Los Angeles Times
Translate by John Parker
Born in a small dusty town in the state of Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, Antonio Torres made the voyage – as did millions of his countrymen – from rural agricultural disaster to the pandemonium of the industrial south.
The migration of the Brazilian poor has been a principal theme of the Brazilian novel. Writers of the 1930s – Jorge Amado, Graciliano Ramos, Rachel de Queiroz – focused on the injustice, exploitation and hardships of the farm worker at the mercy of cruel land-owners and unpredictable climatic conditions.
Ramos novel “Vidas Secas” (Barren Lives) is a classically austere neorealist text of this period. The tradition of politically engaging novels emerged again in 1956 with “Grande Sertão: Veredas” (the Devil to Pay in the Backlands) and “corpo de Baile” (corps de Ballet) by guimaraes Rosa. This was the era of the “new fiction,” bossa nova, the World Cup soccer championship, Cinema Novo, Postmodernismo Brazilian-style.
Art reflected politics, and in the middle of the 1960s, under extremely repressive military rule, Brazilian novelists changed their literary strategies and communicated their political and social concerns in cryptic literary constructs. Allegorical narrative discourse, magical realism and the fantastic became the modes of literary expression. Antônio Torres was intellectually nurtured by these writers as well as others like Clarice Lispector, Luis Vilela and Antonio Collado.
John Parker’s praiseworthy translation is accompanied by an equally laudable, culturally penetrating introduction in which he writes, “Antonio Torres sees his generation as heir to the ethical position of Amado , Ramos and others, in facing and questioning Brazil’s most pressing national problems, bridging the gap with the ‘30s after a lengthy period during which the majority of writers had turned their attention to the psychological concerns of the individual and to experimenting with the aesthetic claims of fictional form.”
Along with the conviction and enthusiasm of the political novel. Torres inherited the narrative techniques of European, North American and Latin American modernists along with the great oral traditions of Brazil. These literary traditions, coupled with personal experience, have resulted in three Torres novels: “Um cão Univando Para a Lau” (A Hound Baying at the Moon, 1972), “Essa Terra” (the Land, 1976)) and “Balada da Infancia Perdida” (Blues for a Lost Childhood, 1986).
In the latter, Torres limns the northeast-erner’s view of the industril cities – Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Salvador. The reader follows the nightmarish, confusing thoughts brought on by a horrible hangover suffered by Torres’ nameless narrator, who struggles to banish painful memories and lose himself in sleep. “Blues” invites the reader to participate in the creation of the text and thereby understand the fragmented vision of the world.
As the narrator tosses and turns, visions appear, voices and sounds invade his mind, as well as ghosts of his childhood: “Lost souls, wandering creatures: Come to me. You have nothing to lose. You are masters of your own time. The worst is, a relative never comes alone. My mother will be accompanied by my Aunt /madalena, her good sister, the kindly soul who brought me up for a time. And heaven knows how many hangers-on.”
He recalls his father who abandoned the family: “That man is as far away as that time. And he is doubtless still alive and well preserved – in spirit. And, to judge from the hour, he’ll sill be asleep, and I would give anything to know what he’s dreaming about. The wife God carried off centuries ago, amen? The children swept away in life’s torrent? Even so, I could swear he he does dream. My father. Poppa. The old boy: alone and forgotten in the silence of a hovel, stuck in a futureless gully.”
Memories of his mother reveal devastating hardship, “One every year. How can woman bear one after another until she reaches the round sum of two dozen? Two dozen people, a nest full, like they were chickens. Give birth, bear and go on bearing until she dies. Giving birth”. And his Aunt Madalena: “…you can be absolutely sure that I have never forgotten you, you who were a mother to me. You brought me up, sent me to school, even sewed the occasional button on my shirts.”
The narrator’s greatest haunting is by Calunga: Carlos Luna Gama, his cousin, whom he loved like a brother and mentor. The memories of life with Calunga dominate the novel. From Calunga’s first appearance to the narrator’s hellish hangover, Torres skillfully interweaves 30 years of Brazilian history. Though these characters, Torres has created a composite life experience of the before and after of the northeasterner’s migration to the big cities.
Torres creates a collage of Brazilian life from the popular culture of everyday life, snippets of daily newspapers and the media, popular songs and even the Brazilian national anthem. His novel is a superb example of hybridization of genres manifested in a text that draws from popular oral narrative forms, traditional songs and lullabies, and world literary tradition. The nameless narrator is well read, citing Baudelaire, Scott Fitzgerald, Federico García Lorca, Proust.
“Blues for a Lost Childhood” is also a text of cultural hybridization, a 500-year cultural struggle against Western popular culture represented by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, the CIA. The American way of life subverts and finally destroys Calunga, who had resisted almost to the end.
According to Parker, Calunga is “perhaps a way of insinuating that, despite his qualities, Calunga didn’t have a chance, because of his socio-cultural inheritance; or, maybe, that his supreme quality, in his creator’s eyes, his refusal to make concessions to the estreme from of capitalism imposed on a developing nation by its own armed forces on behalf of foreign masters, inevitably led to his being crushed and forced back to his native Bahia to die.”
“Blues for a Lost Childhood” is a novel that must be read, an intellectually demanding political, social and literary creation, a novel of psychological depth, remarkable imagery and tragic, absurd beauty.
Torres novel is a challenge; nonetheless it offers a wonderful opportunity to learn about a people, about a culture that knows so much more about us than we know about them.