Saturday, September 8, 2018

Topics for a Summer Night-Part Three

The National Museum of Brazil burned last Sunday. You may not have known it if you had been watching Yahoo "news" or similar outlets. If a Kardashian had burned, you would have known about it (and the loss would have been pretty negligible in comparison), but two hundred years of a nation's history can go up in flames and we remain oblivious. This is a tragedy and a disaster, and I guess I want to do something about it--to salvage something from the ruins--to raise up if I can in some way the people of Brazil, who have created so much beautiful music and so many great works of art and culture.

So I am searching for Brazilian weird fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as art in those genres. Fortunately I have a two-volume set called Arte no Brasil, published in Brazil in 1979, in which to begin. That set has led me to some works by Brazilian artists that touch on the genres at hand.

From 1636 to 1644, the Dutch artist Albert Eckhout (ca. 1610-1665) lived in Brazil and completed a number of paintings of native peoples, flora, and fauna. Here is his painting Mulher Tapuia (Tapuian Woman), from 1641. She looks pleasant enough, but I'm pretty sure that the basket she has strapped across her forehead isn't big enough to carry a whole man. And what does she have in her right hand but another right hand? Anyway, this is an ethnographic kind of painting, not a genre work, yet it has its macabre elements. Encounters with cannibalism and other strange and exotic things in the jungles and wilds of South and Central America are a mainstay of weird fiction. As in the case of the artist Eckhout, the men and women making those encounters are always Europeans or Americans. It's always us encountering them. But what about a weird tale told from the perspective of an American Indian or a South American native traveling to Washington, D.C., New York, London, or Paris? Would he not encounter equally strange and exotic things? And how would he account for them? How would he explain and describe them to his countrymen?

Most of the works in the first volume of Arte no Brasil are religious or ecclesiastical. A lot of it is of the architecture of churches or sculpture of scenes from the Bible, like life-sized dioramas. In other words, there's a lot of supernatural subject matter, but all of it is Christian, more specifically Catholic in nature. I was a little puzzled by the overall lack of the fantastic, but then I read an article about Brazilian science fiction, and I think I have an explanation. More on that in a while.

The first known use of the word zombi in print in English is in Robert Southey's History of Brazil, from 1819. However, Southey's zombi is nowhere near our zombie of today. He seems to have used the word exclusively to refer to Zombi, the leader of a slave revolt. In looking into the origins of the word, Southey wrote: ". . . I examined a book of religious instructions in the Portuguese and Angolan languages [. . .] and there I found that NZambi is the word for Deity." (Vol. III, p. 24) The man of whom he wrote was Zumbi (1665-1695),  a national hero in Brazil and subject of this painting by the twentieth century Brazilian impressionist Antônio Parreiras (1860-1937). I wonder if Zumbi's name as a symbol of rebellion against slavery could have found its way into African cultures in the Caribbean and North America. It hardly seems likely, but then I'm not an ethnologist or folklorist. It seems far more likely to me that the words zumbi, zombi, and zombie (probably also jumbee and jumbie) have a common origin in Africa and were brought here or evolved here in the New World. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when westerners finally noticed, these words had come to mean different things in different places.

It was only when I got into the twentieth century that I found fantastic art in Arte no Brasil, and then only a little.

The Portuguese caption for this print by Marcelo Grassman (1925-2013) reads: "Animais fantásticos, numa atmosfera de pesadelo, evocam sombrias estampas medievais em obras como Incubus Sucubus n.o 2, xilogravura realizada por Marcelo Grassman em 1953."

By an online translation, that means: "Fantastic animals, in a nightmarish atmosphere, evoke sombre medieval prints in works such as Incubus Succubus no. 2, woodcut by Marcelo Grassman in 1953." Some of Grassman's work reminds me a little of that of Lee Brown Coye.

Otávio Araújo (1926-2015) was a Brazilian surrealist. This picture, Saudade de Santa Teresa, is a striking example of his work. Like Grassman, he seems to have looked to the distant past for inspiration.

So what about the apparent lack of weird fiction, fantasy, and science fiction in Brazil? According to Manuel da Costa Pinto in Folha de S.Paulo (May 31, 2003), O Doutor Benignus by Augusto Emilio Zaluar (1875) was the first Brazilian science fiction novel. (It was written, however, by a Portuguese native, naturalized as a Brazilian citizen in his younger years.) In regards to Brazilian science fiction, Signore Pinto writes:
Far from embarking on a copy of European or North American models, Brazilians express the passive, contemplative character that science assumes in a technologically outdated country, as in "Benignus" . . . . (1)
I take that to mean that Brazil, being a more conservative and less progressive kind of country, is less suited to science fiction than its counterparts in Europe or North America. As Arte no Brasil indicates, fantasy would seem to be more up the Brazilian alley, and in reviewing the book Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror in Brazil (1875 to 1950), by Roberto de Sousa Causo, Signore Pinto seems to confirm this idea:
Science fiction itself would have been rooted in fantastic voyages--such as the accounts of Lucian of Samosata ("A True Story"), Jonathan Swift ("Gulliver's Travels"), Kepler ("Somnium") or Cyrano de Bergerac ("The Other World")--and imaginary places like the legendary kingdom of Prester John, "The Utopia" of Thomas More or the world prophesied by Vieira in "History of the Future." 
The siblings [of science fiction] would be "fantasy," in which science gives rise to magical phenomena (as in the cycle of King Arthur), and "horror," whose dreamlike atmosphere of claustrophobia goes back to the Gothic novel and the "Nights in the Tavern" by Álvares de Azevedo. 
This plurality of sources, in turn, gains a special nuance in a Brazilian setting. And if this is valid for all of our literature, it is possible to find traces of medieval folklore both in the popular literature of the Northeast and in Guimarães Rosa, an important author of [science fiction] as Braulio Tavares renews this amalgam by writing the fantastic series titled "The Stone of Noon or Artur and Isadora." (2)
So the pattern seems to hold. Conservative writers, artists, and cultures look to the past and create works of fantasy, history, romance, and horror (or weird fiction), while their more liberal or progressive counterparts look to the future and create works of science fiction. (3) If all of this is true, then a Brazilian author of yesteryear might easily have found a home in Weird Tales. What was lacking for most of the history of the magazine, of course, were strong connections between the United States and our neighbors to the south, connections that would have carried art and literature back and forth between us. We may have received their music (and they received ours) but not much else as far as I can tell. Maybe in some future incarnation of "The Unique Magazine" we will see and read works by Brazilian authors and artists. Maybe in that way a magazine can become a museum that never burns.

(1) "Science fiction Is the Atlantis of Brazilian Literature" by Manuel da Costa Pinto, Folha de S.Paulo, May 31, 2003, here.
(2) I used an online translator to render this article into English. I have made a few adjustments. As you can see, the results are imperfect, but you get the drift.
(3) I don't think we should underestimate the very powerful influence of the Church on the culture of a thoroughly Catholicized nation. After all, there is in the Bible, Catholic teachings, and Catholic culture all of the stories of the fantastic, the supernatural, the mystical, and the magical that a believer might want or need. Secular fantasy, as in our genre fiction, might be superfluous. Anti-Christian or anti-Catholic fantasy, as in so much of our contemporary genre fiction, would be unwelcome. And science fiction might not gain much traction in such a place, not only because of its inherent conservatism but also because Christians already have a fully satisfying vision of the future, one that looks nothing like Star Trek or The Jetsons.

Original text copyright 2018 Terence E. Hanley

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