We are living in precarious moment. Protestors and police fill the streets, the United States recently entered its second recession of the century, and a pandemic is ravaging communities across the globe. In such uncertain times, it becomes easier to understand the insecure nature of 1930s Brazil, of a man living in the Brazilian sertão, the northeastern Brazilian outback, during that era. Both then and now, people are living on the edge, depending heavily on others while the world changes rapidly around them. It is now, in a book released earlier this year, that Padma Viswanathan allows readers to recognize anew the importance of community in such a precarious moment with her translation of Graciliano Ramos’ rustic satire, São Bernardo.
The novel follows Sr. Paulo Honório as he dictates his life, from his beginnings as a poor orphan boy selling candy, to a wealthy landowner in the Brazilian countryside. As he says, he’s a man who picked himself up by his bootstraps, taking on loans and working tirelessly to build a ranch for himself on land he once tilled for a pittance.
Since São Bernardo is a satire, Sr. Paulo’s rugged individualism is taken to extremes. Any help from others must be a transaction, from his initial loans, to the dues he pays journalists to improve his personal standing in the community, even to his wife, who only agrees to marry him after a series of relentless negotiations. Each transaction grants Sr. Paulo more power, and as he gains power, he loses empathy for the people under his care and in his community, treating them more and more harshly, refusing to increase their pay and refusing to care for them when they’re too sick or old to work.
Near the end, he has even lost whatever love he had for his sweet, young wife. He suspects her of cheating at every turn, but cannot believe the man he himself has turned into, “My own depraved thoughts sickened me. A pointless crime—what good was that that? Better to abandon her, see her suffer. And when she’d been in and out of hospitals, when she was in rags out on the street, starving, all sharp bones, old scars, and fresh wounds, I’d throw her a few coins” (134). Even in his own monologue, filled with self-doubt, the best treatment he can imagine giving to others is to abandon them. Having spent his entire life searching for money and power, Sr. Paulo finally finds that he has everything he could want and no one to share it with.
Sr. Paulo’s life is what the author, Graciliano Ramos, saw around himself every day. Growing up in the poor northeastern state of Alagoas, Ramos was the son of a general store owner, but he was no stranger to the rich Brazilian ranches lying just outside his town’s borders. He saw the maltreated workers and the corruption fueled by suburban ranch owners. So when he was pushed to become his town’s mayor, most of the laws he passed were aimed at inhibiting the corruption many Brazilians still see as a fact of life in politics. Soon after leaving his post as mayor, he wrote São Bernardo to represent his own predictions on the fall of the landowning oligarchy, hinting in his book at the communist uprising that came the year after São Bernardo was published.
Ramos was writing for an educated bourgeois class, telling them their time of reckoning was coming and that their power was nothing in the face of strong community bonds. In fact it was in 1934, the same year of São Bernardo’s publishing, that the landowning oligarchy Sr. Paulo represents thrust their dictator Getúlio Vargas into power to quell a communist uprising. The same communist uprising Ramos was arrested for participating in the next year. Ramos could not have known the uprising he was predicting would be a failure––he only wanted to show the bourgeois class their misdeeds. So although he made his main character, Sr. Paulo, a villain, Ramos also kept Sr. Paulo strangely likeable, even understandable in his treachery. Sr. Paulo’s origins as street urchin and his vision of himself as a common, hardworking man endears him to his readers, and the rough style of his commentary throughout the novel continues to captivate.
In the original as well as in this new translation, Sr. Paulo’s language constitutes a major part of his charm. Where in the original Portuguese Ramos was simple, colloquial even, Viswanathan has created the same feeling in English. Idioms are translated to their lower-class, English equivalents, and awkward turns of phrase show the truth––that Sr. Paulo is merely a character who is trying too hard to fit into a class that treats him like a foolish upstart. Take for example, the scene where Sr. Paulo meets his future mother-in-law, Dona Glória, and decides to tell her about his life on the ranch, “It’s a good living, Dona Glória, a decent living. If you decide to go into it, I recommend Orpingtons. School? Hogwash. I opened one on my ranch and trusted it to Padilha. Do you know who he is? An idiot. But he says there’s been progress. And I believe it.” (66). Sr. Paulo’s narration here is fast paced and direct, he almost sounds desperate in his attempts to engage Dona Glória. This same directness moves the novel along while Sr. Paulo commits cruelty after cruelty, always thinking only of the power he will have at the end.
It might seem simple to dismiss São Bernardo due to the villainous acts of its main character, but one look underneath the surface of this translation shows that São Bernardo is above all a book of hope in translation as in the original. Sr. Paulo is a compelling villain, who makes his readers understand his desperation for power, even as they fail to identify with him. In the end, the villain is destroyed, alone, on his broken-down ranch with no one who loves him to care for him at the end of his days. He is a victim of his own precarious moment––a man who allowed his fear to rule over his empathy. A new world is being built around him, filled with people who believe in the rights of the poor and the sick and the hungry, and who want to work together so their children can belong to something better. “We were all together at first, but this damned way of life separated us.” (167).
Graciliano Ramos. São Bernardo. Translated from Portuguese by Padma Viswanathan. NYRB Classics, 2020.
Victoria Olson is a writer and translator from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They recently graduated from Oberlin College, and are currently operating out of the Washington D.C. area, translating a collection of new works from Portuguese into English.