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Realism boiled in revolt

The work of writer João Antônio is still an accurate portrayal of the fringes of society in the big cities

COSAC NAIFYThe writer exchanging ideas with his typewriter in 1963COSAC NAIFY

Inside out, packs of cigarettes were of particular importance in the life of João Antônio (1937-1996), a writer from São Paulo state. He would use them as book marks, besides scribbling comments on them, keeping them between the pages of his what he was reading. Or, alternatively, to mention his last interesting use of them, he would write messages on these small pieces of paper and send them as correspondence, among the countless letters he exchanged with his closest friends.

The voluminous collection that since the year following his death has been held by the Department of Literature of Paulista State University (Unesp) for safeguarding reveals this and other habits of an author that, indeed, smoked a lot, drank a lot and was dedicated to a bohemian lifestyle, conducted not only in bars, but in whorehouses as well. João died from a stroke at the age of 59 in an apartment in Rio de Janeiro. He lived alone and his body was found a fortnight later.

Ana Maria Domingues de Oliveira, who is currently coordinating the cataloguing of the João Antônio collection, identifies a contradictory point in the history of the packs of cigarettes. João was not exactly organized. Nevertheless, even though he is still known for being close to many bohemians and criminals, “or even as someone that dressed poorly,” she stresses, there was this tendency in his character. “He was a sort of archivist, being systematic and forever concerned about posterity. He was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

The collection is full of letters between the writer and his friends and of curious other collections, such as a list of Rio de Janeiro city slang, written in a personal diary (an altogether independent piece of work), or an extension of the collections of short stories that were brought together in 15 books that he published. Five of these books have been relaunched by the Cosac Naify publishing house. João used to ask his friends to keep these letters and papers, Ana Maria tells us. “He knew they were of some importance, or would come to be more important. That’s why he filed everything.”

The collection also includes a library of seven thousand books, one thousand of which are autographed or have dedications signed by Clarice Lispector, Jorge Amado, Dalton Trevisan, and Lygia Fagundes Telles, among other authors.

The use of cigarettes and alcohol is also mentioned several times in a literary production that at first covered the day-to-day life on the outskirts of the city of São Paulo but later acquired autobiographical contours, with some rich passages on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, where João decided to spend a substantial part of his life.

Dictionary of Rio de Janeiro slang


“You break the cellophane with your teeth and you’re going to open a new pack. I smoke. I shouldn’t, but I smoke,” he wrote in Abraçado ao meu rancor [Hugging my rancor], one of his most memorable texts, about a melancholic return to the city of São Paulo, in which he has to swallow the bitterness of not recognizing the city of his childhood.

This strangeness mirrors the fact that he also did not recognize himself either. “I’ve changed, I’m another person; from where did I take all these importances and sincerities?” he writes, in the first person. The narrator illustrates the short story with his visits to cocktail parties and complains about the excess of advertisements in the capital itself: “Buy in São Paulo the best things the world has to offer.”

João Antônio was born in Osasco [a town in Greater São Paulo], the son of poor tradespeople. He worked as an office-boy, an accounts consultant for a meat packing firm and a bank employee. He published his first book of short stories in 1963, Malagueta, Perus e Bacanaço. This won two Jabuti awards (best new author and best book of short stories). In parallel with his literary career, he was also a journalist. He wrote for the magazine Realidade a “news short story” (an invention of his), Um dia no cais [A day at the wharf], whose name was later shortened to Cais [Wharf]. This is a literary creation that looks at the types of people found in a port city and it was written after he had experienced life in the city of Santos for a month. He also worked for the magazine Manchete, the periodical O Pasquim and other publications.

The focus of João’s literature casts a light upon those who live on the fringes of a society engulfed by the pretensions of bourgeois sophistication, which he railed against. Prostitutes, snooker players, vagabonds, homeless children, drug dealers. People who were poor and forgotten, balancing on the fine line between trickstering and a life of crime. Brazilian literature on the fringes of society cannot be studied without João Antônio.

In O conto na obra de João Antônio: uma poética da exclusão [The short story in the work of João Antônio: the poetics of exclusion] (Editora Linear B), the researcher Clara Ávila Ornellas, a professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul (UFMS), analyzes this production from the standpoint of social accusation. In this book, there is a specific segment on how the author looks at issues related to the abandonment of children. In one of his better known texts, Frio [Cold] (1963), a homeless boy walks about the town, charged with carrying a little bag full of a white powder. Clara has just completed her second post-doctoral research study on João Antônio, “Da escrita do leitor à voz do escritor: estudo sobre a marginália de João Antônio” [From the writing of the reader to the voice of the writer: a study of the marginalisation of João Antônio], which continues the study of the writer that she started with “João Antônio, leitor de Lima Barreto” [João Antônio, reader of Lima Barreto]. Both of these studies received support from FAPESP.

João in his “office” at Jeca Bar, in the 1960s

FOLHAPRESS João in his “office” at Jeca Bar, in the 1960sFOLHAPRESS

The third person narrative is subject to the views of the main character, whose soul is still pure (or, better said, still innocent), identifying on his walk along the city streets, from downtown to the Perdizes district, dark areas contrasting with better lit segments in the public streets. Would it be more appropriate for him to stick to the dark areas or walk under the lights?

Childhood is again the theme of Mariazinha tiro a esmo [Little Mary stray shot] (1975) and Paulinho Perna Torta [Little crooked-legged Paul] (1976). João’s stylistic maturing during the time span of a decade, Clara states in her thesis, led him to embrace language in which the narrator acquires “a more reflexive awareness.”

The researcher also talks about a concern that became more sharply outlined over time: “Pointing out to society the consequences of the lack of possibility of having a dignified life (criminality and violence) and, equally, constructing a character [in the case of Little Mary] with elements that show the total absence of basic references, such as home and family, and the human degradation manifested in the fact that Little Mary ate spoilt food and slept on doorsteps like an animal.”

By taking this universe into the world of adults or even of entire communities as well, the author dives into a zone in which journalism intersects with fiction, leading to a style with a realistic essence. “He was an observer. Contact with reality was his chief inspiration,” Clara explains.

The concise and objective style keeps up the tensions imprinted upon the skin of subjects that are about to lose their sense of civism. “The narratives are very agile. Short sentences with a great depth of meaning,” Clara says.

The appropriating of the discourse and language of the homeless as well as his closeness to journalism caused João Antônio to be labeled a neonaturalist. The literary critic Flora Sussekind, for example, used this term to refer to the author’s work. However, Antonio Candido advocated that for the author, being close to facts was merely a sort of raw material, disseminated in a pluralistic and broader stylistic field, in which the so-called fictional short stories stands out. This is the case of Leão de Chácara [Bouncer] (1975).

Given his themes and formal aspects, one can identify in the work of João Antônio the influences of two great authors that he himself praised. Part of his work was dedicated to Lima Barreto (1881-1922), largely because this author also addressed social exclusion as a phenomenon linked to a production system managed by the power of capital. Rio de Janeiro is a common setting that both of the authors dwelt on.

It is also inevitable to draw comparisons with the conciseness of Graciliano Ramos (1892-1953). “João Antônio’s copy of São Bernardo [Saint Bernard] had 110 working notes,” Clara tells us. She analyzed the writer’s margin notes in her recent study.

Recognition as an author during his lifetime drove João Antônio into a sort of crisis, as professor Tania Celestino de Macedo, from the University of São Paulo (USP) of São Paulo, tells us. The author corresponded with this researcher as from the 1980s and she was responsible, on the year of his death, for starting the cataloguing of his collection.

“He railed against works that adapted themselves to the institutionalized world of the publishing houses, or against literature that he considered ‘too manicured.’ He hated book launches, but at the same time he knew that he depended on the market to release his works,” the researcher explains.

The subject was resumed by Alfredo Bosi in his preface for the re-launching of Abraçado a meu rancor (Cosac Naify): “I know that the term ‘marginal’ is a source of equivocation; I know that in advanced capitalistic society there isn’t a single work that, having been published, can be entirely marginal,” the writer advocates. Afterwards, to close the subject, he declares: “Well, realism boiled in revolt tends more toward the fringes of society than toward its center.”

The Project
From the writing of the reader to the voice of the writer (nº 2009/01956-5); Modality Post-doctorate; Coordinator Clara Avila Ornellas – Unesp; Investment R$ 167,680.00 (FAPESP)