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Ghostly modernity

Photographs of the Madeira-Mamoré railway are the novelty in the relaunch of the book about the "Railway of Death"

Far from being a narrative book about drama during the building of the Madeira-Mamoré railway, the theme of a current mini-series on TV Globo, the Trem-fantasma [Ghost Train], a study by Francisco Foot Hardman, is a beautiful and poetic (even in its generally non-“academic” language) example of the effort of his intellectual generation in changing the directions of writing history within universities. Before being called a history book, it is above all a literary study concerning the national and worldwide imagery on the force of progress in the face of nature.

A group of researchers resolved to recover the “wiping out of clues” carried out by Brazilian culture on important events, such as the calamitous railway line that, between 1907 and 1912, mobilized 20,000 workers from various countries and cost the lives, needlessly, of 6,000 of them. What they wanted to do was make a link between the Amazon and a region in Bolivia, rich in latex. There was also the desire to build an access to the Atlantic Ocean and thus to compete with the Panama canal.

Full of doubtful commercial contracts, which resulted in a thundering fiasco, the Madeira-Mamoré line was conveniently forgotten about by the elite in spite of the magnitude of the saga. Dr. Hardman, a professor of theory and historical literature from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), saw in it the perfect example of the new historiography that he and his colleagues had desired to implement. With success. The book starts off with an analysis about the link between progress and spectacle, especially reflected within the railways, with their trains blowing off steam and civilizing the world, conveying modernization to all the ends of the earth. Not without reason, the first film of the Lumiére brothers had shown the arrival of a train. It was, alongside steam ships, the invention responsible for spreading the opportunity of market consumption across the globe.

The ideal scenarios for this new mentality, says Hardman, were the universal exhibition exposés, including those in Brazil, of the incontestable proof of the meeting between progress and a spectacle for the masses. Within them as well they had decimated, with elegance, the “less advanced” cultures, which had to be renewed through modernity. In this model, the researcher affirmed that the same principle of “phantasmagoric giddiness” had affected man in the cities and in the jungles, the natural adversary to be dominated.

The updating of the study rests, above all, in the permanence of the model of predatory occupation of the country, whose result is an imagery unit, viewed by the researcher as an ideological comedy restricted to a minority of the population. Revised, the book from the 1980’s now includes a new chapter (in truth an article from 1988) about the photographer Dana Merrill, responsible for the dramatic photographs of the railway.