I suppose I’d have got around to Three Guineas eventually, but the joy of any reading challenge like the 1938 Club is that it leads you to explore unfamiliar byways. I wouldn’t have lit upon Barren Lives (Vidas secas) by the Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos otherwise. The copy I read was one I catalogued myself several years ago – evidently this is a book frequently prescribed to undergraduate students of Portuguese. My own Portuguese is somewhat deficient, so I read an English translation by Ralph Edward Dimmick, with sweet accompanying illustrations by Charles Umlauf.
Dimmick’s introduction observes that Graciliano Ramos ‘is concerned much less with telling a story than with studying an individual in a particular situation.’ That’s the case here. The protagonists are a poor family: parents Fabiano and Vitória, two young sons, and a dog. A portrait of the family, as individuals and as a unit, is built up through vignettes covering a period of about a year. They find an uninhabited farmhouse and settle in, Fabiano has a disagreement with a policeman and spends the night in prison, they go to town to celebrate Christmas, the birds drink the water supply for their animals and they have to move on.
A farming family in direst poverty seeking a better life – it sounds very Grapes of Wrath, doesn’t it, and the two books are of a similar vintage; but the book I found myself thinking of most often as I read Barren Lives, to my surprise, was William Maxwell’s small masterpiece So Long, See You Tomorrow. It’s many years since I read that book and my memories of it are slight, which isn’t surprising given that, like Barren Lives, so much of the action is internal. But I do remember vividly a section late in the book where the narrative viewpoint is granted to a dog, Trixie, whose partial understanding of the tragic events of the book is unspeakably poignant. When a writer endows any animal with near-human emotions it can so easily come across as cheap and manipulative, but that is not the case with either Maxwell or Ramos. They share a gift for communicating what it is like to be small, to be a spectator, to lack control of your life; and even the most prominent character in Barren Lives, the patriarch Fabiano, is a small man in his way, perpetually conscious of his weaknesses and his inferiority.
In moments of madness, Fabiano tried to imitate [Tomás the miller]. He mouthed big words, which he got all wrong, and tried to convince himself he was improving. This was nonsense. It was perfectly obvious that a fellow like him was never intended to talk properly.
Early in the book reference is made to Vitória having killed the family’s parrot for food; here the dog mourns the parrot:
With no sign of food in the vicinity, hunger had been too much for the drought-sufferers. The dog had eaten the head, feet, and bones of her friend and had no more recollection of the matter. Now, standing there waiting, she looked over the family belongings and was surprised not to see on top of the tin trunk the little cage in which the bird had struggled to keep a balance.
Communication is a big deal in this book, or the lack of it. The members of the family are taciturn in the extreme – the book’s dialogue wouldn’t fill a page – and a beautifully observed detail is that the parrot who has recently joined the choir invisible had only a tiny vocabulary itself, having failed to pick up any phrases from its owners. The boys themselves presumably have names, but the reader isn’t told what they are.
Later on, language becomes a weapon. The older boy hears Hell mentioned in conversation and asks what it means. Vitória, convinced he is being impudent, beats him, and he finds consolation in the dog. The boys, like Fabiano, relate more easily to animals than they do to other humans. (Meanwhile the dog is dreaming of meat.) And yet the older boy, crippled though he is by his lack of language, has a curiosity about the world that is poetical, mystical at times. He will look at the skies and think to himself, ‘How could there be stars on the earth?’ During the family’s trip to town he marvels at the church and the shops.
The older boy hesitated. He looked at the stores, at the stands with their lights, and at the girls in their pretty dresses. He shrugged his shoulders. Perhaps it had all been made by people. Then a new problem presented itself to his mind and he whispered it in his brother’s ear: In all probability those things had names. The younger boy looked at him questioningly. Yes, surely all the precious things exhibited on the altars and on the shelves in the stores had names.
The younger boy, less curious about the wider world, worships his unworthy father. In a rare comic episode he tries to emulate Fabiano’s breaking in of a mare by mounting a billy goat, ending up on the ground (‘He was vaguely conscious that he had escaped from his adventure without honor’). He dreams of growing up to be just like Fabiano, while Fabiano despairs of the same thing, the inevitability of his boys turning into him, indigent farmers all. He and Vitória dream of a better life (she, more specifically, of a better bed), aware of being at the mercy of fate but periodically convincing themselves that change must be possible. The depiction of their marriage, filtered mostly through Fabiano’s perspective, is touching. He’s not proud of himself, knows that he isn’t good with words or numbers and has a short temper that gets him in trouble, but he acknowledges and is proud of his wife’s superior intelligence. Neither of them thinks they would be better off without the other, and they give each other the encouragement to carry on.
His was a bad lot, but Fabiano was determined to struggle against it and felt strong enough to come out the winner. He didn’t want to die. He was hidden in the brush like an armadillo – as hard and as clumsy as an armadillo. Some day, though, he would come out of his hiding place and walk with his head up, his own boss.
That this book isn’t a joyless trudge (far from it, in fact) is probably down to Ramos’ understanding of his characters. They are drawn with respect, neither patronised nor glorified but depicted straight and unadorned. These are his people. In spite of the lack of dialogue, I’m not surprised to find that a film version was made in 1963. At the time of writing it’s available for viewing here. I’ll watch it soon.
Tags: Barren Lives, Brazil, Charles Umlauf, Childhood, Dogs, Drought, Farming, Graciliano Ramos, Parrots, Poverty, Ralph Edward Dimmick, So Long See You Tomorrow, The 1938 Club, Vidas secas, William Maxwell