São Bernardo
by Graciliano Ramos (1934)
translated from the Portuguese by Padma Viswanathan (2020)
NYRB Classics (2020)
171 pp

Graciliano Ramos’s São Bernardo is a quick read that grabbed me from the first paragraph. There we meet our story-teller, fifty-year-old Paulo Honório. He’s never been the kind of person to read a book, let alone write one, but something has compelled him to write down the story of his life leading up to recent tragic events. He starts his account with a couple of throat-clearing, false-start chapters, letting us know that he wanted to recruit help before he realized that if he wanted the book done right he’d have to do it himself:

Before I started this book, I thought division of labor was the way to go.

I approached several friends, and most of them heartily agreed to pitch in for the betterment of our national literature. Padre Silvestre would look after the moral side and the Latin quotations. João Nogueria took on punctuation, spelling, and syntax. I promised Arquimedes the typography, while for literary flair I invited Lúcio Gomes de Azevedo Gondim, editor and director of the Cruzeiro. I’d outline the plan, insert the basics of agriculture and cattle-raising, cover the costs, and put my name on the cover.

These men — all men, though more than a couple of the main players in the account are women — come up throughout the story. They’re part of the community at São Bernardo, and we see that Honório, since he came into power at least, has been pushing them around for years. They don’t see eye to eye on how best to approach Honório’s “literary” work, so he quickly gets rid of them and sets out on his own. He writes that losing his help is no great matter, that while this book may not be written the same as what you’d typically pick up it is from his straight-talking soul, so there’s some inherent quality:

Being busy with these enterprises [he’s just told us that his life’s pursuit was to possess the land of São Bernardo], I never tried for João Nogueira’s learning or Gondim’s rot. Readers will therefore be so kind as to translate this into literary language if they want to. If they don’t, no great loss. I’m not planning to play the part of the writer — too late for a change of career.

His confidence that he can do it best himself, and presumably still for the “betterment of our national literature,” betrays the insecurity that is actually compelling him to tell his story. We won’t know what that is until later in the story, and even then it is a mysterious compulsion that Honório himself clearly does not understand.

Once he realizes he’s wasting time on a preamble, Honório goes back in time to show us his rise at São Bernardo. First, he was a laborer, but through not always honest means he not only takes over São Bernardo but also manages to obtain land from neighboring land-owners.

But justice is expensive, so they didn’t take it to court. With the way cleared, I also invaded Fidélis’s land — he’s paralyzed in one arm — and the Gamas’. They were merry-making in Recife, studying law. I respected Sr. Magalhães mill — he’s a judge.

As he takes over the land, we see him grow into this single-minded pursuit where he is always happy to exploit. Humans are resources. As he continues to shore up his dominion, an idea strikes him: he seems to think he needs a different kind of resource.

One day, I woke up thinking about marriage — an idea that came to me without a single skirt swishing by. I didn’t pay romance much heed, as you may have noted. It always seemed to me that woman was a strange beast, difficult to control.

The unfortunate woman he marries is the strong-willed, educated Madalena. Honório becomes paranoid that his wife is a subversive revolutionary. Or, at least, this is the concern he can put words to. There are two underlying concerns he likely cannot bring himself to confront. First, his wife is smarter than him, and this stokes his jealousy:

[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.

He is also likely jealous because he is not able to obtain love from his wife, which he conflates with loyalty. In short, she is a reminder that he is not who he thinks he is.

Honório is a fascinating character, and Ramos beautifully renders him through Honório’s own elisions and incapacity to articulate the troubled feels. Padma Viswanathan’s translation, which provides much of the brusque, intelligent if uneducated, myopic, voice of Honório that refuses to look inward too closely, even though he aches to understand why he’s so empty.

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