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The biographer and his pairs

Posthumous study by Roberto Ventura on Euclides da Cunha gives a psychological view of the writer

Roberto Ventura (1957-2002) died tragically (in a car accident) at the age of 45, in the middle of writing his biography of Euclides da Cunha, who died tragically at the age of 43, after having written about the life of Antonio Conselheiro, who died tragically in Canudos. These parallel lives are joined together in a notable way in Ventura’s posthumous work, Euclides da Cunha – Esboço Biográfico [Euclides da Cunha – a Biographical Outline] , a study about the author of Rebellion in the Backlands which, in an innovative way and to sharpen the paradox even more, reveals the Euclides-Conselheiro duality, in which the leader from Monte Belo appears with a psychoanalytic projection and a literary creation of the writer.

“Roberto insisted a lot on the fact that it was an essay, which would allow him to work out several interpretations of the life of Euclides, as in parallel lives, or the rhetoric of the antitheses or antinomies in Rebellion in the Backlands. But one cannot forget that, although the work as it is may say little about what it would actually be, it is useful for understanding the writer and his works, as Roberto was a painstaker who brings precise indications about the life of Euclides”, observes Professor João Alexandre Barbosa, Ventura’s supervisor and a friend of the researcher.

This is true: Ventura’s Euclides is far from being fiction. The fruit of ten years of obsessive research, the biographical outline, found by friends on his computer, may even be bold in its interpretation, as the researcher himself preconized, but it is an accurate portrait, albeit not concluded, of a man tortured by the contrast between his ideals and Brazilian reality, and impassioned by the Republic, who, within a few weeks of the new regime, was disenchanted with its course. Above all, the Euclides that Ventura brings to light is a man who is insecure and threatened by his own ghosts (a dread of sexuality, of irrationality, of chaos and of anarchy), who saw Conselheiro and Canudos as a threat to his values.

Hence the threatening and fanatic Conselheiro and Canudos as a damned urbs , checkmating the very objectivity of the writer, at the same time a critic of the insurrection in Belo Monte and the destructive action of the army on the poor populations. But subjectivity won: the report by Euclides, as Ventura shows us, closes its eyes to the excesses and makes Conselheiro more of a fictional personage than a real one, since the author of Os Sertões, even though he was a direct observer, did not have access – or did not wish to have it – to the whole truth about Canudos and its inhabitants. Even the “apolitical” Machado de Assis protested against the persecution that was being made of the movement and concluded that, for lack of information, it was left to the imagination to discover the doctrine of the sect and to “poetry to make it blossom”.

One also has to take into account the course of the writer’s life, who, from a poor family, always pursued careers under the protective aegis of the State, as Ventura notes. An impassioned reader of the great hagiographies of the French Revolution, his upbringing made him a romantic full of rationalities. “Euclides felt maladjusted in the urbane and civilized world, in which beauty and morality were being degraded, threatening the straight line of integrity of character and duty. He would adopt a romantic posture to life and history, with sentiments that swung between utopia and melancholy”, the biographer writes. “More than a romantic poet, he tried to be, he himself, a hero, who pursued visions inspired on the novels and narratives of the French Revolution that he had read in youth.” An ailment, by the way, that was typical of the age and which was part of the upbringing of a good number of the more fervent adepts of the end of the decadent monarchy and of the Republic.

He believed in the evolution of humanity occurring by means of a linear series of historical stages. A cadet who rebelled against the imperial army, he was called to write a political column for A Província de São Paulo (The Province of São Paulo) , the newspaper that is now O Estado de S. Paulo (The State of São Paulo) , at the invitation of Júlio de Mesquita. The friendship that started between the two, which included the desire for the Republic, led later to covering Canudos for the paper. Ventura observes how the articles for the Mesquitas carried the future mark of Rebellion in the Backlands and much of the thinking of Euclides, in particular the conflict between the ideal and the real, between spirit and society.

But the Jacobinic revolutionary tone impregnated his vision of Canudos before setting off for the backlands: in A Nossa Vendéia, written for the newspaper before setting off, he brings the apologetic tone of the State, of the army and of the fight against retrogrades who wanted to restore the monarchy. The tone of Rebellion is to be quite different, after experiencing the massacre, although Euclides’ criticism is very bland in regard to the real size of the carnage. And he went to cover the war already disenchanted with the recent Republic that he had desired so much, “the ruins of the republican dream were converted into a bitter disappointment and into the quest for a new course for the country”. Furthermore, “He created, in Rebellion, a constant tension between the naturalist perspective, which conceives history from the determinism of the milieu and race, and literary construction, marked its anti-epic tone and tragic fatalism”.

For Ventura, Euclides put forward another vision of Canudos as a Sebastianist and Messianic movement, but, in spite of the negative view of the insurrection, accused the state and federal governments for the massacre, carried out in the name of order and progress. “And he construed Conselheiro as a tragic personage, guided by hereditary curses and Messianic beliefs, which led him to madness, to the conflict with the Republic and to his fall into disgrace.” In spite of its complexity, the book was a success and, in 1903, Euclides took up his career in the Brazilian Academy of Literature. With the literary victory came federal prestige and an invitation from the Baron of Rio Branco to head up the Brazilian commission for the reconnaissance of the Upper Perus. The journey to Amazonia was to yield a further “avenger-book”, Um Paraíso Perdido [A Lost Paradise], which was to be integrated with Os Sertões as “a broad historical-cultural interpretation, with a strong clamor for social justice”. “The failure of then national project finds its image in nature in the Amazon. Nature seen by Euclides as unfinished, ‘tumultuarious’, in a permanent instability of the natural and human elements”, says Ventura. But fate cut the thread of the narrative.

In 1909, in a shoot-out with his wife’s lover, the writer dies. It was one of the biggest scandals of national culture. “Its sentimental trajectory exhibits, ironically, parallels with the adventures of Conselheiro, the personage he tried to sketch in the pages of the Rebellion. Both had their destiny marked by their wives’ adultery, by the vendetta between their families and those of their enemies, and by the positions they took up before the Republic, one opposing and the other supporting and then criticizing the new regime”. Endless irony.