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(Fiction writer, 1892 – 1953)

by Hélio Pólvora

Translated by IVAN COSTA-PINTO


Graciliano Ramos (drawing by Cândido Portinari)



1892: Graciliano Ramos is born in Quebrangulo, Alagoas, Brasil - 1910/14: He works in his father's shop, in Palmeira dos Índios. - 1914: Goes to Rio de Janeiro, works in the Correio da Manhã. - 1915: Returns to Palmeira dos Índios; marries Maria Augusta. 1925: Begins to write Caetés. - 1927: Mayor-elect of Palmeira dos Índios. - 1928: Marries Heloísa. - 1929/30: Reports from the Mayor Graciliano to the State Governor. - 1930: Renounces his Mayorship; Director of the Official State's Press. - 1933: Publishes Caetés; he is appointed Director of Public Education of Alagoas. - 1934: Publishes S. Bernardo. – 1936: He is fired and arrested under the accusation of being a communist- 1937: He is released from prison and starts publishing short stories in La Prensa, of Buenos Aires. - 1938: Publishes Vidas Secas. - 1939: Appointed Federal Inspector of Secondary Education. - 1944: Publication of  Histórias de Alexandre. - 1945: Publication of Infância, memoirs, by José Olympio Publishing House and Bookshop; he becomes a member of the Brazilian Communist Party. - 1947: Insônia, is published by José Olympio. - 1951: President-elect of the Brazilian Writers Association  (ABDE). - 1952: Travels to USSR (Viagem, published posthumously by José Olympio, 1954); he disagrees with the so-called "socialist realism" of Zdanov. - 1953: Graciliano dies of lung cancer;  Memórias do Cárcere is published posthumously by José Olympio. 




- Relief, Anguish & Absolutions–

 "We can only put on paper our feelings, our life. Art is blood, art is flesh.
There is nothing beyond that. The characters we invent are pieces of ourselves, we can only expose what we  are.
(Letter to his sister Marilia Ramos, an apprentice in fiction writing,  on 11.23.49).


He was born in 1892, in Quebrangulo, Alagoas. Married twice,  he fathers seven children. Height, 1,75m. Shoe size  # 9 1/2 . Neck size # 16. He prefers not to walk. He dislikes neighbors. He hates radio, telephones, bells and  loud speaking people. He wears glasses. He is balding. Has no food preferences. Is indifferent to music. He doesn't like fruit or sweets. His favorite reading: the Bible. He writes Caetés at the age of  34. He hasn't a favorite among his published books. He likes to drink eau de vie. He's an atheist. Indifferent to the Academy. He hates the bourgeoisie. He loves children. Among Brazilian romantic writers that he likes: Manoel António de Almeida, Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego e Rachel de Queiroz. He likes foul language, whether written or spoken. He wishes the death of capitalism. Writes his books during the morning. He smokes Selma brand cigarrettes (three packs a day). He is an education inspector and works in the Correio da Manhã newspaper. In spite of being called a pessimistic, he disagrees with everything. He has only five worn-out suits. He rewrites his novels several times. He's been arrested twice. Being in jail or being free is all the same to him. He writes by hand. His best friends: Capitão Lobo, Cubano, José Lins do Rego e José Olympio. He has few debts. When he was the Mayor of a city in the interior of Alagoas state, he would free the prisoners so they could build roads. He expects to die at the age of 57 (Obs.: he died at 61). Capitão Lobo commanded the army post where he was imprisoned in Recife, 1936; Cubano was a thief he met while in prison. See Memórias do Cárcere, a work homonymous to that of Camillo Castello Branco.



He creates for himself a reputation for being rude.
































Graciliano working at his desk in 1950




This Graciliano Ramos, or Velho Graça, or Major Graça, or Mestre Graça, as he was affectionately called, is a pretender. Out of sentimentalism or shyness, he pretends to be rougher than he is, thornier than a mandacaru cactus. A thin inlander, bent shoulders, a cigarrette always lit between his fingers or in his mouth, with simple but clean clothes, clean hands (in every sense). He creates for himself a reputation of being rude due to dialogues such as these:

— Good morning, master Graça.

— Do you think so, my son?

Or then:

— Master Graça, if the situation continues as it is we're going to be eating shit — says the novelist  José Lins do Rego to him, during Getúlio Vargas's dictatorship.

— If there is enough left for us, Zé Lins. If there is enough...

His first novel, Caetés, he considers "a disaster" or "an obstacle."  Angústia (Anguish), his third book, is "this disaster I'm writing and that will have, if some crazy editor shows up, 50 readers from the Amazon to the River Plate, maybe not even that."  Vidas Secas is a "trivial story —a vagrant couple, a female dog and two boys." His correspondence contains Italian and French sentences. He translates from French and recites Le Cid, of Corneille, in the original. He admires Eça de Queiroz, reads a lot of Machado de Assis. He is deeply knowledgeable in Portuguese grammar. But he describes himself as having "a culture of  almanacs." Sometimes he gets very excited: "It'll be a masterpiece, written in the lingo of the inlanders, full of whopping terms" (about S. Bernardo, his second novel). And reiterates: "It was this difficult vocabulary of foxy characters that did away with old Brazilian literature. Brazilian literature, my eye! Brazil has never had a literature. But it will from now on" (ditto).

He sees the activity of a writer as: "We are animals different from other people, probably inferior to others, with excessive sensibility, an immense vanity that separates us from those not sick as we are.  Even those who are sick, those degenerates who write gibberish, don't  always inspire our sympathy: it is necessary that the sickness we have  affect others with the same intensity so that we can see them as brothers, so as to show them our sores, i.e., our writings, our miseries, which we published after cauterization, altered within the proper technique" (letter to his wife Heloísa, April 1935).

He learned how to read and write in his parents' farm, "after many spankings."

— May I interrupt, please?.

— What for? Who do you think you are?

— I think I'm curious, just curious. In your book Infância you dwell on relevant memories. You seem to think that, as does Sherwood Anderson, there aren't serial or sequential stories.  If they do exist, it means that the author intervened, which presupposes an artifice. Life is made of very rare happy instants and many bitter or unfortunate events.

In Infância, acidity predominates, and in some passages there is an acrimonious trait. The memorialist isn't there to act dapper. His analysis, not only of families but also their ambients, his own as well as that of others, is totally rude. The gentleman had his pride, of course, but he didn't nurture foolish vanities.  He would curse mainly against himself. He was, as said by Oswald de Andrade, a writing mandacaru cactus.

In a compendium of biobibliographical sources, Moacir Medeiros de Sant’Ana refers to the "various and crushing judgements of his parents, made by Graciliano Ramos in his childhood memoirs." His father "did not economize in beatings and reprehensions" and the "lack of smiling" was what intrigued him so much in his mother . That's why Olívio Montenegro considers the book a "diabolic work." In his Jornal de Crítica, Álvaro Lins states, constrained: "When he decided to write a book of memoirs, his sensibility reacted in all its exaggeration: and expressed itself by showing what was most deeply recorded in it (...) An unbearable world of punishments, privations and shames."  Yes, memory does not record happinesses and unhappinesses with the same accuracy; the rotten parts prevail.

That precise dryness, the sentences that say a lot with minimum resources. He is the anti-ornamental prose writer in a territory where prose writers continue to be scholastic, refusing to retire their ornaments.

In the same way that, in previous romances, the gentleman steps down to the ooze of his characters, in Infância he goes directly into the lees of the heart. A predominancy of the monologue (even more so because it is a deposition), heavy and mortal words, echoing like tolls, torn from the live flesh of meanings, translating literal truths.

In the upbringing of the boy Graciliano, there are lots of torture instruments : the rough inlander environment during the end of last century and the beginning of the 20th century; his father, a trader and a farmer, a rude type of the urban and rural middle classes, with the profile of a patriarch who demands prompt obedience; his almost illiterate mother, with very little love. Political repression from the 'colonels', through the use of methods known as "halter, hoe and vote." Sexual repression. Repression, above all, against intelligence. The boy's sensibility, hurt at all the moments, in his painful relationship with his parents, in the school, in the streets, suffering the impact of environmental poverty. The boy grows up alone and distrustful, grasping "crumbs of sound and rags of images"— painful, all of them. But, notwithstanding the violence of the environment, inside him his sensibility is shaped, looks for space, for a form of expression, while weaving a protective shield on the outside.

Even those who, indifferent to the beauty of the literary arts, leaf through Infância seeking a social document, will find for sure tips about the art of tormenting children.  In the past, an art perfected under the patriarchal regimen;  today, a national art, from beginning to end, from stern to stern.



From the farm in Buíque, Graciliano takes characters for "Angústia."


Quebrangulo, Alagoas, Brasil. Graciliano Ramos de Oliveira is born on the 27th of October, 1892. "My father, Sebastião Ramos, small businessman, married to the daughter of a cattle breeder, heard the advice of my grandmother and bought a farm in Buíque, Pernambuco, taking his children, wife and household goods with him. Drought killed the cattle — and Mr. Sebastião opened a shop in the village, perhaps in 1895 or 1896. From those  days at the farm I still remember Amaro Vaqueiro and of José Baía. In the village, I met André Laerte, corporal José da Luz, the washerwoman Rosenda, the priest José Ignácio, Filipe Benício, Teotoninho Sabiá and his family, Mr. Batista, Mrs. Marocas, my teacher, Mr. Antônio Justino's wife, all of them characters I used years later."

It is the truth: he uses them, mainly, in Angústia, in the memories and delusions of Luís da Silva — but some characters come afloat in Infância. Due to his recurrent themes and characters, and its autobiographical content, he thinks he has no imagination, although he is known to have said, in letters, that the story was unimportant, and that the descents into the underground of  his personality were fundamental.

— Will you allow me an aside?

— Again? Here comes bullshit...

— I want only to agree with you, when you say that we are what we write. This is a perfect opinion in your case. Now, tell me: what happened to the sonnets you wrote as a young man?

— Eaten by moths .

— You seem a lot like Luís da Silva, of Angústia. And Luís kept an album from which he tore some pages, without worrying about making copies of them, to sell sonnets to ham writers, after swearing that they had never been published...

1910-1914 — He takes care of his father's shop in Palmeira dos Índios, "a land which, if not good, it is always better than I thought. There are no cafés here, there are very bad pool joints, little beer, no entertainment" (in a letter to his mother, Maria Augusta Ferro Ramos, 1910).







1911 — In June and July he recovers in Maniçoba, a farm near Buíque, in the Pernambucan inland. "This", he says in a letter, "is good as hell: one wakes up at five in the morning and spends the day reading, smoking, eating and praying; one goes to bed at nine in the evening. An angel's life."

Under a pseudonym, he collaborates with O Malho, a Rio magazine. At 13, he publishes sonnets there and in the Correio de Maceió. The shopkeeper's life displeases him: "I don't want to be a shopkeeper — better to be bitten by a snake (letter to his father, 1913). He thinks about "seeking some job in the press."

1914 — He leaves Palmeira dos Índios on the 16th of August, embarks in the ship Itassucê towards Rio de Janeiro on the 27th, with his friend Joaquim Pinto da Mota Lima Filho. They arrive on the 29th. He gets a position in the Correio da Manhã, as a proofreader. "I am a foca (rookie)  in the Correio da Manhã and I don't know when I'll get somewhere. From 09:00PM to 02:00AM, one works at proofreading in the Correio ( letter to his sister Leonor). On the 16th of November he earns "his first five mil-réis in his new job."




 Promissory note issued by the shop A Sincera


1915 — He renounces the financial aid his family sends him. "A parasite's life is the worse of shames", he says to his sister Leonor. In the beginning of August, he receives a telegram informing about the tragedy: in an epidemic of  bubonic plague, his siblings Octacília, Leonor and Clodoaldo plus his nephew Heleno die in Palmeiras. Graciliano returns in September. On the 21st of October he marries Maria Augusta de Barros, with whom he would have 4 children: Márcio, Júnio, Múcio e Maria Augusta.  He succeeds his father as a shopowner, in the A Sincera, selling textiles and haberdashery,  at  5 Rua da Intendência.

1920 — Maria Augusta dies while giving birth on the 23rd of November.

1925 — He starts writing Caetés, concluded in 1926, but reviewed several times: he cuts and substitutes words until 1930. "I'll fix a chapter quickly to see if I can send  that mess to Rio", he writes in a letter.

1926 — He confesses in a letter to his friend Joaquim Pinto: "I read  A Capital and O Conde d’Abranhos and I am still looking for others." Further on: "Would it be possible that the O Conde d’Abranhos could be the author of Os Maias?"






"Flaubert might have inspired Graciliano"






















































Graciliano Ramos, an Alagoan writer (Source: www.ofarol.inf.br/caetes)


























"São Bernardo is published in 1934"


— Will the noble novelist allow me another aside? Maybe it will not be short but it will be enlightening. Your intelectual formation has been, for sure, basically Lusitanian-French, as have been the Machadian and post-Machadian generations. The influence of the Anglo-American literature among us comes from World War II.

I ask myself if you haven't tasted Flaubert, with whom you keep, it should be said, an identity of  style based on the concision of prose. Madame Bovary, of 1857, though not having in the Brazilian intelectual life the same strength of Eça de Queirós' novels, mainly Os Maias, it coined, nevertheless, the entry bovarismo in the dictionaries, which designates, speaking of Emma Bovary and her sad destiny, a temperament inclined towards daydreaming.

Among your newspaper articles, compiled in the posthumous volumes Linhas Tortas and Viventes das Alagoas, there aren't any references to the "loneman of Croisset." You cover with praise Eça de Queirós, whose presence is more than identified in Caetés.  "What an enourmous quantity of Raposos, of Zé Fernandes, of Dâmasos, of Conselheiros Acácios and of Ramires there are in this world !", you exclaim in an article of 1915. Some of Eça's characters, as you yourself observed, "talk to us and transmit ideas more or less equal to ours." Balzac is considered "a serious analyst", you quote  François Coppée and Paul de Kock, show that you have read Daudet, and that Taine was not a stranger to you, and you also mention Romain Rolland and Victor Hugo. You have translated La Peste, of Albert Camus, and modestly signed "G. R." on the title page.

Your stop there, without remembering Flaubert and other classics that you must have read. In the Portuguese language, after Eça de Queirós, your laudations go to Machado de Assis, of whom there are some echoes in Caetés, among which this one:

"I cried: 'Luísa loves me! Stars in the sky, Luísa loves me!' I imagined that the stars in the sky recognized that fact and this gave me plenty satisfaction" .

And still this one:

"Several of me, Mrs. Josefa? I am only one, unfortunately. If I were at least four, I  would be quite comfortable among you ladies."

Without concrete proof, I believe you have read Gustave Flaubert, and certainly from one of those French brochures edited at the time. From its reading there remained an impregnation that would later help you to compose that brutal opening of Caetés. Do you remember the second paragraph?

"Luísa wanted to show me a passage of the book she was reading. She leaned over. I couldn't restrain myself and planted two kisses on the scruff. She stood up, horrified:

"— Are you crazy? How dare you? I, er...

"She couldn't go on. From her sparking eyes, tears emerged."

Let us now see Madame Bovary, third part, chapter 1:

"Et, comme ils se trouvaient debout tous les deux, lui placé derrière et Emma baissant la tête, il se pencha vers son cou et la baisa longuement à la nuque.

"— Mais vous êtes fou ! Ah ! vous êtes fou ! disait-elle avec de petits rires sonores, tandis que les baisers se multipliaient."

Well, Master Graça, readings deeply felt leave scars in the memory — and their consequences are these apparent imitations, which in reality approach temperaments, sensibilities, common experiences. In the good literature, Diogenes lantern passes from hand to hand, as an olympic torch.

But there are flagrant differences between Emma and Luísa. The character in Caetés, parochial and shy, framed by the timid environment of the petit bourgeoisie, is impelled to adultery by tedium and by her ageing sick husband. The Flaubertian Emma, on the contrary, is absorbing, unsatisfied, unsatiable. From her emanates a mystical voluptuousness mixed with an ostensive carnality. And in her, Flaubert, a libertine with moralistic brakes, romantic but cynical, exposes himself: "Madame Bovary c’est moi."

In reference to Caetés, you said in that rough tone that concealed tenderness: "In these awful pages, where nothing is useful..." And concluding, you called it "an idiotic narrative, parrot talk."

Exaggeration, Master Graça. More than 60 years later one may verify that, far from being the clumsy exercise of a fictionist who had not yet defined his own language, that novel is a coherent part of the work, of which it is not an untimely fruit. The work is an intense monologue, within which there exists that first inseparable book, Apart from the echoes from Eça, long recognized by the critics, and also from Machado, Caetés is the spring that, already in its last chapters, grows and departs towards an estuary of denser, more nuclear novels. Caetés demonstrates that your fictional universe, limited by the aspects of your life and experiences, is fed by  appealing themes and characters, which, since your first book, composed the confessional tone of the novelist. Without João Valério, narrator of Caetés, Paulo Honório, narrator of S. Bernardo, for sure wouldn't exist. And, even more surely, Luís da Silva, narrator of Angústia, wouldn't exist either. And without the feminine character which, in Caetés, commits adultery, we wouldn't have the matrix for Madalena, who commits suicide in the following novel. The cold-blooded Evaristo Barroca of the first novel is the model for the tawdry Julião Tavares, of Angústia. Some anonymous and gloomy mestizos of Caetés are a sketch for the future portrait of the cowboy Fabiano of Vidas Secas.

Just a moment, don't interrupt me. Your characteristic prose — the vision of the world from a monologue, the conflicting character always in self-analysis, cursing the surroundings and the circumstances, wanting to impose his point-of-view, but not knowing how,— develops, already in Caetés, from the costumes chronicle of a village in the Alagoan inland, Palmeira dos Índios, to the psychological novel — with which, it should be said, you stregthen the second stage of the novels of the ‘30s.

Let us examine other influences, let us tune our ears to other probable resonances. Your read Eça de Queirós. The Portuguese prose writer, more than Flaubert, more than any other, had deep repercussions in the first two decades of the 20th century in Brazil, being widely read, deified. Caetés, thus, wouldn't escape from the contagion of Eça de Queirós. It is a repository of scenes of life in the country, with curious types, ironies, sarcasms, nimble dialogues, comic connotations and, for seasoning, adultery. That was Eça's recipe.

Echoes emerge especially in the technique of parallel conversations, during witty dinners, pool games and chess disputes, with humoristic touches, when the imbecility of some characters becomes visible. Nobody better than Eça, who characterized pompous and mediocre individuals, no one  surpassed him in the creation of types at least curious. Very well: in Caetés there is a priest, Atanásio, who is not able to concatenate two ideas: he mixes everything, forgetting what he's just said and leaving conclusions suspended. The incoherent discourse provokes ludicrous situations. An example:

"— Of course, there are no doubts. We need light, a lot of light.

— With bread? — asked Clementina."

Another echo, but less strong:

"Dr. Castro stretched himself out in Father Atanásio's armchair, with his arms crossed, fat-cheeked, rubicund, happy and without a forehead."

This Dr. Castro, apart from being a total idiot, reminds one a lot of Dâmaso Salcede, a worthless, but highly presumptous, nobody out of Os Maias.

The presence of  Machado de Assis, though more discrete, is also undoubtedly there. I gave two examples. Now, I'll deliver two more:

"I vacillated for a few minutes and, finally,  decided to put the short feather skirt over his  head and the feather headdress between  parenthesis."

"He seized control of the notary and  discoursed  abundantly."

To these impregnations, you react with bruising language, saving words and actions induced by the scanty and dry inlander environment. Your language is already the Brazilian language, in almost its totality, Caetés's style is already that of the sober prose writer, conscious of the specific weight of each word, dense and intervening as little as possible: the characters have freedom, they obey intuitive commands and react in conformity with their conflicts.

But the other echoes, those from the Week of 1922 and the Modernist revolution, which preached the adoption of nationalist first reader, that tupy or not tupy of Oswald de Andrade, would have to reach Alagoas and provoke, who knows?, in your writings, a critical realignment. When you seeked refuge in 1932 in the vestry of a church, in Palmeira, you used the inlander vocabulary and expressions taken from the oral language to lend temperament to S. Bernardo.

You answered, consciously or intuitively, to the teachings of the Week of 22: Brazilian themes, the language disengaged as much as possible from the Portuguese syntax, and although Mário de Andrade had pondered that the Portuguese syntax could not be destroyed, it still continues structurally Portuguese. The oral quality can be noted in the opening of Caetés: scruff (of a woman, and of a beloved one!) instead of nape of the neck. And in the final words, when the narrator refers to his "exaggerated admiration for the brilliant things, to the sonorous period, to the literary beads, which induces me to attach ornamental adjectives to what I write, and later scratch out..." It's appears somewhat strange that the narrator of S. Bernardo should call a friend to write the novel.  But they immediately disagreed, because his collaborator presented an ugly prose. "It is affected, it is immoral, it is idiotic. Nobody speaks like this!", reacts the narrator. And he decides to write by himself, with his own verbal resources, using inlander lingo.

— This is all bulshit, a total bore.

— It isn't. S. Bernardo was published in 1934. Chapters 19, 30 and 36 surprise the main character, Paulo Honório, in an acute existencial crisis. Alone in the manor house, without a wife or friends, with a burning conscience, he observes himself: huge hands, enormous fingers, a monster, a moral cripple. Sleepless, cornered, he sees, he touches, he feels the surfacing of his aches. We live in these pages a luminous moment of the Brazilian fictionism. We, that were accompanying the novels of the ‘30s, suddenly meet in your prose the inner core of writing, that plunges into and reveals the secret heart, its ambiance, its sociological trait.

S. Bernardo united psychologism and a social document romantic-naturalist. But do not forget that João Valério of Caetés brings within himself the seed of the nonconformism, insecurity and disbelief and that anguish that ends up generating modernity. "I am a caeté", confesses Valério. Caeté also is Paulo Honório, and so is Luís da Silva.

— Lies, hoaxes, frauds. How should I be aware of the Modernism of 22, being there in the Alagoan inland, gnawing at jessamines, eating hairy cured pig meat.

— One of your contemporaries, Valdemar de Sousa Lima, remembers that you were attracted to children and roses. Easy, don't blush. In the opuscule Graciliano Ramos em Palmeira dos Índios, Valdemar describes you as a  "fine sales clerk." Having inherited from your father the shop called  A Sincera, you started there a long commercial activity, which lasted 19 years.

You read newspapers and almanacs, you received books that came by donkeys, taught French to girls and ministered night classes to adults. It would be strange that, amidst this hardwork, Modernism should go completely unnoticed. The critic Wilson Martins considered you  "a modernist malgré lui", and lending a decisive importance to the Modernism of 22, he wrote: "Without expecting and without wanting, he became a modernist writer, because, in the ‘30s, it was a question of being a modernist or dying..."



"Retirantes" (Migrants) oil on canvas by Portinari


1927 — Elected mayor of Palmeira dos Índios, on the 7th of October.

1928 — Marries in Maceió, on second nuptials, with Heloísa Leite de Medeiros, whom he had met months before and wooed in ardent love letters. They will bear four children:Ricardo,Roberto(died in 1930),Luísa and Clara.

1929 — First report from the mayor Graciliano to the state Governor.

1930 — Second report. The poet and editor Augusto Frederico Schmidt suspects that he has a novel in his drawer and manifests the wish to publish him. Because the language of the reports is everything but bureaucratic; creative, heterodox, with the bitterness of the sarcastic irony, denounces the prose writer. Graciliano renounces being a mayor. Soon afterwards he is appointed  director of the state's Official Press.



1931 — He is denounced by enemies  to the State Penal Junta, which followed the 1930 Revolution: embezzlement totalling 1.020$000 from the City Hall. The process was soon dismissed for lack of evidence.

1932 — In September, he starts S. Bernardo. He relinquishes the post of director of the Official Press and goes back to Palmeira with his family. There he works at S. Bernardo.

1933 — Launching of Caetés, by editor Schmidt, from Rio. He is indicated director of Public Schooling of Alagoas. In November, concludes S. Bernardo.

1934 — Publication of S. Bernardo, by Ariel Editora, in Rio. The "Intentona Comunista" (Communist Attempt) erupts in March.

1935 — He starts Angústia.

1936 — Dismissed from the position of director of Public Schooling. Arrested in Maceió, in March, no accusations. Motive? Supposedly, he was a communist. He passes through several prisons, in Maceió and Recife. He is embarked in the hold of a ship towards Rio de Janeiro, remaining almost a year in prison, including the Ilha Grande Correctional Colony. "I am determined not to defend myself. Defense against what? Everything is a comedy and anyhow I would be a horrible actor" (letter to his wife). In August, Angústia appears (Livraria José Olympio Publishing House), which "was well received. Not for what it is worth, but because I became somehow well-known, unfortunately" (ditto).



Group of writers celebrating Graciliano Ramos' 50th birthday.

































"Os Retirantes" (Migrants), oil on canvas by Portinari


"A crime, or a good deed, all is the same. After all we don't even know what is good or bad anymore, so numbly we live", thinks Luís da Silva, narrator of Angústia, a modest civil servant. If still alive, more than 60 years later, his situation would be the same or worse. Since then, some social indicators improved, but other vices, like corruption and the bankruptcy of costumes, became worse.

The middle class described in the novel, uncertain and insecure, surviving through renunciations, would be part of the proletariat by now. Luís struggles to ascend socially. A Northeasterner of rural origins, he comes from a formerly powerful family. Within the memorialistic flow of the narrator, his remembrances of grandfather Trajano are frequent. He met him already old, decrepit, sleepy on a hammock. Before that, he had been a master of the lasso  'n dagger , he would assault the village jail to free  cangaceiros (outlaws); at the end of his life, with a few skinny cattle on his pasture, he used to get drunk and vomit on the coat of an elderly slave, master Domingos, who, out of respect, put up with his bad temper.

To Graciliano Ramos, the novel of the decadence of the northeastern rural aristocracy does not matter. This is a task for his fellow writer José Lins do Rego, who focused mainly upon the owners of the sugarcane plantations. He is statisfied to transmit, in quick images repeated by the despair of the narrator, only the necessary facts from  the past, so he can show the uprooting of Luís da Silva, whose father spent his days on a hammock, reading romantic novels. The cruel past conditions Luis’  life today. One can feel that the narrator  is another  Prometheus bound. Luis, himself, recognizes that, had he been born in a different cradle and received a different education, his destiny would be better, he would belong to the ruling class — that of bankers, rich traders, newspapers owners or the high ranked civil servants that dominate him from a distance. But that rural past of impoverished farmers, living from the old pomp, is a scarlet scar, the mark of damnation. Luís' sensibility is exposed, and it bleeds. Nothing can stop the bleeding. Pathetical or tragical images assault him in his nightly dreams and while daydreaming. His life is an economic nightmare, a social exile. He constantly remembers his grandfather with a rattlesnake spiralled around his neck, begging for someone to remove it; his grandmother, who, without ever experiencing an orgasm, gave birth on a stick bed; his lazy and violent father who threw him several times into the river, to teach him how to swim; a man who hanged himself out of shame, because of a loaf of bread he had to beg for and it had been denied; his dead father's unshapely feet over the big settee, with flies hovering above. Scenes and images of a nightmare; of an unjust, poor, violent life, resulting from the weak economy of the inland, inhabited by what the narrator calls of "my vagabond race burnt by the drought."

The narrator searches for better conditions of life far from the inlander life. They would be farther south —where all the "shirtless",  the "barefooted", the "homeless" migrate. But in Rio, the migrant Luís da Silva knows loneliness, anonymity, notwithstanding his literary flair, his knowledge of writing (here, in the sense of the journalistic or literary composition), having read a lot. The social establishment rejects him. He is tied to the mechanism of a then pre-capitalist society (Vargas Government industrial phase had barely begun), which is nowadays fully globalized, and where money is the supreme value. To those born rich, the road unfolds straight and level; to the needy, the hard task of survival. This is the Brazilian society of the ’30s, subliminally described in Angústia, and that subsists, though worsened in several aspects — hence the persistent relevance of the novel's theme.

 "Proletarian" novel, as Máximo Gorki practiced it, and a novel of Dostoievskian introspectiveness. As in the case of the humiliated and  the offended in Dostoievsky , Luís da Silva's destiny is tragical — not only for his humble origin, but also because there exists, around him, binding him, a net of restrictive circumstances. During the dictatorship, with income and welfare concentrated in the privileged minority, all that is left for the dispossessed is the dream of a popular revolution.

A dream watched over by the police and a dream that, at that time, emptied a good part of its ideological substance... Luís wants to participate. He wants to contribute towards an egalitarian order through a fight in the shadows. At the same time, he has to survive: he has to pay the rent, pay for food and medicine, while he is beset by an impulse to climb socially. Thus, he is submissive. In the newspaper, as a proofreader or columnist, he writes what he is told to: "Write this, Mr. Luís. Mr. Luís would obey. — Write that, Mr. Luís. On a sheet of paper, Mr. Luís would arrange the ideas and interests belonging to others." His true opinions remained for his conversations with Pimentel e Moisés, his colleagues, at home, because in the café it is dangerous, there are always suspicious characters around the cafés. Luís, the intellectual, Luís, the rebel, writes for the government, praising the government. In Vidas Secas, the cowboy Fabiano, after being stabbed in the back by order of a 'yellow soldier', meets his enemy in the caatinga (scrub savanna) and, with a dagger in his hand, steps back and lets him pass: "Government is government."

The same attitude of subservience towards power. The difference is that Fabiano, a rough character, suffers less, while the intellectualized Luís receives through his tense nerves all the aggressions from hopelessness and social denial.

On the first pages of Angústia the narrator declares himself "a rag that the city frayed too much and soiled." His sad routine is divided between the office, the proofreading desk, an occasional visit to the café and the old house, full of rats, with a half deaf maid, Vitória, who buries her savings in the garden and chats with a parrot. Luís is fully conscious of his condition; in it, tragedy, more than inspired by the familiar inlander past, is a natural consequence. His vision of the world is tragical because it is part of his upbringing, and his actions, even limited by the ambient, diffident and oppressive, reflect tragicalness. A naturalist novel, it will be said. But a naturalism that, as that of Thomas Hardy, is not restricted to the blind game among the forces of destiny that Hardy, in Tess of the d’Urbervilles, attributes to the "President of the Immortals", citing Aeschylus. For Brazilians, the characters are tragical by inheritance and by an unconcious  and intense need to seek tragicalness even as a form of self-explanation, self-excuse, or meaning of life.

It is the case of the narrator of Angústia. Cruel to himself, weaving comments that touch masochism, Luís da Silva tortures himself. Apparently, he says: "I am not a rat, I don't want to be a rat." But he will soon consider himself "a social nothing."  "Life has kicked him around a lot." He is "an insignificant creature, a social bedbug..." A rat gnaws at his entrails. Love for him is "a painful thing, complicated and incomplete." He admits having roved the world "hungry, ragged and full of dreams."

Robert H. Heilman observes, about Hardy's Tess: "Our egos are linked to our ideas; they want the facts to adjust themselves to the ideas, otherwise we are offended and, if we have enough power to do so, we tend to be punitive." Very well: punishment, in a first stage, goes toward Luís da Silva, and he demeans himself still more in order to suffer a little more, to purge his sins. Then, with the appearance of Marina, the odds offer him a transitory truce. His backyard romance with Marina — backyards full of rubbish and small gardens and orchards, where a surly man and a sad woman work with casks and vats —, Luís is under the impression of having discovered love, when he is only attracted by erotism and Marina dreams only about emerging from absolute poverty. Anyhow, this is happiness: he is relatively calm, has about three thousand réis in savings, and wishes to get married. The idea of marriage precipitates the personal tragedy, bathed in social tragedy. A lightheaded, empty-headed girl, always thinking of displaying her riches, Marina quickly spends Luís's hard-earned savings on her trousseau and, during the "engagement" accepts to be courted by a stranger, Julião Tavares, a parasite with a pompous talk and peacock arrogance. Tavares is the summary of everything that opresses Luís: easy money, golden cradle,  social prestige, intellectual mediocrity, the power to corrupt and escape unharmed. Fat, cynical and smart, Julião Tavares invades Luís's home, seduces Marina and moves away when she shows the first signs of pregnancy. The family is submissive: no claims, just grumbles. The humble learn to bend their spine under the weight of their opressors. The seducer throws himself into the easy conquest of other poor girls.

But the narrator of Angústia, scorned, traumatized, ill-treated by life — he reacts. Because his suffering reaches the point of exasperation, his feeling go beyond the limits. The fury that had tortured him before is now turned toward the opressor. He hasn't, like Moisés, the courage to paint graffitti, to distribute "incendiary leaflets." But the "President of the Immortals" deposits the instrument for his vengeance at his hands — a rope. At this time, Luís da Silva's monologue —the "objective" flow of his unconcious, that is, the language that calls to action — turned into a delirium. Images run over one another: the water pipe is a rope, the necktie is rolled like a rope, the snake around Trajano's neck is a rope come alive. The narrator sees himself impelled to kill Julião Tavares after finding out that Marina, pregnant, looks for a clandestine midwife. In the final chapter, references to the past agglomerate. It is a battle of remembrances. The tragical images of his rural ambience and of his urban life get together to sing the tragical chorus. Beginning and end of the novel touch one another in their extremities as in a fan. Angústia is a continuous nightmare. The narrator asks: "In the next 20 years, will there be creatures like these who, after knowing the world, prefer life in a backyard, watching withered crofts, breathing putridities, wishing for a piece of vicious flesh?" Yes, and in much worse conditions.



1937 — He leaves prison in January. Goes to live with his family "in a modest little pension" in Rua Correia Dutra. He starts publishing his short stories in La Prensa, of Buenos Aires (chapters of Infância and Vidas Secas), by way of the translator Benjamin Garay. He writes to survive. "I wrote a short story about the death of a female dog, difficult stuff as you can see: I try to guess what is going on within the soul of a dog. Will there really have a soul inside a dog? I don't care. My animal dies wishing to reincarnate in a world full of cavies. Exactly the same as we would wish. The difference is that I want them to appear before I sleep..."

1938 — Publication of the novel Vidas Secas, constituted by several short stories including the story about Baleia, the female dog.



Graciliano Ramos (drawing by Arpad Szenes)


Graciliano Ramos writes short stories because he needs to improve his income. The Argentinian Garay is his first translator. Some short stories, among which is "Baleia", of Vidas Secas, are published in La Prensa. But is reality he has never intended to be a storyteller and refers to his short stories in an ironic mood. Insônia will be, formally, his only book bringing the label of short stories — although Infância contains, at least, 4 short stories and Vidas Secas could be considered as a novel in disguise, like The Unvanquished and Go Down, Moses, by William Faulkner: they may be dismantled into short stories bound by a tenuous conducting link and, nevertheless, remain individually independent.

If we broaden the concept of a literary short story, we will see that the writer, besides Insônia, left another collection in which the genre imposes its own poetics, a particular and peculiar space: Alexandre e Outros Heróis, folkloric narratives. In the same year of Histórias Incompletas, the matrix for Insônia, João Guimarães Rosa comes out with Sagarana. An year after, Murilo Rubião publishes O Ex-Mágico. The short stories of Vila Feliz, by Aníbal Machado, are from 1944, as well as the debut of Alagoan Breno Accioly, with João Urso. The collection of short stories Eis a Noite!, by João Alphonsus, comes out a little before: 1942. Therefore, one may identify, in the ‘40s, an emotional convergence towards short stories, a format which acquires autonomy or self-determination (excluding the previous phenomenon of Machado de Assis).

Brazilian short fiction lets itself to be impregnated by a poem-like  content which facilitates instrospection. Tchekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Proust, Kafka, Saroyan exerted a definite influence at that time. It is also from ’40s the alegoric prose of Clarice Lispector, and may we remember the 'penumbrism' of Cornélio Penna, a little before (Fronteira, 1935). Well, Graciliano is at ease in this writing that dilutes the meridian realism of the "regional" novel . He is an impressionist writer, facing inner lansdcapes. Even so, the social fact, the economic fact and the political fact, are within his short stories without being their preponderant aspect. One can see, in Insônia, a story about a political atmosphere, "A Prisão de J. Carmo Gomes", besides stories about bureaucratic life, married life, literary life. Without forgetting what is really strong in him: the text with an autobiographic content, as "O Relógio do Hospital", inspired, it seems, on his hospitalization period in Maceió, when he went through surgery.

In it, two schools of the Brazilian fictionism — introspection, now exacerbated, now imposed by conditioning external factors — and the frame of the geographic ambient and of the historical moment, which in naturalist fiction assume attitudes of a single directive, live in harmony, work together. The judgement of his short stories will depend always of the concept one has of stories, without vanguardist appeals. If that concept is rigorous, many stories by the Alagoan fictionist would escape to the classic  patterns of the genre. Memorialism, so much spread through Graciliano's fiction, leads him to write pages that are nothing more than slight impressions, chronicles, monologues and tales, repeated ad nauseam.



1939 — Appointed Federal Inspector of  Secondary Education, through the influence of Carlos Drummond de Andrade, then Chief of the Cabinet of the Minister of Education, Gustavo Capanema. He remains in office until the end of his life.

1941 — Publication of A Terra dos Meninos Pelados, a story with an infant-juvenile theme.

1942 — His 50th birthday is celebrated with a dinner for writers in the  Lido restaurant, in Copacabana.

1944 —Leitura Publishing House launches Histórias de Alexandre, original title of Alexandre e Outros Heróis.

1945 —Infância ,memoirs, comes out, through Livraria José Olympio Publishing House. Graciliano enrolls in the Brazilian Communist Party.

1946 — He participates of the III Writers Congress, in Salvador, Bahia.

1947 —Insônia (José Olympio) appears, a volume of short stories derived from Histórias Incompletas, little before edited by the Coleção Tucano of Livraria do Globo.

1951 — He is elected presidente of the Brazilian Writers Association (ABDE).

1952 — Turns 60 and is honored in a solemn session of the  City Council. The poet Jorge de Lima makes the salutation. Graciliano's speech is read by his daughter Clara Ramos, because he is sick and cannot be present. "We are here", says José Lins do Rego, "to honor the greatest among us." Re-elected President of ABDE. Travels with his wife Heloísa to USSR, stopping at Checoslovkia, France and Portugal. Impressions about the trip are gathered in the volume Viagem, posthumous edition (1954, José Olympio). Disagreeing with the so-called "socialist realism" of Zdanov,  he considers as second-rate the literature of the soviet era.



Graciliano and his granddaughters, Vânia and Sandra


In the Livraria José Olympio Editora, on the Rua do Ouvidor 110, almost in the corner of Avenida Rio Branco, there is a settee on which very few dare to sit. It is Graciliano Ramos' haven; he has the habit of making himself comfortable at a corner of it, crossing his slim legs.

During a certain afternoon, when chatting, from his corner, with the debuting poet Jorge Medauar, sitting at the other corner, the writer Dalcídio Jurandir approaches. He is from Pará, a militant of the Pecebão (the orthodox Brazilian Communist Party) and has the air of a camel, with a slight hump. Unceremoniously, he occupies the vacant space between the two other men.

— Master Graça, there is a Mineiro circulating a lot. His name is Guimarães Rosa. Have you read him?

— Not yet.

—Joyce's imitator. Instead of  Saga, he put Sagarana in the title. He wants to be the language alchemist.

— Oh, really?

— I read a couple of pages. Not completely bad — condescends Dalcídio.

Pause. The novelist from Pará continues:

— Master Graça, have you read Cyro dos Anjos?

— Nope. Who is he?

— Another Mineiro. He writes like Machado de Assis.

— In this case — ponders Graciliano, uncrossing his legs — I prefer the  original.

— There is also a certain Breno Accioly. He is a storyteller from your part of the country, from the Alagoas — informs Dalcídio. —Have you read him?

— What is the name of the book?

João Urso. It has a foreword by Zé Lins.

— I don't like forewords, I don't like to hem and haw — confesses Graciliano. — I grab the guy and read without any middlemen.

— But have you read João Urso?

— Just about two or three short stories.

— I couldn't go beyond the first — says Dalcídio. — A mad prose, rethoric. Crazy stuff.

Silence. Graciliano clears his throat and prepares to light another cigarrette. As nobody takes the initiative of sayng anything, Dalcídio Jurandir gets up, bending his knees as camels do, and takes his leave. He has some business to atttend to at the ABI (T.N. Brazilian Press Association.)

— Medauar — asks old Graça when the figure disappears through the door —, follow the scoundrel and find out if he is knocking me behind my back.

About the same time, the old master returns from a trip to the USSR. In Moscow's subway, he is forced to pick up the cigarrette butt he had thrown on the floor. The Muscovite subway sparkled like a mirror. "We didn't build it and clean it so that you gentlemen from the capitalist world come and throw butts around", said the guide acrimoniously.

The trip to the USSR results in a book of impressions entitled Viagem, which begins with a demonstration of annoyance of old Graça: he doesn't feel well in the "flying trouble." That's what he calls the airplane. Smoking his cigarrette in the settee at José Olympio Publishers, he sees a lady approaching, with her trembling excesses of fat and jewels, all smiles, with a copy of the book for his indefectible autograph.

— Master Graciliano, sign here. Did you came back from the Soviet Union ready to reveal your stand?

—"Reveal my stand," dear lady?

— Well, reveal yourself.  Just like André Gide.

This is too much. The novelist explodes:

— What do you mean, dear lady? A fag?



Graciliano, with his wife, in 1948, resting in Ilha do Governador.


1952, September — He goes to Buenos Aires to be treated by Dr. Tayana, expenses paid by the Communist Party. The doctor diagnoses: lung cancer. His thorax is opened up: surgery is of no avail. He has six months to live.

1953 — He dies on the 20th of March, in the morning, and is buried the following day, in the Saint John the Baptist Cemetery, at 10:00 a.m., after lying in state at City Hall. Memórias do is published posthumously by José Olympio. Other posthumous publications, Viventes das Alagoas and Linhas Tortas, circulate in the ’60s.

1992 — On the 20th of March, on the same day of the month and of the week, and almost at the same age as his father Graciliano, dies the writer Ricardo Ramos in São Paulo.

1993 —Clara Ramos, Graciliano's daughter, dies.


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