Against the colonization of thought

The writer João Ubaldo Ribeiro contributed to reflections on Brazilian identities

João Ubaldo Ribeiro perched on the root of a tree at the ruins of Nosso Senhor de Vera Cruz Church in Itaparica, 1989. At the time, he was working on The Lizard’s Smile

PEDRO MARTINELLIJoão Ubaldo Ribeiro perched on the root of a tree at the ruins of Nosso Senhor de Vera Cruz Church in Itaparica, 1989. At the time, he was working on The Lizard’s SmilePEDRO MARTINELLI

When he was inducted into the Brazilian Academy of Letters (ABL) in 1992, author João Ubaldo Ribeiro, a native of the state of Bahia, evoked the memory of Carlos Castello Branco, whose chair he would occupy: “I am not a man of letters in the strict sense of the term. I’m just a novelist, a storyteller.” For scholars of his works, he was more than that: he was a philosopher of his people’s identity. Specialist in the Brazilian short short story known as the crônica, journalist, screenwriter, and intellectual, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, who passed away in July 2014 in Rio de Janeiro at the age of 73, was above all the narrator of a history of Brazil.

João Ubaldo Ribeiro graduated from law school and received master’s degrees in business administration and political science. He became a professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA) but left academic life behind. Researchers who study his work affirm that he earned prominence not only as a writer but as an intellectual and political scientist. In this regard, Viva o povo brasileiro (tr. An Invincible Memory, 1989) played a central role. Rita Olivieri-Godet, full professor of Brazilian literature at Rennes 2 University, in France, believes that the pages of An Invincible Memory portray the island of Itaparica, in Bahia, as a microcosm of the country. “The book is one of the foundational works of Brazilian social thought on Brazil. Ubaldo belongs to the ranks of great interpreters of our nation,” she says. According to Olivieri-Godet, by painting a broad panorama of the historical processes that shaped Brazilian society and its shifts, the novel revisits various interpretative views produced by intellectuals and writers over the centuries. “And it reserves a special place for expressions of Afro-Brazilian culture, allowing the book to investigate the origins of the social dramas experienced by Brazil’s mestizo, black, and poor populations and to explore our historical knowledge of their struggles,” observes Olivieri-Godet, author of Construções identitárias na obra de João Ubaldo Ribeiro (Identity construction in the work of João Ubaldo Ribeiro) (Hucitec/EdUEFS/Academia Brasileira de Letras, 2009).

First released nearly 30 years ago, in October 1984, An Invincible Memory is considered João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s masterpiece precisely because it delves into Brazilian contradictions between the real and the imaginary, that is, between the historical process of colonization and narrative. According to Helena Bonito Couto Pereira, professor at Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo, this narrative belongs to the realm of historiographic metafiction, a brand of fiction that questions the very possibility of coming to understand history by engaging in an intentionally subversive reinterpretation of the past. In a plot that stretches from the 17th to the 20th centuries, the author employs pinches of literary irony, ingredients from the world of fantastic realism, and doses of subversion of the official discourse to examine the lives of characters representative of the three ethnicities that settled Brazil: white, Indian, and black. “At one extreme we find characters reminiscent of Macunaíma in their irrepressible egotism and moral disengagement. At the other, there are characters who are authentically dedicated to political struggle, especially to the emancipation of the slaves, but even more than that, to the establishment of a more just society,” says Pereira, who is also dean of Graduate Studies and Research at Mackenzie. “His work thus inspires reflection on Brazilian socioeconomic inequality and its corollaries, like violence, poverty, and cruelty, products of the process of colonization and of the country’s complex ethnic makeup.”

Ubaldo contributed to anthropological, historical, and sociological thought on the different identities existing in Brazil from colonial days to the present, along much the same lines as, but in more literary terms than, Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (Raízes do Brasil, 1936; tr. Roots of Brazil, 2012) and Darcy Ribeiro (O povo brasileiro, 1995; tr. The Brazilian People, 2000), among others. Of the various identities constructed in the book, the reader is struck by the one that is mestizo, plural, and transcultural. There is, according to Olivieri-Godet, the “legitimizing” identity, corresponding to the viewpoint of the elites and the institutions that ruled for four centuries; on the other hand, there is the identity of “resistance,” which is the stance taken by the social actors who are devalued by the dominant logic. For scholars of Ubaldo, the author’s main legacy is something intrinsic to his work: a rebellion against any and all forms of “colonization of thought,” from the most blatant and brutal to the most subtle.

Specialists say that Ubaldo assumed the role of an intellectual writer – much like Palestinian thinker Edward Said – wielding a sharp critical pen to portray individual angst and social ills from the perspective of universal values. “João Ubaldo’s literary mission was bound up with the [Brazilian] people. As an energetic intellectual representative, he was wholly devoted to engaged, political literary activity, fighting all forms of power through skillful intellectual exercise, because he knew how to use words and when to intervene through them; his novels were conceived as a way of bearing witness to social ills and of endowing readers with awareness of this once-colonized country’s state of underdevelopment,” says linguist Angela Antunes Conceição, author of the doctoral dissertation “The paths and trails of cultural communitarianism in José Luandino VieiraNosso musseque [Our Musseque]) and João Ubaldo Ribeiro (An Invincible Memory): an identity in (trans)formation” (in Port.), defended in 2011 at the University of São Paulo’s Faculty of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Human Sciences (FFLCH-USP).

“Without losing sight of its concern with society, Ubaldo’s novels also breathe life into the ‘little soul’ of the Brazilian people – of the oppressed, the marginalized and, at the same time, of the oppressor, the elite, the bourgeois. João Ubaldo Ribeiro does a masterful job of capturing Brazil’s pluralized soul,” observes Conceição. Valiant Brazilian souls, as depicted on the novel’s final pages: “This is not known, nothing is known, all is chosen. All is chosen, as know the little souls now shivering in the infinite cosmic cold, which makes them sway like the kites flown by the children they miss. Little Brazilian souls, so tiny and guileless they caused pity, but resolved to go back to fight” (An Invincible Memory, New York: Harper & Row, 1989, p. 504).

From Itaparica to the World
João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s books were not limited to the borders of Brazil. Titles likeSetembro não tem sentido (1968; September makes no sense); Sargento Getúlio (1971; tr.Sergeant Getúlio, 1997); O sorriso do lagarto (1989; tr. The Lizard’s Smile, 1994); A casa dos budas ditosos (1999; tr. House of the fortunate Buddhas, 2011); and O albatroz azul (2009; Blue albatross) have been translated into 12 languages. Available in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian, his writings echo in more remote languages as well, like Slovenian, Finnish, Hebrew, Norwegian, and Swedish. The laurels accumulated during his career include two Jabutis (Brazil’s top literary prize), for Sargento Getúlio in 1972 and for Viva o povo brasileiro in 1984, and a Camões (2008), roughly equivalent to a Nobel in the Lusophone world. Internationally, he received Germany’s Die Blaue Brillenschlange (1995) as well as the Anna Seghers prize (1994), the latter awarded by the Berlin Academy of Arts at the Frankfurt Book Fair.

If this Bahian intellectual celebrated Brazilian identity in his writings, his cosmopolitanism should not be forgotten. Together with Jorge Amado, he is one of Brazil’s best-known authors abroad. This is the estimation of Olivieri-Godet, who is a member of the University Institute of France and has lived outside Brazil for 20 years. “His work is studied in graduate courses in France. His actual presence here in France in recent years, when he took part in roundtables and lectures, also helped interest the public in his work,” says the author, who will release Viva o povo brasileiro: a ficção de uma nação plural (An invincible memory: the fiction of a plural nation) (Editora É Realizações) in November 2014.

Ubaldo translated two of his books into English himself: Sergeant Getúlio and An Invincible Memory. This was a Herculean task, considering the literary sophistication and historical lines of both. The unprecedented nature of this achievement earned the author additional prestige among his peers. His endeavor was subsequently analyzed by Maria Alice Gonçalves Antunes, director of the Institute of Letters at Rio de Janeiro State University (UERJ) and author of a study later released in book form under the title O respeito pelo original: João Ubaldo Ribeiro e a autotradução (Respecting the original: João Ubaldo Ribeiro and self-translation) (Annablume, 2009). One of the points made by Antunes is that the translated text is a balancing act between the foreign reader and Brazilian culture – and the author succeeded in reaching the foreign reader without erasing the original culture from his text. “There are always changes when you translate, but I don’t like to talk about the losses that may occur in a translation. This kind of attitude comes from viewing translation as a second-class activity. How many Brazilian works and authors – from both literature and scientific theory – would be locked inside a geographic and cultural space were it not for translation?” the linguist argues.

Scholars are unanimous in affirming that Ubaldo’s stories allow the reader to identify with essentially complex, universal human questions. If some of the writer’s lines center on Latin America’s “exotic” character, what lies between the lines is simply human drama. Dancing between Brazilian and cosmopolitan, regional and universal, singular and plural – there resides the legacy of the work of João Ubaldo Ribeiro.