At the top of Affonso de Henriques de Lima Barreto’s record of his first hospitalization in the Hospício Nacional, the writer is identified as white. The year was 1914, the diagnosis alcoholism, the city Rio de Janeiro. Just below the header, however, a sepia photo belies information about his color. Just like countless intellectuals and well-known Brazilians, who were black but were repeatedly portrayed as white, Lima, who was still alive, was taken as something he was not. In his case, however, the “whitening” is even more absurd, since being a black in the last country in the world to abolish slavery was a central issue of his life and work.
“In his characters, plots, and personal writings, the attention given to the racial question and descriptions of characters’ physical types are always emphasized,” says anthropologist Lilia Moritz Schwarcz. If at the beginning of the twentieth century, racial determinism – which claimed that mestizo and black populations were biologically weaker – was in vogue, Lima appeared as a dissonant, combative, and often lonely voice. “The mental capacity of the negro is measured a priori, that of the white a posteriori,” he wrote in Diário in 1904, offering a clear picture of the tenor of racism that prevailed in Brazil after the abolition of slavery.
The theme of race, not by chance, is also made more relevant in the biography Lima Barreto: Triste Visionário, which Schwarcz launches on July 10, from editor Companhia das Letras. “Lima is a well-played character. The whole series of researchers who followed Francisco de Assis Barbosa, his first biographer and diffuser of his work, is excellent. The question I asked, which had not yet been asked much, is about the issue of race. “A grandson of slaves and the son of free parents, born on May 13, 1881, on the same date the ‘golden law’ would end slavery seven years later, Lima approached the subject from his own experience. His work, in this sense, is extremely autobiographical.
As a teenager the writer attended the Polytechnic School and found himself to be the only black person in a class composed of elite white children, feeling all the rejection that could exist in such a situation. In Memorias do Escrivão Isaías Caminha, from 1909, his debut novel, he made the character Isaías, the bastard son of a priest with a slave, go through a childhood in which he received regular education, discovering in the future that his color would be a barrier for him to move up the ladder. Like Isaías, Lima also had a relatively stable childhood development, only discovering in adolescence and early youth the displacement that his social condition and color would impose on him.
Commonly portrayed as a poor writer, Lima had had some family stability for much of his childhood. His father, João Henriques, and his mother, Amalia Augusta, were ambitious and had good relations with the elite. They were educated and free. While he had a promising career as a printer, she was a schoolteacher. Things started to change when Amália died of tuberculosis and João lost his job. In 1902, after a series of episodes of emotional exhaustion, he also lost his purpose, which led Lima to leave college to financially support the household.
At the age of 21, he became the breadwinner of the family, made up of three brothers, a father and a few other members. Working as a public servant and, at the same time, following his literary goals with routine collaborations in newspapers and magazines, Lima found the critical propensity of his main brand early on. If it denounced racism, it also directed attacks against the Republic, the press, and anything that smacked of foreignisms. “There is a history of comparing Lima Barreto with Machado de Assis, but it is an injustice. They had completely different goals, while Machado was a universalist, Lima was an engaged writer who denounced mischief and criticized what he saw in his daily life”, says Schwarcz.
Looking back at his era, Lima was, for example, a ferocious critic of downtown Rio’s renovation, undertaken by mayor and engineer Pereira Passos. The era marks the beginning of the opening up of large avenues in the city and the subsequent expulsion of poor people living in slums to places further and further away. According to Schwarcz, “his view of the renovation was impressive, because many of those who witnessesed it at the time were delighted with what was being done.” He, on the contrary, already saw the plight of those that were expelled – which would ultimately result in a chronic problem for Brazilian cities, present until today – and was also incited by what he saw as the exportation of European city standards, especially of Paris, to Brazil. A great angst of his life, for example, was the neighborhood of Botafogo and the city of Petropolis, both “French-ified”.
The sad end of Lima Barreto
Between 1909, the year that Memórias do Escrivão Isaías Caminha was launched, and the year 1922, when he died at age 41, Lima wrote hundreds of chronicles and short stories, such as O Homem que Sabia Javanês and Nova Califórnia, and published at least one masterpiece: The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma, in 1911. Other novels, such as Numa e a Ninfa and Vida e Morte de MJ Gonzaga de Sá, were also published in the short time frame. In addition to these publications, a lot of material came to the public after his death, such as Diário Íntimo, Clara dos Anjos and Os Bruzundangas. In short, it was a productive and intense output.
With a life touched by alcoholism, however, his texts and books were often viewed and evaluated by critics as erratic. Lima piled up several projects at the same time and did not fit the virtuoso profile with which writers were seen. In addition, the autobiographical tone of his books and the lack of concern in hiding the real personality of some of its characters were not well evaluated at the time. In Memórias do Escrivão Isaías Caminhas, for example, he critically portrayed different journalists who were easily recognizable, such as the celebrated chronicler João do Rio and Edmundo Bittencourt, owner of Correio da Manhã, one of the most influential newspapers of the time. He didn’t have an easy life after that.
“It was only after 1950, when he was rediscovered by biographer Assis Barbosa, that his work began to circulate again, but I think his name only came to be remembered, in fact, recently”, says Schwarcz. Today he will also be the main honoree at the 2017 Paraty Literary Festival (FLIP), which takes place at the end of July. According to the biographer, it’s also interesting to think that if the image of the Bohemian writer was so romanticized in some cases in literary history, with Lima Barreto it was always seen as something derogatory. “Bohemia and alcoholism, in his case, always appeared as an accusation”, says the biographer. Behind this, perhaps is the question of race once again. Not that Lima didn’t have serious problems with alcohol. He did, and they cost him his health. But it’s curious to think about the difference in treatment that his bohemia received.
In 1919, when he was hospitalized for the second time at the Hospício Nacional, Lima was already described as someone ragged, with his shoes on the wrong foot, perspiring a lot, with a swollen face and “sampaku” eyes – when there is white below the iris, a characteristic common to alcoholism. Three years later he died lying on his bed while reading a French magazine. At that time, Schwarcz describes, his personality was increasingly merging with that of the suffering suburban residents – he portrayed so much in his texts.
Lima, according to his new biographer, is our visionary for having spoken of racism practically a hundred years before the subject was actually open for discussion. He is our visionary also for having anticipated a series of Brazilian themes, such as the unplanned urbanization of cities. It’s sad to know beforehand that it wasn’t going well and that the euphoria of the years in which he lived – the time of the Belle Époque, where scientific advancement and the growth of cities gave the impression that humanity’s problems were resolved – would not last. Unfortunately, the sad visionary may have had his maturity interrupted: “If we think that Machado de Assis wrote his main works after the age of 40, it is a pity that Lima was gone so early.” – Source (PT)
For a written interview with the author and short videos of her talking about his life, go here (PT)