Sad Brazil

Largeness, magnitude, quantity: it is commonplace to speak of Brazil as a “giant,” a phenomenon spectacular, propitiously born, outrageously favored, and yet marked by the sluggishness of the greatly outsized. And so the giant is not quite on his toes, but always thought of as rising from the thicket of sleep, the jungle of rest, coming forth from the slumbering dawn of undisturbed nature. This signaling, promissory vastness is the curse of the Brazilian imagination. Prophecies are like the fall of great trees in a distant forest. They tell of a fabulous presence still invisible, scarcely audible, and yet surely moving amid the waving silence of real possibility.

Brazil—remember the opening of Tess of the D’Urbervilles? The D’Urberville father with his rickety legs, his empty egg basket, his patched hat brim, is addressed on the road as “Sir John” because the parson has discovered that he is a lineal representative of the ancient, noble family of the D’Urbervilles. Brazil is a lineal representative of Paradise, the great, beckoning garden of delicious surfeit—a sweet place, always to be blessed. In Brazil the person stands surrounded by a mysterious ineffable plenitude. He lives in a grand immensity and he partakes of it as one partakes of thereness, of a magical placement in the scheme of nature. Small he may be, but the immensity is true. His own emptiness is close to the bone and yet the earth is filled with the precious and semi-precious in prodigious quantity, with unknown glitters and granites, with sleeping minerals—silvery- white, ductile. These confer from their deep and gorgeous burial a special destiny. This is the land of dreams.

Think of the words and their resonance—grande, grosso, Amazonia. Numbers enhance, glorify, impress: larger than the continental United States, excluding Alaska, and slightly larger than the great bulk of Europe lying east of France. Its borders flow and curve and scallop to the Guineas, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela. Out of this expanding, encroaching, bordering, nudging sovereignty, life reaches for a peculiar consolation and hope. Where there is isolation, loneliness, and back- wardness, where the tangle of life chokes with the complexity of blood and region, where torpor, negligence, and a strange historical lassitude simply and finally confuse—there even the worst is thought of as an unredeemed promise, not an implacable lack. Delay, not unalterable natural deprivation, is the worm in the heart of the rose.

Growth is mystical. The ignominious military rulers carry it as a banner. They kill, torture, repress in the name of the great, floating, swelling, primordial dream. The jungle, the historic, romantic coffee and sugar plantations, the crazy rubber Babylon of Manaus falling into ruin way up the Amazon, the marble shards of its opera house: all of that, the military seems to say, is folly, a siesta slump of some nodding mestizo, the old tropical slack.

A beggar, bereft, a leprous bundle of ancient Brazilian backwardness, a tatter of the rags, an …

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