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Itinerant libertarian

In two volumes, the complete chronicles of Lima Barreto reveals the power of analysis of the author of Policarpo Quaresma

DIVULGAÇÃO/PRO FILMEA scene from the film Policarpo Quaresma: in chronicles and romances, the writer challenged Republican narrow mindednessDIVULGAÇÃO/PRO FILME

The philosopher Walter Benjamin filled himself up with hashish in order to prove that that was the source of the geniality of Baudelaire. As well as indisposition, he discovered that the drug did not give him any talent at all. However, the genial Lima Barreto (1881-1922) had soaked himself in Parati rum to the point of, in the train, annoying the passengers saying that he was an Arch Duke exiled from Russia who was going to send his adversaries (among them the highly successful Machado de Assis) to Siberia. When sober, he was capable of writing works of art, even in the short-lived format of chronicles, as reveal the two volumes of Lima Barreto: toda crônica [Lima Barreto: all of his chronicles] (Editora Agir), edited by Beatriz Resende, bringing together his writings for “cheap newspapers” from 1890 until his death in 1922.

Something, nevertheless, unites the two writers. “In Lima’s chronicles we have the registration of ‘the story of the losers’ to use Benjamin’s expression, a story constructed not by official voices but by those who didn’t have any voice at all. They’re the voices of those on the margins, of a marginalized group, outside of the central circles, outside the lines of power, small fry who were part of this story, witnesses of day to day Rio in the first years of the Republic and references of a literary life that are not related in the ‘stories of Brazilian literature'”, says editor Beatriz. “Completing what he already did with his romances, placing the life of the suburbs, of the lower middle class and of factory workers as the theme of daily comments that only the chronic is capable of arousing.”

In the popular newspaper texts he would defend anarchism, Bolshevism, criticize the “insatiable voracity of the politics of São Paulo, whose economic development is guided by the following law: turn the rich richer and make the poor poorer”, as he wrote in one of his chronicles. Above all he would defend, in this he was a pioneer, the right of all to citizenship. “He had great confidence in social changes and a type of faith in a better world. He had no fear and didn’t make concessions to the powerful, opting to say what he thought, to tell what he saw, to fight for the excluded and to give a voice to the marginalized”, the organizer explains. “I’m not a patriot, what I really want to weaken the sentiment of patriotism, an exclusivist and even aggressive sentiment, in order to allow for the strengthening of a greater one, which covers like mother Earth all of the human species”, he wrote in an over optimistic way in 1914.

Symptomatically, the man who dreamt of a union of all was an outcast and it was this condition that led him to chronicle. After the criticism he made of Edmundo Bittencourt, the owner of the newspaper Correio da Manhã, in Recordações do escrivão Isaías Caminha (Recollections of the Notary Isaías Caminha) , the major Rio de Janeiro  newspapers closed their doors to his texts. “And it was this exclusion that was to determine his life as a chronicler, guaranteeing his independence and turning him into a special interpreter of the city, immune to the frequent co-opting that occurred with intellectuals”, explains Beatriz. The alternative press would be the only alternative for him, which would give him liberty of form and content. Whilst the Republic was inundated with eulogies from the literary and intellectual circles, Lima, alongside Euclides da Cunha, had the courage to be a dissenting voice, the wet blanket of the new regime.

“Only a few times has literary creation been so imprisoned in its own epiderm of history tout court“, notes Nicolau Sevcenko, one of the first to recognize the “mission”  character of the writer’s work. “It’s worth noting that he assumed this fight of taking literature as a weapon at a time in which his contemporaries could not accept an author taking this on as a ‘mission’. Lima had confidence in the future, and thus, even eighty years after his writings, the reading of his chronicles reveals the persistency of various problems pointed out by him in Rio and in the country at large, from themes such as racism, the favor as a way of gaining access to political posts, to the day to day violence practiced on women”, the organizer recalls.

He himself was a grand critic of the Republic; he was a republican from the first moment and a card-carrying member. For Lima, the new regime would signify the construction of a more egalitarian society that would repair the horrors generated by colonialism and by Imperial slavery. The movement was synonymous with a country where men and women were equal. Sadly, Lima discovered that the new political set-up could be more repressive and reactionary than the conservative and archaic monarchy that the country had just gotten rid of.

In particular, he had hated narrow-minded and blind nationalism that had taken over the intellectuals of the First Republic, criticizing vehemently patriotism. In a novel chronicle, published for the first time in this collection, and baptized as A minha Alemanha [To my Germany] (written in 1919 immediately after the First World War), he declared: “I’m not a nationalist”. A phrase that would have been reckless for those days of enthusiasm. “Only today, with the debate revolving around the dangers of exclusive nationalism and of fundamentalism, can we truly understand the phrase”, notes Beatriz. “Germans, blavks, mixed races, Italians, Portuguese, Greeks and bums, we are all men and we must understand one another in the vast and ample lands of Brazil”, is how he completed the prohibited chronicle.

Even more audacious is another chronicle written in 1918, inspired by the Russian Bolshevik victory, in which he professed himself to be “against the insatiable voracity of the Sao Paulo politicians, against an increase in taxation, against property ownership, against immobilized capital that does not contribute to the richness of the country”, saying that he was in favor of “confiscating the wealth of certain religious orders, of divorce and of the right of women to freely dispose of their wealth”. At the end of the text yet another “bombshell”: “Ave Russia!” If in romances there appeared the parody of the official history of that moment, then the Lima Barreto chronicles intended “to make history”, to change the city and the country. And he had the courage to do it using a “lesser genre”, namely that of the chronicle.

“The chronicler is an artist persecuted by times, trapped by the need of always moving forward, without the time to look back. These contingencies lead to the option of an agreeable colloquiality, which makes an accomplice of the reader. Hence the imperfections, eventual non-corrections and the presence of contradictions”, Beatriz points out. Among them the scorn towards feminism and the protest against the “women killers”. In As mulheres na academia [Women in the Academy], he ironically stated: “The academy must be made up only of women and it must not have a library, archive or similar things. What it must have are mounted jewelry, needles and thread and pins for hats. In this manner, it could compete considerably for the progress of a scholarly native language”. The suffragettes and the feminist Bertha Lutz were also victims of his venom.

The same man is capable of an emphatic defense of women, when, in a chronicle of 1915 in which he commented on the crimes of passion that had been occurring in the capital, he attempted “to convince men that they have no more dominance over women than that which comes from affection. Let women love at their will. Don’t kill them for the love of God!” It’s interesting to note, as a curiosity, the chronicles in which he reveals his aversion towards football. “The role of football is, I repeat, to cause dissentions in the heart of our national life. This is its high social function. The greatest despots and the cruelest savages martyr and torture their victims but in the end kill them. Quickly kill those who are colored. And long live football, which has given so many eminent men to Brazil. Viva!”. “From the anarchist principles of youth, he has guarded the incompatibility with football, at that time a sport of the elite, that excluded blacks from their teams, or disguised their dark skin with make-up, just like Carnival, the two practices considered ‘opiums of the people'”, explains Beatriz.

In 1921, going in the opposite direction, he was already anti-American. “Another product discovered by Señor Hernández, as we say, is the chewing gum, whose consumption one can verify on a large scale in America. This is how things are: with the tree that provides material for insulating underwater cables, let’s earn money; and, even above that, we can provide the Americans with gum for manufacturing sweets like those that melt in the mouth and ‘make a buck.'” He became irritated, towards the end of his life with the São Paulo modernists, whom he had judged to be imitators of the futurism of Marinetti, whom, he said, he had known for a long time. “I received a magazine from Sao Paulo entitled Klaxon. At the beginning I thought that it must deal with propaganda for some make of car. It was then that I discovered that I was dealing with an Art magazine, of transcendental Art, destined to revolutionize national literature and that of other countries, including Judea and Bessarabia.” In exchange, the modernists refused to give him his place of right as a modernist.

But the ironies had a heavy and humiliating price, that can be read about in another publication of the writings of Lima, O cemitério dos vivos [The Cemetery of the Living], from the collection named, the Invisible Library from the Editora Planeta, which brings together O diário do hospício [The Diary of the Mad House], a personalized narrative of his internment in a mental institution, and the unfinished romance O cemitério dos vivos, which he began during his second internment, at Christmas of 1919. “Perfectly orientated in time, place and means, he confesses that, from an early age, he has made large scale use of Parati rum; he understands it to be a highly harmful vice, however, in spite of enormous efforts, he cannot manage to quit drinking. An individual of intellectual culture, he says he is a writer, who has already had four romances published”, they wrote in his record.

For three days he remained locked in the paupers’ pavilion, whose capacity was for 200 patients, but which housed at least double that number. He suffered horrors at the hands of the nurses. “He made me wash down the veranda, clean out the bathroom, where he gave me an excellent whip shower. All of us were naked and I was full of bashfulness. I remembered the steam bath of Dostoyevsky in House of the Dead. I cried, but I remembered Cervantes and Dostoyevsky, who must have suffered worse.” He then writes down on sheets of legal size paper, the start of his biographical experiences and afterwards a romance. Literature stopped being a mission and turned itself into a life-saver.

To write became his manner of carrying on, of not succumbing to humiliation and to keep his citizenship and the identity of a writer. In romance, slips of tongue: twice when speaking of the character, Vicente Mascarenhas, a drunken and frustrated public servant, he uses his own name. Once more he and Benjamin cross paths. Narrating goes on to be living the experience, a form of moving from the role of participant to the role of observer, without losing the capacity to communicate the Erfahrung. As Arnoni Prado observed, it was the end of the “itinerant libertarian whom destiny wiped out within the barbarity of the tropics”.