Rubem Alves is one of Brazil’s most beloved and widely read writers. His essays, stories, children’s books, and treatises reach a seemingly impossible balance of science, theology, simplicity, and human warmth.
A given essay might invoke a passage from Ecclesiastes, a childhood memory, a theory of psychoanalysis, and something about a tree, with a verse from Vinicius de Moraes thrown in for perspective.
His topics touch on sex, death, gardening, politics, God, gods, violins, old age, youth, stupidity, art, popcorn, record players, ipê trees, Nietzsche – a breadth and variety beyond the scope of any other writer.
Like much in Brazil, Rubem Alves is an almost complete secret from the rest of the world. His more than 40 books have been translated into several languages, yet few in Europe and North America have ever heard his name.
In a cutting-edge initiative, publisher New London Librarium is trying to change that. It has just launched The Best Chronicles of Rubem Alves, a translation of short essays, and it will soon publish a translation of Retorno e Terno.
Just look at some of the topics in Best Chronicles: How Goodness Happens, On Politics and Gardening, When Pain Turns into Poetry, In Praise of Uselessness, Friendly Loneliness, It’s in Talking that We Misunderstand.
His imagination staggers the mind of the reader. His unexpected perspectives and metaphors make the mind spin. When he writes about popcorn, he isn’t writing about popcorn. He’s writing about the essence of human existence.
When he compares tennis and matkot (a non-competitive beach paddleball game), he is really writing about one of the fundamental flaws – and hopes – of mankind, the need to defeat versus the will to cooperate.
Here’s the first paragraph in Best Chronicles:
“For the past two weeks I’ve been starting my days by committing theft. I don’t know how to avoid this sin, and, to tell the truth, I don’t want to avoid it. The guilt is from a mulberry tree. Disobeying the commandment of the wall that fences it in, it thrusts its branches over the sidewalk.
“Not satisfied, it loads them with fat, black, appetizing, tempting mulberries [in Portuguese, amoras] within reach of my hand. It seems that the fruits are, by vocation, invitations to theft: changing the order of a single letter is enough.
“I think that the case of the mulberry tree proves this linguistic thesis: Everything depends on a name. Because amora is a word which, if repeated several times, amoramoramoramora turns into amor – love.
“And isn’t that what love is? – a desire to eat, a desire to be eaten. The wall, much like a commandment, says it is prohibited. But love is not contained. Cross-dressed as a mulberry, it jumps the fence. Thus it was in Paradise…”
There’s plenty to think about there, and he’s just getting started. In that same chronicle, he goes on to talk about housewives blind to the beauty of blossoms they sweep from the sidewalk, about trees groaning with sexual pain and pleasure as their branches rub, about nature as a psychoanalyst…
Alves was born in the little town of Boa Esperança, Minas Gerais. Destined for a wider world, he went on to earn a Ph.D. in theology at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also trained as a psychoanalyst, and he taught at the State University of Campinas, in São Paulo state.
He wrote extensively on education and religion. He was also an early thinker on Liberation Theology, which put him a odds with Brazil’s military government in the 1960s and ’70s.
New London Librarium, a small press in Connecticut, is quickly expanding a series of books on Brazilian culture, history, literature, and issues. The series includes translations of Machado de Assis and literary journalist João do Rio.
Glenn Alan Cheney, the translator of the Rubem Alves books, has also contributed books on the Quilombo dos Palmares, the Estrada Real, a nun in Mato Grosso, and issues in Amazônia. Several of the books are bilingual, with Portuguese and English on facing pages.
Alves died in 2014. His daughter, Raquel Alves, now director of the Instituto Rubem Alves, wrote the Foreword to Best Chronicles. She wrote:
“Rubem Alves had an astonishing outlook on life. Its mysteries and beauties, which appeared day after day, from the magnificent sunsets to the minute details drawn on the wings of butterflies, did not pass unnoticed before his eyes. It was always magic, and the world was a source of mysteries that, if viewed with sensibility, awaken within us the pleasure of life.”
And she should know. He raised her, and she says that with her birth, he took a new perspective on life. And at that same moment, so did she.
For more information on these books, see http://www.NLLibrarium.com