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The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

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Lima Barreto, The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma [Rio de Janeiro; 1915]

The great Brazilian novel of the 1910s: but fittingly for the unsettled era between the great Naturalists like Machado de Assis and the Modernists of the 1920s, Policarpo Quaresma isn't a novel so much as a feuilleton, a serially-published newspaper story structured in episodic installments, lighter and more satirical (and on occasion more lyrical) than the reigning dogmatism of Naturalism would allow.

In fact the English-language equivalents that came to mind while reading were pre-Naturalists like Dickens or (especially) Twain, men of both strong moral outrage and endless amusement at human weakness. The novel fits into the Latin American tradition of the "dictator novel," even though the dictator it examines is not fictionalized (and indeed in description reminded me a lot of a present-day weak-minded authoritarian complaining about dissent), but its more general attack on nationalism, corruption, ignorance, and oligarchy is timeless.

Of course I found myself identifying with hapless autodidact, obsessive, and idealist Quaresma; but the most beautiful passages in the novel -- the sadness of the insane asylum where he (like his author) is temporarily immured, the descriptions of the suburbs which would, through the twentieth century, become the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, the last walks Quaresma takes on the bay, when the vast systems of rock, sea, and weather are the only things left unspoiled by the selfishness and shortsightedness of men -- still feel surprisingly current. A subplot in which an unmarried woman slowly goes mad because even though she doesn't care about marriage she is allowed no other function in society, is as scathing as anything in second-wave feminism.

But of course, the other thread running through the novel that most attracted me was Ricardo, the vagabond modinha composer and guitarist: because Brazil's greatest contribution to world culture being its music is such a truism in the twenty-first century that it's hard to believe there was a time when the simple idea of a man carrying a guitar in the streets of Rio was something to be ashamed of. Lima Barretto knew better; and as one of only two Black writers in the small canon I've formed of 1910s novels (the other is James Weldon Johnson), he's perhaps sharper and more sensible about the deficiencies of a culture that did not fully accept him than his white peers could have been.

A truly great book, one I guarantee I'll return to again.

August 14, 2017