Thursday, February 5, 2009

There is poison in its sweetness – José de Alencar’s Iracema, a Brazilian classic, I am told

José de Alencar short novel-like book Iracema (1865), is an early classic of Brazilian literature, or so I am told. Few readers will see it as much more than a curiosity, I suspect. That works out well for me, though, because I’m a curious fellow.

Iracema is the story of a beautiful Indian maiden who falls in love with a Portuguese soldier. When they first meet, she shoots him with an arrow, but as soon as he’s wounded, she’s smitten. She loves him more than he loves her, which leads to all sorts of trouble. They have a son, who represents the Brazilian mix of native and conqueror, but as we see in the first chapter, when we meet the soldier, the boy, and their dog, but no lovely Indian maiden, the new world has no room for poor Iracema.

“Represents”? Yes, the novel is an allegory about Brazil. Neither I nor you nor pretty much anyone has much interest in Romantic allegories about noble Indians and Brazilian identity. And there’s nothing too special about the story itself, which is quite simple, and borrows a bit from Cooper’s novels and a lot from Chateaubriand’s bizarre, lovely forest fantasy Atala (1801). But there’s something more interesting going on. Alencar builds the allegory right into the language.

Some examples:

“Neither smiles nor color had the Indian maiden; neither buds nor roses has the acacia that the sun has singed; neither blue nor stars has the night saddened by the winds.

The pajé’s daughter shuddered. It is thus that the green palm shudders when its fragile trunk is shaken; the spar is bedewed with the tears of the rain, and the flycatchers rustle softly.

The juriti, when the tree dies, flees the nest where it was born. Never again will happiness return to Iracema’s breast…

The honey of Iracema’s lips is like the honeycomb that the bees make in the andiroba trunk: there is poison in its sweetness.

They walked side by side, like two young deer who at sunset cross the capoeira, the second-growth land, withdrawing into the retreat from which the breeze brings a suspect scent.”

These are all from Chapter VIII, which I picked randomly. The chapter is less than three pages, and I omitted a number of other possibilities. The book is filled with sentences like this.

All of the figurative language in the novel uses the natural world, real plants, real animals. The metaphorical language is continual – there’s a comparison every four or five lines. Most of it uses local flora and fauna, and Indian names, although some European critters slip in here and there. A little nightmare for the translator; great job, considering.

Iracema is a conceptual novel, self-consciously experimental. Alencar is trying to rework the Portuguese language, to make it Brazilian. The poetic metaphorical language drawn from nature is the tool he uses to do it.

I would guess that most people reading these samples will not find them to their tastes; nor do I. But I thought the figurative language had a cumulative power over the course of the book, more like a poem than a novel (and fortunately the book has only 113 pages). As an experiment, it may be a failure and a dead-end – possibly this is what is typically meant when calling a novel “experimental” – but I was glad to see how it worked. It fails in an interesting way.

Iracema is part of the Oxford University Press Library of Latin America series. Unlike the Machado de Assis novel, a real masterpiece, that I read last year, Iracema was copy-edited.

Here’s one reason I don’t just read my Humiliation list. Active curiosity; what’s this, what’s that. I found Iracema while poking around at the library, for example. One never knows.


  1. I love the poking around at the library books! While I'll probably never read this one, I'm as interested in your appreciation of it as I am in what you have to say about works I know.

  2. I thought you might be interested in this book because of the continuous use of the native plants and so on. Interested in its existence, not in actually reading it! If only it were better.

  3. I think you guys are misjudging the poor book. I am brazilian myself and Iracema represents a great deal for me. Who care about Brazilian identity?, you asked. Well, let me tell you something sir-i-am-a-library-geek: all the 200 million inhabitants of Brasil probably care about it. I think you should be a little less ignorant when you make your judgements.

  4. Anonymous from Brazil, would you like to help me out? What does Iracema mean to you? How do people use it - do they quote from it, or refer to scenes? Does everyone read it in school, or is it just for literateurs? Is it read out of duty or love? For its history, or for its art?

    I am genuinely interested in these questions. You may not have noticed, but I liked the book.

    As for some technical points:

    1. I did not claim that no one cares about Brazilian idenity. I doubted, and doubt, that there is "much interest in Romantic allegories about noble Indians and Brazilian identity," hardly the same thing. Maybe the taste for allegory in Brazil is much greater than it is here?

    2. I should set up one of those little blog polls, asking if I should change my moniker to "Sir I-Am-a-Library-Geek." I like it.

    3. Should I be "a little less ignorant when [I] make [my] judgements." No, sir, I deny it, I strongly deny it. I should be a lot less ignorant! Yet life is what it is.

  5. In honor of Anonymous and Brazilian identity, I am herewith going to go listen to "The Waters of March" right now. Follow it up with some "Panis et Circenses," maybe. And read some Clarice Lispector (who by the way is completely awesomely awesome and you should immediately drop everything and read her work).

    Anonymous person, the writer of the Wuthering Expectations blog is a spectacularly culturally respectful person. You're going after the wrong guy, here. Though he is a little bit of a library geek (not a bad thing at all, to my mind).