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An Imagined Brazi

Ariano Suassuna forged a fiction out of popular tradition mixed with a heavy dose of aesthetics

Suassuna at the window of his home in Recife (1996): ambitious project

bel pedrosa / folhapress Suassuna at the window of his home in Recife (1996): ambitious projectbel pedrosa / folhapress

The desire to create an aesthetic project about Brazilian culture and the frequent dialogue between the classical and the popular marked the life of Ariano Suassuna, as described by the researchers who study his work.  The lawyer, playwright, poet, graphic artist, university professor and, on three occasions, Secretary of Education and Culture, who died in July 2014, had an 87-year trajectory that could very well be the stuff of his own literary creations.

As with all great writers, it is possible to identify how the work of Suassuna was influenced by other writers, notes Carlos Newton Júnior, professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco (UFPE) and author of O pai, o exílio e o reino: a poesia armorial de Ariano Suassuna [The Father, the exile and the kingdom: the armorial poetry of Ariano Saussuna] (Editora UFPE, 1999) and Ariano Suassuna 80, memória: catálogo e guia de fontes [Ariano Suassuna at 80, memory: catalog and guide to sources] (Editora Sarau, 2008).  “Ariano often mentioned how he was influenced by Brazilian writers such as José de Alencar and Euclides da Cunha, and foreign writers such as Cervantes, Molière, Goldoni, Lorca, to name a few,” he says.  According to Newton, the playwright channeled his literary idols in a poetic approach that was both personal and poised for a more ambitious aesthetic, and in so doing, redesigned, in the medium and long-term, the very notion of Brazilian culture.  And for this, he devised an original form of poetry that sought to include the best of what the classical and the popular had to offer.

To Newton Júnior, it is within this context that we can understand the Armorial Movement.  Begun by Ariano Suassuna in the early 1970s, it shared a connection to cordel literature through its music that included guitars, fiddles and flutes, as well as to the woodcuttings that illustrated the booklets of popular Northeastern folklore – the pull quotes on pages 82 and 84 of this article are set in armorial font, which is part of a graphic design Suassuna himself worked on, using old Brazilian cattle-branding irons as a reference.

The Armorial Movement is a consequence of the “dialogue between popular creation and original poetry of the singers and stories in the cordel literature,” says Idelette Muzart Fonseca dos Santos, a French researcher who teaches at the Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense.  “This dialogue gave birth to works of poetry, theater and fictitious narrative that in turn fuels a theoretical contemplation of aesthetics,” she says.  Married to a Brazilian, dos Santos read Suassuna’s Romance d’a pedra do reino [Romance of the Kingdom’s Stone] in 1971 in France and decided to write her master’s thesis about it.  She defended her dissertation, Le roman de chevalerie et son interprétation par un écrivain brésilien contemporain: o Romance d’a pedra do reino, de Ariano Suassuna,  in 1974.  She says that Suassuna’s book has structural and thematic elements characteristic of the chivalric novel, including several references to História de Carlos Magno e os doze pares de França [The History of Charlemagne and the twelve peers of France].  “I wrote to Ariano and we exchanged long letters about medieval literature in general, which he knew well.  It was only after I started writing my doctoral dissertation that I learned about Brazil and Ariano personally,” she says.

Ariano, his wife, Zélia, and son Dantas pose for a photo with tapestries in Recife (1991)

bel pedrosa / folhapress Ariano, his wife, Zélia, and son Dantas pose for a photo with tapestries in Recife (1991)bel pedrosa / folhapress

Author of Em demanda da poética popular: Ariano Suassuna e o Movimento Armorial [Popular poetry in demand: Ariano Suassuana and the Armorial Movement], (Editora Unicamp, 2009), de Santos remembers that in the 1950s, when Suassuna constructed his aesthetic, “there was an enormous feeling of hope in Brazil.” And this persisted even after this initial dialogue, so much so that in the 1970s, the voice of the playwright gave rise to the movement in which the union between the classical world and the popular world set the tone for his armorial poetry.

Art and dialogue
In the view of Newton Júnior, armorial poetry can be understood as “the search for a classical Brazilian art that begins with popular culture, indigenous art and dialogue with Third World art.”  He notes that the poetry of the movement was far from expressing any consensus.  “In art, there is no unanimity.  But most critics who have actually studied the Armorial Movement recognize the quality of many of the works of armorial artists.” Ariano Suassuna’s armorial poetry influenced not only artists, musicians, writers and directors, but also academicians and Brazilian cultural scholars.  This is underscored by the fact that Suassuna was himself a professor at UFPE. Starting in the mid-1950s, shortly after giving up the study of law, the writer dedicated 30 years to his academic career, becoming a professor of aesthetics.  Once at the university, he became famous for giving classes that were veritable performances.  It was at these events that Suassuna’s signature as a public intellectual adapted itself to the willingness to talk to the common man.

Antônio Nóbrega, one of the heirs to the armorial poetry defended by the playwright, says that Suassuna’s charismatic storytelling sometimes appeared to hide a deeper understanding of his notion of aesthetics. “Ariano’s charisma as a storyteller – he was a man with a prodigious memory – to me seemed to conceal the intellectual and the thinker who was extremely concerned about the great issues that affected the world, and Brazil in particular,” says the Pernambucan artist, who writes, acts, directs, composes, sings and plays.  In tapping his early memories about the emergence of the Armorial Movement back in the 1970s, Nóbrega – founder of the Espaço Brincante [performing arts venue] in São Paulo that carries on the aesthetic objectives forged by Suassuna – notes that the reactions were  extreme more than anything else. “There were those who openly embraced his ideas and those who radically rejected them,” he says.

Rehearsal of a scene in A pedra do reino and dramatization of Antunes Filho in São Paulo (2006)

Karime Xavier / FolhapressRehearsal of a scene in A pedra do reino and dramatization of Antunes Filho in São Paulo (2006)Karime Xavier / Folhapress

The murder of his father
A writer’s life cannot be disconnected from his work. “Whoever had the opportunity to attend one of the class-performances most likely heard the playwright talk about his father, João Suassuna, who was killed in 1930, when Ariano was just 13,” says Eduardo Dimitrov, author of O Brasil dos espertos – uma análise da construção social de Ariano Suassuna [The Brazilians’ clever characters: the constructions of playwright Ariano Suassuna’s theatrical production of a memory] (Alameda/FAPESP, 2009). To Dimitrov, who conducted his research at the University of São Paulo (USP) under the advisorship of Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, a new meaning can be attributed to the writings of the author of Auto da Compadecida [Play of Our Lady of Mercy] when one knows his life story.

As a result of political disputes over control of the state of   Paraíba, the death of João Suassuna, within a context of systematic revenge-killings, profoundly affected Suassuna’s aesthetic approach. “At one point, there was a schism within the Pessoa oligarchy during the government of João Suassuna, which grew deeper during the administration of his successor,  João Pessoa,” Dimitrov explains. “At the height of tensions fueled by the dispute, João Dantas, a relative of Ariano, murdered João Pessoa, which served as the catalyst for the 1930 Revolution.   In retaliation, allies of João Pessoa killed the assassin as well as João Suassuna.” At the time, Rita de Cássia, João’s wife, was living with their eight children in Paulista, a city near Recife. Three years after the death of João Suassuna, the family moved to Taperoá, in the rural interior of Paraíba State. In 1942, the family moved to Recife.  There, Ariano studied law at UFPE, and together with Hermilo Barbosa Filho founded the Pernambuco Student Theater in 1946.

The episode involving the murder of his father had a huge impact on the work of Suassuna, says Dimitrov. “The way Ariano figured out how to keep his father alive, if not exact revenge, was by writing plays and other literary works that contained numerous  references to a backlands world that he indirectly fuses with the core of his familial identity,” notes the researcher.  The author’s fictional universe in this context is inspired by a creative dynamic that is biographical in nature. “The way that Ariano narrates the political dispute follows the same organizational principle as his plays.  It is in this way that the biographical narrative and the fictional narrative become one,” the researcher observes.

Staging of the play Auto da Compadecida, in Rio [de Janeiro] (1957)

ARCHIVES / Agência Estado / AEStaging of the play Auto da Compadecida, in Rio [de Janeiro] (1957)ARCHIVES / Agência Estado / AE

The way Ariano Suassuna thought about Brazil persists today in the way in which his narratives represented the clash between the real Brazil and the official Brazil. “To him, the official Brazil was the one that belonged to the elites, while the real Brazil belonged to the people.  Ariano recognized his own status as having come from the official Brazil, as a member of the elite, but he maintained that he was extremely sensitive to the real Brazil and that he strove always to understand the viewpoint of the people.”  That understanding is written into the plots by the writer whose comedies were based on the people from the real Brazil.

“In Play of our Lady of Mercy, written in 1955, for example, all the characters revolve around the actions of João Grilo and Chicó, the two poor protagonists who dictate the rules of the game.  The priest, the bishop, the baker and his wife, the colonel, the outlaw, and even the devil, Jesus Christ and the lady of mercy are involved in the tricks of the poor yet clever cowboy,” he explains.  According to this dynamic, says the researcher, the Brazil of the con artists – in other words, the poor people who survive despite their troubles – supplants the official Brazil, of those with power.

Beyond the literature and drama, Ariano is perceived as a sensitive thinker with regard to the internal mechanisms that constitute the often invisible national identity.  Therefore, if on the one hand, there is the author who, as Municipal Secretary of Education and Culture of Recife (1975-1978) and State Secretary of Culture of Pernambuco (1994-1998 and 2007-2010), made an effort to demonstrate that the country’s culture is much stronger, richer and original than generally thought, as noted by Carlos Newton Júnior, there is on the other hand, the organizer of genuinely Brazilian manifestations that sought to protect national culture from the urban and cultural industry.

Antônio Nóbrega during his show: a more balanced understanding of Suassuna’s body of work

DUDU SCHNAIDERAntônio Nóbrega during his show: a more balanced understanding of Suassuna’s body of workDUDU SCHNAIDER

Fully aware of the importance Ariano Suassuna gave to his work as an artist, Antônio Nóbrega also notes that perceptions about the Pernambucan writer as a staunch defender of Brazilian culture could, to a certain extent, compromise the very understanding of what he had to say about this culture. “I think the vision one has of Ariano as a Brazilian culture radical prevents a more balanced understanding of his legacy.”  To this end, Newton Júnior says that there are still aspects we know little about when it comes to the author of Romance of the Kingdom’s Stone, originally published in 1971. “Poetry is one of them.  Another, about which even less is known, is his work in the fine arts.  Ariano’s work in the fields of theater and narrative has overshadowed his poetry,” says the professor, who is also a poet and editor of the collection of Suassuna’s poetry in book form (Poemas [Poems], Editora UFPE, 1999, out of print).

By observing the works of Ariano Suassuna in plays (Uma mulher vestida de sol, [A Woman Clothed in Sunshine] from 1947; A pena e a lei, [Punishment and the Law] from 1959; A farsa da boa preguiça, [The Farce of Happy Indolence] from 1960), narratives (A história do amor de Fernando e Isaura, [The Love Story of Fernando and Isaura] from 1956; História do rei degolado nas caatingas do sertão, [The Story of the king beheaded in the hinterlands] from1977), poems (Ode, from 1955; Sonetos com mote alheio, [Sonnets using foreign themes] from 1980), essays, and public actions in defense of Brazilian culture, we see, according to his scholars, that in addition to being a creator, he sought to forge an ideal Brazil in the imagination of the public, a Brazil where the vicissitudes of social differences were solved through the story-telling and cunning of people from the real Brazil.  To a certain extent, it can be said that this strategy serves as a metaphor for Brazilian cultural thinkers concerned about the stripping away of the national culture.  To prevent this collapse, he forged a fiction out of popular tradition, steeped in aesthetics, and representative of the Brazilian people.