Vistas parciais da cidade: The Urban Stories of Luiz Ruffato
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Peter Lehman Critical Introduction to Luiz Ruffato April 2012 UCLA Lydeen Library Vistas parciais da cidade: The Urban Stories of Luiz Ruffato1 It is a great pleasure to introduce the Brazilian writer Luiz Ruffato and give some context for the reading and discussion of his work. Despite multiple translations already into French, Italian, Spanish, German, and Polish, Luiz Ruffato’s major works have sadly not yet been translated into English, a trend that may already be beginning to change. Several of us here first encountered Luiz Ruffato’s writing in one of Randal Johnson’s classes on contemporary Brazilian literature, where we read Ruffato’s widely acclaimed third book, Eles eram muitos cavalos (There Were Many Horses), a hybrid “novel” of sixty-nine micro-stories, all set in the megalopolis of São Paulo during one day in the year 2000. To call the experience of reading Ruffato an encounter, or encontro, is I think both misleading and apt. It is misleading because reading Ruffato often involves, at least initially, a kind of disorientating experience or desencontro: moments when our expectations, assumptions, and comfort are shaken up or disturbed. This disorientation or disruption of assumptions is one aspect that Ruffato’s writing inherits from the Brazilian and international avant-gardes, and what Ruffato himself has repeatedly referred to as a tradition of the “anti-novel.” But, in this sense, to describe reading Ruffato as an “encounter” is also very apt. Once you accept the challenge, it is easy as a reader to become intertwined in the dense textual fabric of formal experimentation, colloquial language and orality, as well as the distinctly social subject matter of Ruffato’s writing, which largely centers on lives of the lower middle class and the urban proletariat in Brazil. For Ruffato, these are the stories that have not, for the most part,
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appeared in Brazilian literature, especially not from a perspective interior to the precarious world of these subjects. One of his central concerns has been to bring this world into literature—“dar voz a quem não tem vez,” an expression that suggests less giving voice to the voiceless, than giving voice to those who have not had their turn in literature, but also the time for literature (Ruffato Interview). Literature, in this sense, requires a level of both education and free time that for a long period in Brazil’s history, virtually up to the present, was relatively restricted to the elite. I understand the title of today’s discussion and readings, “Luiz Ruffato, Urban stories of Brazil” as a way of emphasizing the uniqueness if not singularity of Ruffato’s stories within the urban imaginary of contemporary Brazilian literature. In what follows, then, I am going to give a brief introduction to Luiz Ruffato’s work, or to use a recurring phrase from his writing, a vista parcial, or a “partial view” of his urban stories. To set up the readings and our discussion with Ruffato, I will try to give you a general sense of some central aspects of his major works, touching briefly on his relation to Brazilian modernism and the avant-garde, the experimental political fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, and to other contemporary literature concerned with urban reality and marginalized subjects. The stories in Ruffato’s first two books can help give a better sense of the “urban stories” invoked by our organizing theme. Histórias de remorsos e rancores (1998) [Stories of remorse and rancor] and (os sobreviventes) (2000) [(the survivors)], which received a Special Mention for the Casa de las Américas prize, both take place principally in the small industrial city of Cataguases, in the interior of Minas Gerais, where Ruffato himself grew up. The titles are evocative of the lives that people the landscape and world Ruffato introduces us to in his writing: the individual characters and families who struggle to simply maintain if not escape their precarious existence on and around the banks of the Pomba River
and the beco de Zé Pinto, a back street tenement house, local bar, and pawn shop through which many of the characters pass. These urban stories connect the rural, mostly pre-industrial interior of the region to an emerging post-industrial order of the coastal metropolitan cities, the dominant economic and cultural axis of Rio and São Paulo. Some of Ruffato’s subjects work multiple informal jobs or as domestic laborers for immigrant families in the countryside; others, employed in the industrial factories of Cataguases, have desires of ascension or dreams of new lives in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. We can, I think, say something similar to what Ruffato himself has said about one of his contemporaries, Fernando Bonassi: although Bonassi and Ruffato may follow some of the writers from the 1960s and 70s who also sought to take up marginalized urban groups and characters (Ivan Ângelo, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão, Rubem Fonseca), the perspective of Ruffato, like Bonassi, comes now more from within than from without (“Bonassi”). Like Hélia and Luzimar, two of the characters in these stories, Ruffato is the son of a washerwoman and a popcorn vendor, neither of whom were fully literate. And the improbable plan of a young musician to travel to Rio and make a name for himself is not unlike the future writer, who struck out for São Paulo and two decades later began to write the widely acclaimed books that we are discussing today. Significantly, Ruffato has discontinued these two collections and has suggested that they presented a formal problem that he was only able to resolve writing Eles eram muitos cavalos: these historias, “stories” or “histories,” continued to simply be read as loosely connected contos, or “short stories” (“Literatura”). If you are still with me, you may be rightly asking why, then, I’ve even bothered to talk about these books at all. Because twelve of these stories have been reworked or rewritten into his pentalogy, Inferno provisório (Provisional Hell), the five-volume project Ruffato completed in 2011. As he wrote in a public letter announcing the intentions of
this project at the start, his desire was to link these various “histories” to “History,” and more specifically the last fifty years of industrial modernization, from the rural exodus to the postindustrial urban present of Eles eram muitos cavalos, each volume taking up roughly blocks of ten to fifteen years. This letter of intent, quite different from earlier artistic manifestos of the avant-garde, nonetheless helps show what Ruffato has called his compromisso or “commitment” to his epoch, language, and country (“Literatura”). I will return briefly to this project at the end, and Luiz may elaborate on this as well, but for now let’s turn to Eles eram muitos cavalos, the book from which we will read shortly. Although there is no consensus on what to call the urban stories that compose Eles eram muitos cavalos, its critical recognition and importance has been quite clear from the start. Eles eram muitos cavalos has won numerous awards in Brazil (the Associação paulista de críticos de arte prize for the best novel of 2001 and the Machado de Assis Prize for narrative from the National Library Foundation). It has been translated into Italian, French, and Spanish as well as adapted as a play Mire veja. (We in the U.S. and U.K., have so far, unfortunately, lagged behind2…). As I mentioned at the outset, Ruffato’s book organizes sixty-nine numbered microstories around one day, May 9, 2000, in São Paulo. This organizing scheme recalls James Joyce’s Ulysses, with its multiple stories all set during one day in Dublin, 1904. But the differences are just as significant. The micro-stories in Ruffato’s anti-novel are not only closer to the brevity of Borges than the length or structure of Joyce’s modern epic. They also do not connect to each other in any immediate way. Unlike the other novels that compose Inferno provisório, where secondary characters in one story become central in another, there are no recurring characters in Eles eram muitos cavalos. Instead, we encounter recurring urban spaces or scenes—cars, buses, taxis, helicopters, public squares, alley ways, bars, apartments, internet
chat rooms—where glimpses of the lives, thoughts, and speech often unfold into the memories, longings, hopes, and fears of the novel’s anonymous or semi-anonymous characters. Besides the use of different typographical fonts, lack of punctuation, and sections that blur the boundaries between prose and poetry (narrative techniques we also see in Ruffato’s other work), Eles eram muitos cavalos also incorporates various non-literary texts or ready-made objects: a weather forecast, a certificate of baptism, sections of classifieds, the list of books on a bookshelf, a reproducible Saint’s prayer card, an upscale dinner menu, and a page in black that seems to suggest both the onset of night and the end of the novel. This incorporation of non-literary texts into the novel goes back to the Brazilian modernistas of the 1920s, especially Oswald de Andrade’s two experimental novels, Memórias sentimentais de João Miramar and Serafim ponte grande. But again the differences are telling. The small tragedies in Ruffato’s writing are far from the kind of comic carnivalesque style of either Oswald de Andrade or Mário de Andrade, one of the other important Brazilian modernist writers. We do not find the kind of parodic national allegorical characters at the center of Oswald’s and Mário’s novels: Seraphim, a local public-functionary turned trans-Atlantic libidinal malandro or rogue; and Macunaíma, a fantastic composite of several indigenous myths and races. In Ruffato’s Eles eram muitos cavalos, these allegorical characters are largely replaced by the city itself. As the Brazilian literary critic Andrea Saad Hossne astutely notes, though, if São Paulo is the central “character” of Ruffato’s novel, Ruffato does not personify the city, as was often the case in earlier modernist depictions. Indeed, I would add, it is as if these earlier modernist composite characters have broken into so many different fragmented parts—the many “horses” evoked in Ruffato’s title, and the many partial views of an urbanized present in Brazil. Ruffato leaves it up to critics and readers to think about what kind of wholes they may, or may not, add up to.
After publishing Eles eram muitos cavalos, Ruffato dedicated himself to becoming a full-time professional writer, leaving his previous job as a journalist and the various forms of precarious work from his past. In this capacity, he has organized anthologies of stories that formally resemble his fictional work, insofar as both explore the intersections between literature and aspects of the social, political, and cultural history of Brazil. Fora da Ordem e do Progresso (Out of Order and Progress), presents an anthology of Brazilian stories protagonized, as Luiz and Simone Ruffato write in the introduction, by “anonymous characters deprived of heroisms… tragically marginal to chronology” (2). These are stories that both are and are not part of the “History of Brazil”; they suggest a history “out of step and unfinished.” For the publisher Língua geral, Ruffato has organized and edited Entre nós (Between Us) and Questão de pele: contos sobre o preconceito racial (The Question of Skin: Short Stories about Racial Prejudice), which include both past and present Brazilian stories that deal with the representation of homoand queer sexualities as well as the question of color and racism in Brazil. He has published the two anthologies 25 mulheres que estão fazendo a nova literatura brasileira and Mais 30 mulheres que estão fazendo a nova literatura brasileira, drawing attention to the lack of visibility of women writers in the return to generational groupings like the so-called Geração de 90 (or “The 90s Generation”). In addition, Ruffato’s informal study of Verde, the modernist literary journal published in Cataguases during the 1920s, reemphasizes both the earlier literary presence of Cataguases and its difference from more conservative cultural nationalisms, establishing certain parallels with his own work. He has also republished several other writers from Minas whose writing takes place during the military dictatorship: the somewhat forgotten Luiz Fernando Emediato’s, Trevas no paraíso: histórias de amor e Guerra nos anos de chumbo, and Roniwalter Jatobá, whose earlier focus on the urban working-classes continues in Ruffato’s
writing. As Ruffato was finishing the pentalogy Inferno provisório, he also published De mim já nem se lembra (2006) (Of Me, Not Even a Memory), and Estive em Lisboa, e lembrei de você (2009) (I Was in Lisboa and Remembered You), both of which seem to derive from personal or ethnographic documentary sources. However, in using these “sources,” whether found family letters during the dictatorship period or an oral testimony of a Brazilian migrant worker in contemporary Portugal, Ruffato also plays with our assumptions or ideas about reality and the real in literature. Qual o real da poesia? (“What is the real of poetry?”), as another mineiro, the poet Francisco Alvim asks at the beginning of Elefante (2000), a collection of poetry that raises similar questions by interweaving the inscription of colloquial speech and more lyrical forms. Luiz Ruffato’s blurring of the real and the imaginary may be one of his subtle provocations as well. It is not uncommon to find both literary critics and writers who criticize (even scorn) contemporary Brazilian literature and culture that depicts the poverty and violence of contemporary urban reality. “Neo-naturalism,” “exoticism,” or simply the reduction to a “documentary” approach—these are the labels often used to negatively qualify literature that ranges from Paulo Lins’ A cidade de deus (The City of God), the movie adaptation some of you may have seen; the urban novels of the periphery by Ferréz and other writers included under the rubric of “marginal literature”; even Ruffato’s own writing. These are new versions of old debates. However, I would not be the first to argue that Ruffato’s formal experimentation and the frequent poetic opacity of his language troubles any straightforward documentary approach to the reality it depicts. But like Ruffato, writers like Lins and Ferréz also write from the inside about the world of the urban peripheries and the marginal, a term that connotes both a precarious social, economic, or cultural condition, and crime or criminality. In a conversation we had in São Paulo several years ago, when I had brought my own voice recorder and list of premade
questions, I asked Luiz whether he considered his own writing close to a kind of “marginal literature.” Luiz, I hope, will correct me if my memory is mistaken, since we never turned the recorder on: I abandoned it earlier on for a more informal but delightful conversation that ranged from his literary formation and Brazilian literature, to comparative anecdotes about violence in other Latin American megacities, to the more diverse range of aesthetic approaches to the present in contemporary Argentine cinema. But his response to my question was illuminating: most of the characters in his writing, he said, were not seeking to be “marginal.” This resistance to marginality or the marginal does not mean that the effects of violence or the affects associated with it are absent from his fiction. Ruffato’s narrators, who range from first person to a unique, limited third person omniscient, represent this violence indirectly or obliquely, neither moralistically condemning nor uncritically justifying it. Indeed, both in the pentalogy Inferno provisório and Eles eram muitos cavalos, we see the effects of everyday violence (whether random or deliberate) together with affects or emotions that often accompany it—fear, insecurity, resentment. In “Cicatrizes: uma historia de futebol” (“Scars: a Soccer Story”), one of the excerpts we will read from Vista parcial da noite (Partial View of the Night), the character Miguel struggles against being humiliated and treated as if he was a criminal because he’s poor, a precarious situation that contrasts with another fragmentary montage-memory: the momentous last game played by their Botafogo soccer club in Cataguases. In the excerpt from Eles eram muitos cavalos, we encounter the character O Crânio, “Braniac,” a burgeoning young black writer from the peripheries of the city, through a micro-story narrated by his brother, a drug dealer and member of a local gang. Braniac, we learn, criticizes his brothers’ life of crime for perpetuating the everyday violence on the ground while the rich fly across the city in helicopters,
looking down at all of them as if they were ants on an anthill and laughing as they kill each other. These are two among many “partial views” of the city and two among many parts that compose the provisional whole. To bring my own partial view of Ruffato’s work to a close, then, I want to briefly read a passage from a micro-story that provides the title of my introduction. You can also look to the screen where I have provided both the original and a translation of the excerpt: 45. Vista parcial da cidade são paulo relâmpagos (são paulo é o lá fora? é o aqui dentro?) de pé a paisagem que murcha a velha rente à janela rosto rugas bolsa de nailón desmaiada no colo dentro coisas enroladas em journais vestido branco bolinhas pretas sandália de plástico fustigando o joanete cabelos grisalhos olhos assustados nunca se acostumará ao trânsito à correria ao barulho a corda canta na roldana o balde traz água salobra pouca o silêncio das vacas mugindo a secura crestada entre os dedos do pé (94-95) 45. Partial view of the city são paulo lightning flashes (são paulo is it there outside? is it here inside?) from the toe to the landscape that withers the old woman next to the window face wrinkles nylon purse passed out on the lap inside things rolled up in newspapers white dress little black balls plastic sandals punishing the bunion grey hairs panicky eyes never will get used to the traffic to the rush to the noise to the rope sings on the pulley the pail brings slightly brackish water the silence of the cows mooing the charred dryness between the toes The “partial view” we read here is, like many of the stories, a brief flash of a life in the city. The parenthesis in the second line raises the question of external reference: whether the city of São Paulo is outside the window, or inside the bus with the older woman; but of course, at a second remove, it poses the question whether the city and its reality are only outside the text, or also in some way inside it too.
The list description of the older woman’s thoughts, written without punctuation (frequent in Ruffato’s writing), seems initially here to place the city outside both the window and the text. The list opens first to her indirect voice (the eyes that “never will get used” to the overcrowded city), then her italicized memory, a kind of Proustian moment in which bodily discomfort and the noise of the city suddenly triggers a sensory memory of the countryside. This woman, obviously a rural migrant to the city (like many of the characters we get short glimpses of in Eles eram muitos cavalos), travels on the bus with her daughter, who commutes several hours across town to take preparatory classes for college. And, like many other of Ruffato’s micro-stories, this one blends prose and poetry, evident here in the line spacing on the page as well as the flow joining disparate images and sensations. The fragment ends with a partial glimpse and a partial perspective of the street from the bus window: beggars sellers boys girls cars and cars muggers thieves prostitutes drug traffickers cars and cars We are no closer to definitively answering the initial question of external reality, despite the reappearance of the city outside. For the view from the window remains a subjective one—not because there are no beggars, muggers, prostitutes, and drug traffickers in São Paulo (or in Ruffato’s book), but because these are the only people she sees on the street. Violence thus appears here more indirectly, in contrast to more sensational depictions of urban violence in the media, film, and literature. In other micro-stories, though, the relâmpagos or “lightning flashes” of life in the city appear closer to relâmpagos-seqüestros, the term for the carjackingkidnappings that some of the characters fear or even purport to carry out, as we’ll see in one of our readings shortly. Yet in this micro-story, the old woman simply stares out the window, thinking tudo tem cor cansada (“everything has a tired color”). This visual lament is her “partial
view of the city.” Amidst her daily suffering, though, this lightning flash allows us to glimpse a different past in her sensory memory of the countryside; and the hope for a possible different future in her daughter’s preparation for college. Alongside the hard and soft violence of the city, these faint and sometimes intense glimmerings of hope or longing are a part of São Paulo out there, as well as in here, the “São Paulo” that we will encounter in our readings and conversation with Luiz Ruffato today at UCLA.
1 This critical introduction to the work of Luiz Ruffato was originally given as a talk before an afternoon of conversation and bilingual readings with the visiting writer, the then Distinguished Brazilian Writer in Residence at UC Berkeley. The event, held in April of 2012, was sponsored by the UCLA Department of Spanish and Portuguese; the Latin American Institute’s Working Group on Translation, Circulation and Travel; and the Department of Comparative Literature. I would especially like to thank both José Luiz Passos for organizing the visit and inviting me to participate in the event, and of course Luiz Ruffato for the generosity with his time and the stimulating conversations, appreciated by graduate and undergraduate students alike. 2
Although true at the time of writing, fortunately this lack is beginning to change, with Anthony Boyle’s recent English translation of Eles eram muitos cavalos (There Were Many Horses, published in 2014). Principal Works by Luiz Ruffato Histórias de remorsos e rancores. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 1998. Print. (os sobreviventes): contos. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2000. Print. Eles eram muitos cavalos. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2001. Print. As máscaras singulares. São Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2002. Print. As ases de Cataguases. Cataguases: Instituto Francisca de Souza Peixoto, 2002. Print. Mamma, son tanto felice. Inferno provisório, Vol I. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2005. Print. Mundo inimigo. Inferno provisório, Vol II. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2005. Print. Vista parcial da noite. Inferno rovisório, Vol III. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2006. Print.
O livro das impossibilidades. Inferno provisório, Vol IV. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2008. Print. Domingos sem deus. Inferno provisório, Vol V. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Recorda, 2011. De mim já nem se lembra. São Paulo: Moderna, 2007. Print. Estive em Lisboa e lembrei de você. São Paulos: Companhia das letras, 2009. Print.
Other Works Cited Andrade, Mário de. Macunaíma. 1928. 32nd ed. Belo Horizonte: Livraria Garnier, 2001. Print. Andrade, Oswald de. Memórias sentimentais de João Miramar. 1924. 16th ed. São Paulo: Editora Globo, 2004. Print. ---. Serafim ponte grande. 1933. 9th ed. São Paulo: Editora Globo, 2004. Print. Alvim, Francisco. Elefante. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000. Print. Emediato, Luiz Fernando. Trevas no paraíso: histórias de amor e guerra nos anos de chumbo. Ed. Luiz Ruffato. São Paulo: Geração Editorial, 2004. Print. Harrison, Marguerite Itamar, ed. Uma cidade em camadas: ensaios sobre o romance Eles eram muitos cavalos. São Paulo: Editora Horizonte, 2007. Print. Hossne, Andrea Saad. “Degradação e acumulação: considerações sobre algumas obras de Luiz Ruffato.” Uma cidade em camadas. Ed. Marguerite Itamar Harrison. São Paulo: Editora Horizonte, 2007: 18-42. Print. Jatobá de Alemeida, Roniwalter. Contos antológicos de Roniwalter Jatobá. Ed. Luiz Ruffato. São Paulo: Nova Alexandria, 2009. Joyce, James. Ulysses. Eds. Hans Walter Gabler with Wolfhard Steppe and Claus Melchior. New York: Random House, 1986. Print. Lins, Paulo. Cidade de Deus. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1997. Print. Ruffato, Luiz, ed. 25 mulheres que estão fazendo a nova literatura brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2004. Print. ---. Entre nós. Pres. Denilson Lopes. Rio de Janeiro: Língua Geral, 2007. Print.
---. Mais 30 mulheres que estão fazendo a nova literatura brasileira. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Record, 2005. Print. ---. Questão de pele: contos sobre o preconceito racial. Pres. Conceição Evarista. Rio de Janeiro: Língua Geral, 2009. Print. Ruffato, Luiz. “Bonassi e a dimensão política da escrita.” Jornal da poesia. 24 Abr. 2006. Orig. pub. in O Globo, Verba & Verso. 21 Abr. 2006. Web. 26 Feb. 2012. ---. “Literatura como projeto.” Heloía Buarque de Hollanda. n.p. n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. ---. Interview with Luiz Ruffato. Jogo de Idéias na FLIP. Itaú Cultural. 21 Oct. 2010. Web. 13 Feb. 2012. ---. There Were Many Horses. Trans. Anthony Boyle. Seattle: Amazon Crossing English, 2014. Print. Ruffato, Luiz and Simone Ruffato, eds. Fora da ordem e do progresso. São Paulo: Geração Editorial, 2004. Print.