Erico Verissimo – Prodigious Brazilian Storyteller

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Erico Verissimo, the son of a pharmaceutical business owner, was born in 1905, in Cruz Alta, South Brazil, of Portuguese ancestry. In the past, his family was prosperous, but at the time of his birth their economic situation was growing difficult. His father was a bon vivant who spent money carelessly.

At the age of 15 he attended the Cruzeiro do Sul High School in Porto Alegre, a Protestant establishment, but he returned to Cruz Alta without graduation. In 1922 his parents separated and he stayed with his mother. In his hometown, he worked in a series of jobs until he finally went to Porto Alegre in 1930 to become a writer. The combination of that family trauma and the later lonely death of his father in São Paulo were to haunt him for the rest of his life.

Ranked beside Jorge Amado, Erico Verissimo is one of the most popular writers of Brazil. He attended the literary circle of the writers of the 30s in Porto Alegre. And beside Dyonelio Machado, with whom he shared a literary prize in 1935, he created the modern urban fiction of South Brazil. Because of his clarity and exactness, his prose is a joy to read. It is well known that Verissimo used to call himself a storyteller. But, in fact, he was a genuine novelist and his stories reflect his remarkable versatility, his penetrating insight into character, his brilliance in describing a scene, his talent for probing into the concealed fears and desires of ordinary people. Obviously, he loved his characters, not for any virtues they may possess, but just as they are.

In 1929, Erico Verissimo began to contribute short stories to journals and magazines. His first story, “Ladrao de Gado” (“Cattle Thief“), appeared in the Revista do Globo in 1929 and his first novel, Clarissa, was published in 1933. In addition to many short stories, children books, autobiography and travel he wrote some thirty novels. Clarissa is an impressionistic portrayal of the life of a naive young girl with prose-poem passages. His second novel, Caminhos Cruzados (Crossroads), was published in 1935. His third novel, Musica ao Longe, a sequel to his first novel, won his the Machado de Assis Prize in 1935.

Erico Verissimo was presented for the first time in the English language in 1943, when his second novel was translated by L.C. Kaplan and published by Macmillan in New York. Crossroads is often taken to represent the author’s condemnation of the hypocrisy of the little bourgeois. More importantly, it is representative of Verissimo’s narrative art, it is made up of little stories lived by characters with diverse social backgrounds, thus creating a narrative that does not follow a linear sequence. So the story does not have a central nucleus.

This technique of fragmentation points to the general question of influence on Verissimo’s fiction, and beyond that to the wider issue of its place in the development of Brazilian modernism. The debt to Aldous Huxley and John Dos Passos was fully evident and in his memories Verissimo admitted the influence of Huxley’s counterpoint technique. In an article written for the literary supplement of the New York Times in 1943, book reviewer William Dubois commented that Erico Verissimo had an “electric” style. Note that Verissimo himself translated in 1934 Huxley’s novel Point Counter Point (1928) to Portuguese. A second point to be made is that another important skill that our author inherited from English tradition was how to handle the passage of time in fiction. But, it seems to me that the really important influence exists at a profounder level of composition.

On the other hand, critics agree that the primary influence at the first stage of his career were Francis James and Katherine Mansfield. Notice that he was translator of Edgar Wallace, James Hilton, John Steinbeck, Robert Nathan, Katherine Mansfield, W. Somerset Maugham, among others. Of these, he had no doubt that Maugham was a supreme storyteller master. Surely English literature will be a constant reference in Verissimo’s work. During the period he lived in the United States he had the pleasure to meet some of his idols: Thornton Wilder, Pearl S. Buck, W. Somerset Maugham, John Dos Passos, and Aldous Huxley. At the same time, Verissimo was fluent in French and in 1949 he had the honor to make a welcome speech to novelist Albert Camus in Porto Alegre. Perhaps because he disliked the experiments with language of the modern French novel, his attention was caught by the structural innovations of the English novelists.

Olhai os Lírios do Campo (Consider the Lilies of the Field, Macmillan, 1948), Verissimo’s first success, appeared in 1938. The main characters are two physicians. A physician dedicated to social issues, Olivia, falls in love with her colleague, Eugenio. He had a poor background and was in search of an easy fortune. Being so eager for social recognition, he turns his back to Olivia and decides to marry a rich woman. But ultimately Eugenio and Olivia become lovers and have a daughter. The turning-point for Eugenio occurs when Olivia is on her deathbed. One of the more obvious advances between Consider the Lilies and the earlier fiction is in the sparing and more pointed use of dialogue. Now the free indirect discourse is used to describe the unspoken thoughts of characters without resorting to conventional dialogue. Besides, the flashbacks are highlighted by italics to help the reader to understand the passage of time.

In fact, the novel is of great pathos and sometimes indulgent sentimentality which appealed hugely to its readership and was instrumental in building Verissimo’s great popularity. However, it has to be admitted that the novel is also characteristic of Verissimo’s realism. The story is set in the shadow of the Revolution of 1930. And there are even some critical remarks on the political program of Getulio Vargas, the Brazilian dictator. Since his second and fourth novel touched some social delicate issues Verissimo fell under the suspicion of communism deceiving the public into the belief that his books were immoral.

What attracted him most immediately were the search for liberty and the inner states of feeling of his characters. Traditionally the critic divides Verissimo’s fiction in three levels: a) the chronicle of the cities and of the bourgeois; b) the historical revision; and c) the world society. The middle phase takes his art into an entirely new dimension.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that, like the postmodernist writers, Verissimo’s works demonstrate knowledge of his own fictionality. Verissimo continues to show his creativity throughout the remainder of his life and eventually alters his trajectory when he realizes that his most important task was to recreate the history of his native state, Rio Grande do Sul. Surely the writing of O Tempo e o Vento (Time and the Wind, Macmillan, 1951) was a turning point in his career. The story consists in three parts and is Verissimo’s magnum opus. The composition and publication of the complete saga were realized during the years 1947-1962. The story was translated to English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, and Dutch.

In 1954 appeared Noite (Night, Macmillan, 1956). People did not expect Erico Verissimo to write a dark novel. But we need to recall that throughout his life he was an avid reader of mysteries. The novel takes the reader into a claustrophobic world where the amnesic main character, “the Stranger”, is looking for his identity. His companions through a dreadful night are a cynic pimp and a psychopath dwarf, the two night birds he met up in a sordid pub, a low café along the docks. And the Night along the City are always there oppressing the Stranger. Despite being a narrative about loneliness there is plenty of humour in Night.

Now it is necessary to look at the books in which Verissimo reveals his political thought. That is the theme from O Senhor Embaixador (His Excellency the Ambassador, Macmillan, 1967), published in 1965, and O Prisioneiro, published in 1967. These novels must be seen as a development of Verissimo’s ideas about imperialism. Of course, the international scene pervades the last literary phase of our author.

His Excellency the Ambassador is set in the imaginary Central American republic of Sacramento and in Washington D.C. The novel shows the conflicts of an artist, Pablo Ortega, during the period in which he is working in Washington with the Latin ambassador who represents the dictatorship. Pablo Ortega is trying very hard to decide if he should support a communist revolution in Sacramento. Finally, in O Prisioneiro Verissimo takes us to the conflict of Vietnam and explores the moral conflict faced by a black Lieutenant who apparently must torture a Vietcong prisoner.

Verissimo’s works seem to offer us many ways of manipulate conflicts and enjoy life. Open to infinite possibilities of reading, his fiction has finally achieved its recognition. Erico Verissimo died of a heart attack in 1975.

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