Caught Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea:
An interview with
writer Deonísio da Silva
I first met Deonísio
da Silva in Mexico City while attending a writers' conference in 1999. We
were the only ones representing our native Brazil that year. Our delegation
that was originally small, became even smaller when Rubem Fonseca was forced
to cancel his participation due to health problems.
With Fonseca's absence,
I felt an enormous responsibility over my shoulders, perhaps a little too
heavy for a virtually unknown writer like myself. However, for my delight
and relief, Deonísio permitted himself to be caught between the devil
and the deep blue sea, which he did with great valor and grace, two characteristics
I usually find also in his fictional characters.
At that time in Mexico,
Deonísio already belonged to a very select group of writers representing
Brazil at Frankfurt and the Paris Book Fairs, both occasions in which Brazil
was the featured nation. He had also already won at least two important literary
prizesone from Casa de Las Américas, when Nobel laureate
José Saramago (Portugal) presided over the jury that gave first prize
to Deonísio's Avante Soldados, Para Trás (Forward Soldiers,
Backwards), a historical novel about the controversial 19th Century war between
Brazil and Paraguay, and the other for his other classic Teresa, a
novel about the life of Saint Teresa D'Avila chosen by the Biblioteca Nacional,
a Brazilian version of the Library of the Congress, as the best novel of the
Deonísio is married
to poet and linguist Soila Schreiber, who is not only a great poet and linguist
but a dedicated hostess with a very keen sense of observation and good humor.
She is the author of several books on her field of specialization and of poetry,
most notably for Narrativas do Coração (Narratives of
the Heart), who in the words of John Lyons, poet, translator and scholar (Oxford
and The University of London), is a collection of very short poems that "emphasizes
the power of poetry as an affirmation of the being".
Deonísio is the
third Brazilian author I have the pleasure to interview. The two previous
authors, Ana Maria Machado and Paulo Coelho, have both become members of the
prestigious Academia Brasileira de Letras (Brazilian Academy of Letters)
in the last year. It wouldn't come as a surprise to me, if Deonísio
da Silva becomes its newest member in the near future. He is certainly well
deserved of such honor not only for the caliber of his literature but also
for what he represents for Brazilian letters today.
Some critics regard Teresa as your most important novel to this day.
Do you agree with that?
da Silva: I do, but the public does not. And the author is always
the least indicated to evaluate his own books. In Brazil, writers are usually
"abandoned children", "street kids" and their temptation
is always that of falling into narcissism, which is devastating. It is either
that or they become isolated in an Ivy Tower eating grass, because you as
a Brazilian writer, you live this paradox too. People either read your work
or you become forgotten. Paulo Coelho was the one among us who better understood
this fatal truth.
The Biblioteca Nacional
do Brasil has selected Teresa as best novel of the year but unfortunately
Teresa is, among all my books, the one that sells the least in Brazil.
It was transposed to the theater and the actors and actresses came to me and
said things like "I had never proffered such beautiful dialogues before",
which made me cry, but it is in Avante Soldados, Para Trás (Forward
Soldiers, Backwards) that I find my best seller. There have been seven editions
just in Brazil. It was considered a difficult book, but thanks to Professor
Flávio Loureiro who wrote a very elucidating preface it became easier
to follow the plot.
Since you are not simply a writer, but also a scholar in the field of literature,
what tendencies do you observe in the present stage of Brazilian literature?
da Silva: Two very good ones. The woman went from character to author.
Now she speaks with her own voice, interrupting that old masculine look over
the feminine condition. The other one is that new writers are reading more.
They are reading their older brothers like our generation did. This is as
important to a new author as reading the classics, in order for him or her
to establish important references.
I never wanted to be the
new "I-Don't-Know-Who" but I have always been careful not to repeat
others. I've always tried to make my own path under the light of those who
came before me. I can't pretend that writers like Machado de Assis, Graciliano
Ramos, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Loyola Brandão, Rubem Fonseca, Cecília
Meireles, João Cabral de Melo Neto, Carlos Nejar, and Mario Chamie
There is a tendency I
repute as the most fertile in our lettersthe one that combines a strong
involvement of our problems with the society, and I say, not only the Brazilian
society but that of the world, although it should always be expressed under
the light of Brazil. After all, we are Brazilian writers.
"We cannot express
Bosnia", said once Antônio Cândido, "for us Brazilians,
our literature should be the most important one, because it is the only one
that expresses ourselves." Among these writers, I like to cite Manoel
Carlos Karam, Marçal Aquino, Moacir Japiassu, Luiz Antonio de Assis
Brasil, Adriana Lunardi, Valesca de Assis, Plínio Cabral and Márcia
Denser whose ages vary from thirty-something to the seventies.
They are renovating Brazilian
prose. We find among poets, Mário Chamie, Antonio Carlos Secchin, Fabrício
Carpinejar, and Affonso Romano de Sant'Anna, all worth mentioning. Their works
are very attentive to the Brazil of their times, not to mention the careful
attention they pay to their crafted language.
I also think about the
work of Paulo Coelho, perhaps because his light is just so potent as an esoteric
writer that I believe the works of Paulo Coelho are generous to other writers.
It is like a great net that brings readers to other writers. The opposite
is not true, for obvious reasons, I suppose.
you were to teach a course in Contemporary Brazilian Literature, what are
some novelists you would select for your class to read?
Silva: Among contemporary writers, I would select novels by Rubem Fonseca,
Lygia Fagundes Telles, Nélida Piñon, Valesca de Assis, Luiz
Antonio de Assis Brasil, Manoel Carlos Karam, Ignácio de Loyola Brandão,
Miguel Jorge, Márcio Souza, Moacir Japiassu, Plínio Cabral,
Antonio Torres, Raimundo Carrero, Charles Kiefer, Lya Luft, Marçal
Aquino, Rui Mourão, Patrícia Melo, Menalton Braff, Moacyr Scliar,
Salim Miguel and most importantly, Betty Milan.
Betty is the writer with
the greatest conscience of her calling as a writer, not only within the text
itself, but also in her literary life, meaning, novels like Clarão
(Great Clearing), and O Papagaio e o Doutor (The Parrott and the Doctor).
Betty who is also a psychoanalyst makes her characters look deeply into one
another. But the one who sees everything with a panoptic look is the narrator,
and in this art, Betty is a master.
if the genre selected for your course was short stories?
Silva: There are just so many excellent short story authors that I would
first try to give students a more panoramic view to point out talented writers
that are virtually unknown, before starting to give emphasis to those whose
work I know better. And these would be works by Dalton Trevisan, Rubem Fonseca,
Clarice Lispector, Caio Fernando Abreu, Luiz Vilela, Ignácio de Loyola
Brandão, Moacyr Scliar, Luís Fernando Veríssimo, Lygia
Fagundes Telles, Murilo Rubião, Aldyr Garcia Schlee, and Ana Maria
Martins. And as you can see, there are great novelists who are also great
short fiction writers.
if the course was about poetry?
Silva: The difficulties in regards to inclusion would increase. Brazilian
poetry is going through an extraordinary phase, perhaps similar to the short
story boom lived in the seventies and eighties. For this hypothetic course
I'd include works by Alberto da Costa e Silva, João Cabral de Melo
Neto, Carlos Nejar, Mário Chamie, Bruno Tolentino, Fabrício
Carpinejar, Joany de Oliveira, and of course, Carlos Drummond de Andrade,
Manuel Bandeira, Mário Quintana e Cecília Meireles.
say a graduate student decides to study the author Deonísio da Silva,
would you help him or her by telling a few names of Brazilian and world authors
who had an influence on young Deonísio?
Silva: Machado de Assis evidently did influence all of us, I believe.
But I like to proclaim that I have been more influenced by authors that were
my contemporaries in my green years while they were already walking on the
path that only much later would become known to me. Among them, the poet and
prose writer Guilhermino César, my dear professor from the Federal
University of Rio Grande do Sul at Porto Alegre. Besides being my teacher
he was also a dear friend.
I particularly like Lira
Coimbrã e Portulano de Lisboa. There is also a great selection
of his poems in Sistema do Imperfeito. I don't know if I can evaluate
the degree of influence some other writers had over me, but I like Osman Lins
(especially in Avalovara); Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and her
Two Husbands); Érico Veríssimo (Incidente em Antares);
João Guimarães Rosa (Primeiras Estórias); Lygia
Fagundes Telles (the novel A Noite Escura e Mais Eu, and the
short stories in A Disciplina do Amor, and Seminário dos
Ratos); Graciliano Ramos (São Bernardo); Adelino Magalhães
(Casos e Impressões).
I have also felt a strong
influence from Romanceiro da Inconfidência by Cecília
Meireles. Among the world authors, José Sararamago who fortunately
writes in my own language, Gabriel García Márquez, Mário
Vargas Llosa, and Alejo Carpentier. Among the French authors, there is that
name that is synonymous of a writing lesson, Marguerite Youcenar, especially
with her work Memories of Adrian.
From North-American literature
I've always liked Ernest Hemingway and Philip Roth. Among the Italians, I
like to mention Cesare Pavese and Umberto Eco, mainly for his classic, The
Name of the Rose, whose opening I know by heart because I think it's simply
beautiful. And of course, there is the eternal Jorge Luis Borges.
But above all, the Bible,
which is the book where I have found the most beautiful, creative, lively,
imaginative and well-written stories ever. My model for a narrator, except
for the opening that I find somewhat peculiar, is the simplicity of the Gospel
according to Mathew combined with the sophistication and the synthesis of
John, where we find the shortest verse of the Bible: "And Jesus wept."
was wondering if the fact that you are married to poet Soila Schreiber has
had any influence in your writings. I've noticed that many passages of your
books are of a purely poetic prose.
Silva: I am thankful for the judgment you make of my work. I am constantly
and desperately seeking to create poetic prose every single day, but I must
confess that it requires much practice and an enduring learning process which
will never end. As soon as the book goes off the press, I'm the first to recognize
certain errors I was not able to avoid, like the awkward tone or the banal
trivialities of certain passages.
However when Teresa
was transposed to the theater and I heard the actors saying the dialogues,
I thought they were very beautiful, but of course it is different when it
is said by an actor. If they were indeed beautiful, they became even more
beautiful. If they were not so beautiful, they would improve because of their
I try not to comment on
the poetic view Soila has of the world. She is capable of conciliating the
rigors of looking at things with that of expressing the world, which is by
the way, a style that I've noticed she is not capable of having on her daily
life. In life, she mixes things too much to the point of working against Horace's
maxim: fortiter in re, suaviter in modo (firm in purpose but soft in
the way to obtain it).
It is in poetry that Soila
can be her real self. I find that very beautiful and for me a recent discovery.
But the greatest contribution in every single sense that Soila has given to
my life is our daughter Manuela. Although she is our only daughter, it was
in the condition of a mother that Soila has achieved has greatest success.
My daughter is an enchanting and intelligent individual, but mostly, someone
who possesses the same kind of strength as of her mother's.
I think of myself as weaker
than the two, mainly because I believe women are the best part of human nature
as it can be found in Avante Soldados Pra Trás. Without women,
to where would the love of men go? I refer here, of course, to all kinds of
love, including paternal love.
If I were not a father,
I would be only half a man. The narrator in Teresa says at the end
of the novel: "The darkest and saddest nights are the ones without love.
The Lord has given me such nights so that I can appreciate the other ones."
met each other during that memorable international meeting in Mexico. How
important do you think those meetings are for the penetration of Brazilian
Silva: They are indispensable, not only so that we can leave the provincialism
of the Portuguese language since we write in a country that hardly reads our
works, but also because we need to spend more time with other creators. We
need to know from one another without facing the limitations of national boundaries.
On that occasion I met lusophone writers from Portugal, the U.S. and Africa,
as well as Spanish-American writers with whom I still maintain very enriching
dialogues, such as the conversations and letters I've shared with this writer
and professor who is now interviewing me.
As García Márquez
once said, "The main function of these meetings is that of producing
the next one." We need to return to that kind of enjoyable
and enriching ambiance. We and our readers can profit tremendously from these
experiences, because we certainly leave these meeting more qualified and more
enthusiastic about our role as writers, which according to great Érico
Veríssimo, is the role of turning on a lighter into darkness.
Glauco Ortolano is a poet, novelist, essayist, translator, and scholar who
is currently teaching Brazilian language, literature, and film in the Centre
International des Langues at the University of Nantes. He welcomes comments