THE SHIFTY-LOOKING mestizo I’d met that day at Mendonça’s also came to a bad end. A cleanup. These people almost never die right. Some are taken out by snakes, others by cachaça; some kill each other.

I lost one in the quarry. The chisel jumped out from under a stone, hit him in the chest, and he bought the farm. He left a widow and tiny orphans. They all vanished: one of the kids fell in the fire, roundworms ate the second, the last had a heart condition, and the wife hanged herself.

To reduce mortality and increase productivity, I prohibited cane liquor.

[…]

Given all the hardships I’ve described, I doubt anyone could think that I was tripping along, safe and secure, trotting down a straight and narrow path without pauses or detours. No sir, I didn’t trip and I didn’t trot. […] Do you think I did wrong? Truth is, I’ll never know which of my actions were good or bad. I did good things that worked against me and bad things that made me money. Since I always kept my goal in sight — owning São Bernardo — anything that got me there was right as far as I was concerned.

São Bernardo was Brazilian writer, politician, and Communist Party member Graciliano Ramos’s second novel. Published in 1934, as tensions in Europe were rising, it focused on the impoverished inhabitants of his South American homeland’s distinct northeast region — a region that would serve as the setting for most of Ramos’s work. The action of São Bernardo takes place during a period of social, cultural, and political transition, with the barren northeast Brazilian landscape (sertão) undergoing modernization while Marxist and fascist ideological currents intersect and vie with each other.

The northeast remains Brazil’s poorest region, despite its status as the wellspring of the country’s folklore and identity (due in part to being the earliest colonized territory by the Portuguese), and in keeping with the spirit of the place, Ramos employs a bucolic and blunt minimalist diction. Narrated by the protagonist, Paulo Honório, the novel presents less a definitive depiction of the time and place than a reflection of the mentality that arises from life in the region. Yet São Bernardo, the property of which Honório takes possession, does offer a kind of microcosm, with its plots of ranching land, its field hands and tenants. By focusing on São Bernardo, Ramos is able to mine, with great economy, the rich nuances of northeast Brazilian life, its diversity and hierarchies.

Early in his narrative, Honório sets himself apart from others — especially those he sees as inferior in ethnic, social, and economic terms. Recounting the misery that befell one of his worker’s families — “[t]hese people almost never die right […] I lost one in the quarry” — he proceeds to discuss measures taken to “reduce mortality and increase productivity” among his laborers, namely prohibiting liquor. For him, “hardships” mean only loss of value, emotions be damned. And in asking the question, “[d]o you think I did wrong?” (presumably to the reader), he answers evasively. His ethical thought is stunted, elementary. He seems incapable of true insight.

Indeed, the our narrator is ultimately inscrutable — subject as much as agent. He is unable to accurately recount a large part of his childhood, yet he is obsessed with memory. Honório’s narrative operates on at least two levels, occasionally breaking from the main thread, in which the tragedy of his marriage is recounted, to return to the present, in which the very narrative is being composed, and to attempt to engage the reader in conversation. Honório is also given to reflections on nature: the nighttime darkness obscuring the outside world, the hooting of owls that echoes again and again.

Before starting his ramshackle autobiographical sketch, Honório relates to the reader his frustrating, ultimately failed endeavor to enlist his associates in putting together his proposed book. This abortive “division of labor” hints at the more than spectral presence of communist sentiments that reach into his familiar world. Honório’s interactions with these associates, many of whom will play secondary roles in the story, not only generously reveal the personalities involved — for example, his own obliviousness and stubbornness, his lack of patience with writing, his natural interests in agriculture and business — but also suggest, ironically and indirectly, Ramos’s own opinions on literature and story-telling. For his part, Honório acknowledges the limitations inherent in narrative, suggesting a compromise:

I mean to tell my story. It’s tough. I might neglect to mention useful details, ones that seem to me beside the point, irrelevant. Or maybe, more used to dealing with hicks, I won’t trust readers to understand and will repeat insignificant passages. All the rest of it will be arranged without any order, as you’ll see.

Throughout, Honório will remind us of his power as editor of his own narrative. But, of course, we can judge his success for ourselves.

We learn little of Honório’s childhood and youth: an unknown parentage, forgotten early years, a certain “old Margarida” who takes him in, and the income he earned as a laborer at São Bernardo. Soon after, a bawdy, violent incident lands Honório in jail for some time. Newly literate when released, he lives a nomadic bandit’s life that eventually leads him back to his hometown of Viçosa, in the state of Alagoas. In a matter of only a few pages, Ramos paints a vivid, if deplorable, impressionistic portrait of his own native northeast region, where lawlessness, compassion, lust, ignorance, poverty, corruption, and ambition rule the day.

Having returned home emboldened by his recent success, Honório seeks out Luís Padilha, heir to the owners of São Bernardo, meaning to acquire the property. Padilha acts the part of a lesser scion, a drunkard and gambler; he is easily bamboozled into giving up his inheritance. Honório recounts his path toward eliminating competitors and acquiring free rein over the property dispassionately, with moral conviction. Curiously, much as the narrative focuses on his single-minded pursuit, São Bernardo is never mapped out, and neither are Honorio’s responsibilities or plans explained. Far more clear are his reflections on dusk, the winds and the dimming trees, the owls. Such a description closes the novel, an open note that is never resolved.

Before the pivotal character of Madalena even enters the story, Honório’s personality reveals itself in the nature of his relationships and interactions with others. There is the blonde flirt Germana and her lover João Fagundes, “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses”; Joaquim, the shoemaker who teaches Honório to read in prison; the brutish but ever-faithful Casimiro Lopes; the hapless laborer Marciano — “[w]e kill ourselves for the sake of others”; and the hired lawyer João Nogueira — “I considered myself superior to him, except with less learning and less cunning. It seemed to me his talents deserved a certain scorn, but they had their uses. There was a goodly amount of respect between us”; and the servant Maria das Dores, who remains a neglected mystery to the end. One of the few characters Honório speaks of with any affection is “old” or “mother” Margarida, who appears a few times throughout the narrative, but all too briefly. Although Honório offers her anything she wants in addition to shelter, he is also quick to point out that he is doing her a favor. While the only thing Margarida desires is a new pan to replace her stolen one, upon which Honório meditates: “I remembered the old pan, the centerpiece of the tiny house where we lived. My life revolved around it for years. I washed it, scrubbed the tarnish out with sand and ashes, was sustained by it. Margarida used it almost all her life. Or it used her.” And then there’s Sr. Ribeiro, the bookkeeper, who’s bestowed with an ample backstory that mirrors the merciless tale of Brazil’s still ongoing modernization, the innocence of underdeveloped folkways eradicated by urbanization, industrialization, “progress.” Ribeiro grows to hate his employer.

But the central relationship in Honório’s life is with Madalena, a modest, good-natured teacher about 20 years his junior. Her unassuming inner strength will eventually lead to domestic turmoil and disaster between them. As part of a decidedly unromantic courtship, Honório first acquaints himself with Madalena’s aunt Dona Glória, who is wary of the provinces, in a near-farcical exchange that foreshadows the couple’s incompatibilities. The young, educated, strong-willed Madalena soon tires of the rural tedium and of her marital role. She comes to demand more responsibilities, much to Honório’s irritation and bewilderment, until he gives in. As Madalena then charitably procures basic living necessities, more than the laborers are used to, from her husband’s finances, and morally defends them from his harsh discipline, Honório’s jealousy spills over into disorienting paranoia and incoherent rage. Madalena’s education and learning, her citified ways, are set in bitter contrast to Honório’s: “[I]t was useless to hope my wife would ever be clear or concise. Her vast, slippery vocabulary was a closed room to me, and when she tried to use my rough, basic language, the mildest, most solid expressions sounded snake-like: twisting, biting, venomous.” Ultimately, it is a stolen portion of a letter written but incomprehensible to Honório that ends their marriage forever:

On Madalena’s desk […] a long letter saying goodbye to me. I read it, skipping over parts, only understanding sections, tripping constantly on big words I had no way of knowing. One page was missing: the one I had in my wallet, between bills for cement and a spell against malaria […] years ago […] given me.

Honório is much affected, though even as São Bernardo slowly deteriorates in the years that follow, he is unable to explain what went wrong, remaining haunted in his loneliness and indifferent to the social and political goings-on of the outside world.

This new translation of São Bernardo from the Brazilian Portuguese by Canadian writer Padma Viswanathan is as much a reiteration as it is a refashioning. The brusque, economical flavor of Paulo Honório’s narration remains intact. However, in comparison with past translations, such as R. L. Scott-Buccleuch’s, Viswanathan opts for a vernacular that is more contemporary and flowing. In doing so, she gives her translation the rustic, uncouth informality of the original Portuguese. The touch of satire is slightly more articulated, and it likewise buoys not only the sense of tragedy, but also the dynamics between the private and social scales that Ramos was concerned with. Viswanathan has made a precious contribution to the body of English-language literature, adding to it the vibrant voice of one the most important figures of 20th-century Brazilian letters.

¤

Arthur Ivan Bravo is a writer and educator. He lives in New York City.