Maira: The Cannibalization of Iracema


Originally published in Brazil in 1978, this translation (by E. A. Goodland and Thomas Colchie) was published in 1984.

In her important study, Foundational Fictions: The National Romances of Latin America (1991), Doris Sommer discusses a range of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century novels from throughout Latin America that, she argues, were intended to create in readers a sense of national identity in the wake of independence.  These novels, she writes, “are almost inevitably stories of star-crossed lovers who represent particular regions, races, parties, economic interests, and the like.  Their passion of conjugal and sexual union spills over to a sentimental readership that hopes to win partisan minds along with hearts” (5).  We have no exact equivalent to these novels in the U.S., though Sommer discusses Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans as inspiration for some South American novelists; but, if one squints in a Leslie Fiedler kind of way, one can see how Huckleberry Finn would be an exact fit for the description Sommer provides.  For Brazilians, one such novel would be Iracema (1865), by José de Alencar (1829-1877), who was an important political figure in mid-nineteenth-century Brazil.  It allegorizes the origins of Brazil by means of the tale of the Tupi Indian woman Iracema (an anagram of “America”) and Martim, a Portuguese colonist, who together conceive a son; his birth, however, even as it symbolizes the emergence of the Brazilian people, also leads to Iracema’s death.  (Notably missing from this novel is the presence of the third race that, combined with indigenous and European peoples, led to the emergence of the Brazilian people: people of African descent brought to Brazil as slaves.  But all of that belongs, for now, in a discussion for another time.)

I am sharing all this because, while reading Darcy Ribeiro’s novel Maíra (1978) and becoming a bit frustrated with it as I did so, I finally realized that it is writing both in response to and against the romantic myth of Brazil’s founding that Iracema helped establish.  Moreover, it does so by turning Iracema‘s elements inside-out in an attempt not to re-mythologize Brazil’s past but to cannibalize that nation’s literary past so as to render the truth of Brazil’s present, at least as Ribeiro had come to understand it.

More below the fold.

(Before going on, I should say that I did not choose the verb “cannibalize” lightly or flippantly.  The cultural trope of anthropophagy is a crucial one in Brazil, having its origins in Montaigne’s famous essay “Of Cannibals” but codified into polemical form in Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 essay, “Manifesto Antropófago.”  I won’t be saying any more about it here, but somewhere, somehow, commentary on it will find its way into the book.)

Maíra is the first novel by Ribeiro (1922-1997), a Brazilian anthropologist perhaps best known in this country for The Brazilian People: The Formation and Meaning of Brazil (2000)Long before writing either that book or Maíra, though, Ribeiro had established his reputation by specializing in the study of indigenous populations in Brazil’s deep interior.  That research certainly informs much of what appears in his novel: several of its chapters are lyrical retellings of indigenous creation myths, and the novel also provides elaborate descriptions of initiation rites, marriage, rules governing sexual relations, etc.  It was in the course of this research that Ribeiro had come to believe that “Brazil” as now constituted was comprised of two groupings of people: “Brazilians,” who are the amalgam of indigenous, African, and European peoples who now predominate in the country’s coastal areas and certain regions of the interior; and those various indigenous groups who have retained their respective cultural identities to such an extent that Ribeiro does not foresee their becoming integrated into the political and cultural life of the nation.  All of this matters for our discussion of Maíra because it is, in its essence, a dramatization of Ribeiro’s argument regarding Brazil’s failure to achieve that integration of indigenous peoples.

Iracema, as I mentioned earlier, is an allegorical recounting of the origins of the Brazilian people.  It’s a conventionally-structured and -narrated novel, with a straightforward chronology and an omniscient narrator.  The titular character dies soon after giving birth to her and Martime’s son, but Iracema is clearly the symbolic mother of the Brazilian people.

Maíra is not a great novel, but its structural ambitions make it an interesting one, especially considering that it is Ribeiro’s first novel.  The chapters devoted to the “now” of the novel receive definitive dates, beginning with 26 October, 1974.  That is the day the nude body of a white woman from Rio, whose name is Alma, is found by a river deep in the Amazon rainforest.  Her body is painted with red and black stripes, and between her legs are found the stillborn fetuses of twin boys.  Alma has apparently died in childbirth, but how had she come to be there in the first place?  How long had she been there?  Who is the father of the children?  The novel’s “now” is the investigation into Alma’s death and attempts to answer those questions.  In this novel, Alma is Iracema’s analogue, but it would be more accurate to say the former is the latter’s inverse: Iracema is a heretofore chaste indigenous woman, while in Maíra Alma is designated as “white,” which in Brazil means a person with fairly light skin, and, while in Rio, had been living a dissolute life of frequent drug use and couplings with numerous sexual partners, a life she had grown weary of; Iracema’s son survives, and it is understood that he will be the symbolic father of the Brazilian people, but in Maíra we never learn who the father of Alma’s twins is–and, as already noted, the twins are stillborn.

While the chapters devoted to that investigation are in chronological order, they are interspersed contrapuntally among other chapters, some of them devoted to relating Alma’s life before entering the jungle, others concerning the lives of still other characters (priests and ministers, government agents, merchants, and an indigenous man who has gained a measure of power and respect as a practitioner of a syncretic form of Christianity), as well as still another series of chapters that recounts the fictional Maíra people’s creation myth.  The result is a kind of narratological cacophony, something like listening to the jungle’s (and by extension Brazil’s) myriad human voices.

For this post, though, I will focus briefly on Isais, Maíra‘s analogue to Iracema‘s Portuguese character Martime.  Isais is a Maíra Indian who, while still a boy, had been encouraged by missionaries to prepare for the priesthood.  He does so, and even travels to Rome for years of study.  Yet, he decides he cannot take his orders, and so travels back to his people to live among them.  He retakes his indigenous name, Ava, and plans to take his rightful place as chief and marry a woman long promised to him.  (It is on his journey back home that he meets and travels together with Alma, who herself hopes to become a nun or, failing that, to at least serve the Indians in some capacity (she eventually becomes a respected health worker, but also becomes a mirixorã, a woman who, because she is not a member of one of the village clans, can be a sexual partner with any man she chooses).)  Both Martime and Isais embody the Portuguese/Brazilian emotion called saudade, best described in English as a deep, existential longing for home and/or the past.  At one point in Iracema, Martime’s longing for his home in Portugal causes him to leave Iracema shortly after having conceived their son-to-be; he will return just in time to see her die.  Isais’s experience of saudade, however, is more complex: while in Rome, he longs to return to his people, but upon his arrival in his home village he feels estranged from almost everyone there–his years in Europe have changed him more than he had realized.  Complicating his state still further is that he is conflicted as to the question of God’s existence.  Isais longs for any place that he can call home, yet he can find none.

In Maíra, then, Alma and Isais are the analogues for Iracema and Martime in Iracema.  Yet, to call Alma and Isais lovers would be a mistake.  For most of the novel, Alma mocks Isais’s existential dilemma, and Isais believes that Alma’s initial giddy desire to redeem her existence through service to the Indians is naïve.  Even though they do appear to have had sex once, Alma may already have been pregnant at the time, so Isais is most likely not the father of the children who, in any event, do not survive and result in Alma’s dying.

In the concluding lines of The Brazilian People, Ribeiro himself knowing that he did not have much longer to live, waxes optimistic for the future of his nation, describing Brazil as “the new Rome–a tardy, tropical Rome” built on and by a people of mixed bloods “located in the most beautiful and luminous province of the earth” (322).  Indeed, this ostensible work of anthropology reads more, in its conclusion,  like one of those novels Doris Sommer identifies as a “foundational fiction.”  I cannot explain why Ribeiro’s mood regarding Brazil’s future shifts so dramatically toward the end of his life from that of Maíra, published twenty-two years earlier.  It is nevertheless the case that Maíra shows little such optimism.  Its intention, after all, is not to mythologize a symbolic beginning for Brazil, as was the agenda of Iracema, but instead to dramatize the Brazil of today, which is to say the early 1970s.  That it rewrites Iracema in order to accomplish its task is a striking move on Ribeiro’s part.

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