Welcome to Hell

Welcome to Hell

In Nao Verás País Nenhum, the crime problems of today pale in comparison to the daily shootouts and home invasions. In Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s future Brazil, a small minority upper class advances protected by the military in gated communities isolated from the suffering masses who go for days without food.

The film Brazil remains a cult classic and probably the best cinematic version of a dystopia—the opposite of a perfect world “utopia”—ever produced. But, as is often noted, it is set in some futuristic British-prototype future world that has nothing to do with the country, Brazil, but rather draws implicitly upon the myth of the exotic land as portrayed in an anglicized version of the 1939 Ary Barroso hit Brazil. It might be said that the real Brazilian dystopia is actually a novel published not much earlier than 1984 (ironically, given the status of George Orwell’s 1984 as the quintessential dystopian novel) and set appropriately in a future Brazil.

In this Brazil, the “System” has taken control of nearly every aspect of life beyond closed doors under the guise of protecting Brazilians against the scourges of overpopulation, environmental degradation, scarcity of food and water, and an unbearable sun. Ignácio de Loyola Brandão’s Não Verás País Nenhum (You Will See No Country) is a dystopia as shocking as Brazil and 1984 but more foreseeable than both.

Brandão’s work does not shy from the controversial; indeed, his novel Zero was banned in the 1970s for it satire of the oppressive Brazilian military. Released in an English translation as And Still the Earth by Avon/Bard during the Latin literary craze of the mid-1980s, Não Verás País Nenhum is an amazing forecast of a Brazil to the extreme, environmental degradation galore, oligarchic capitalism in overdrive. Brandão takes the dominance of the “North” in global markets to its severe logical end—Brazil has sold off the best parts of the Northeast to “multinationals”—Germans, Japanese, British, French, Americans. The Nordestino (northeasterner) natives have been forced to leave their own land, flooding the outskirts of São Paulo and other large cities. To ensure a stable market economy within Brazil, the System requires every citizen to consume a set quota of goods from the weekly government-run market. The failure to do so is punished by fine.

The environmental situation in this future Brazil is also shocking. All of the trees in the Amazon have been cut down, causing an accelerated global warming that ends all rainfall in Brazil for years and creates deadly pockets of heat at ground level that will melt whatever enters them instantly. All the rivers and lakes of Brazil have dried, and waste and pollution from the cities are piped into the ocean. Water, food, and alcohol—all scarce resources—are rationed by coupon. The System produces synthetic food because the climate is too hot to harvest vegetables and most animal life has perished due to the heat, toxic contamination, or rampant poaching.

Overpopulation causes the System to enforce sterility and restrict the buses and the neighborhoods in which one can travel, and automobiles are outlawed. Migrants unable to make it into the cities are held at bay in encampments where they face the grueling sun and toxic pollution and produce offspring without limbs, hair or skin. Even the relatively better off city-dwellers with apartments suffer from new forms of cancer, birth defects, and deformities.

The System itself is symbolically led by a president who everyone knows is senile and has no power, but is really led by different rival military factions, all with the official seal of the government. The System is a government structure that is so right wing it has become the extreme left form of government—totalitarian socialism. To secure its power, it has taken control of all major sectors of society under the guise of protecting Brazilians from the brave, new world in which they live. Sadly but realistically, the people by and large acquiesce, too concerned about maintaining a steady source of water, food, shelter, and safety from the migrating Nordestinos to rebel.

Citizens must carry their identity cards with them at all times so that the civil guard can make sure they are staying within their designated pedestrian and residential zones. Shoot outs between the civil guard and “suspects” on the street have become such a common occurrence that pedestrians are accustomed to “hitting the dirt” to avoid gunfire on a daily basis. The System’s control extends into the minds of Brazilians as well. It prohibits “bad news,” meaning speech critical of the government, and controls all media outlets, constantly pumping propaganda about government-produced goods and the coming “Marquee” which will cover the sky and protect Brazilians from the scorching sun. The government-produced synthetic food is laced with tranquilizers so the public will be less apt to protest the increasingly harsh conditions of life.

The Smell of Grass

Amidst this setting in São Paulo, we find our protagonist, Souza, a fifty year-old history professor who loses his post because he reveals too much of the pre-System past to his students and is forced into a monotonous, useless, number-shuffling job, much like Sam Lowry’s in Brazil’s Ministry of Information or Winston Smith’s in 1984. Unlike Lowry or Smith, Souza is married. Like Winston Smith he leads a life of habit and monotony that manages to persist despite increasing scarcity of food and water, restriction on freedom of travel, and the suppression of all news critical of the government.

Souza recognizes the desperation of the situation, but trudges on until one day he notices an itching in the palm of one of his hands. He scratches and scratches until eventually the irritation becomes a hole that goes straight through the hand. His wife Adelaide, who has adapted with even less protest to the System’s controls, tells him to have it checked by the doctor. But Souza hides it, fearful of being sent away in isolation and skeptical that the state-run medical system would actually offer a viable cure in this world of mutants and deformities.

Yet, the hole in his hand spurs Souza on to think about his past, the smell of fresh cut grass, his lumberjack grandfather, and swimming in a pool of water—an impossible situation in the water-scarce Brazil. This hole in the hand becomes a symbol for Souza’s alienation with the System, jerking him out of passive resistance to its totalitarianism into active skepticism.

Where Souza is so skeptical and critical of the System that he simply “drops out,” not caring of whether he loses his alienating job, his nephew is a total pragmatist. The nephew joins the “new army,” the Mili-Tech, and uses his privileged position to sell Northeastern migrants the right to invade apartments, including eventually Souza’s own. Souza proceeds virtually unfazed as his wife leaves him because he refuses to have the hole in his hand treated and he loses his number-counting job.

His nephew shuttles four bald men into his house and asks that he let him stay there as they stockpile food rations, and the neighbors grow skeptical. But things change one day as he meets an old professor colleague, Tadeu, turned elevator operator and they venture off into forbidden zones to witness crying mutants settled underneath piles of aluminum cans, an abandoned highway full of vandalized cars. Tadeu takes Souza to a secret plant and animal refuge that he and a few friends have started. Souza can hardly believe there are animals left in Brazil, and he knows only the very rich can afford plants, for which they trade fine works of art. Unfortunately, when they arrive at the reserve, it is ablaze in a fire and little animals lie on the ground half-eaten and torn apart. The mutants had invaded it.

Separated from his colleague after this incident by restricted bus and pedestrian zones, Souza must fend for himself when his bald houseguests murder suspicious neighbors who have eyes for Souza’s relatively spacious four-room apartment and the stockpile of food his “guests” have accumulated. He ruminates about his relationship with his wife, progressing from not missing her at all to wishing she were there. Throughout it all, he curiously never takes any action to find out where she is. He asks his nephew, who pretends not to know, but eventually divulges that she is fine and he cannot reveal here whereabouts.

From his nephew and his neighbors, Souza eventually finds out Adelaide was not the woman he thought she was. When he would go to his number-crunching job, she came alive, playing piano and dressing in revealing clothes he never saw until her personal trunk, which he is forced by the bald men to dump, is ripped open by deformed migrants who put on the low tops and short skirts. It seems that Souza’s alienation from the System ran so deep that he even alienated himself from the person most close to him.

Brandão portrays a harsh, dog-eat-dog world that is the logical consequence of unfettered global capitalism in a country like Brazil, that teeters on the edges of the “first” and “third” worlds. What for many today are unfortunately the faceless hordes of the favelas and sertão become the bald and deformed mutants of the future struggling for water, food, and a place hidden from the lethal sun. What is today an endangered Amazon forest, is a desert—heralded misguidedly by the System as the eighth wonder of the world. What is today a Brazilian economy dominated by foreign multinationals, is in Não Verás País Nenhum, a Nordeste (Northeastern Brazil) that is literally sold to them.

Worse Everyday

The crime problems of today pale in comparison to the daily shootouts and home invasions of the future Brazil. In Brandão’s future Brazil, governments symbolically rise and fall, but a small minority upper class advances protected by the military in gated communities with swimming pools, abundant food, and water, isolated from the suffering masses who go for days without food and value water more than gold.

Like the other great modern dystopian novels, Brandão presents this chilling world through a protagonist that is ordinary, harmless, and in denial of the oppression of the System until they are virtually pushed up against its wall. In 1984, Brazil, and Não Verás País Nenhum, the lead character unravels the fabric of the dystopia and seeks for some way to escape its clutches and find a better life. He even gets a brief and shocking glimpse of an elite who lives behind a large wall and have swimming pools and probably natural food as well, in the face of the severe water and food shortage. However, in Brandão’s tale, life never gets better, as Souza ends up beneath the fable Marquee, protected from the sun but not much else.

Brandão provides a nice counterpoint when Souza, wandering aimlessly, runs into Elisa, a nineteen year old former university student (the university shut down during a student strike), whose only goal in life is to avoid heat stroke and survive. As Elisa explains to the much-older Souza, “Maybe the world looks like ruins to you because you’re a relic from the past, you see things in comparison to the way things were. For me, this is the world…. It’s all I’ve got, the only thing to do is live in it.” Elisa, who Souza notes looks like a former Miss Brazil from Bahia, is the new Brazilian. She is a survivalist, finding food, shelter, and sex where she can, but not letting the heat get to her. In this new Brazil, the trick is to keep moving, to improvise, and to adapt to an ever-worsening situation.

This is the real, quintessential modern dystopia. It captures the inequality of the North-South dynamic, the injustice of the elite rich exploiting the rest of society, as well as the unfortunate tendency of the masses to struggle on without organized rebellion in the face of grueling oppression. This is the real Brazil. More realistic, hard-hitting, and disconcertingly relevant than Terry Gilliam’s cinematic dystopia, Brandão’s disturbing vision of a future Brazil, which could be a future “any country,” is eerily close to George Orwell’s presentation of the future in 1984: a world in which power is not simply the means but an end in and of itself , “a boot stomping on a human face—forever.”

Joe Jaramillo is an attorney in San Francisco who loves Brazilian music, culture, and literature. He has too much faith in Brazil to believe that Não Verás País Nenhum could ever come true, but he recognizes that the novel has lasting value as a critique of authoritarianism and unfettered capitalism. He can be reached at jjaramillo01@sprynet.com

from And Still the Earth (Não Verás País Nenhum), 1985 Avon/Bard Edition:

It was a sort of low scream. Or one low scream added to another until they became just one sound. Painful, but almost artificial. It must be the wind in the dunes, I thought to myself. But a wind that (literally) wails? I stopped and stared at the piles and piles of green cans, oxidized, practically soldered together.

But there was no wind. If there were, the dust on the road wouldn’t be so still, smooth, and flat like a newly made bed. I look behind me and see the neat furrow my body has made as I crawled along. I keep moving. Finally the sound reaches me, loud and clear. Now there’s no mistaking it: human moans.

—Do people live there?

—Thousands of them, yes. There are caves inside the mountains of cans.

—But during the day, with the sun, it must heat up in there something awful. They must roast to death.

—But they don’t. It’s the “Brazilian miracle.”

—I can’t believe it.

—There’s some sort of mechanism they haven’t figured out yet. Apparently, the cans get so cold overnight that it takes a long time for them to heat up again. Just when they’re beginning to, the sun’s already on its way down, so it’s actually pretty cool in there. Or at least that’s the hypothesis. Everything changes so fast these days you can never be sure you understand what’s going on.

—How did you find out about them?

—A couple of members of our group work at the first aid station nearby. I’ve never been there myself, I just read the reports they wrote. The majority of the people under there are crazy.

—Crazy? You mean out of their minds?

—Yes, basically. They’re semi-imbecilic. Incapacitated. Living in a prone position. They scream because they’re in constant pain—they never sleep, they’re always nervous, irritated, in a state of unbelievable tension.

—But who are they?

—No one in particular. Migrants, mostly. The majority of them from Pernambuco, slum dwellers who lived in swampy areas subsisting on crabs.

—That sounds harmless enough.

—Except that the crabs were contaminated with high doses of DDT—public health’s idea of how to clean up the area. There’s nothing we can do for them now, they’re condemned.

—The System should do something to help them.

—Are you kidding? Why should the System lift a finger? These people pose no danger, they’re completely passive, they don’t even get up off the ground. The dead ones are carted off by the dozens. That’s the only thing the System does take care of. Think about it, why should these unfortunate people interest them? They’re hardly potential consumers. At the most, they represent just another social problem.

—What’s your group doing for them?

—We bring them food when we can. A little water. Not much help, really, but we’re experimenting, giving them vegetables, trying to detoxify them. No positive results so far.

—You’re feeding them vegetables?

—Uh-huh. Lettuce, tomatoes, squash. What’s the matter, you look like you never heard of them?

—Fresh ones or synthetic?

—Souza! Surely you know that synthetic food is just a slower form of poison.

—Sure, but without it we’d all be dead already.

—Don’t you know what they’re up to with the stuff that comes out of the labs?

—Money, I suppose, another kind of power over us.

—Sure, but in this case, that’s not all.

—What do you mean?

—They put chemical additives in the food, tranquilizers. Minute doses which affect the organism in subtle ways, slowly eroding individual will, making us more accommodating. Why do you think people are so passive, so calm? Because of threats, Civil Guards, or this whole business of spies and inspectors? No, Souza, the system doesn’t have to worry, they’ve found an infallible method of getting people to conform. Just introduce tranquilizers directly into the bloodstream.  (pages 111-113)

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