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Letter from the editor | 201

Marvelous stories of the Portuguese

I am especially privileged to have a number of dear friends, in the 30s-to-90s age range and from a variety of cultural and professional backgrounds, with whom I can instantly exchange ideas when a subject fascinates me or, best of all, literally grabs hold of my attention. Such was the case when I read the cover story of this issue of Pesquisa FAPESP, which reports on a major research project that examines the immensity of the Portuguese Empire. The project began in 2004 under the coordination of historian Laura de Mello e Souza. No sooner had I begun to read the final version of the text written by our Humanities editor, Carlos Haag, than I was struck by the extent to which historical narratives can draw us into that same fascination that we felt on first hearing marvelous stories of fairies and witches, gnomes and elves, or enchanted princes and bloodthirsty kings. And some years later, we surrendered to the extraordinary aesthetic—and perhaps even multi-dimensional—experience of reading Crime and Punishment, or the bewildering voyage we took through In Search of Lost Time, unable to set the book down. Fictional or real, great stories all have that power to dazzle, to hold us prisoner to narrative magic. As I read on, though, another thought came to mind, one more grounded in Brazilian history: the frequent discussions among those of my generation about the extent to which our country’s ills derived from the Portuguese origins of the Brazilian nation. These ruminations triggered my old habit of rushing to consult friends when seized with thought-provoking conjecture.

I wanted to know if it was common practice among people of other generations to freely exercise their imaginations about whether our country might have attained superior heights had it been colonized by the French, whose incursions into the vast Lusitanian colony in the South Atlantic were so unsuccessful; by the Dutch, who did persevere in the Northeast for a time; or even by the English, who frankly preferred to stay more to the north. Yes indeed, it was, I was told by people whose ages span 30 years on either side of my generation. And, in the kind of lovely prose nowadays so threatened by Internet-speak, they brought up a host of other issues that arise in connection with our long history of disparaging the Portuguese—a practice that arose in part from a certain post-colonial resentment (and which is voiced in the popular Portuguese jokes), examined here by Professor de Mello e Souza. I concluded each of these conversations with the recommendation that my friends hasten to read the article that begins on page 18, and I invite our readers to do so as well. To whet the reader’s appetite, I offer a brief, tasty textual aperitif, which outlines new insights yielded by this study of the vast Portuguese Empire: “We are not referring to the view of the ‘controlling empire,’ or that of the ‘empire unable to control,’ but an empire that, aware of the oceanic immensity that separated its parts, understood the need to maintain relations with relatively autonomous peripheries that were connected to the capital by ties that were more or less loose—without, however, Lisbon ceasing to be the center from which power emanated. The distance between king and subjects, which could appear to be a problem, reappears, now, as a ‘virtue’ for purposes of governing.”

Quite coincidentally, the article that opens this issue’s Science section focuses on the site of the initial incursion by the Portuguese colonizers of this territory that would eventually become Brazil: Todos os Santos Bay. The article reports on a large-scale research program aimed at creating a multidisciplinary body of knowledge about this area, starting with the environmental task of mapping the sources of the pollution in the bay and the movement of its ocean currents. The initial findings of the research project, found on page 44, are presented by our Science editor, Ricardo Zorzetto, who traveled to Bahia for a first-hand look at the results. The program’s ambitions stretch far beyond these tangible results, however, and include geological, anthropological and historical studies, to cite its most important components.

In a slight departure from custom, I want to draw attention to the excellent article, written by Professor Ismail Xavier and appearing in the Arts section, which focuses on Paulo Emilio Salles Gomes, a key figure in discussions of the cinema in Brazil, including our own national cinema (page 88). Enjoy your reading!