East and South: “A physical 'land' difference is the most important. The lands of the North-East are empty, dry, 'the drought polygon,' contrasting strongly with the green humid areas. The sertão is in many ways a “desert of people.” It is dry, overpopulated — the anti-vespera, the natural force that acts against the green — the green against the greenless, the water against the drought cycle. (Fantinato's expressions! The poet, not the diplomat talking!*)

In considering vast land difference, especially as it affects the souls of men, must realize majority of newcomers to Amazonas are from the North-East, Ceará, first drawn there by the rubber boom at the turn of the century, and a second wave more recently attracted by agricultural centers and minerals.

On industrialization of South at expense of the North: A political slogan and a feeling based on resentment of the South's success. It's not true to say that political power rests solely with the developed South. Perhaps up to 1930 there was some evidence for this with presidents coming from power centers of Minas Gerais and São Paulo.

The 1930 revolt broke this succession of the so-called 'milk and coffee governments' and their disproportionate hold over the rest of the country. The North-East's deprivation claim is projected on the lines of classic “metropolis and colonies” pattern, the South is the “empire” etc. utilizing the raw materials of the north in an extractive way. Socially and politically the people of the North-East want to see or argue the same pattern.

“Talk of a nation with a metropolis and colonies is a great exaggeration. It's a way of simplifying things, of disguising the real inherent problems, this claim of secondary position. “They like to think of themselves as the slaves, we the masters.” It seldom functions like this and comes largely from resentment and simplification of matters.” 

(The next statement stunned me!* = interjections in blue parenthesis from journal.)

“Some people say there is a solution to the North-east problem: separation from Brazil.” (!)

But Fantinato adds this is a great exaggeration because Brazilian nationalism was forged in the North-East. “North-East is perhaps more Brazilian than we in the South.” (!!) Conversely, São Paulo has sometimes been spoken of as a “second nation.” 

Once there were Paulistas who said that São Paulo should be separated, that it was providing all the money for the rest of the country, that it was the “victim” having to foot all the national bills. To truly prosper, it should be independent. Minas Gerais reaction was typical: “If São Paulo became independent, we would be annexed to it immediately!”

On latifundia: until ten years ago, agriculture was our greatest strength but then industrialization emphasized since advent of JK (Juscelino Kubitschek) began to take precedence. Today, in São Paulo there is no latifundism; in Mato Grosso you have great cattle areas - these are not considered latifundos, the lands were empty, not cultivated, cattle raising often a spontaneous thing. To this day, the North-East has latifundia but they are in process of transformation.

In half of the first 100 years of republic in Brazil, the Army exercised power directly or through figures like Getúlio Vargas
In half of the first 100 years of republic in Brazil, the Army exercised power directly or through figures like Getúlio Vargas .

Listening to the Noise of  Democracy in Brazil

An awareness of democracy exists in our towns and cities, says Fantinato,  but beyond we have a huge illiterate population who don't have an idea of democracy. But the trend is toward urbanization and here people are more easily addressed through advanced communication and motivated by ideas of democracy. The great noise made about democracy in Brazil comes from fact that we have spent so long a time without it - Brazil naturally tends toward democracy.

The idea of a strong Mussolini-style regime is an object of mockery in Brazil. We are not monolithic but strongly individualistic, though as “Latins,” we are prone to some criticism and some rebellion like the Spaniards. But Brazilians realize the disastrous consequences if a country as great as theirs in a South American context were to opt for dictatorship. 

The Brazilian Army and the country's politicians differ in their definition of democracy. The Army speaks from the mouth and not the heart. They want democracy but don't like the noise of democracy. They don't like the conflict, tumult so far from the “peace of the cemetery.” They want democracy after “order.”

(I've rushed over the surface, I've absorbed a lot but here in Rio and São Paulo I'm at last coming to the 'depths.' On 'Cry the Beloved Country' I am reaching toward some understanding of Brazil today - the unrealized potential, the desperate rearguard action against forest and drought polygon, the tragically mistaken import of 'foreign' values - all miraculously counterbalanced by the very fact, the very existence of Brazil. Its homogeneity in the face of staggering differences; its unity in the face of immense forces that would separate it.)

On the Amazon: A literary dream to us (in context of Rio perspective)- We are proud of it; we have read about it in books. We have heard that we need to protect it. We see the river as the prototype of all rivers. But in another way, the Amazon does not tell us much because in Rio we live in close contact with the forest and landscape - real contact - which is essentially what you have up north. 

Nature was from the beginning a dominant factor in Brazil. Intimately involved in a contest with it, the Brazilian is more likely to cut down a tree than to plant one. The forest is a mysterious and dangerous entity. It's luxuriance and fecundity is such that if you don't cut the trees and shrubs they will threaten and invade your house - ”Ecology” is new and an imitation of North American ideas. We always have been and we remain predators of nature. (Wonderful. Honest. True.) 

Carlos T. Rizzini, Jardim Botanico A complex interview on “rain forest” types, the three major types - terra firme, the upland forest on dry sites; varzea, seasonally flooded forest; igapó, swamp forest

permanently inundated, smallest section and poor foliage; and one special 'exception:' Caatingas do Rio Negro and similar. One quote from my notes with Dr. Rizzini:

“Important to distinguish between coastal forest and what we know as Amazon forest. The Atlantic forest from Rio, São Paulo, Minas Gerais is the oldest type and virtually extended from Rio Grande de Sul to Rio Grande do Norte. These Atlantic forests date to the Cretaceous period. (The geological formation is Pre-Cambrian.) The Amazon forest is much newer. The main difference lies in the Atlantic forest's number of species which is much smaller and quite definable; in the Amazon the number is so exceedingly high it's difficult to distinguish them - The Amazon forest is still in the process of evolution.”

Botafogo Bay in 1869.
Botafogo Bay in 1869.

Excerpt BRAZIL, Book Five, Sons of the Empire, August 1855 - January 1856

At the Corte, as the capital was known, Dom Pedro and his American aristocrats lived with a semblance of European elegance, scrupulously observing court etiquette, worshiping foreign ideas, and devotedly following the latest French fashions. Rio de Janeiro was slowly outgrowing its colonial jumble and squalor. Its bustling streets in the central district contained shops of French merchants and craftsmen who supplied the coveted finery; the counting houses of English traders; the establishments of the ubiquitous Portuguese shopkeepers; and, of course, the enormous bureaucracy of imperial government, to which thousands swarmed for emoluments.

The city's oil lamps were being replaced by gaslights; unhealthy marshes on the outskirts of the Corte were being filled and drained; and across the bay, from the small port of Mauí. A Baronesa! -- the first locomotive in Brazil -- shrieked and roared along ten miles of track to the foothills of the Serra da Estrela and the road to Petropolis thirty miles away, the summer retreat of the emperor and his family.

The city was spreading north toward the district of the emperor's palace and south into the shadows of Corcovado and Tijuca. At the small bay of Botafago, with the Sugar Loaf to one side, between thick groves of large-leafed banana trees and stately palms, stood the sparkling white mansions of viscounts, barons generals. Tropical plants and trees flourished, dense and deeply green, and gaudy blossoms of scarlet, lilac and blue mixed with the rose and other European imports. In backyard orchards, among manga, caja, cambuca, jambo-ruca, and other fruits of the land grew apples, greengage plums, and pears for more refined palates.
In the open valleys behind the city there was often heard the baying of hounds and bugle blasts as sturdy, pink-cheeked Englishman thundered after their quarry. In the city itself, at the waterfront public gardens, the scene was more placid the afternoon sun often slanting down-upon a sea of bobbing lace and parasols and gently wafted fans, and high silk hats of black and gray.

Half the city's population were black and mulatto slaves. The narrow streets teemed with half-naked men fulfilling the age-old promise that homems bons be spared the curse of manual toil in Brazil. The sun that shone on a sea of bobbing parasols on the Passeio Publico elsewhere fell on 130-pound bags of coffee borne by human transport chains whose leaders shook rattles to keep up an energetic pace; upon grand pianos lifted high and trotted through the streets by sweating Africans; upon water carriers thronging at the fountains to draw from what was still a hopelessly inadequate supply; and upon slaves for hire selling their master's fruit, fish and poultry or bending over braziers with pots of spicy stew or waiting outside their master's establishment for those who would come to buy their labor.

BRAZIL by Errol Lincoln Uys