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.