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BRAZIL

The Making of a Novel


BRAZILIAN JOURNEY | SALVADOR'S ONE-EYED CARPENTER

The famed Brazilian sociologist, Gilberto Freyre, asked me whether I based my story of generations of Cavalcantis on the secret unpublished journal of a Brazilian family. There were times during my five year odyssey on Brazil when I surely wished I possessed such a private diary. - There was no diary only the will to understand the Brazilian “thing.”

Part of that understanding came from the journey I took over four months in 1981 traveling 20,000 kilometers through Brazil, almost entirely by bus. I visited the Casa Grandes; the big fazendas; the splendid beachfront apartments; the glass and concrete wonder of Brasília - the new El Dorado! I walked the sands of Porto Seguro; I rejoiced in the atmosphere of the Bahia; I stood in silence between sepulchral hills at Canudos. I climbed another hill, too, to gaze down on Vila Rica do Ouro Preto and imagine the handicapped sculptor Aleijadinho moving along Vila Rica's cobbled streets. I heard the muffled drum of tyranny presaging the last act in the drama of Tiradentes, martyr of Brazilian independence.

I wandered the sertão, the backlands, not just the wilderness beyond Bahia and in Amazonas but the sertão of the favelas of Recife and Rio de Janeiro. A literary bandeirante penetrating Brazil's past like those seventeenth century pathfinders, often feeling the thorny caatingas closing in on me but compelled to march forward like my hero, Amador Flores da Silva:

To Amador, to his father, to all who traveled with them, there would be no expression more evocative, more meaningful than sertão. 'Backlands;' 'wild country;' 'the unknown forest;' 'hill, valley, river hidden by the mist of Creation;' 'place of thorn and desert;''brutal land without end' - sertão was all these and more. It started not beyond the next rise or across the river ahead but deep within the soul, a call to paradise or to hell...

I kept a two hundred page journal on my four-month expedition across the length and breadth of Brazil. The scrawl on some pages vividly brings to mind a motorista, a bus driver, hanging on to the wheel as we sped through the caatingas. I remember triumphant cries of Asfalt! as we careened off a dirt road onto the hard-top. I remember glancing at a rear-view mirror and seeing a driver nodding off with half-closed eyes. I remember a girl in the seat next to me on her way to join a nunnery saying a prayer...

Some glimpses follow from a journey that lies at the heart of Brazil. I'd begun my research travels in Portugal where I stayed for three months in Sintra, the 'glorious Eden' of Lord Byron. I tried teaching myself Portuguese and learned enough to decipher the written word, more or less, but spoke the language poorly. I wrote to half a dozen people in Brazil in advance but essentially landed at Bahia, Salvador without a single contact... Journeying through Brazil in 1981, I traveled through the heart of a nation in which the flame of freedom was newly lit after years of military dictatorship, my journal colored by the voices and emotions of the era.

Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia
Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia

Landfall in Bahia, Salvador

Salvador, Bahia July 7 —— July 14

(Landed at 3.40 a.m.) Early morning arrivals are disastrous, especially when coupled with congress of six thousand starting tomorrow. Good-intentioned cab driver drops me at sea front. Gray sky, showers, pre-dawn humidity. First hotel full, second $50 a night. Find myself walking back toward Centro after stop for Coke at kiosk where my “jacket Americano” is main interest. Also my $1 note for Coke. Scrawny woman creeping in and out of shadows to beg a cigaretta.

Finally made it via VW taxi to “Hotel Imperial” in Centro at 6.15 and get room at 900 cruzeiros (91cr. to $1.) A benign fleapit. Shocking pink walls. Cockroach at eye level when I wake five hours later. Noise. Deadly shower system (loose electric wires dangling from heating unit) but probably a lot better than what lies ahead and able to keep me within my $30-a-day budget. (And, as usual, contradicting LdJ's observations on “horribly expensive Brazil.”) I had perfectly adequate dinner of chicken, feijoas, rice, salad, beer and tip for 330cr. ($3.50)
 
First impressions of Salvador come from the large black population. Were this not Brazil, you could expect to awake in a West African seafront town. First encounter with abandonados particularly memorable in visage of two little girls who'd steal many a U.S. heart. Sad if one considers all the implications beyond the empty soda tin thrust toward you but yet not pathetic. There was a liveliness, a vivacity, as in their response when a customer at the snack bar ordered a glass of water which he tossed over them! In contrast, a young boy who was approached stopped to talk with the prettiest of the two girls, gave her a fond clasp on her shoulder - no money - before going on his way.
 
The urgency of getting down to serious work after the Portuguese experience impresses upon me. By 4.30 I've spent two and half hours with the Bahia information people who seem much more on the ball. Arrange to spend day with Henriques Caldeira. I'm impressed with the “sense of history” shown by these first contacts: Dona Linda Conde, who spoke of a plantation that's been in her family for 250 years; Henry who is Jewish and traces his ancestry back to the Dutch/ Portuguese connection and Dona Gildene who is a great-great-great + granddaughter of Paraguaçu, the Indian princess who married Caramaru. Dona Gildene also has Dutch ancestry. (Must check influence of Dutch influence down here.)
 
This first brief foray suggests Bahia is font of Brazilian culture. Am also beginning to realize importance of maintaining this journal to remember all that comes at me and to have this “self-communication” each evening. This self-imposed silence for one so garrulous as me is unusual!!! I go to bed quietly hopeful and prayerful. Have, as I did in Portugal with the likes of Serrão, prepared a list of “interests.” Pray God that they come up to expectations. I close Day 1 with a sense of cautious optimism.
 
July 8 I'm determined to keep this journal daily so though it's late, after a delightfully exhausting six hours with the best contact I've made in three months, I'll scribble a few lines.
 
Prayerful as I was last night, today started at 9 a.m. at Henriques' office. 9.10: “There is a problem.” - “Urgently called to accompany the director to a distant town to discuss plans for centenary etc.” - “Please come to Sally's office and we will find somebody.” Temper rising but nothing I can do about it!! Patience. Sally makes phone call to "Antonietta" at the Archives. She can meet me at the Cathedral at 4.30. (Today, all Bahia life grinds to a halt because of Brazil vs. Spain soccer game.)

Former Jesuit church of Salvador (17th century), now cathedral.
Former Jesuit church of Salvador (17th century), now cathedral.

Sounds of the lash and the bell

Kill time noon to 4.30 including bumping into exuberant Germans who were in taxi with me Tuesday a.m. They've “seen it all” - three hour tour and night of folklore and are leaving for Rio at 2.30! At 4.30 find Salvador Brazil Cathedral Antonietta (de Aguiar Nunes) waiting in the doorway of the Cathedral. Go through my routine "introduction" again but this time find a perfect gem. A history professor mastering in social work, Antonietta “knows it all,” genuinely. 

Plunge into a three conversation, then to dinner at Pelourinho Square (restored by UNESCO) at "hotel school" that offers forty kinds of Bahian cuisine = African modified by spices of East (as per fleets from India.) Tomorrow we're to meet at nine to continue the “researches.” The Good Lord be praised! Despite the Henry Hitch, all augers well for the Brazilian adventure.

July 9 — A brilliant day! Won't attempt to repeat what's in my working notebooks. (Besides my journal, I filled a pile of notebooks as I went along.) This augers brilliantly for success of Brazil. Keep it up Uys. Antonietta's contacts are stupendous, her enthusiasm unlimited. Now to bed, for I'm exhausted but in these early days of the journal, determined to make some entry, no matter how insignificant.

July 10-11 — Missed two nights' entries. Not through “sloth” but time! July 10 occupied with “re-creation” of 18th century Bahia. How the Portuguese must've loved this city! With its narrow, hilly cobbled streets, it is strong reminiscent of Lisbon and Coimbra. Most impressive is the Pelourinho - Pillory Square - with the old townhouses of the wealthy. The Pillory was moved here at the request of the Jesuits - it had previously been near the Cathedral - the lash and the bell/choir aren't compatible.Before leaving Portugal for Brazil in July 1981, I prepared a list of research objectives sent in advance to potential contacts in Brazil's cultural and educational ministries, historians and others whose names had been suggested by sources I'd met in Portugal:n mind I have to adopt some kind of organized strategy for the research stage or I'll never put it all together.

Plunge into a three conversation, then to dinner at Pelourinho Square (restored by UNESCO) at "hotel school" that offers forty kinds of Bahian cuisine = African modified by spices of East (as per fleets from India.) Tomorrow we're to meet at nine to continue the “researches.” The Good Lord be praised! Despite the Henry Hitch, all augers well for the Brazilian adventure.

July 9 — A brilliant day! Won't attempt to repeat what's in my working notebooks. (Besides my journal, I filled a pile of notebooks as I went along.) This augers brilliantly for success of Brazil. Keep it up Uys. Antonietta's contacts are stupendous, her enthusiasm unlimited. Now to bed, for I'm exhausted but in these early days of the journal, determined to make some entry, no matter how insignificant.

July 10-11 — Missed two nights' entries. Not through “sloth” but time! July 10 occupied with “re-creation” of 18th century Bahia. How the Portuguese must've loved this city! With its narrow, hilly cobbled streets, it is strong reminiscent of Lisbon and Coimbra. Most impressive is the Pelourinho - Pillory Square - with the old townhouses of the wealthy. The Pillory was moved here at the request of the Jesuits - it had previously been near the Cathedral - the lash and the bell/choir aren't compatible.


Public whipping of a slave in Brazil
Public whipping of a slave in Brazil at pillory in Salvador, Bahia - Source: Black Women of Brazil

I am slowly conditioning myself to life as lived here. On Thursday evening Professor Antonietta and I are invited to plantation 70 kilometers north with loan of car. On Friday evening the invite falls through. "A's" sister has arrived. "A" needs car and so on. Change plans. I wander streets by myself.

Among many sights is a carpenter's shop. Men at lunch round table surrounded by wood shavings, playing dominoes etc. One-eyed carpenter. Easily 18th century!

In evening we go to sound and light show at 17/18th century seafront fazenda that includes tobacco warehouse/slave quarters. Can't follow libretto and am somewhat irritated by excessive use of colored lights but get the ambience.

Nothing impresses so much as the voices of the prayerful from the small chapel rising alongside crack of a whip wielded against the slaves. Can see why the Jesuits asked that this scourge be moved from their holy place.

Earlier in the day visited convent with foundling wheel — larger than I expected — Some said it was an excuse for the nun's own progeny. Convent built by a wealthy man with five daughters. All the girls consigned to the building for life. Nice pater!

July 11-  Grab a few hours this a.m. for “office work.” Must allow more time for mental appraisal/assimilation of the barrage of information. Feel pretty secure with picture of Bahia for Tomás's arrival, Padre Inácio etc. (These are characters from my Outline for Brazil written earlier and based on book knowledge of Brazil and earlier research in Portugal.)

Went to Antonietta's house in Sapateiros. Drunk, soiled beggar in doorway. We spent three hours poring over books from her four-thousand volume library. Especially impressed with her bandeirante material. Rest largely comprises works on churches, churches, churches. “Nossa Senhora” (Our Lady) are two words I'll never forget.

In afternoon we go to the market, Mercado Modelo. An explosion of life Bahianese! Essentially a tourist/ handicraft market, it has a restaurant attached to it. A vast meeting place where beer flows like water and people sing the songs of Bahia. For three hours, we eat and listen to the Afro-Brazilian rhythms. Again bringing a thought of the “release” from the slave quarters. (My South African heritage shames me in this blackest of all Bahiana cities!)

Elevador Lacerda, Fonte do Mercado, Mercado Modelo, Salvador
Elevador Lacerda, Fonte do Mercado, Mercado Modelo, Salvador  Source: Mercade Modelo

Decadent aristocrats of Brazil

Back to Antonietta's house in the oldest quarter and for four-and-a-half hours she sits reading my synopsis. Her verdict is ENTHUSIASTIC! And a good deal more! Few Brazilians know the history as ELU, she says. Encouraging.


For an hour afterwards, we sit talking about the political realities, '64 to present. Troubling. She explains background of the opposition PF (Popular Front) to which she belonged aimed at grassroots change, alongside PCdoB(Communist Party, Maoist) and PCB (old Prestes group, pro-Soviet.) Also active were Focustas (from “focus”) who became most radical element. After congress, PF merged with PCdoB to work for reforms.

She talks of strong-arm methods/disappearance of friends etc. All very similar in most respects to South African situation.

Not clear of objectives, though main purpose “to improve condition” of the people. That's too broad for my liking. In recent times, things appear to have eased up but not clear to what extent.

She stresses role of the Church. Even though it may not be evident in outward ways, e.g. church attendance, the Catholic spirit is fundamental to Brazilians.

Antonietta refers to 1 percent of population being truly “educated,” traveled etc. including those like herself whom she describes as “decadent aristocrats.”

Our talks end at 1.40 a.m. I've decided to move to Porto Seguro on Monday morning; Brasília next Thursday.


BRAZIL by Errol Lincoln Uys

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