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A Bocage on the surface of the text

Biography brings the Portuguese poet to light, including his passage through Brazil.

Biographies are in fashion. Those who went to the 18th Book Biennial in São Paulo had an abundant choice: big books and little books, with biographees from here and from there. From Edward Said to Adoniran Barbosa, the genre on offer for all tastes and all pockets.

It does not fail to be curious that this interest coincides with the much proclaimed death of the subject. Can it be – with the subject dead – that biography beckons with his resurrection? It may very well be: unlike fiction, in the case of the personages who populate a biography, any similarity is no mere coincidence. In this genre, the author/reader pact endorses the promise that the personage in paper and ink is a stand-in of a flesh and blood figure. But it may also be that, from so much revolving around itself, that the contemporary fiction most prized by the critics has bored the reader: a habitual consumer of adventures, the respectable public seeks, in biography, something that literature has denied him.

It is on the horizon of this intriguing (and welcome) blossoming of the biographical genre that Adelto Gonçalves publishes Bocage – O perfil perdido [Bocage – The lost profile]. The fruit of university research, the text brings this hallmark to the surface of the skin.In this case, to the surface of the text.The case is that there are several Bocages: to begin with, the well known one of the popular anecdotes, pornographic and rude. And so many others, like the emulator of Camões, who follows the tracks of the master around the world, or again the member of conventional and conservative poetic guilds.

But whichever one is the Bocage of each one of us, he lives in the company of all the others in the person of Manuel Maria Barbosa du Bocage (1765-1805), a Portuguese citizen who lived in an age in which his country was bogged down in contradictions. Portugal of the seventeen hundreds was almost always going in the wrong direction to the modernization of Europe, even though at times it partook, ephemerally, of the illuminist current. Legal measures and political episodes evoked in the book illustrate the timid to-and-fro of Portuguese modernization, whose setbacks ended up taking the poet to jail.

With much competence, Adelto Gonçalves immerses his reader in this climate of the age, whose reconstruction is, to be sure, verisimilar. And from its verisimilitude, the breadth of his research guarantees its veracity. A contribution to this effect comes from the ample bibliography that peppers the pages of the book with abundant footnotes.In the attempt to prove the promised profile of his biographee, the author does not spare the reader details, citations, cross references, erudite digressions, polemics with other researchers. But the fact is that the reader does not always appreciate this effort. Between a thesis and a book, between the end of the research and the publication of the results, a range of options opens up, about which the researcher needs to meditate profoundly.

For not all that he prospected deserves to be published, above all when the end product of the research is a biography whose commercial publication has an eye on the public at large. In a narrative genre like biography, the excessive backwards and forwards between sources represents digressions that are not always welcome. In one of his fine sonnets, Olavo Bilac advise the young poet The torture of the master in the making is not to be shown. Let it not be shown the torment/ of the master/ Andnaturally, let the effect be pleasing/, without recalling the scaffolding of the building. Perhaps the advice also serves for the researcher’s task.

It is not, however, merely in the formatting of his biography that Adelto Gonçalves, in his book, may diverge from a public less zealous for details. He may also trip up with readers who expect a less ingenuous and linear relationship between the life and work of a poet. The perspective from which this biography is written takes the work by Bocage (and by some of his contemporaries) as a biographical surety and vice-versa. On the one hand, this interpretation could sustain itself for dealing with a (pre-romantic) poet for whom poetry is (still) a genre subject to a strongly normalized writing, and that not infrequently serves as social capital and a currency of prestige. But this is not the path pursues by the research that results in this Bocage – O perfil perdido.

The path chosen by the researcher is different: the bringing of some new information, the rectification of others, and, for the Brazilian reader, an extra attraction: details of the passage of the poet through Rio de Janeiro, and the presence of a forebear of Bocage in the Portuguese forces who fought against the French at the beginning of the 18th century, when the latter invaded the then Portuguese colony that we were.

Marisa Lajolo is a professor of Literary Theory at Unicamp, where she coordinates the Memory of Reading project http://www.unicamp.br/iel/memoria

Bocage – O perfil perdido
Adelto Gonçalves
Caminho (a publishing house from Portugal)
380 pages / R$ 29.93