Franz Kafka

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Sunday, July 15, 2012

'Vidas Secas' (Barren Lives, a tale from the Brazilian Sertão) by Graciliano Ramos and Steinbeck's 'The Grapes of Wrath', a parallel

Published in 1938, a milestone in Brazilian 20th century literature, the novel 'Vida Secas', recounts the struggle of a vaqueiro's family facing extreme poverty in drought-stricken Sertão (the North-East back country). Written in minimal prose, short sentences, as sparse as the landscape it depicts, 'Vida secas' (literally 'dry lives') is contemporary to Steinbeck's migration tale, 'The Grapes of Wrath', which appeared one year later.
First edition cover
First edition cover

While 'The Grapes' stands as symbol of hope and redemption, no matter how far from grasp the mythical garden of California might be, the southerner's odyssey only amounts to an hopeless displacement, occasioned by recurring drought. Arguably, the former is a journey, on-the-road, the latter is more of a cycle, its initial chapter a continuation of the final one, like in a circular motion.

Steinbeck's magnificent and magniloquent style collides with Ramos' scanty and shrubby language, which adapts to a barren land and simpler personages. By the same token, 'The Grapes of Wrath'is a blunt, outspoken j'accuse, whereas 'Vidas Secas' describes reality as it is. The narrator takes a step back, refraining from openly expressed criticism. Yet, with a different angle and style, both utter the same social denunciation. Stemming from similar political views and outlook on social justice, they represent their times, the 30's, characterized by the Great Depression, the collapse of Wall Street, the "dust bowl" migration and mechanization of agriculture in the US, and the the dilapidated, archaic social structure, the military coup and the coffee crises in Brazil.
Poverty, rather than sparking a fight for survival and change, in the Brazilian Sertão is represented as a permanent condition, accepted as inescapable, a kharma. Unlike Tom Joads, who joins a broader battle for dignity and social justice, his counterpart from below the equator - Fabiano, and his family (his wife Sinhá Vitória,  his two sons, that have no name, other than 'older' and 'younger', and their dog called Baleia, anthropomorphically heightened to his owners' low life standards)- pursue a daily existence of privations, inevitable and unchangeable. The only hint of change is the mother's faint aspiration of a better life for their sons, and the older's glimpse of a town and his desire to learn.

The writer's choice of 'dry' words depicts the 'dry' life of the sertanejos and their lack of means to express themselves -- the highest form of poverty. Words that are unknown, for they define objects never to be possessed, and  conditions never to be achieved.

A dichotomy is evident between Reverend Casy's eloquence in 'The Grapes of Wrath' and Fabiano's lack of the tools of language and discernment in 'Vidas Secas'. Both suffer great injustice, Casy, dying fighting for the rights of migrant workers, and Fabiano, humiliated by a soldier and dragged to a prison, unable to speak out and defend himself. While Steinbeck's characters shine under the scorching sun, Ramos' personages - too frail their language, dried up their words, overwhelming their inability to communicate - weave an intricate web that it is yet to be deciphered.

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