A Sample of João do Rio, a Chronicler of a Frenetic Rio a Century Ago

João do Rio was an exuberant journalist. He was exuberant in his style of writing and his style of life. He wrote big and lived big. He lived a city so well that he named himself after it.

As the 19th century blossomed into the 20th, Rio de Janeiro was a city burgeoning into something bigger than itself. Brazil itself had freed itself from slavery just twelve years before the turn of the century, and a year later it left behind its monarchic government. The change was huge and quick, a societal revolution.

At the same time, technology was raising the whole world from the dark days of whale oil, sailing ships, and travel by horseback. The Republic of Brazil was barely two decades old when automobiles arrived and the last mule-drawn streetcar was replaced by one that ran on electricity.

Advertising became a driver of the economy. Servants became human beings with foibles and desires. Foreign people, not to mention foreign religions, became an integral part of the Rio scene. The cafezinho yielded space to the afternoon tea.

Modern women grabbed hold of the notion that they had rights, emotions that mattered, and lives to lead. It became possible to gain wealth even if not born into it. Beggars changed. The poor changed. Work changed. Journalism changed.

João do Rio was a dandy from the upper-middle class who was not afraid to walk down alleys, stick his head into gambling halls, witness bizarre religions, and hang out in the bars and restaurants throbbing with vertiginous modernity.

As if he didn’t have time for precise grammar and the elaborate, round-about formality of classical literature, he rattled off sentences as if nothing mattered but his avalanche of images. He wrote kaleidoscopic scenes of a kaleidoscopic city that was outgrowing itself even as it left itself behind.

Despite the dazzle and confusion, João do Rio’s eyes drilled down to the core of the city. He assessed the soul of the cariocas – the urge to change and grow, the frenetic dream of getting ahead, the irresistible dalliance for the pleasures of beach and boudoir, the ease of informality, the warmth of intimacy, the joy of idiocy.

The city is still vertiginous, still very much a place of cariocas. The soul of the people and their place is as modern today as it was in 1911.

Just as one doesn’t know home until one has left it, one can’t understand Rio today without knowing Rio of a century ago. João do Rio preserved that modern city so that we might better understand the old city of today. It’s something to think about. It’s worth a look, worth seeing what João do Rio saw.

* * *

Here is one essay from Vertiginous Life, by João do Rio, translated by Ana Lessa-Schmidt, Ph.D., published by New London Librarium, with support from Brazil’s Fundação Biblioteca Nacional. The original title of this essay was “Cabotinos.” For more information on New London Librarium’s Brazil Series, see NLLibrarium.com/brazil.


In the office, at that time of night, there was only the old and important politician in the company of the young and unknown journalist. The house was at the top of the mountain steeply – a house with Moorish columns and internal patios lined with polychrome mosaic. It was night, and from the office windows, through which came the soothing smell of the trees, one could see the endless unfolding of the huge city below in the liquid moonlight diamond, in the sea and in the vague line of the horizon, the sea and the sky mixed up. The politician was wearing pajamas. The young journalist wore a tailcoat. The politician could hardly be seen, because there was only the oil lamp protected by the light-crimson silk and he was leaning in the rocking chair, far away.

The young journalist showed the ambitious face bathed in the moonlight halo – because he was leaning against the window.

It was very late.

“But will Your Excellency be minister?”

“Who knows?”

“It’s certain.”

“It depends on the candidate. Nothing is certain in this world.”

“Who can predict that they don’t even appoint you to the top job?”

There was a long silence. The politician rose, lit his cigar, took up a book.

“Do you know what I’ve entertained myself with these last few days? With a very interesting book.”

“Some sociology work?”

“Exactly: the volume of a comic, Peter Hitemans. It’s called: Memoirs of a Rogue.”

“Oh! Excellency!”

“But yes, my dear, a great and charming book, a book that brought me once again the documentation to my ideas about the organization of modern society.”

“It must be very good then…”

“It is. You should read it. One never completes his path, and my friend has just started his career.”

The journalist, a little bewildered, left the window, coming to the table. The politician puffed cigar smoke with infinite boredom.

“Boy, don’t be offended. I also don’t have the full path. And down in the city there are more disciples than teachers.”

But in fact the world tends to be more and more the Rogue Federation of Rogueopolis… As a modern journalist, concerned about the exact document you may not have looked with looking eyes at the evolution of urban living.

If you looked you would see, immediately, first: that decent work doesn’t make anybody money; second: that we are all very refined scoundrels; third: that we don’t physically strangle each other but stab and murder each other morally and monetarily all the time. The most villain, the most cruel, the most underhanded is the winner.

“When they don’t go to jail.”

“You are wrong. The vulgar creatures without energy and without resistance go to jail. The scoundrels in the background who haven’t studied the role, the weak, the sentimental, the wastrels, that is, the anomalies, aberrations, the smallest number, they go to jail. The scoundrels, the prowlers, the real thieves and magnificent killers, those everybody respects, hold in high regard, and worship. To dominate, to win, you need to boldly practice what morals and code condemn when cowardly committing. Look at Napoleon – he killed people by the thousands and no one dared to put him in the hoosegow like any paltry stabber from Saúde. Look at the big bankers or the so-called kings of several industries. The first represent hunger, misery, the misfortune of a lot of creatures robbed in honor of commercial transactions; the second assert white slavery and blind the world with money crumpled in the sweat of colossal armies of the hapless. Look at the politicians.

None of them truly won unless being ungrateful, hypocritical, rogue, fake.

Life is like a lugubrious cheating. Have you ever entered these establishments, where the police don’t come in just to do their duty? For there are several prohibited and filched games that are called bad luck in these sordid gambling houses: vermelhinha, jaburu, roulette, monte. Around each table a ravenous circle elbowed each other, revolver in their pockets and iceberg-cold souls.

There is no mutual trust; there’s a general certainty of thievery and knavery. We are in a major gambling hell. The dice is politics, roulette is commerce; vermelhinha is art; journalism is monte…

“Your Excellency is delightfully pessimistic today…”

“I’m saying old things with a certain shame of repeating them.”

Modern man has neither pessimism nor optimism because he has no soul. Modern man takes care of his own life, ensures not to lose the opportunity to take what is his, which almost always belong to others, freely and unhindered. Note, my dear, I’m no longer talking about the world, which is a very huge example, but only of a city. Why did Fulano make a fortune? Because he stole. Why is Cicrano in a brilliant position? Because he deceived his closest companions.

Deception, deceit, violence, money, or your life, honored roguery from top to bottom. I’m here talking certain that you are a scoundrel…

“Oh! Excellency…”

“And I give you this compliment because I think you are a type likely to win, and because I have myself been, on account of the first order, sly. Even the one who limits his ambition exploits the good feelings. I’m godfather of the son of a penniless scribe with eight children. The scribe didn’t dare ask for anything. One day I found him furious: ‘Imagine, Your Excellency, that Baron Antonio died, my compadre four times over, and left nothing for the little ones! If I knew it, I would have told him to get lost! He wouldn’t be godfather even of the first one!’ He was a very pure man, extremely honest… He played the children against the death of his compadres…”

“Molière studied your malady in Alceste…”

“Let’s stop the hollow phrases… We would all be Alceste if we didn’t want to avail the world as it is. The gambling house has got many signboards to cover up its purpose. But you might have noticed that, frankly, no one complains that inside there isn’t what the signboard advertises. It’s the same with life. Everybody more or less knows of the signboards, keeps them, exaggerates them and, covering their faces with them, look to make a good living in the smoothest way possible.”



“This is the case of Hugo’s verse! Huh?”

Montaigne eût dit: “Que sais-je?” et Rabelais: “Peut être!”

Are you half convinced? In this lifetime, however, constituted this way, the signboard is an increasing cause of concern. There is nothing like the players to hide and deny their addiction. Humanity is like that, so that in modern cities we have a general feeling of astonishingly rapid evolution: the roguery.

It was pride that made men stand up on his hind legs and hold himself up with a piece of tree when descending the tree. Pride turned into vanity as the piece of tree into a cane. Vanity, for lack of strong evidence on which to steady itself, became exhibitionism: exhibitionism à outrance is the general roguery.

The man makes a good living, and with money makes himself a titleholder. The lady orders a toilette and wants everyone to know. The philanthropist donates large sums, announcing his largess in advance. No one doubts their own strength and everyone wants to show off: elders, women, men, children, philosophers and primary school students, cocottes and lady protectors of charity, remarkable men and vile anonymous men. All is done for roguery. Nothing is refused for roguery. I’m really convinced that it doesn’t happen to the earthling globe what happened to the moon, which by roguery persists in making this poor land into the sun’s satellite…

“Cabotin is a French word.”

“That’s not worth translating into the vernacular. They’re called rogues, as you know, mediocre actors and exhibitionists of a fiercely aggressive nature. But rogues are all people. It’s impossible to find an absolutely remarkable man who’s not a rogue. And so are the others, the great human species. The day you want to see the unconscious roguery, take a camera to the street. You will see how you’ll have the whole street wanting to be photographed. Individually each person who turns up deems himself to be the outstanding type and the focus of attention. If you want to individualize this general observation, study different social classes. Keep going up and down, and you’ll find rogues, from leading politicians to cupbearers, rogues shamelessly posing their importance and rising and making a better life exactly because of that…”


“Even alone, you’ll still find roguery, only roguery, looking at the mirror or doing some soul -searching.”

“Sir, I am a pure man.”

“Cut the roguery. In the morning, before the servant shows up, the same happens to me…”

And if I’m talking with this straightforwardness – it’s that, for curious conditions, curious conditions of race and half, Rio is precisely the largest center of roguery, of most often childish and naive roguery, but roguery.

“What do you mean?”

The politician rose.

“Because we are a country of bosses.”
The capital disorganization of our political system, the anarchy of our art, the oscillation of our customs, all this comes from a truly amazing moral phenomenon: Brazil is a country of anger where everyone is, however, treated like bosses.


“But, my dear, don’t be naive. These men are either doctors or colonels, but all, irrevocably, are bosses. Bosses of what, I don’t know, but bosses, men deeply convinced they have influence, that they have a wide circle of admirers and slaves. Just now I followed the municipal elections. They were all bosses of different values, but you couldn’t count from one to the highest because they were in a complete mess.

A foreign journalist asked me one day where those who commanded these bosses were. I forcedly smiled with a certain dose of exacerbated patriotism (and patriotism, as the philosopher would say, is the gall of humanity), but I agreed.

Indeed. We live in a time of bosses. All are bosses. Why? Nobody knows. But they are. The newspapers report the arrival of a colonel. The colonel today may not be a farmer, but he’s a political head of real influence in his district, far away, where no one goes. A citizen for many years. It’s possible that the citizen is flawed, but he rules over a lot of people. We are almost Byzantine in this qualification. Everybody is boss, from the Great Leader Pinheiro Machado to the cooks who are kitchen chefs, I speak ill, to the capoeiras who are your boss…

Is it a hunger for consideration that so drives us all to be bosses?

Camille Doucet, secretary of the French Academy, has written two verses which are not good but are worthwhile for being sincere:

Considération! Considération!

Ma seule passion! Ma seule passion!

It shall certainly be so. Boss is a beautiful word. It sounds good.


“Eminent boss!”

It’s not known boss of what, but it works. Besides, we live in a real parade, with our soul in the pocket and the chuckle of scheming on our lips. Boss is a very pleasant qualification, and it doesn’t compromise anyone. To make a request, there’s nothing more warm-hearted.

“My dear boss, I ask you the finesse…”

Boss of that? It may be of what you order and it may be of your horse stable.

“Ah! I’ve always fought beside this boss!”

To fight here is a way of deceiving each other, which is what is done during elections among us, with all the violence of the parties. From time to time, after many financial sacrifices, the boss sees himself as a Senator Vasconcelos, with nothing, not even his delicious porcelain smile from Casa Vieitas. But despite understanding this, the best amongst the few who aren’t bosses are unable to resist the power of qualification. Just the other day I was in the tramway with a district deputy. At the first stop, a fellow of grimy color, naturally an electoral leader, climbed on the running-board, shouting:

“My boss, excuse me?”

The man smiled. Boss! The gentleman leaned to his ear. Boss! His Excellency put his fingers in his pocket again. Boss! His hand shook hands with the faithful soldier with a note that remained in the faithful soldier’s hand. The tram drove off, the candy street vendors got off. The gentleman rocked back in the most elegant evidence of roguish kinematic I’ve seen, and went away, crying:

“Always at Your Excellency’s orders, my boss!”

And all the tram looked at the friendly citizen, who was boss.

But who was not, with or without intention, someday a boss? There are those who are modest employees and come into the street to tell stories.

“That was a shambles. It was a lot of work! Fortunately, with a little effort, I could return the order…”

It’s a big lie, but they pass as bosses. How many newsrooms secretaries are there out there that could not even be office-boys, language secretaries, posing reforms on the sidewalk? How many managing directors sway through this city who are nothing but petty agents with no other significance? How many gentlemen who aren’t even voters ensure the naive candidates “his men” their votes?

There are those who abhor qualifications but due to the circumstances have to be allegorically the boss of something, because at certain meetings the disease is so definitive that they think it’s poor to present a person who isn’t a boss.

“I am pleased to present you Theodorico, a very serious young man. He’s already the boss in the business where he is employed.”

“Oh! That’s the kindness of Mr. Bonifácio’s, who’s a good boss.”

“No sir! It’s justice.”

“What are you, sir?”

“I’m a salesclerk at Hope Shoe shop. It’s me and the boss alone. But when the boss is out, I take over. Like the boss! A modest manager!”

Indeed all these bosses resemble each other. It was the political leadership mania that gave us this distressing political situation whereby Mr. Pinheiro makes a reprise of his strange air of a python of the pampas, with grammar errors and a machete in the armhole of his vest. And one cannot say that the greatest boss, the Great Bear, the Dalai Lama, doesn’t have even one reason to command the policy of twenty million…

But the view of the foreign journalist made me reflect. No. He was right. Perhaps the way to explain the phenomenon wasn’t very accurate. But how to explain it? Megalomania, unconsciousness, customs? In any case, a lack of social balance, lack of sobriety. This is a land where, when men meet, they always make exclamations and never fail to embrace each other. This land is the country where the ladies say farewell twenty times to always give each other a couple of kisses on the cheeks. This country is the place where until not long ago citizens addressed each other as friend, coreligionist and almost relatives. This Rio is the Rio of exaggerations.

“Of the bosses!”

“And therefore, my friend it’s Rogueopolis.”

“You’re kidding…”

“And do you know the cause of the development of this acute neurosis? Do you know the axis of this incredible, mind-bending pose, my dear, young friend? The newspaper, the newspaper that praises and attacks, glorifies and slanders. The newspaper that prints the picture, the newspaper that publishes our name on the day that a man will assert to the registrar that he’s our father, marking us forever with the desire to see this name of ours repeated and preceded and followed by adjectives. The newspaper-roguery’s trumpet that stirs, with the same fuss, the name of the man who killed, of the man who saved five others, the man who plays or dances, or skips, or sings or discovers aeronavigation, of the lady who uses large feathers, the thief, the lawyer, the serious lady, the mistress, the fashionable soap, the depurative, the shoemaker, the actress – the newspaper, this big lever that lifts the world that the old philosopher had tried to prophesy…”

“So, to win, Your Excellency advises me to learn to be a first-class rogue?”

“No; I advise you just to be a journalist. The journalist is the tyrant of the Federation of Rogueopolis. Stay in the newspaper business.”

“What if Your Excellency become a minister?”

“I won’t employ you.”

“I can see that you aren’t what you say.”

“No, my dear, I’ll do just what Marquis of Pombal did to his best friend. Don’t you know? His best friend was ruined and went to tell the formidable prime minister. The prime minister smiled, pulled him to the window, and with his arm on his shoulder said, “Come tomorrow.” The next day he did the same. Eight days later the friend was happy. His reputation was reborn because everyone knew him to be close to the great Prime Minister…”

A rogue, huh, the Marquis? He’s fantastic!

“So, will Your Excellency take me to the window?”

“No; I will call you into my carriage sometimes. You will have so much business and so many administrative advocacies that you won’t remember employment. And I, a little naive, will be so, doubly and cleverly a rogue: I end the possible hostility of your newspaper and pretend to be a democrat, with my only trouble of carrying you by my side me in the carriages of the State…”

It was too late. The old politician looked at the face of the young journalist and saw such an admiringly ecstatic expression that he was about to believe himself to have said strange things, remembering that everything in this world was, is, and will increasingly be roguery if the young journalist, opening his arms and trembling with commotion, hadn’t murmured mechanically:

“Great boss!…”

Original publication: Cabotinos. Rio de Janeiro: A Notícia, 31.07-01.08.1909, N.175, p.3.


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