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João Antônio’s journalism and fiction

Writer’s project to authentically portray lower-income citizens benefited from his journalistic involvement

AGÊNCIA ESTADO Ferreira playing billiards in a bar in 1975: a scene similar to one which his characters would have frequentedAGÊNCIA ESTADO

After fading into obscurity in the last years of his life as a result of both his own reclusion and the loss of interest in his books in cultural spheres, São Paulo-based writer João Antônio Ferreira Filho (1937-1996), known locally as João Antônio, has been rediscovered by academic scholars. Some of the more recent studies have focused on the author’s period of near ostracism, in which he dedicated himself more to journalism than to fiction. For his postdoctoral study titled “Corpo a corpo com o Brasil: Os dilemas da identidade nacional em João Antônio” (Confrontations with Brazil: João Antônio’s Dilemmas of National Identity), completed at the Center for Education and Humanities of the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCAR), researcher Júlio Cezar Bastoni da Silva conducted a broad survey of the writer’s journalistic work.

Bastoni delved deeper into the author’s literary project, which had been studied to an extent in the past, and considered the presence of journalistic work as inspiration for fiction—not only to provide content, but also to bring the author closer to the diction used by his characters. Ferreira grew up poor in the Presidente Altino neighborhood of the city of Osasco, which at the time had not yet been incorporated into the city of São Paulo. As a writer, he found success in 1963 at 26 years of age with his first book, a collection of short stories titled Malagueta, Perus e Bacanaço (Malagueta, Perus, and Bacanaço), the title story of which is centered around the lives of three billiard players. He maintained his prestige with Leão de chácara (The Bouncer) in 1975 and remained well known through the mid-1980s.

His involvement in the press began around the time when he published his first book. He began working as a reporter in the mid-1960s for publications such as the Jornal do Brasil, a daily Brazilian newspaper, and the Brazilian magazines Claudia, Realidade, and Manchete. In Realidade in 1968, he published what is considered to be his first work of journalistic fiction: “Um dia no cais” (A Day at the Wharf), which was later published under the shortened title “Cais” (Wharf) in his book Malhação do Judas carioca (The Lynching of Judas from Rio) in 1975. As Bastoni explains, the magazine began using the term “story-report” to describe Ferreira’s works. An even lesser-known aspect of Ferreira’s work in the press is that, in addition to his regular contributions to newspapers such as O Globo, Jornal do Brasil, and Tribuna da Imprensa, he also worked for the alternative press, publishing in newspapers such as O Pasquim, Versus, and Movimento. As sources, Bastoni used the writer’s personal archives, which today are held in the Center for Research Support and Documentation at the School of Languages & Literature and Science of São Paulo State University (UNESP) at Assis, as well as the Ana Lagôa Archives of UFSCAR. He also relied on local publications from cities such as Campina Grande, Curitiba, and Porto Alegre.

According to author Bruno Zeni, Ferreira’s phase in which the borders between fiction and journalism became more porous coincides with his literary maturity. One of the factors that support this idea can be found in the recently released book Sinuca de malandro: Ficção e autobiografia em João Antônio (The Criminal’s Billiards: Fiction and autobiography in João Antônio’s work), published by EDUSP and the result of the doctoral dissertation defended in 2012 at the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Humanities of the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP). Zeni sought out paternal figures in all of Ferreira’s works after noting that “the protagonists’ relationships with their fathers are always problematic.” In addition to Ferreira’s short stories, Zeni also explored the letters held in the UNESP archives, as well as the research by writer Rodrigo Lacerda, titled “João Antônio: Uma biografia literária: Os anos de formação” (João Antônio: A literary biography: The formative years), with which the latter obtained his doctorate from the FFLCH-USP in 2004, and which included interviews with Ferreira’s family members and with some of his most frequent acquaintances.

Zeni argues that when the figure of the father appears clearly in Ferreira’s short stories, it corresponds to protagonists as resolute as they are violent. On the other hand, when the stories emphasize the lack of a father figure, the tone is often melancholic, and the characters lack a sense of direction—a mark of the writer’s later period. Zeni interprets this change as a loss of the writer’s need to compete with a father figure. “It was very good for his literature when he made that shift in the tone of his fiction; where he went is unparalleled, both in his work and in the Brazilian literary tradition.” For the researcher, the work ceased to be in the form of story-reports, since “the journalistic information disappeared, making way for a combination of personal accounts, reflections, historical essays, period pieces, and characters of less-important profiles.” He adds, “João Antônio himself did not realize that he had created a new method, one which still needs to be studied more deeply.”

Resuming his analysis of Ferreira’s journalistic production and fictional literature, Bastoni noticed the presence of a search for authentic expression across all of Ferreira’s works—a sort of literary “substance”—that would represent Brazilian identity. “From his first book until Dama do encantado (The Lady of the Encantado District) and Sete vezes rua (Seven Times on the Street), both of which were written in the year of his death, João Antônio portrayed national identity as being linked to the representation of Brazil’s lower social classes, which he referred to as ‘the people’ or ‘the masses,’” Bastoni reports.

public domain Lima Barreto was a sort of “literary father” for the São Paulo-based authorpublic domain

The researcher identifies the existence of an “integration between national artistic production and intellectual interest in lower social classes as a constant of the romanticism of political art in the 1960s.” Ferreira’s works continued the focus on this literary substratum, but they were also “a step ahead in Brazilian popular culture in the 1960s.” This decade was represented by playwrights such as Gianfrancesco Guarnieri (1934-2006) and Oduvaldo Vianna Filho (1936-1974), as well as by poet Ferreira Gullar (1930-2016) and novelist Antonio Callado (1917-1997).

Many of the works by these writers include characters who are politically aware and engaged from a revolutionary perspective. Meanwhile, Ferreira’s works do not share the commitment to militancy. In place of organized workers, his characters are small-time criminals, billiard players, gamblers, crooks, homeless people, prostitutes, and street urchins.

Ferreira’s stories are also not included in the popular style that marked the next stage of Brazilian literary production. “He represents a sort of transition between the national or popular culture that was the fruit of the nationalist policies under Getúlio Vargas or João Goulart and the wave of urban violence that followed,” explains the researcher, referring to the “violent literature” of Rubem Fonseca. “New narratives represented a Brazil at an impasse, marked by the lack of resolutions for the problem of inequality.” For Bastoni, Ferreira’s work exemplifies one of the transformations seen in Brazilian literature in the late twentieth century: the moment in which national identity stopped being a priority.

Though Bastoni’s analysis puts Ferreira’s literature in a seemingly isolated place, the writer himself evoked the company of authors such as Ignácio de Loyola Brandão and Antônio Torres, both of whom he cites in “Corpo-a-corpo com a vida” (Confrontations with Life), an essay that rounds out the Malhação do Judas carioca collection and which is a type of manifesto that the researcher used as a guide to revive the writer’s project. According to Bastoni, the essay “provides evidence of continuity between his literary and journalistic works,” so much so that Ferreira makes references to American authors Truman Capote and Norman Mailer, proponents of New Journalism, a genre which relies on fiction techniques to produce journalistic reporting. “What interested him about these authors was the clear relationship between reality and literature, despite the fact that João Antônio’s writings do not fit into New Journalism in terms of their themes or structures.”

Folhapress João Antônio Ferreira Filho in 1964: the combination of journalism and literatureFolhapress

According to Bastoni, the essay argues that literature should be an experience shared between the author and the object. “In other words,” Bastoni writes, “the goal was to prevent a gap between intellectuals and the lower classes.” In his opinion, it was an esthetic purpose mixed with an ethical goal—one of intervening in reality by way of denouncement.

To achieve this, Ferreira sought to put a Brazilian touch on his writings, one which would be articulated in the speech of marginalized characters. Bastoni compares this aspect of Ferreira’s style to the use of countryside diction by Brazilian author João Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967), a similarity noted previously by Antonio Candido. “It’s not just a question of using urban slang and expressions; it’s a style with a particular syntax,” says the researcher. He continues, “the mutual exchange of ideas between journalism and literature” is most clearly noted in his books published after 1975, which was when his essay-manifesto was released. From then on, a hybrid of the genres prevailed in which “the text oscillates from description and narration to digression.”

However, the book Abraçado ao meu rancor (Embracing my Rancor), published in 1986, reflects a profound change in his view of the world. “There’s a very present sense of failure in the work,” Bastoni says. These were the failure of hope for the emancipation of the Brazilian people after the end of the military dictatorship, the failure of the idea of a unifying Brazilian identity, and the failure of the writer’s own literary projects. Ferreira admits to no longer recognizing the city of São Paulo of his youth, nor the types of characters to whom he’d always dedicated himself. He complains of the “brutality of capitalist exploitation of Brazil,” of the emergence of powerful criminal organizations that resemble nothing of the small-time dealers he displayed in his fiction.

Albeit through another lens—one of the recreation of the writer’s life experiences, including the repercussions of his writings—Rodrigo Lacerda sees Ferreira’s work as being divided into three periods. In the first, the language is drier and sparser, and the urban proletariat make up the thematic universe of the stories. In the second period, Ferreira is influenced by regionalism akin to the influence experienced by Guimarães Rosa, and this influence gives him the foundation to recreate his characters’ language with “more abundant” diction, “creating a musicality that wasn’t there before.” The third period was marked by his combination of journalism and literature. For Lacerda, the writer reached “a literary and financial balance” when he realized that it wasn’t possible to live off of literature alone. “He therefore preferred to combine literature and journalism, because it was a way for him to publish writings in newspapers the way he wanted to.”

In addition to the presence of a biological father in Ferreira’s writings, there is also a type of literary father: the author Lima Barreto (1881-1922), to whom he dedicated all of his books, with the exception of the first edition of Malagueta, Perus e Bacanaço. For Bastoni, this was a continuous relationship that was “not exactly formal, but one which was ethical and, in a sense, thematic.” According to the researcher, “João Antônio saw Lima Barreto as a pioneer in the representation of the poor and marginalized Brazilians of the inner cities, and also as someone who had played an important role in the press in the first half of the twentieth century.” Ferreira wrote a “parajournalistic biography” (in Bastoni’s words) titled Calvário e porres do pingente Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto (The Calvary and the Benders of Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto), which will be republished for the first time since its release in 1977 by the publisher Editora 34. Lima Barreto will also be the main author celebrated at this year’s International Literary Festival of Paraty (FLIP), which is likely to support this rediscovery of João Antônio Ferreira Filho.

1. Confrontations with Brazil: João Antônio’s Dilemmas of National Identity (nº 14/22950-3); Grant Mechanism PhD Grant; Capes Agreement; Principal Investigator Tânia Pellegrini (UFSCAR); Grant Beneficiary Júlio Cezar Bastoni da Silva; Investment R$181,994.40.
2. João Antônio: A literary biography: The formative years (nº 02/08326-8); Grant Mechanism Direct PhD Grant; Principal Investigator Joaquim Alves de Aguiar (USP); Grant Beneficiary Rodrigo Lacerda; Investment R$43,413.26.

Scientific Articles
SILVA, J. C. B. Estado da ralé: Da pobreza à miséria na obra de João Antônio. Literatura e Sociedade, V. 22, p. 78-88, 2016.
SILVA, J. C. B. A imprensa alternativa e o projeto literário de João Antônio. Anais do VIII encontro do Cedap – Acervos de intelectuais: Desafios e perspectivas, p. 457-79, 2016.

Zeni, B. Sinuca de malandro – Ficção e autobiografia em João Antônio. São Paulo: Edusp. 2017.