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Doctor Benignus and the aliens

Inspired by Jules Verne, Portuguese author Augusto Emílio Zaluar wrote the first science fiction book published in Brazil

Reproduction of newspaper O Globo, July 1, 1875: daily chapters became a book that same yearReproduction of newspaper

The first edition of the adventure novel Around the World in Eighty Days began circulating in Paris in 1873. The Mysterious Island arrived the next year, both written by French author Jules Verne (1828-1905), whom journalist and writer Sérgio Augusto defined, in a 2011 piece in the newspaper O Estado de S.Paulo, as “the wildest literary work of 19th century scientificism generated with its eyes on the 20th century.”  He was referring to the artifacts that, although nonexistent at the time, Verne created for his stories: from the submarine to the long-range cannon, from the phonograph to the atomic bomb.  On July 1, 1875, the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo began publishing chapters of Doctor Benignus, the first Verne-inspired science fiction novel to be published in Brazil, which came out in book form later that year.  Its author was the Portuguese-born Brazilian writer and journalist Augusto Emílio Zaluar (1826-1882), an admirer of the works of Verne.

“Zaluar himself said that Jules Verne was a model to be followed, but he also said that Verne’s works were original, because they valued, as he himself wrote, the ‘prodigious scientific wealth of our continent’,” notes historian Lucas de Melo Andrade, a professor at the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Paraná (IFPR) in Paranavaí, who studied Doctor Benignus in 2014 as a researcher at the Federal University of Ouro Preto (UFOP).  He says that the book was part of the process of expanding and institutionalizing science in Brazil—the Botanical Gardens opened in 1808, the Royal Military Academy in 1810 and the National Museum in 1818—as well as defining areas of specialization for professional scientists.  Aside from this, it expresses the concern about reaching the general public through what was then known as scientific vulgarization.  Even after it was published, Zaluar kept one foot in this field by overseeing the periodical O Vulgarisador, one of Brazil’s first publications aimed at science communication, printed in Rio de Janeiro from 1877 to 1880.

Wikipedia Illustrations from books by Jules VerneWikipedia

Zaluar began to build his base of scientific knowledge by taking, although not completing, courses at the Medical School of Lisbon, where he was born.  He left Portugal for Brazil in1849 and embraced his love for the world of letters: he translated literary works from French for newspapers in Rio de Janeiro, published the book of poetry entitled Dores e flores [Pain and flowers], edited the weekly periodical O Álbum Semanal and wrote a travelogue, Peregrinação pela província de São Paulo [Journey through the province of São Paulo], before immersing himself in science fiction.

“Doctor Benignus is a politically engaging work that considers scientific knowledge as a way of achieving progress and building the country’s identity,” Andrade says. Reissued in 1994 by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, the book tells the adventures of Doctor Benignus, a physician and amateur scientist, and an entourage of 30 – including Frenchman M. Gustavo de Fronville, a student of the natural sciences, and Englishman Jaime River, who takes part in the expedition with the hope of meeting his father, Englishman William River, who may have been taken prisoner by indigenous peoples – deep inside Brazil.  While traveling through the forests of the states of Minas Gerais and Goiás looking for signs of aliens, they observe and describe the sky and the planets. In observing Mars through his telescope, Benignus identifies forests and concludes that the red planet could be inhabited.  Later he recognizes Sun spots and says that the center of the Sun could also be inhabited because it had a different consistency than the Sun’s surface.

Wikipedia Jules Verne and Augusto Zaluar (right), his Portuguese disciple based in Rio de JaneiroWikipedia

Benignus sets out to prove that American man would have emerged in Brazil and then migrated to other continents, in accordance with one of the scientific theories debated at that time in the Brazilian Historic and Geographic Institute (IHGB). To support his nationalist vision, he primarily looks to Danish paleontologist Peter Wilhelm Lund (1801-1880) (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 247), who held that theory based on the discovery of human bones in a cave in the Lagoa Santa region of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. He also argues on the basis of studies by Swiss naturalist Jean-Louis-Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), a follower of the ideas of Lund, who traveled throughout Brazil, collecting fish. Since he found it unthinkable that whites, Indians and blacks had the same origin, Agassiz objected to the theory of evolution put forth by Charles Darwin (1809-1882), also referred to in the book.

“Zaluar is inclined to defend Darwin’s theories, which in itself simply represents a position quite different from that of his contemporaries,” noted anthropologist Edgar Indalecio Smaniotto, a professor at the School of Higher Learning of Upstate São Paulo (FAIP) and author of A fantástica viagem imaginária de Augusto Emílio Zaluar [The fantastic imaginary journey of Augusto Emílio Zaluar] (Editora Corifeu, 2007). “There are several indirect references to the theory of evolution in the book, including one when during a hunt, the men accompanying Benignus kill an orangutan for their dinner.  Katine, Benignus’ cook, refuses to cook that which could be ‘one of his indirect ancestors’.”

Wikipedia Illustration from The War of the Worlds by H. G. WellsWikipedia

In the midst of the journey, Doctor Benignus meets an alien from the Sun, an alleged representative of more-highly-evolved human civilizations.  The alien tells the physician to keep teaching the people science and assures him that his quest for knowledge will help transform the continent into a land recognized “by civilized nations and by the peoples of the Sun.”  Smaniotto notes that the alien race of the book would not be alone for long as a literary character.  Others appear in books such as The War of the Worlds, released in 1898 by British author Herbert George Wells (1866-1946). “One major criticism of Zaluar is that he didn’t take as much advantage of technology as he could have, except when he mentioned electric lights at a time when the incandescent bulb had not yet been invented,” says Smaniotto.

Newspapers in Rio de Janeiro praised the book.  In 1875, Revista Médica predicted, “If he were to make one or another correction, such as perhaps with regard to the sections with numerous technical citations, he would come to be as popular as the talented French author J. Verne”. Zaluar did not achieve that greatness, however.  “If the picaresque framework of Doctor Benignus was not enough to assure the author a place in the compendia of literary history, it is precisely because, as literature, the work is quite weak and boring,” notes Ricardo Waizbort, a Fiocruz researcher who specializes in literature and the history of biology, in a 2012 article in the Revista Brasileira de História da Ciência. Smaniotto disagrees: “While Zaluar is not in fact among the elite of Brazil’s great writers, Doctor Benignus is neither weak nor dull.”

Wikipedia Cover of the book’s 1994 editionWikipedia

The book began to circulate when public taste was growing for novels (not science fiction), such as A mão e a luva [The Hand and the Glove] by Machado de Assis (1874) and Senhora [Senhora: Profile of a Woman] by José de Alencar (1875), which came in the wake of Memórias de um sargento de milícias [Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant] by Manuel Antônio de Almeida, first published as a serial in the newspaper Correio Mercantil from 1852 to 1853. Historian Andrade recognizes traces of the romantic in Zaluar’s book, such as the subjective view of natural phenomena and the notion that the world cannot be understood through reason alone. “The book is completely religious, since it is always talking about the existence of God, another romantic trait,” says Andrade.

It was also in serial form that historian, novelist and senator Joaquim Felício dos Santos (1828-1895) published – periodically between 1868 and 1872 in his own newspaper, O Jequitinhonha, out of the Minas Gerais city of Diamantina – his two imaginary journeys:  A história do Brasil escrita pelo dr. Jeremias no ano de 2862 [The History of Brazil Written by Dr. Jeremias in the Year 2862] and its sequel, Páginas da história do Brasil escrita no ano de 2000 [Pages from Brazilian History Written in the Year 2000]. In a 2012 article that appeared in the journal Remate de Males, Ana Cláudia Romano Ribeiro, an undergraduate in letters, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp) and collaborating researcher at the Institute of Language Studies (IEL) of the University of Campinas (Unicamp), defines the two works by Santos as “speculative proto- fiction and political narrative,” since both contain a “caustic snapshot of Imperial Brazil in the time of Pedro II.” Taken into the future by a medium, the emperor gets a German name, Dr. Muller, and wanders around a republican Brazil with 122 states and 142 million inhabitants, whose capital is Guaicuí, in the state of Minas Gerais.

After Doctor Benignus, science fiction emerges sporadically in Brazil, such as in the short story O immortal [The immortal] by Machado de Assis, released in the1882 women’s magazine A Estação, until it becomes established in the first half of the 20th century through authors devoted to the genre, such as Jeronymo Monteiro (1908-1970) in his Três meses no século 81 [Three months in the 81st century] published in 1947, and A cidade perdida [The Lost City] published in1948, and Berilo Neves’ (1901-1974) 1932 book A costela de Adão [Adam’s Rib] as well as others, such as physician Gastão Cruls (1888-1959), who wrote A Amazônia misteriosa [The Mysterious Amazonia] in 1925, considered a classic in the genre.