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The ambassadors of the hinterlands

Diplomacy influenced the literature of Vinicius de Moraes, Guimarães Rosa and João Cabral

ARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AEBrasília being built (1959): a metaphor for the split between Brazil’s modernity and realityARCHIVES / AGÊNCIA ESTADO / AE

In 1956, when president Juscelino Kubitschek released his Target  Plan, designed to modernize Brazil, Guimarães Rosa (1908-1967) published his book of short stories Corpo de baile and the novel Grande sertão: veredas [translated into English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands]. At the time, he was an ambassador and was working at the Brazilian Foreign Office in the city of Rio de Janeiro. That very same year, João Cabral de Melo Neto (1920-1999) published Duas águas and the previously unpublished Morte e vida severina, Paisagens com figuras and Uma faca só lâmina. A diplomat, he was transferred to Barcelona as deputy consul. Still in 1956, Vinicius de Moraes (1913-1980) returned from Paris, after holding the position of second secretary at the Brazilian embassy. He wrote the poem Um operário em construção for the first issue of the magazine Para Todos, having been invited to do so by [the novelist] Jorge Amado. He also began his partnership with Tom Jobim, whom he asked to write the score for Orfeu da Conceição, which was staged at the Municipal Theatre in Rio de Janeiro that year. Running against the general optimism surrounding ‘the new Brazil,’ the works of the three concern a multitude of people in the hinterlands and the shantytowns, strangers in their own land.

“The year of 1956 was emblematic, because in these texts one witnesses a refusal to buy into the truth trumpeted by the production of modernity. In these authors, one finds a dislocation of perception to the most recondite corners of the social structure, to the individuals who were least favored by the social scale. Cabral, Rosa and Vinicius question the traditional hierarchical places, imposed as ‘natural’ upon the collective order of things,” explains the literary critic Roniere Menezes, a professor at the Federal Center of Education of Minas Gerais (Cefet-MG) and author of the study O traço, a letra e a bossa: literatura e diplomacia em Cabral, Rosa e Vinicius [Line, letter and inclination: literature and diplomacy in Cabral, Rosa and Vinicius] (Editora UFMG). The three, besides standing apart from the flow of national optimism, also introduced a hinterland (or, in the case of Vinicius, the shantytowns, akin to the hinterland) that was very different from the exotic, nostalgic and anti-modern hinterland (often treated with the colors of traditional representative politics) depicted in the work of some of their fellow authors. The three, in their construction of the images of the Brazilian people, were more interested in the ethical issue than in partisan political biases.

If there are differences among the authors, there is, nevertheless, one similar point: the three were diplomats. “More than a coincidence, diplomatic work, which entails coming into closer contact with the exterior aspects of a system, an opening to a set of differences in social, cultural and political life, enabled the articulation of the extremely heterogeneous projects of all three of them, with different esthetic pathways, but sharing a single concern: the tension between the line of discourse of the development-oriented Brazil of the elite and the line of discourse of the archaic and needy Brazil, whether rural or urban,” notes Menezes. These writers-diplomats corroded the notion of a closed, toughened regionalism, alien to any connection with the external world. At the same time, they go against the pretenses of a development-oriented State focused on the idea of national unity. Their texts emphasize the diverse identities of the country, Brazil’s multiplicity of cultures and of social needs,” he analyzes. Just as the movement of diplomatic writing is underscored by “de-territorialization.”

FOLHAPRESSGuimarães Rosa making his speech when he joined the Brazilian Academy of Letters, in 1967FOLHAPRESS

These writers-diplomats were travelers in a Brazil lost in the labyrinths of modernization. “The tension created in the spirit at the same time bureaucratic (they were civil servants) and also as travelers casts a piercing look upon those native ‘foreigners’ that wander around their country like the mass of post-war refugees seeking a home. The dislocation, the exile, the complex adaptation to different lands, which are part of the life of diplomats, contributed to the de-territorialization of their thinking,” assesses the researcher. The social reality revealed in their texts is addressed from an overseas viewpoint.

“Diplomatic writing is suspicious of a limited link with places. Cabral, Rosa and Vinicius know that they cannot write ‘from within,’ as they lack the speaking style of the peasant or the inhabitant of the shantytowns. That is why they created ‘spaces from without,’ in which they have voices that resonate from ‘within’. This boundary-based perspective, that comes neither within nor from without, pursues a constant dialogue among various propositions, giving rise to new reflections, new esthetic configurations,” notes Menezes.

On the itinerary of the reverberations of the writer diplomats, approximations and translations among the cultural production of several parts of the world arise, precisely during times when the country was experiencing its belated modernity, when local production was articulating itself with foreign manufacturing and the concepts of dependence started to be influenced by the concepts of cultural simultaneity, even though the idea of modernity in Brazil arose before the modernization process. Brasilia is a symbol of this, as the capital of an “avant-gardist” state in a nation in which many modernity values had not yet even been assimilated. “In this, the three writers were wise to resort to diplomatic writing, in particular to the use of affection for the ‘other’ in the acknowledgement of foreignness in relation to established places,” analyses the researcher.

Diplomatic work functions like an allegory of the process of literary creation that involves writing as a type of relation with otherness. Hence the empathetic image that the authors reflect about these “foreigners” to modernity moving about Brazil’s territory.

“The authors developed a ‘foreign-oriented’ thought process, the opening for other modes of knowledge and expression. At the same time as they worked in the bureaucratic or literary fields, they sought coexistence with the native social, esthetic and cultural diversity, whether subjective or concrete, whether linked to great art or to popular tradition,” Menezes evaluates. Rosa, in his experiences in Europe during the war, experienced a loss of certainty about humanity itself and turned insecurity in the face of a foreign order of things into the possibility of creating lines of escape through literature. “Facing up to human frailties in inhospitable lands is closely tied to his artistic formulation. The esthetic work, as a result, gains a restoring political strength, because it is related to the desire for individual and collective transformation.

For this researcher, trans-disciplinarity enables the creation of areas of foreignness even in relation to innermost thoughts. “One breaks away from thinking that is locked in, dualistic, learning to look through the lenses of the other side, to feel a little of the insecurity of unknown lands. The experience with foreign lands, with different spaces, creates within the traveler a heightened interest in novelty. This causes people to recognize their limitations, to remain more open to and more tolerant of the various modes of existence,” he observes.

FOLHAPRESSVinicius de Moraes, in 1965FOLHAPRESS

It does transpire that one must exit from a position of interiority toward other forms of thinking, and the concept of diplomacy is fundamental as a search for a dialogue that enjoys exteriority in relation to the instituted system. “Diplomacy offers writing the capacity to think about the other side not by means of consolidated rules, but by the capacity of being observed by this other party, of letting him/her invade the discourse and lend a new meaning to the thinking and to the very act of creation,” says Menezes.

To this, refined writing is added, as the diplomats were well aware, how much there is in the way of linguistic construction, rhetorical technique, and power games in each segment of an argument. “The attention to the details of language, the persuasion strategies, the intellectual training, the control to ensure that sentimental or unthinking aspects do not interfere with the negotiations reflect the diplomatic ‘prudence’ found in the artistic production of the three authors.” However, unlike official diplomacy and its rules and dogmas, “literary diplomacy” or “minor diplomacy” has questioning as its major strength. No definitive agreements have to be reached, just new political views regarding the world. The idea is not to destroy the idea of modernity by proposing a nostalgic return to the past, but to reveal the inconsistencies of forced modernization and to propose alternative means of thinking about the country. “If the diplomat sometimes lies, or hides his knowledge to reach better agreements, the writer invents lies that allow us to see greater truths than the apparent certainties,” the researcher analyses.

The trio, however, clashed with many of their colleagues in the diplomatic services, as one can see, for instance, in a memo by Aluizio de Magalhães, Brazilian consul-general in Marseille in 1958. Here, he criticizes the singer Marlene and the Brazilian groups of black and frevo dancers in Europe. “The Brazilian singer crumbles into epileptic movements while some blacks devoid of composure, banging drums, jump about behind her like monkeys on the edge of the forest,” he writes.

“The writer-diplomats, when dealing with the politics of writing, know that the most important political work is not tied to the visible physical frontiers, but to the means of separating the invisible lines of prejudice, of discrimination,” states Menezes. It is in this “minor place” that they try to corrode separation and exclusion. “In official diplomacy, the work is carried out via the political, legal and economic institutions. In ‘minor diplomacy,’ it is conducted, for example, by the representation of the simple folks exposed to the cruelty of reality, by their way of dealing with biopolitics, with the limits that they must cross every single day in order to survive,” he observes. “Translating internal needs into external possibilities to expand the power of control of a society over its destiny is, to my mind, the task of foreign policy,” wrote the diplomat and University of São Paulo professor Celso Lafer in O Itamaraty na cultura brasileira [The Brazilian Foreign Office in Brazilian culture] (Instituto Rio Branco, 2001).

EDER CHIODETTO / FOLHAPRESSJoão Cabral in his Rio de Janeiro apartment, in 1997EDER CHIODETTO / FOLHAPRESS

“Rosa’s ability to use various linguistic registers was, on the literary plane, the perfect correlate of the first item on any diplomatic agenda: the establishment of borders, the basis of foreign policy, which assumes that there is a difference between that which is ‘internal’ (the national space) and that which is ‘external’ (the world),” Lafer analyzes. “He translated in his literature one of the basic principles of Brazilian diplomacy, a line of action geared toward transforming our borders from classical, separation borders into modern cooperation borders,” he assesses. Unlike Rosa and Cabral, who experienced the hinterlands during their childhoods, Vinicius only gets to know the North and the Northeast of the country at the age of 29, in 1942. He joined the foreign office when he was discovering the country and internalizing his new ‘Brazilianness’ and, as a result, his artistic production started being influenced by the social reality of Brazil and  popular culture.

In lieu of the hinterland, Vinicius included in his work images of the shantytowns and bohemian areas of Rio de Janeiro. His stint as a diplomat in the United States led him to become better acquainted with jazz and with cinema. However, unlike his fellow writers, he was the only one to be dismissed from the Foreign Office. Cabral had faced a sort of impeachment instituted by Vargas in 1952, but he returned to the ministry. However, this was not the case of the “little poet.” During a show in Portugal in 1968, he attacked the military regime, which reacted against this and other actions by the poet with compulsory retirement from service. In an impolite note, Costa e Silva, the president of Brazil at the time, deliberately wrote: “Fire this bum.” And so diplomacy definitely relinquished his talent in favor of popular music.

“The writings of the trio are not based on class struggles, parties or power, but on mediations, on negotiations,” observes Menezes. In the text of the three diplomats, a number of uncomfortable images arise that clash with the discourse of the development-oriented nation symbolized by Brasilia, which the trio, each in his own way, was able to admire and to criticize.

“During a time when the country wanted to join the concert of nations, investing in modernization and in progress, they trusted in the future, but mistrusted the processes employed to lead the country into this new political and economic stage,” notes the researcher. So they ventured into the hinterlands, hills and to the outskirts of the cities, in an attempt to acknowledge the value of the popular culture and creations. “The ‘minor diplomacy’ and the ‘frontier poetics’ had to find something capable of forcing thinking to emerge from its interiority. “The movement toward the exterior of conventional places contributed to the development of the imagination and to the authors’ critical view,” says Menezes.