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
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 email@example.com
One morning Poti led Martim to the hunt. They walked along a sierra that rose beside
The sun was visible only at the parrot’s beak when the hunters descended from Pacatuba
She took her husband’s hand and placed it against her lap: "Your blood already
"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;
Martim bathed in the river’s waters and strolled along the beach to dry his body in the
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