Shepherds of the Night
Mother and Son: A Brazilian Tale
I have never been to Brazil, know little of its history and literature, cannot read or speak Portuguese, and am therefore in a good position to fire off generalizations about Luso-Brazilian culture, secure in the knowledge that I cannot contradict myself. It is, for instance, obvious to my all-seeing eye that the Brazilian writer must face, in a very acute form, the problem of national identity. Any writer is to some extent judged, in his own day, by whether he supports or attacks the national stereotype; Yeats, in his most passionately. Irish phase, encouraged Synge to write The Playboy of the Western World, staged it, and then had to face the fury of the Dublin Catholic middle class who assumed that this “passionate and simple” dramatist was mocking at Irish manhood in his portrait of Christy Mahon. For the Brazilian, the problem must be even more difficult.
As a maritime people wide open to invasion and trade, the Portuguese were always highly tolerant in matters of race and creed, and when they colonized Brazil, importing a large force of African slaves and very few women of their own race, the result was a potpourri of European, African, and Amerindian, which in turn made a strict racial policy entirely out of the question. During the nineteenth century, when the notion of white supremacy was accepted in Europe as virtually scientific fact, the Portuguese tended to be sensitive about this, but more recently this process has gone into reverse; Gilberto Freyre’s Casa-Grande e Senzala (1934), translated as The Masters and the Slaves presented an optimistic and rather emotional view of Brazil as an island of tolerance in a world of sterile race hatreds. In Freyre’s view, the mixture of blood is Brazil’s great asset. While not sentimentalizing the often brutal relationship of settler with slave and Indian, he holds that all has been for the best.
For all I know, this may be quite true, but something that not even Freyre has been able to assimilate into his picture of a tolerant society is the fact that color is closely connected to wealth in Brazil, so that as a rule the darker a man is, the poorer he is. It is the poor who keep alive the racial memories of Africa, who preserve voodoo cults alongside European Catholicism, and who generally display that cultural cross-hatching which makes color of skin a minor difference. In any country the poor live a different life from the rich, but in a country with no tradition of social justice they live a half-secret life which seldom finds literary expression. Thus the Brazilian poor seem doubly mysterious to the outsider. They are there, under the noses of the educated classes, and yet they are remote, enveloped in ignorance and violence. Conditions, in fact, are ripe for pastoral.
Pastoral arises when the cultivated literary artist, middle or upper class, contemplates the swain. Traditionally, the swain has been a rustic, and most typically a shepherd, but now that the ancient trappings of pastoral have fallen out of use, we can see that the governing impulse has survived and is, in fact, stronger than ever, as suburbs grow and bourgeois life increases in complex conformity. The poor man is short of this world’s goods, which is a pity for him, but on the other hand he is free from all those irksome restrictions that beset the man with a bank balance: social position, family obligations, respectability.
THESE GENERALIZATIONS safely over, we are ready for Jorge Amado’s Shepherds of the Night, which can be described tersely but not unfairly as a contribution to the debate on Brazilian self-definition, rendered ineffective by being cast in the form of pastoral. Amado’s theme is the life of the Bahian poor: not the whole of their lives, for we seldom glimpse them at the back-breaking work that must occupy some of their waking hours, but their leisure life. His scene is laid in cheap brothels, alleys, shanties on the beaches, and in those hidden shrines on the mountain-sides where the priests and priestesses of Ogun or Oxalá enact their rites. His characters bear colorful, Runyonesque names: Corporal Martim, Wing-Foot, Jesuino Crazy Cock, Negro Massu, Bull-finch, Carnation-in-his-Buttonhole. No one, except the personnel of the brothel, has a fixed address. Life flows in a natural tide, governed by no routine, given structure only by the religious festivals which everyone observes with uninhibited rejoicing, be they candomblé or Catholic.
As in all pastoral, everything that makes middle-class life irksome is screened out, and the actual sufferings of the poor, the price they pay for this immunity, are—at most—sketched in lightly. Corporal Martim, the handsome card-sharper, makes an unfortunate marriage to a selfish beauty; but there’s no harm done—as soon as his eyes are opened to her faults, he takes off and goes back to his old life, which centers on Madame Tibéria’s brothel. This, of course, is a happy place; the girls worship Tibéria, who treats them as daughters and the younger clients as sons, herself secure in the calm of a perfect marriage to a husband who makes clerical vestments. Begone, dull care. There may, even in Bahia, be bawds who are greedy and cruel, there may be prostitutes who chafe against the fate that has put them where they are, there may be brothels that are like disease-ridden prisons, there may be card-sharpers whose lives are anxious and miserable, but naturally we are not going to read about them in this kind of book, whose object is mainly to suggest that the poor people of Bahia are the salt of the earth and that to be one of them is, on the whole, great fun.
But there is another side to Shepherds of the Night as well as its pastoral side. Amado has obviously made a deep and sympathetic study of Afro-Brazilian religious cults. One of the three main episodes, which tells of the christening of Negro Massu’s bastard child, concerns itself entirely with the bifurcated religious life that so easily reconciles saint with voodoo, Ogun with Christ. Not that this reconciliation goes very deep. It appears to be mainly on a social level. As a true religious belief—i.e., one that provides motives and modifies conduct—the candomblé has it every time over the Church. For instance, when Bullfinch falls in love with Martim’s wife, he finds it unthinkable to cuckold Martim, for the bond between them is not of friendship merely, but of common worship:
…in the candomblé they discovered that they were both devotees of Oxalá, Martin of Oxalufa, old Oxalá, Bullfinch of Oxuguian, young Oxalá. Together they carried out their bori on more than one occasion, the priestess pouring the blood of the sacrificial animals over their heads, the same blood purifying them both. On a certain occasion they had offered up a goat to the divinity, sharing expenses. Then how could he go to bed with Martim’s wife, even though he was madly in love with her?
Still the baby must have a Church christening, with regular godparents, and finally Ogun, god of iron and of war, accepts the role of compadre. The whole episode is told in the manner of a lyrically extravagant folk-tale, which is exactly right, because it assimilates important anthropological and sociological questions into the pastoral mode, so that they don’t have to be answered. The reader who starts out with no knowledge of Afro-Brazilian cults will find that by reading attentively and making use of the glossary, he will end up with a clear sense of these cults.
Shepherds of the Night is a strange, rich, unsatisfactory book. Naturally intended mainly for home consumption—to read a translation is always to eavesdrop a little—it must have had a curiously self-cancelling effect. On the one hand the author takes pride in his characters and carefully avoids showing them as mere victims of poverty and social inertia. Brazil, he seems to be saying, is not a transplanted European country; it is at once more colorful, more exotic, more extreme, and basically happier. On the other hand, since he implies strongly that these people are superior to their masters (when politicians, journalists, and high-ups appear in the concluding episode, they are seen as uniformly contemptible), the effect is of a vote cast in favor of non-interference, and therefore for the status quo which keeps the European oligarchy on top. Novels aren’t, of course, any the worse for having no “social message”; but it’s strange to find one which handles so much social material without taking it somewhere, only moving it from place to place.
A FIRST NOVEL by a distinguished social historian in his later sixties need not be judged harshly. This is fortunate, for if Gilberto Freyre’s Mother and Son were put to any severe test of its novelistic qualities, nothing would remain but a pinch of aromatic dust. Yet it is a charming book, capable of giving much pleasure and illumination. Freyre hasn’t, it must be said bluntly, any idea of how to write a novel; he is full of trepidation at his own daring in setting out on such a rickety structure at all, like a man crossing a torrent on a rope bridge. So, losing his nerve, he has added to the rope bridge a steel cable of “historical fact,” this set in italic type, to distinguish it from the merely invented, so that when the book breaks into italics, we know that we are reading about “something real.”
A story that can survive even this nonsense, plus the frequent asides in which Freyre whips off his novelist’s mask and tells us he knows it isn’t true, only it is true too, in a way, and is in any case only a semi-novel, etc.,—a story, as I say, that can still hold our attention in spite of this paraphernalia must have unusual qualities. And so it has. Freyre is so interested in what he is telling us that his interest sweeps us along with him; he has such a passion for the history of his country, he finds every social detail so fascinating in the transitional period in which the events it describes take place, that it is impossible not to read on, smiling indulgently at the novelist’s amateurishness and warming to the historian’s somber passion. The book concerns Catholicism and the power it has over the mind of a decent, devoted woman, not uneducated but intellectually incurious, and secluded in her way of life. The boy whom she rears as a sacrificial offering to the Church is not quite a living presence in the book, nor are the mother and her disapproving brother, a backland plantation owner who share the stage with a younger man who returns after years of exile in Paris and suffers the perplexity of the Europeanized émigré. As a novel, it never really begins, but two characters come across very strongly; one is Freyre’s own character (“Gladly wolde he lerne, and gladly teche”), and the other is the involuted, self-obsessed, yet generous character of Brazil itself. A bad novel; but it is more interesting and will probably live longer than more accomplished ones.
For the third book we come north of the border and to a complete contrast. After Freyre’s engaging amateurism Wright Morris demonstrates a professionalism as great as Senhor Amado’s, and much more conscious of itself. In Orbit is a tightly-organized nouvelle whose action is not so much narrated as opened in wedges. A delinquent boy on a motorcycle rides into a small Indiana town. This boy is obviously dangerous: he rapes a half-witted middle-aged woman, beats up a professor from the local university, knifes a shopkeeper. The hunt begins, but before the boy can be found, a tornado strikes the town and the smaller sensation is engulfed in the greater, so that the boy rides out as he rode in.
I give away the plot thus confidently because the book’s interest doesn’t at all inhere in the plot. The object of the exercise is analysis. Everything is analyzed—the characters, their personal histories, the setting in which they live—as a result, the book has virtually no narrative. Not that it is bogged down. Mr. Morris is too skillful for that. His style is alert and epigrammatic; he can cram the essence of a whole life into a couple of pages. Each time we meet a new character, we are given his or her dossier, full of nuggets of detail which glitter with a kind of surface irrelevance designed to advertise how basically meaningful they are. If we take them in carefully enough, we shall understand that person’s hidden motivation and the strange story will not seem strange after all. Example:
Everything has its history. In a room with high windows, the radiators pounding, all the lights out but the one in the smoking lantern, a Miss Elvira Josephare acquainted Kashperl with the lineaments of art. It was Kashperl’s duty, each Friday, to draw the blinds, get out the slides, and operate the magic lantern. Everybody in the class who had the brains they were born with used this period to sleep while the slides were showing. Everybody but Kashperl, who had more brains, weekly, and the lecturer who tapped on the screen with her pointer. In her left hand she gripped a dancer’s castanets, which she clattered to indicate a slide change. The alternating rhythm of her voice and the clatter helped the smart ones to sleep. The hot windless room smelled of the lecturer’s perfume and the bag of sachet she kept loose in her purse. She used it as a pitcher, in a crisis on the mound, stooped to finger the bag of resin. A Spanish shawl draped her shoulders, the tassels swaying when her freckled arm gestured with the pointer. In such wise did Kashperl also learn the lineaments of style.
Because Kashperl is this kind of man, he acts in a way that gets him stabbed by the motor-cycling boy. Everything clicks into place. And this, after a few chapters, begins to generate a sense of uneasiness. It’s all so pat, so perfectly engineered: reading it is like taking the back off your watch and seeing the little wheels click round and round. A perfect small machine: but somehow too neat, too trimmed, to capture life. I suppose this is what old-fashioned critics meant when they said that a book “smelt of the lamp.” It’s a perfect demonstration of literary technique, and since Mr. Morris is a college teacher of Creative Writing, such demonstrations are a necessary part of his job. But for some reason—either the slight staleness of the dominating image of the motor-cycling blouson noir, or the relentless over-writing which seems to drain all spontaneity from the story—this novel, for all its enviable skill, didn’t take me into the presence of life as both the others, in their patchy ways, managed to do.