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José de Alencar


The story starts off with the bright plumage of an epic poem (or the
parody of one), the prose so flowery that we may question whether it’s advisable to
By Bondo Wyszpolski

Iracema, by José de Alencar, trans. by Clifford E. Landers
(Oxford University Press, 148 pp., $25)

Sometimes referred to as the James Fenimore Cooper of Brazil, José de Alencar
(1829-1877) had enjoyed quite a bit of success with O Guarani (1857), well known
even today through the opera based on it by Carlos Gomes. Several years later, in 1865,
Alencar wrote the second of his three-novel Indian-themed cycle, setting it in 16th
century Ceará. Iracema is best described as an Indian romance and Brazilian
fantasy, although it is also to a large extent an allegory of colonialism.

A Portuguese explorer named Martim (based on the real-life exploits of Martim Soares
Moreno) is wounded by the Tabajara Indian Maiden Iracema, who then takes him to her
father, Araquém, in whose hut he convalesces. Iracema, whose name in Guarani means `lips
of honey,’ is also an anagram of America, and thus we can assert that not only is she
nature personified, but that the prose-poem itself depicts the penetration of the New
World by the Old.

Among her own people, Iracema is an independent spirit with the grace of a butterfly,
but things change quickly after she falls in love with the Christian (as Martim is often
referred). If Machado de Assis seems on occasion overly Eurocentric, Alencar falls off the
other end of the boat: his unabashedly romantic tale drips with Indian words.

And that’s not all it drips with. The story starts off with the bright plumage of an
epic poem (or the parody of one), the prose so flowery that we may question whether it’s
advisable to continue. It must have been a real challenge for translator Clifford Landers
to try and tone down the florid prose of the original without, at the same time,
sacrificing the exoticism that gives the book its character, individuality, and
appearance. Even so, there are many passages, like this one, which may have readers
rolling their eyes: "Brave Poti, gliding through the grass like the agile shrimp from
which he has taken his name and his energy, disappeared into the deep lake. The water
issued no murmur and closed its limpid waves over him."

To say it sounds stilted is an understatement.

The Tabajara Indians’ enemy are the coastal people, the Pitiguaras, and in due course a
skirmish ensues. The above Poti, in fact, is a Pitiguara—and also Martim’s best
friend. We’ll also encounter a genuine `noble savage,’ Iracema’s brother, as well as the
warrior Irapuã, who is jealous of Iracema’s love for Martim.

While the novel romanticizes the love between Indian maiden and Portuguese explorer, it
also tries to preserve their individual dignity: In the case of Iracema, her giving of
herself to the stranger is explained as a natural offering of bountiful nature. For his
part, Martim refrains from violating the young girl—that is, until she tricks him
into taking leave of his senses. But what a modern audience may most decry is that Iracema
becomes so docile, meek, subservient, and, well, just plain domestic once she hooks up
with Martim.

At the end, one may suspect that Alencar was trying a little too hard to fashion a
national epic. The author’s notes at the end of the book, which perhaps were impressive
135 years ago, today seem mostly irrelevant and distracting. What readers may find is that
the commentaries preceding and following Iracema are more interesting than the
story itself. For example, Naomi Lindstrom has written a highly readable foreword that
puts Alencar and his work in context for us. Also included at the back of the novel is
Alencar’s "Letter to Dr. Jaguaribe," in which the novelist seems to have
anticipated our skepticism from well over a century in advance. He defends his choice of
phrases and images, and does a good job of it. He refers to Iracema as an
experiment—and as an exhibit.

Many of his modern readers may simply refer to it as a historical curiosity.

Bondo Wyszpolski also heads up the arts and entertainment section of the
Easy Reader, a weekly newspaper based in the South Bay of southern California. He
can be reached at bwyszpolski@earthlink.net


One morning Poti led Martim to the hunt. They walked along a sierra that rose beside
the other, the Maranguab, its sister. The high summit is curved like the parrot’s beak,
and because of this the warriors call it Aratanha. They climbed the slope of the Guaiúba
through which the waters descend to the valley, and arrived at the stream inhabited by

The sun was visible only at the parrot’s beak when the hunters descended from Pacatuba
to the plain. In the distance they saw Iracema, who had come to await them at the shore of
the Porangaba lake. She walked toward them with the proud step of the heron that stroll,
at water’s edge: over her carioba she wore a girdle of cassava flowers, a symbol of
fecundity. A necklace of the same flowers encircled her neck and adorned her firm,
quivering breasts.

She took her husband’s hand and placed it against her lap: "Your blood already
lives in Iracema’s bosom. She will be the mother of your child."

"Child, you say?" exclaimed the Christian joyously.

He kneeled and, encircling her with his arms, kissed his wife’s fertile bosom.

When he rose, Poti spoke: "The happiness of the youth is his wife and his friend;
the first brings joy, the second gives strength. The warrior without a wife is like a tree
without leaves or flowers: never will it see fruit. The warrior without a friend is like
the solitary tree that the wind lashes in the middle of the plain: its fruit never ripens.
The happiness of the man is his offspring, which are born of him and are his pride; each
warrior that springs from his veins is one more bough that raises his name to the clouds,
like the topmost part of the cedar. Beloved of Tupã is the warrior who has a wife, a
friend, and many children; he has nothing more to desire but a death with

Martim bathed in the river’s waters and strolled along the beach to dry his body in the
wind and sun. Beside him went Iracema, picking up the yellow ambergris cast up by the sea.
Each night his wife would perfume her body and the white hammock so that the warrior’s
love might take delight in it.

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In 1492 and 1500 respectively, the U.S. and Brazil fell under the spell of white Europeans for the first time. While the British and Portuguese had the same modus operandi, namely, to exploit their discoveries for whatever they had to offer, not to mention extinguishing the native Americans already living there if they got in the way, the end result turned out significantly different in the U.S. than in Brazil. There are several theories on how/why the U.S. developed at a faster pace than Brazil. The theories originate via contrasting perspectives – from psychology to economics to geography. One of the most popular theories suggests the divergence between the two countries is linked to politics, i.e. the U.S. established a democratic government in 1776, while Brazil's democracy it could be said began only in earnest in the 1980s. This theory states that the Portuguese monarchy, as well as the 19th and 20th century oligarchies that followed it, had no motivation to invest in industrial development or education of the masses. Rather, Brazil was prized for its cheap and plentiful labor to mine the rich soil of its vast land. There is another theory based on collective psychology that says the first U.S. colonizers from England were workaholic Puritans, who avoided dancing and music in place of work and religious devotion. They labored six days a week then spent all of Sunday in church. Meanwhile, the white settlers in Brazil were unambitious criminals who had been freed from prison in Portugal in exchange for settling in Brazil. The Marxist interpretation of why Brazil lags behind the U.S. was best summarized by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, in 1970. Galeano said five hundred years ago the U.S. had the good fortune of bad fortune. 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In thirty years, it may no longer be necessary to accept the label characterized by Nelson Rodrigues's famous phrase "complexo de vira-lata," for Brazil's national inferiority complex. For Brazilians, this future scenario presents glistening hope. A country with stronger economic power would mean the government has greater wealth to expend on infrastructure, crime control, education, healthcare, etc. What many Brazilians are not cognizant of are the pitfalls of economic prosperity. While Brazilians today may be envious of their wealthier northern neighbors, there are some aspects of a developed country's profile that are not worth envying. For example, the U.S. today far exceeds Brazil in the number of suicides, prescription drug overdoses, and mass shootings. GDP growth and economic projections depend on multiple variables, chief among them the global economic situation and worldwide political stability. A war in the Middle East, for example, can affect oil production and have global ramifications. Political stability within a country is also essential to its economic health. Elected presidents play a crucial role in a country's progress, especially as presidents may differ radically in their worldview. The political paths of the U.S. and Brazil are parallel today. In both countries, we've seen a left-wing regime (Obama/PT) followed by a far-right populist one (Trump/Bolsonaro), surprising many outside observers, and in the U.S. contradicting every political pollster, all of whom predicted a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Brazil, although Bolsonaro was elected by a clear majority, his triumph has created a powerful emotional polarization in the country similar to what is happening in the U.S. Families, friends, and colleagues have split in a love/hate relationship toward the current presidents in the U.S. and Brazil, leaving broken friendships and family ties. 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