Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro
The Pluralized Soul
Rather than looking at Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro's body of work, rather even than looking at one or two books in detail, let us instead understand an aspect of the writer's sensibility through attending to a small number of his characters. We can think of five from his massive An Invincible Memory, but also the central figure in The House of the Fortunate Buddhas, and the boy in the short story It Was a Different Day When the Pig Was Killed. An Invincible Memory covers hundreds of years, from 1647 to 1977, though in a manner that is only roughly chronological, and generates several interesting characters who are related to and/or interact with other significant figures. First up is the malevolent Perilo Ambrosio, a horrible child who becomes a very powerful and subsequently even more horrible man. As a boy, he hated someone "beating him to a portion of food he was after, in spite of his mouth being full and despite the vigilant attention he dedicated to all the food on the table" as he would steal from other people's plates and stab his sister if he could get access to food before her. For such offences, his father would lock in his room but all Ambrosio sees is injustice: sobbing and screaming at the misfortune that was his life. As an adult he is no less cruel and covetous, yelling at the slaves for no discernible reason, screwing them when it suited him, and working from the darkest of motives when he could find reason at all. Siding with the rebels against the Portuguese he does so out of no great sense of a future Brazil but because it would be revenge against his family. "That way, his loyalist father, already a fugitive accused of all conceivable crimes and perfidy might lose everything after the Brazilian victory, his justly confiscated properties devolving upon his male child, for his intrepid actions on behalf of the national cause." This is the early 19th century and Ribeiro shows Perilo Ambrosio not as the sensible colonial, exploitative but rational, profiteering yet calculative, but as a man who can never get enough for himself. Ambrosio is a figure of urges and compulsions that an independent Brazil can satisfy. Quickly becoming a sugar (whale) baron with land and slaves, his slovenly ways, his wide girth and his unattractive manner cannot quite find in wealth and power an identity which isn't constantly threatened. At one moment he refers to one of the slaves as a "filthy Negro" but also possesses a sense of fear, even envy. He is a slave worthy of a baron "on account of his size, his health and his strength" but such are his attributes that Ambrosio needs to find a way in which to contain them, to make them his. Believing himself a superior man in almost every way, Ambrosio can nevertheless say of him that it wasn't fear he felt but "the uncomfortable sensation everyone feels of talking to a lunatic", to see that it was of course right and proper that he was in the superior position.
The first major character in the novel, Ambrosio doesn't quite feel like a developed character even if he a memorable one. He carries within him the freight of exploitation and must remain throughout a person incapable of self-insight, an internally unreliable narrator of his existence. He presents himself as a great hero, someone who not only helped gain Brazil its independence but who, rather than taking a reward from the Motherland, instead sees his identity as a man building up business and providing work. "He himself made it possible for slaves, uncouth, practically irrational negroes to find in their humble service the way to Christian salvation, which otherwise would never open itself for them." Ribeiro's method isn't to view Ambrosio exclusively from the outside but instead reveal an empty interior, one that constantly needs to justify (rather than rationalise) his actions and to show himself in a light that is complicated without at all being profound. Ribeiro's purpose is to indicate such denial would have been common enough, to show that Ambrosio's thoughts wouldn't have been a sign of madness, of delusion, but of psychological self-preservation. Ambrosio isn't just helping himself to land, goods and slaves, he is vital to economic prosperity that improves everybody's lot no matter how cruel and contemptuous he has to be to people he is 'helping'. There are variations of it in characters later in the novel, in the artist turned businessman Bonifacio and his wife Henriqueta, both unsympathetic characters seeking to find in their thoughts a sympathetic self-justification. At one moment as the spoilt, materialistic and selfish Henriqueta is getting dressed with the help of her servant, she thinks: "imagine if a Negress like that had the responsibilities of a lady. That's why negro tribes have never been anything but bands of cannibals and are despised all over the world. Of course, she didn't want to be a Negress, she couldn't even think about, but sometimes she envied the life of simple people." Bonifacio "views himself as a leader, a man capable of influencing the destiny of the nation. How often, in solitary, pensive, moments, he had understood reality with such clearness that it dazzled him, how often he had the experience of seeing truth in all its luminous transparence!"
In each instance, Ribeiro risks caricature and sacrifices texture but for a particular end. John Parker puts it well when saying: "Joao Ubaldo's characters are bearers of narrative and vehicles for ideology, and even when, as often happens, they are caricatures their effectivenesss is not impaired." The novel is episodic, Parker reckons, and so characters can come and go rather than develop; "their purpose to represent certain socio-ideological positions" (Portuguese Studies) which keep coming back in another characterisational form. To propose interiority all the better to show its relative absence is a very useful way of pointing up the political over the psychological, even giving ideological weight to its absence as a literary choice. How can Ribeiro make his characters complex if their world is simplistic, if the very simplicity of their world makes their lives much richer than if their thoughts were rich? As Noam Chomsky says, "slavery was considered legitimate, even estimable; slave owners did not characteristically regard what they were doing as wrong but rather saw it as proof of their high moral values." The owners would even offer ingenious arguments that seemed not only morally but practically justifiable. "Thus, in the early days of industrial capitalism, slave owners could and did point out that if you own a piece of machinery, you are likely to treat it with more care and solicitude than the capitalists who merely rents people for temporary purposes." (The Essential Chomsky) It isn't that the whites in An Invincible Memory are wrong, that would be too easy. It is that they are narrowly right - the thoughts they have justify the positions they hold not philosophically but socially. Their position is only as strong as the power they possess. One sees this very strongly in an exchange between Bonifacio Odulfo and his brother, the disillusioned Captain Patricio Macario, another key character in the book, and the third of the five figures we are paying attention to from An Invincible Memory. In this exchange, Bonifacio Odulfo condescends toward his naive and contradictory sibling. "My dear brother, you're a utopian, that's what you are. Did you want the Republic to change the natural order? The men who are exercising influence are doing so because they are qualified for that. What did you want, did you want the rabble to take command of the Republic?" Bonifacio Odulfo adds that the elections "are rigged because the voters don't have enough discernment to perceive often subtle social needs, and therefore it's necessary for the ruling elite to take upon itself the organisation of power." Whether the country is monarchical or republican it doesn't matter as long as the same people are in control as they are the only ones with the wherewithal to lead. Patricio Macario says he doesn't even mind his brother keeping his privileges: "but in order for that to be so, it's not necessary to enslave the people, to keep it in poverty, ignorance and disease." Here are two contradictory brothers (the one a poet turned businessman, the other a military man turned sympathetic to the poor whose initial purpose had been to oppress them), but while Bonifacio Odulfo refuses to acknowledge any position other than his own, insists that "poverty exists everywhere" and thus feels under no obligation to try and eradicate it, Patricio Marcario is aware that his contrary nature can't accept easy answers even if he also acknowledges that he is unlikely to be the man smart enough to work them out and through. In another passage in the book, he knows what is true and worries that if he published it they would try and kill or arrest him, but he knows as well that he lacks the ability turn the book into a fictional work. At another moment he insists to his niece "as you were reading this aloud I realised how badly written it was", an acknowledgement perhaps that he is no writer. That was after all the calling of his brother, before Bonifacio Odulfo took over the family empire, while Patricio Marcario saw his as that of a soldier, before becoming disillusioned by what he saw.
Yet he was also 'illusioned' too, given faith by meeting and falling in love with our fourth major character from the novel, Maria de Fe. Rather than a femme fatale figure who ruins a man's life, she is more femme vital - a woman who galvanizes Patricio Marcario into confronting his assumptions after he and another soldier are captured during battle. Maria de Fe instead of killing him falls in love with him, and he very much with her. We first see her noticing this enemy as he is locked in an abandoned slave quarter: "he himself did not seem entirely ugly to her, with his tanned, ruddy skin, his tall, broad-shouldered countenance, his beautiful head topped by curly hair, his strong chin, his full lips, his appealing moustache." Maria de Fe feels goose pimples and wishes to see more of this proud man. Yet Maria de Fe is a warrior woman, forged out of tragedy after witnessing her mother brutally murdered by white Brazilians, the mixed-race Maria de Fe wants to liberate the people not fall in love with a soldier who is part of the oppression. Yet though Maria de Fe and Patricio Marcario will never be together as a couple, there is no doubt this is the great love of their loves as she insists later that though she loves him her purpose lies elsewhere. Of all the characters in the book, Maria de Fe is the most magic realist, the most indebted to Garcia Marquez and Jorge Amado. No one is quite sure, but there are those who assert that Maria de Fe converses with birds and they understand each other perfectly. She also was born on the 29th of February, thus has a birthday every fourth year which the novel indicates keep her from ageing at the normal rate. She is the book's most vital and heroic presence and the source of its greatest emotional tragedy: the impossible romance that means two people from very different backgrounds cannot be together not only, or especially, because Patricio Marcario comes from a much wealthier background, but that Maria de Fe has a purpose far greater than marrying a man she loves. Like a typical Amado heroine, she turns the tragic circumstances of her life into an independent journey of self-purpose and renewal.
In contrast, our final character from the novel, Henriqueta, marries into Bonifacio Odulfo's enormous wealth but lusts after Patricio Marcario, finding various ways in which to try and charm him but proves petulant when he rejects her approaches, though he acknowledges in the past the error he made in once giving her a kiss. The consequence is that the brothers don't talk for many years: Henriqueta tells her husband that his brother tried to make advances which she of course rejected and she wants him no longer anywhere near the house. Bonifacio Odulfo concurs. If Maria de Fe wishes to find in Brazil the possibility of a free nation, all Henriqueta sees is a backward one. "...Damask, lots of Damask, and objects in the style of the Second Empire not this one, of course, but the French one." "Oh London, oh Paris, oh civilization." She is less interested in the impoverished lives of the numerous Brazilians than her relative social and cultural impoverishment next to the English and the French. Her unhappiness, Ribeiro suggests, isn't just because she can't get her hands on Patricio Marcario but that she can't get into her head that she is part of an exploitative system. The chapter narrating Henriquetta's desire for Patricio Marcario is headed 1871, the year when even the Conservative government had to acknowledge certain rights to the Brazilian blacks. "Viscount Rio Branco passed measure such as a 'law of free womb' - by which the new-born children of slaves would be allowed their freedom - and a system of compensation for owners who chose to free their slaves." The former fact we might take for granted as a justice, and the latter we might find an astonishing affront that slave owners received reparations rather than the slaves themselves. But such facts are useful in understanding an aspect of Henriquetta's mindset. She cannot be the heroine of Ribeiro's narrative but a bit of context can make her a little less of a villain. She is a woman of her time, we might say, while Maria de Fe is a woman who is determined to change it.
But what are we to make of the woman in House of the Fortunate Buddhas? The central characters narrates her many and varied sexual experiences over decades, from early encounters as a child, to escapades in her more advanced years. Near the end of this book that is as short as An Invincible Memory is long (145 pages as opposed to 500), the narrator says, "...I'm not really a spiritualist and believe I'd shock a good spiritualist if I said the main reason I want to be reincarnated is that the next incarnation I plan to screw the ones that I was foolish enough not to screw this time around." A hard man is good to find and over the years our heroine has screwed many of them, including her brother, and older men when she was only twelve or thirteen, she can't remember. There is no point getting high-minded reading The House of the Little Buddhas, a flight into moral puritanism will lead to disgust and dismay in the wrong place. If there is moral critique at work it rests more in the room in one's life for sexual surplus, a libidinal energy only a few can exercise while others must labour. Yet our narrator isn't a political conservative, blind to the Brazilian dictatorship that took over in the mid-sixties and that continued for many years. She couldn't stand "Bahia after the military coup of '64 when everybody left and we were practically without any friends at all, especially those we'd hoped to convert to our way of life. I always put out for communists and leftists of various kinds because of what I considered a civic issue." She observes that "everybody who stayed behind seemed insipid, boring, and backward and for a coke-snorter anyone who doesn't snort is boring and backward..." Ribeiro offers a modest form of defamiliarisation; the terrors of the dictatorship contained by the needs of a promiscuous coke-addict. "...All the lefties had disappeared amid rumours: the authorities had exploded a grenade in the mouth of one of them, another was a guerrilla fighter in Cambodia, and another had fingered everyone and was now the mistress of a major who was also a torturer..." The political becomes subsumed into the personal but this isn't a casually right-wing person refusing to face reality but a libertarian determined to say hedonism is what counts. The dictatorship doesn't only kill people; it kills pleasure too.
Writing on Ribeiro and Robert Coover, addressing An Invincible Memory and The Public Burning, Luis Fernando Valente sees in Ribeiro's book a view of history that isn't only written by the winners. He mentions Walter Benjamin's notion of history that breaks with homogenised time and clear events, to "brush history against the grain" in Benjamin's phrase. This can take many forms and in An Invincible Memory it is very different from House of the Fortunate Buddhas. In the latter, the book offers a woman promiscuous throughout her life without much care for the socio-political yet consistently and instinctively working against bourgeois assumption. In An Invincible Memory, the book's most identificatory characters are Maria da Fe and Captain Marcario, who appear to remain faithful to each other even if they can never be together. Whether sexually hyper-active or emotionally faithful, both approaches can allow a way into history that needn't leave it homogenous. When in his Penguin History of Latin America, Edwin Williamson understandably offers a broad approach to the political history of Brazil, the even-handedness he insists upon is quite distinct from that of a fiction writer. It isn't just that the novelist can make things up. (As Ribero says, on the sleeve of the English language first edition, "I kept making it up as I went along. The rest is Brazilian history as was taught to us in school, and I didn't believe a word of it.") It is that the truth procedures are quite different. Covering the period that is mainly written about in An Invincible Memory, Williamson says, concerning the freeing of slaves, "the real concern was over the labour supply to the coffee plantations, since the bulk of the slave population was based in Sao Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro; without a labour force to replace the slaves, the pillars of the Brazilian economy would crumble." One might find slavery troublesome but from a socio-historical point of view, it is useful to know more about the economic model it was based on and why slave owners would be reluctant to take a huge loss for the sake of liberals protesting that it was morally wrong. Williamson's purpose is to justify slavery from the perspective of the slave owners without remotely indicating such a position is correct, even if he is unlikely to go as far as Chomsky (a very openly Left-Wing radical, of course, with an often understandably tendentious position) in emphasising how wrong it was. If the historian's purpose is to explain the intricacies of a given set of circumstances, and the radical's position is to question how that story has been formulated, what then is the novelist's task in the context of history? Two of the most important may be personalising that history and defamiliarising it. The fiction writer might wish to get inside the character's head and to propose oblique angles on the historical. In An Invincible Memory, Ribeiro shows us various characters who usually function villainously, spuriously or heroically. Perilo Ambrosio is an unequivocal villain but Bonifacio Odulfo and his wife are spurious figures they hold beliefs that are useful to the preservation of their privileges but offer prejudices that have no grounding in fact. Bonifacio Odulfo often has thoughts about himself: "he took pride in the natural, and for that very reason edifying, way he had arrived at such an obvious, balanced conclusion. Here was the wisdom, the fairness, that distinguished him from other people this wonderful ability to be always renewing himself, to adapt to unexpected situations, to visualise what was the right thing to do at the right time." Yet when we see him in conversation with his brother, none of these traits appears evident. The reality "he understood with such clearness that it dazzled him" becomes a rant as "a coughing fit interrupted his shouting. " Bonifacio Odulfo is a very competent businessman it seems, but very incompetent at comprehending his own behaviour. He isn't the atrocious, self-pitying bully Perilo Ambrosio happened to be sixty years earlier but he is no more lucid in understanding himself. Henriquita is equally blind to her personality, and self-pitying about her modest luxury. "She felt sorry for herself. For centuries now, women like her had been shining in the courts and salons of Europe, and here she was, my God in heaven, wasting her bons mots and her culture on [her black maid] an illiterate piece of coal." Maria da Fe and Captain Marcario align themselves with values beyond their own personalities and a colonial melancholy. For Marcario it demands a horrible and ongoing self-questioning as he is caught between his familial upbringing and his love for Maria da Fe. Yet this opens onto the love of the people more generally and gives him qualities of perception absent in his brother.
Though An Invincible Memory lacks subtlety, as Parker observes, Ribeiro nevertheless creates novelistic characters if we accept that the characters are personalised: we have access not just to the events of which they are a part, but psychology however limited. Yet in this sense, Ribeiro would seem to see himself as a counter-historical novelist, someone interested in reinterpreting the facts for his own politically-oriented ends, evident in his comment about refusing to believe the history he was taught but also in how his work has been perceived socio-politically by others. "The book is one of the foundational works of Brazilian social thought on Brazil" Rita Olivieri-Godet says. "Ubaldo belongs to the ranks of great interpreters of our nation." (Pesquisa) Angela Antunes Conceio says, Without losing sight of its concern with society, Ubaldo's novels also breathe life into the 'little soul' of the Brazilian people - of the oppressed, the marginalized and, at the same time, of the oppressor, the elite, the bourgeois. Joo Ubaldo Ribeiro does a masterful job of capturing Brazil's pluralized soul." (Pesquisa) The personalisation Ribeiro offers is in giving visibility to the many and varied figures who have made up the history of Brazil, not only its winners; indeed viewing some its winners from a deliberately psychologically limiting perspective that suggests they lack the very interiority novelists have generally given them that other people (usually racial minorities and the working class) have lacked. When the Scottish writer James Kelman discusses with Duncan McLean the complexity of experience that needn't be the preserve of the wealthy bourgeoisie, he says "the best analogies would probably be black writers just to show the type of jump that would have to be made for most people who first come upon black writers and get a shock to realise that the black writers are totally aware of what they're aware...that is the best analogy, in the sense that that black writer is the same as this working class writer in Britain." (Edinburgh Review)
In Kelman's terms, the winners produce narrow literature that might allow for good prose but often offers a very limited perspective, with the great Scottish writer truculently proposing that many ostensibly brilliant writers are nothing of the sort: "I mean they're embarrassing, people like Golding and that, they're total second-raters, Waugh and Graham Greene and all of them, they're fucking second-rate....it's barren, totally barren, because it gets rid of people and produces culture, the voice of A culture." (Edinburgh Review) By both limiting the awareness of the bourgeois characters, and by expanding the consciousness of numerous others from slave backgrounds, these can be means of questioning colonial assumption, even, from a certain perspective, defamiliarising it - and thus creating a new familiarity. For Kelman, literature isn't chiefly the well-embroidered sentence but an expanded consciousness that can give existence to those previously assumed to be limited in it or not worthy of having it expressed in literary form. The pluralized soul Conceicao talks about is the writer not just finding a way to personalise history but expand upon it too. When Benjamin says "the awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action" (Illuminations), one way in which to impact upon that historical continuum is to start telling stories about those oppressed by historical facts that left them in decidedly subsidiary roles. Williamson needn't be seen as a white supremacist as he focuses on the socio-economic circumstances of Brazil but a general history alone will not be inclined to resurrect a people. For that it takes the tendentious: a figure like Chomsky internationally or Eduardo Galeano more regionally, a social historian best known for The Open Veins of Latin America, who notes, in Century of the Wind, "with great delicacy and sharp wit, Jorge Luis Borges tells the Universal History of Infamy. About the national infamy that surrounds him, he doesn't even enquire." Out of such barbs, even brilliant writers like Borges face a reckoning, as if many who come after him, most of whom cannot help but acknowledge him, must deal a little with the limits of even one of the most mind-expanding of sensibilities.
One needn't elevate Ribeiro above Borges; that would be missing the point and scoring a small one it would be turning literature into a representational talent contest: the writer with the most diversified array of characters cosmetically coming out on top. Yet to show up the limitations of some writers (whether Graham Greene or Jorge Luis Borges, whether a very good writer or a great one) is to give space to the numerous areas of the unsaid. In Ribeiro's case, to expand the consciousness of the Brazilian soul beyond prior limits, no matter if one of their most important writers, the 19th century Machado de Assis was a mulatto as Ribeiro himself is not. Yet Machado de Assis was also a Royalist, in some ways a conservative, and a social product of his time even if he was well ahead of it aesthetically. "Slavery was not abolished until 1888 in Brazil, and we should not be too surprised, or too critical, if slaves seem more or less incidental to the stories" says Machado de Assis's translator John Gledson, introducing the collection A Chapter of Hats. Machado de Assis remains one of Brazil's greatest novelists but he was not the writer to reveal the breadth of the Brazilian soul, and subsequently was unable to breath revolutionary life into the Brazilian people in fictional form.
If An Invincible Memory examines a series of characters to show Brazil's breadth, House of the Fortunate Buddhas insists on emphasising a sexual side to Brazil that might be present in popular perception but that Ribeiro insists is also a personal proclivity; one woman's search for pleasure across many years. By contrast, It Was a Different Day When They Killed the Pig, focuses on one boy's determined escape from displeasure over one afternoon. The time has come to kill the pig and the story attends to its killing mainly from the boy's perspective (and also the man he will later become who looks back) with a convoluted narrative negation. The story itself is quite simple as it attends to the killing, but the sentences frequently indicate a state negated within the inevitability of the ritualised, yearly, event. The opening sentence gives us due warning: "When they killed the pig it was a different day because long before everyone knew that this was the day they were going to kill the pig." Later on the central character thinks, "he then saw that if the father could not now avoid having another presence, killing the pig was not something to occupy him more than the time necessary to the killing." Another sentence: "Aloisa decided he would not turn his eyes away nor would he show emotion, but he could not keep himself from feeling an immense fear when, after all the preparations and rites he had never imagined, he saw the father surmount the loins of the great sow and, with a face even more distant than when he talked about life to the mother, raises the knife." The story is a tumble of one long paragraph over six pages, offering an inevitability in the structure of the story that the sentences' constant negation fails to counter. There is the suggestion that there must be an alternative to killing the pig, another way of doing things. But the story ends suggesting that the son too has become part of the habitual killing, and the habitual living, and the inevitability of dying. The last sentence suggests he is soon to pass away. "He is a man, the father said with admiration, and Aloisio felt his eyes wet, and pride with sickness again, and pulled back to the, not knowing what it was that he had." "Maybe this is the reason," he thinks, "why when he now sees the family gathered together on sunny holidays or when he wakes up among the noises of his children and grandchildren and parents and all relatives, when he sits in a quiet corner and looks at all this, his chest feels heavy and he has the impression that if someone speaks to him, he will begin to cry without ever being able to stop." Is he feeling his vulnerability through the death of a pig many years before, or is it because of a broader set of possibilities that never came to fruition? We cannot say but we might assume the frequent use of not and never, the determined attempt to view events other than how they must turn out, suggests a story if not of regret then at least of choices that may not have been taken. Looking at several of Ribeiro's characters suggests that what interests him as a writer is the manifold nature of Brazilian society, one that needn't be narrowly focused on resembling Europe but on accepting that Brazil, and indeed the continent's greatness, rests on its broad racial mix. When in the 19th and early 20th century many on the continent saw merit in positivism, in seeing thought as rational and evidential, it resided in seeing in such thinking a racial superiority: that whites were much more capable than others when it came to clear thinking and empirical analysis. As Williamson says, "The attitude of Latin American positivity towards the question of racial difference...were oversimplified into a crude social Darwinism, which held that certain races were better adapted to the struggle for survival than others." Regarding the scientific method as the only means to truth "...this kind of 'scientific politics' came very close to an officially sanctioned racism." (The Penguin History of Latin America) Ribeiro was just one of many modern, 20th century writers who refused such scientific over-simplification, and perhaps one reason why numerous writers from the region have absorbed magic realism into their aesthetic. After all, if the soul of the Brazilian people was to be found, it can hardly be discovered through some spurious notion of hard science but instead through an examination of the pluralized soul.
© Tony McKibbin