The Flowering of Memory in “Eve’s Verandas”, by K. David Jackson, Yale University

Críticas/Artigos, English, Essays and lectures, Sobre o autor

 

MILTON HATOUM: The Flowering of Memory in “Eve’s Verandas”

When Milton Hatoum (b. Manaus, 1952) came onto the international literary scene in 1989 with his first novel, Relato de um certo Oriente [Tree of the Seventh Heaven, 1994

Tale of a Certain Orient, 2004], he was already a mature author with a complex narrative style, whose subject related to his own family background of Lebanese immigrants who settled in one of Brazil’s most fascinating regions, the Amazon, and specifically in its capital city of Manaus. Hatoum is interested in literature and history, as filtered through memory and imagination, and he writes in non-linear accounts of the transition from the Middle East to the Amazon using modern narrative techniques of distancing. In recovering a world frozen in time through the opaque and often melancholic memories of his characters, Hatoum’s Manaus is reminiscent of Lawrence Durell’s Alexandria, a city recaptured in a quartet of novels (1957-1960), each retelling the story and judging the city from the perspective of a particular character. The difference here is that Hatoum’s characters are immigrants who are acculturating to a strange new world, where space has a special ability to change their lives, and all the characters are concentrated into a single family’s expansive history, which mirrors a wider national experience. Citing Conrad, Hatoum states his main interest as reconstructing the ruins of a perhaps forgotten past (“Literatura e Memória,” PUC/SP, 28 Sept. 1995, p. 8). His novel thus occupies a place in the rich tradition of memoirs in Brazilian literature, exemplified by Machado de Assis in fiction and Pedro Nava in autobiography. The genre brings out, in Hatoum’s words, “a poetic dimension combined with a certain intimacy, by creating and dramatizing a microcosm…” (p. 8). The author remembers his own matriarch Yasmine singing not in Arabic, her native language, but in her adopted French and bringing into the house eccentric citizens of the world who lived at the margins of that provincial society (“Reflexão sobre uma viagem sem fim,” Revista USP, pp. 61-65).

 

From a literary point of view, what is important in Hatoum’s prose is the power and persuasion of telling, even if the remembered truths of the past are no more than fantasies. In an interview (“Amazônia está à margem da história, diz escritor,” O Estado de S. Paulo, 8 March 1995, D 1) Hatoum comments that in his writing immigration was a pretext for developing further themes of “voyage, exile, solitude, loss, commerce, and the choice of a new country.” Those are the recognized boundaries of Hatoum’s fictional world revisited, in a jungle city that he has turned into a “symbolic country.” A tone of disillusion, resignation, and indignation further signals the underlying theme, endemic poverty of the city and region, present throughout his fiction, whereby local aspirations for change are crushed by political demagoguery and marginalization. Set on the banks of the Amazon, his fictional world is in Hatoum’s own clever word play “a literal roman-fleuve” (“Amazônia,” 1995).

To create a modern narrative Hatoum cites the crucial role of language in determining how his story will be told. He equates the Brazilian jungle directly with language, choosing to ally his fiction with the neo-baroque currents of Latin American writing represented by authors such as Borges, Guimarães Rosa, Lezama Lima, and Carpentier. The problem, he muses in a 1989 interview (“Nossa selva é a linguagem,” O Estado de S. Paulo, 29 April 1989, Caderno 2, p. 6), is how to tell convincing stories in an age when traditional plots have been abolished. In the Relato he introduces multiple voices of memory. Each chapter in his first novel has a different narrator, and their identities are not immediately apparent; thus the reader must constantly examine interlinear details in order to recognize them. The chapters can be compared to incomplete maps with complementary perspectives leading back to origins now lost in the city and its stories, or to an idealized, fragmented and irrecoverable unity. The search for origins on the plane of narrative is also the story of their loss. Reflecting a sense of absence, the names of many major characters are never revealed, including the principal narrator, a woman who returns from São Paulo to ponder the ruins of her past. Photographs and sketchy biographies support her vital but fragmentary search through the detritus of a past geography, just as the twins adopted by matriarch Emilie long to find the unnamed mother who abandoned them. Whether photographs, drawings, or old stories, all are translations of what is left from time past in a city “rusted by the sun and decadence,” in the words of a character, the German photographer Donner.

Manaus had been the center of Brazil’s rubber boom in the late nineteenth century, and the fortunes of rubber barons supported “Beaux Arts palaces, neoclassical municipal buildings, electric trams, wide Parisian boulevards, and French restaurants,” (Greg Grandin, Fordlandia, New York, Holt, 2009, p. 26.), and the city market was patterned after Les Halles in Paris. The family emporium in the first novel is naturally named the “Parisiense.” The Teatro Amazonas (Amazonas Theater), an Italian opera house constructed by Celestial Sacardim on which no expense was spared, opened on January 7, 1897 to attract the best voices of European opera. It is the scene of Hatoum’s short story “A Ninfa do Teatro Amazonas” (“The Truth is a Seven-Headed Animal,” Ellen Watson, trans. in Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story, 2006, pp. 510-513), written to celebrate the theater’s centenary. With its movie theaters, playhouses, and electric power, Manaus was an anomaly, a modern, cosmopolitan city nine hundred miles up the Amazon. For Hatoum, the city provokes opposites, from hate to fascination, from provincial backwater to magical place of privileged secrets. Manaus and Belém, the city at the mouth of the Amazon, were known for the vice of their shadowy corners, particularly for anonymous sex at the docks, cabarets, and brothels. Hatoum would co-publish a chronicle of the two Amazonian river cities with philosopher Benedito Nunes (Crônica de duas cidades: Belém e Manaus, 2006), emphasizing their close relationship. When the region’s rubber wealth disappeared after the first decade of the new century, Manaus fell into a lethargic and sustained decadence and poverty. The internal contrast could not have been greater than that of immigrants arriving from Lebanon, who encountered an unfamiliar language and steamy tropical environment. The story of their long adaptation and conversion into Brazilians over time is not dissimilar to experiences of the first Italian or Japanese generations in São Paulo, or to Germans in Southern Brazil, except for the exceptional dichotomies, the crucial distance and difference of the vast Amazonia.

Hatoum’s overt themes of immigration, acculturation, eroticism, Orientalism, and Amazonian reality gained the interest and attention of an international reading public. The novel won Brazil’s prestigious Jabuti Prize in 1990 as best novel of the year and was soon translated into French (Seuil, 1992), Italian (Garzanti, 1992), German (Piper, 1992), and English (Aetheneum/Macmillan, 1994). Following this success, Hatoum left Brazil to become visiting writer in Saint-Nazaire, France (1992), at the International Writing Program in Iowa , visiting writer at Yale University (1996), and subsequently visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley and visiting writer at Stanford University. In the eleven intervening years before his second novel, he published short stories, poetry, essays, and travel narratives, while a professor of French literature at the Universidade Federal do Amazonas in Manaus. His personal connection with Amazonian life and times stands out in the photographic essay documenting travels in the Amazon, A superfície do tempo: viagem à Amazonia (“The Surface of Time: Voyage to Amazonia,” 2002).

With his second novel, Dois Irmãos (2002), Hatoum continued the threads of the overarching story that interconnects his fiction, an opaque and fragmented Amazonian remembrance of things past that is at once the story of a family drama, a kaleidoscope of the rapidly changing Amazonian city and culture, and the retrospective story of coming of age of the characters and narrator. Omar, the brother given to sensual lassitude and self-indulgent decadence, lives through changes to the city with Brazil’s period of political repression under the military government when he is beaten and imprisoned, while brother Yaqub, the scientist and intellectual who was sent back to grow up in a village in Lebanon, marches in a uniformed military parade. As in the first novel, the female narrator’s ambiguous identity is hidden until the final pages; for Hatoum, her mixed-race origins represent the future.

Hatoum continued to broaden the chronicles of his Amazonian world after Dois Irmãos (2002; The Brothers, 2002), followed by Cinzas do Norte (2005; Ashes of the Amazon, 2008), Órfãos do Eldorado (2008, The Orphans of Eldorado, 2010), and the short stories of Cidade Ilhada (2009). These successive novels and stories, treating the often-bizarre cross between Brazilian Amazon and Middle Eastern immigrants, have placed Hatoum in the company of Brazil’s most prominent authors. His works are translated into Dutch and Arabic, in addition to other major European languages, because his themes and narrative style speak to broad international interests whether in demography or literature. In addition to immigration, his works tell stories of character, passion, fierce loves and conflicts amid the atmosphere of pre-war Manaus, part steamy jungle entrepot, lost in its own luxuriant sensuality, and part cosmopolitan center of learning, music, and cultural encounters, a forgotten idyllic island of progress and learning.

While Hatoum’s work recovers the immigrant experience, responsible for doubling Brazil’s population from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries, he writes through a filter of retrospection and fragmented memory, as if to fulfill a need to relive or recapture the fleeting yet foundational moments of incomplete or unorthodox experiences, which are often puzzling, fragmentary images in the narrator’s mind and in Brazil’s past. His narrators strive to recall images that can now be understood and recounted perhaps for the first time and retold with mature understanding, although without necessarily solving their impenetrable mysteries. What was historically the epic drama of exile and acculturation is recast in Hatoum’s fiction through opaque memory of an idyllic lost period of childhood innocence and coming of age, of family and culture whose differences can now be fully highlighted and appreciated, into a world now overcome by the passage of time, the forces of modernization, and generational change. Hatoum’s Manaus is seined through memory and loss, yet it exudes the robust strength and decadent eroticism natural to its dynamic confrontations and dichotomies. With each successive work of prose fiction, Hatoum’s writing has deepened in its investigation into the worlds of old Manaus and the culture of the Amazon, in its repertoire of stories and characters, while retaining the main lines of his fiction that have been present since his first novel.

***

The story “Varandas da Eva” [“Eve’s Verandas”] from the collection Cidade Ilhada (First published in 2004 in Heloisa Prieta, org., De primeira viagem: Antologia de contos and re-written for A cidade ilhada, 2009, both published in São Paulo by Companhia das Letras) recapitulates many of the characteristic qualities of Hatoum’s longer works of fiction. According to the author, this story goes back to the narrator’s youth, around the 1960s (“”Escrever é viver,” Jornal de Letras, 14 July 2009, p. 10). It is above all the now older narrator’s meditation on place and change, whether brought about by time, by social modernization, or by natural growth and development. It is a story that begins by recalling a different way of life and different perceptions of value and meaning: in earlier days people had other ideas about distance, time stretched out longer, there was no thought of losing or wasting time, when the suffocating afternoons seemed to bring everything to a standstill. In the tropical climate, the nights were ideal for socializing in bars and serenades. The youth would even sneak into the grand Amazonas Theater to catch a glimpse of the singers and the mirrored interior. The juxtaposition in the story of the famous opera house with the mysterious place called “Varandas da Eva,” site of suspicious rendezvous, links the themes of fantasy and artistry in the evocation of a world where time stops for opera and romantic serenades, creating an eroticism of place, ruled by sensations and festivity. Tio Ran’s description of the “Verandas” is further reminiscent of the most celebrated Orientalist paradise in Portuguese literature, the Island of Love episode in Camões’ Lusiads: a beautiful seaside resort full of beautiful young women. The name “Eve’s Verandas” itself is doubly suggestive, both as the local euphemism for a bordello based on a graceful Iberian architectural feature borrowed from India, an open roofed gallery or porch, and as the symbol of an inviting entryway or initiation into the enclosures and secrets of Eve, the rites of passage to maturity. “Eve’s Verandas: the name of a place:” from the first sentence the verandas are forbidden territory to the then adolescent narrator in the small Amazonian town of childhood friends, who are likewise barred from entering the Utopian “Verandas,” where Tio Ran has spent countless nights. The story is thus split between a past way of life and the present time of narration, between fixed realities of prosaic life and other seemingly poetical and Utopian, magical spheres of life, either forbidden or beyond the comprehension of callow youth, and divided between the narrator’s innocent youth and his present revelations about the nature of events long considered mysterious. The story is finally, as Hatoum comments in an interview, a path to otherness based on a particular personal experience (“Escrever,” 2009, p. 10).

As in the novels, this is a story about past relationships and unfolds while the narrator remembers in sequence his uncle and his childhood friends. Generous Tio Ran holds the secrets of the “Verandas” and resists the curiosity and pleadings of the young males; when they are ready, the guardian promises, he will treat them to a first visit to the “Verandas,” at a time when they have grown enough to act like gentlemen and treat women with respect. The narrator’s buddies — Minotaur, strapping yet boyish, Gerinélson the secretive lady’s man and extrovert, and Tarso who is sad and extremely poor to the point that he avoids social life and depends on friends who chip in to buy him clothes, ice cream, and movies tickets– make up his everyday world. A relationship of a different nature, unexpected and revelatory, occurs at last on a Friday in September when the youths pass through the gates that led to “Eve’s Verandas”. Only Tarso, nervous and undecided, turns back on the path. Once inside, the narrator meets the perfect muse, both anonymous lover and teacher in the ways of Eve, who guides him through his first timeless night of erotic pleasure, with laughter and bolero accompaniment. There beyond the verandas, personal identities are forbidden to enter the ritual of nature, because, as the narrator asks rhetorically, “Aren’t names just appearances, anyway?” Eve’s night marked the beginning of the narrator’s life as a writer and memorialist, since he was determined to recover the lost pleasures of the past, to find the muse, and perhaps to recover the lost origins and meaning of a nameless and timeless existence.

After a few years, to the contrary, his colleagues went on to prosaic careers: Minotaur joined the Air Force; Gerinélsion went to São Paulo to become a gynecologist, and Tio Ran moved away; only Tarso could had no future because of his crushing poverty. Tarso would always be in his canoe at the bungalow on stilts in the river. In the eyes of the outer social world, his poverty was as much a taboo as was “Eve’s Verandas” for the uninitiated in love: to enter either of the two mysterious spheres required a special maturity and preparation. Could the narrator’s initiation to pleasure have an intimate connection to the drama of poverty?

The story’s last relationship is even more unexpected because it marks the first moment of meaningful recognition. Its startling moment of epiphany unites the worlds of pleasure and poverty as a challenge to the narrator’s noble quest. When he stops to watch the swollen river, he unexpectedly finds his gaze fixed on the figure of Tarso’s mother in the distance at the door of her riverine shack. Is she really the Eve he has been seeking? Could our narrator bring himself to cross the threshold that separates island paradise from poor river dwelling and conquer his youthful illusions? Fictional memory had already become his refuge: “I never went back there.” Neither, as far as we know, did he ever return to “Eve’s Verandas.”

K. David Jackson

Yale University

January 2010

Prose Works

Cidade Ilhada: contos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2009.

Órfãos do Eldorado. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2008.

Crônica de duas cidades: Belém e Manaus. Benedito Nunes, Milton Hatoum. Belém: Secult, 2006.

Cinzas do Norte. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2005.

A superfície do tempo: viagem à Amazonia. Duarte Belo. Porto: Centro português de fotografia, 2002.

Dois Irmãos. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 2000.

Literatura & memória : notas sobre Relato de um certo Oriente. São Paulo: Pontificia Universidade Católica de São Paulo, 1996.

Relato de um certo Oriente. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1989.

Amazonas, palavras e imagens de um rio entre ruínas. São Paulo: s.n., 1979.

Translations

Orphans of Eldorado. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2010.

The Orphans of Eldorado. John Gledson, trans. Melbourne: Text, 2010.

Die Waisen des Eldorado der Mythos von der verzauberten Stadt. Karin von Schweder-Schreiner, trans. Berlin: Berlin-Verl., 2009.

Ashes of the Amazon. John Gledson, trans. London: Bloomsbury, 2008, 2009.

Cendres d’Amazonie: roman. Arles: Actes sud, 2008.

Asche vom Amazonas: Roman. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2008.

Relato de un cierto Oriente. Rosario: Beatriz Viterbo, 2006; Madrid: Akal, 2001.

Tale of a certain orient. Ellen Watson, trans. London : Bloomsbury, 2004.

Twee broers. Jelle Noorman, trans. Amsterdam: Atlas, 2004.

Deux frères: roman. Paris: Seuil, 2003.

Dos Hermanos. Madrid: Akal, 2003.

Shaqiqan: riwayah. Bayrut: Dar al-Farabi, 2002.

Deux Zwei Brüder: Roman. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002.

Brief aus Manaus: Roman. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002.

The Brothers. John Gledson, trans. New York: Farar, Straus & Giroux, 2002; Bloomsbury, 2002, 2003.

Tree of the Seventh Heaven. Ellen Watson, trans. New York: Atheneum; Toronto: Maxwell Macmillan Canada; New York: Maxwell Macmillan International, 1994.

Récit d’un certain Orient: roman. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1993.

Emilie, oder, Tod in Manaus: Roman, 1992.

Inteviews and Presentations

”Escrever é viver,” Jornal de Letras, 14 July 2009.

“Amazônia está à margem da história, diz escritor,” O Estado de S. Paulo, 8 March 1995, D 1

“Literatura e Memória.” PUC/SP (28 Sept. 1995).

“Nossa selva é a linguagem,” O Estado de S. Paulo, 29 April 1989, Caderno 2, p. 6

Selected Works on Milton Hatoum

Albuquerque, Gabriel. “Um Autor, Várias Vozes: Identidade, Alteridade e Poder na Narrativa de Milton Hatoum.” Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea, (28), 2006 July-Dec, 125-140

Arquitetura da memória : ensaios sobre os romances : Relato de um certo oriente : Dois irmãos e Cinzas do norte de Milton Hatoum. Maria da Luz Pinheiro de Cristo, org. Manaus : EDUA, Editora da Universidade Federal do Amazonas; Uninorte; Oficina das Artes, 2007.

Baert, Renee: “Desiring Daughters.” Screen (34:2), 1993 Summer, 109-23. (1993).

Barreto, Francismar; Pires, Maria Isabel Edom; Pires, Mônica Kalil; Simões, Sara Freire: “Entrevista com Milton Hatoum.” Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea (28), 2006 July-Dec, 141-147. (2006)

Brunn, Albert von. Milton Hatoum – zwischen Orient und Amazonas. Frankfurt: M. TFM, Ferrer de Mesquita 2009.

Chiarelli, Stefania. Vidas em trânsito : as ficções de Samuel Rawet e Milton Hatoum. São Paulo: Annablume, 2007.

Dalcastagné, Regina. Ver e imaginar o outro alteridade, desigualdade, violência na literatura brasileira contemporânea. Vinhedo, S.P.: Ed. Horizonte, 2008.

Toledo, Marleine Paula Marcondes e Ferreira de.; Mathias, Heliane Aparecida Monti.

Entre olhares e vozes : foco narrativo e retórica em Relato de um certo oriente e Dois irmãos de Milton Hatoum. São Paulo: Nankin Editorial, 2004 International: Allworth Press, 1994

Espaço geográfico no romance brasileiro. Judith Grossmann … [et al.] Salvador, Bahia: Fundação Casa de Jorge Amado, 1993.

Freire, José Alonso Torres.; Dimas, Antonio. “Entre construções e ruínas: uma leitura do espaço amazônico em romances de Dalcídio Jurandir e Milton Hatoum.” Tese de Doutoramento. USP, São Paulo 2007.

Ingenschay, Dieter: “Between the Boom and the Arabesque. ‘Hemispheric Writing’ in Juan Goytisolo’s Paisajes después de la batalla and Milton Hatoum’s Relato de um Certo Oriente.” In Ottmar Ette (ed. and introd.); Friederike Pannewick, ed. and introd. Arab Americas: Literary Entanglements of the American Hemisphere and the Arab World. Frankfurt, Germany; Madrid, Spain: Vervuert; Iberoamericana, 2006, pp. 165-187.

Koleff, Miguel Alberto: “La trama de Nael: Sobre la estrategia del narrador en Dois Irmãos de Milton Hatoum.” Todas as Letras: Revista de Língua e Literatura (7) 2005, pp. 33-40.

Literary Amazonia: Modern Writing by Amazonian Authors. Nicomedes Suárez-Araúz, ed. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004.

Mata, Rudolfo: “El orient de una novela.” Remate de Males: Revista do Departamento de Teoria Literária, (16), 1996, pp. 101-08.

Pellegrini, Tania: “Milton Hatoum e o Regionalismo Revisitado.” Luso-Brazilian Review (41:1), 2004, 121-38.

Piza, Daniel. Perfis & entrevistas : escritores, artistas, cientistas. São Paulo, SP : Editora Contexto, c2004.

Sazzad, Rehnuma. “Hatoum, Said and Foucault: Intellectual Resistance through Revealing the Power-Knowledge Nexus.” Postcolonial Text (4:3), 2008.

Toledo, Marleine Paula Marcondes e Ferreira de. Milton Hatoum: itinerário para um certo Relato. Cotia, S.P.: Ateliê, 2006.

Tonus, José Leonardo: “O Efeito-Exótico em Milton Hatoum.” Estudos de Literatura Brasileira Contemporânea (26) (July-Dec. 2005), pp. 137-148.

Travessias e cruzamentos culturais: a mobilidade em questão. Helenice Rodrigues e Héliane Kohler, orgs. Rio de Janeiro: Fundação Getúlio Vargas, 2008.

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