Archives for category: Books

It would be 61 years in the future, not 53. And the people leaving Southern towns in a new Exodus would be Latino, not black. But otherwise, Ray Bradbury was eerily prophetic. Bradbury, who died June 5 in Los Angeles at the age of 91, was a writer of science fiction only in the sense that some of his stories were set on other worlds or in alternate realities—there isn’t much science in them. What there is in abundance is a revelation of interior life and what he once described as an effort to prevent the future, which meant arresting the disturbing present. The threat of nuclear annihilation was part of that present, and so was the national nightmare of racial segregation and lynch-mob violence. In “The Million-Year Picnic,” a couple and their three sons land on Mars just as everything on Earth goes dark. The boys believe they are on a vacation trip, and when they ask to see the Martians, Dad shows them their reflection in the waters of a canal. Maybe humanity, as new Martians, can get it right this time.

When I first read last year about the hapless farmers of Alabama and Georgia, whose workforce of skilled but undocumented pickers had departed en masse ahead of the new laws that would have got most of them jailed and deported, something clicked. The farmers were complaining that legal locals just couldn’t hack it. Wayne Smith, a tomato grower in northeast Alabama for 25 years, told the AP he’d never been able to keep a crew of American workers for any length of time. “People in Alabama are not going to do this,” Smith said. “They’d work one day and just wouldn’t show up again.” Millions of dollars worth of crops were going to rot in the fields.

I read Bradbury in the old Caminho collection of science fiction.


Neruda is celebrated by Chileans–as a poet—to a degree that is truly rare on this planet. We in the North are not used to poets being such celebrities. Our great poets are revered and respected, but really only a small fraction of our society have read their poems. In Chile, though, everybody knows Neruda, everybody has read Neruda: miners, housewives, bakers, maids, school children. To his beloved Chilean people, to so many Latin Americans, Neruda is still the source of tremendous pride, regardless of one’s political orientation.

And Neruda was such a Chilean, such a Latin American, in how much he cared for his country, continent and its people. They were his cause, his pride and the most important audience for his poetry. Though he constantly traveled, he would always return to Chile (only living abroad while serving diplomatic positions).

Neruda’s masterpiece, Canto General, is emblematic of his passion for his continent. The epic poem– Canto, as in song– is a class-based Marxist and humanistic interpretation of the history of the Americas, written as Neruda was developing his burgeoning pan-American consciousness and perspective.

“I live, I still live, and I think many of us live inside the world Neruda discovered,” Ariel Dorfman told me on a warm spring day on the Duke campus, where he is a Distinguished Professor of Literature, Latin American Studies and Theater. We had been discussing Canto General, in which, as Dorfman put it, “He basically named Latin America in a new way, and he claimed for Latin America the possibility of being lyrically and epically in a story of resistance. And what was very special about that for me was that he managed to understand that the struggle of the people for their liberation, for their full humanity, was parallel to the struggle of the nature of Latin America to be expressed, to be freed. . . to be shown.”

“From the political aesthetic point of view, Canto General has no equal,” Dorfman, who was exiled from Chile after Pinochet’s 1973 coup, continued, “There’s not one bad verse in Residencia en la tierra, but Canto General is full of verses I would sort of say, well hey, ‘they’re too propagandistic, bombastic.’ But when he hit the target in the Canto General, what he did was he redefined what America meant. América. Even North America, but particularly Latin America.”

Awesome in scope and simultaneously deeply probing, Canto General is considered by many to be one of the more important books in the whole cannon of the world’s poetry. And it extends well beyond the world of well-versed lovers of literature and academic scholars. In 2003, I went to a construction site on a new line of Santiago’s metro in order to interview workers about their thoughts on Neruda. There, José Corriel told me that Canto General was his favorite book by Neruda because it’s “la parte combativa de Neruda,” the combative side. “The importance of Canto General,” he said, “is that it shows us the Américas’ history from a different point of view.” Canto General, he explained, is told from “the point of view of the people themselves, not the history told by the conquerors. Yes, we could call it the ‘history told by the conquered.’”

He indeed drank deeply from that cup, as Latin America’s poetic essence flowed through the book’s two hundred and thirty more poems, in which he named so much of both America’s integrities and its external evils.

Canto General’s literary roots are the lyrics of his hero Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Mayan’s Popul Vuh and, as seen in “Amor América (1400),” the literature of the Bible. “Amor América (1400)” lays out Neruda’s idea of the American Genesis, a pre-Columbian Eden, before the arrival of the Spanish Conquistadores and the subsequent “imperialistic” foreign powers’ injustices. In this Eden, as Neruda described it, all was pure, so natural that “Man was earth, earthen vase.”

The Europeans extinguished the ancient “lamp on earth,” according to Neruda’s thinking. He portrays the Spanish Conquest as a tragic injustice forced on “his” people, despite his European heritage. The Europeans, to him, were barbarous and ruthless. “Like a wild rose, a red drop fell on the thickness”–so ended America’s Edenic first phase of history. (The poet doesn’t mention, though, the barberry that many pre-Columbian societies had ruthlessly enacted on others within the continent: the blood let by the Inca’s imperialism, the Aztec love of war, the Mayans` human sacrifices, the violence of Apache warriors. . . For he is not just invoking the peaceful indigenous of his land which would be called Chile, he is talking all of the Americas, “from the peace of the buffalo / to the beaten sands of the land’s end.”)

Neruda identifies himself with the indigenous people. “I searched for you, my father, young warrior of darkness and copper,” he writes in “Amor América (1400)”. In the poem, all indigenous people, peaceful and belligerent alike, are his “fathers”; he is their son. Pablo Neruda, though, was actually born Ricardo Eliecer Neftalí Reyes Basoalto, with no native names in his lineage, but rather Spanish family names, with Neftalí, from his mother, suggesting some Semitic roots.

In Canto General, the “pastoral hermanos” are his brothers, presented as the land itself:

My Araucanian fathers had no

crests of luminous plumes,

they did not rest on nuptial flowers,

they did not spin gold for the priest:

they were stone and tree, roots

When the bestselling Chilean novelist Isabel Allende fled her country after Pinochet’s coup, she couldn’t take much with her, “some clothes, family pictures, a small bag with dirt from my garden, and two books: Eduardo Galleano’s seminal Open Veins of Latin America, and an old edition of Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Like the bag of earth, with Neruda’s words I was taking a part of Chile with me, for Neruda was such a part of my country, such a part of the political dreams destroyed that day.”

Neruda is one of history’s greatest examples of a soul rebel who used his pen as his sword in his constant fight for a better world. At his political core was a populism based on his fundamental belief that the common man, the worker, the poor, deserved a seat at the table as much as anybody else:

Neruda’s communism was not based on egalitarianism, but rather the equality of possibility.

Even as a teenager, witnessing the injustices against the indigenous and working class to which he was exposed, Neruda felt the poet’s calling– el deber del poeta: an obligation, a duty, a debt he owed to give voice to the people through his poetry. He promised a commitment to humanitarianism, using literature to enrich, empower and engage in the pursuit of progressive social change.

Domingos Lobo, a Portuguese writer, presents gives us an account of Victor Hugo‘s The Miserable. 

Para Victor Hugo o romantismo «é a liberdade na arte». A personalidade de Victor Hugo, a sua influência, o seu prestígio tornam-no na figura literária mais marcante do primeiro romantismo, tanto em França como no resto da Europa. Vejamos Óscar Lopes/António José Saraiva: «A sua lira enriquece-se de novos temas: a luta contra o absolutismo político (Châtiments, 1853); a evolução e o progresso da humanidade (Légende des Siècles – 1859/83); reivindicações humanitárias (Os Miseráveis, 1862). Este alargamento da temática poética de Hugo deve-se principalmente aos acontecimentos de 1848-50 em toda a Europa, às lutas populares e burguesas travadas em França, na Itália, nos Balcãs e na Polónia contra o império francês, contra o feudalismo do Centro e Oriente da Europa, lutas que vinham na sequência das de 1830, com o sensível aparecimento de um factor novo, a camada operária engrossada pela industrialização.» (1)


Publicado a 3 de Abril de 1862, Os Miseráveis, tornar-se-ia não apenas o romance mais importante de Victor Hugo, como aquele que, em definitivo, colocaria o autor na galeria dos mais respeitados escritores de toda a história da literatura. O livro, que na versão portuguesa a que recorro para este texto se apresenta em quatro grossos volumes (2), é um fresco impressionante da sociedade francesa da primeira metade do século XIX. Da Batalha de Waterloo (1815), às barricadas da Rue Saint-Denis, em Junho de 1832, a épica história de Jean Valjean, o homem que esteve preso 17 anos por roubar um pão, que sofreu o suplício das galés e que, em grande parte da vida, foi perseguido por Javert, um inspector da polícia que tinha um estranho sentido do dever, é descrita com uma precisão de pormenor que só a pena de um escritor de vastíssimos recursos e qualidades artísticas e humanas conseguiria, com tanto rigor de pormenor, traçar. A morte de Gavroche nas barricadas, o resgate de Marius pelos esgotos de Paris, são momentos ímpares em toda a história da literatura. Raramente o romance, o romance que os autores do século XIX construíram e do qual, ainda hoje, com episódicos pormenores de estilo e de circunstância, somos herdeiros, atingiu, como neste texto de Victor Hugo, tão vastos patamares de emoção, quer na forma de representação da vida colectiva da época, quer na denúncia das atrocidades do sistema em relação ao povo miúdo e deserdado da sorte e da fortuna, os problemas de um povo acossado, as suas lutas e misérias, a revolta, por fim, atingem neste fresco lapidar os momentos mais altos e sublimes de que a literatura, a que se empenha com o homem e o seu devir, foi capaz. O ideal romântico de confiança no homem e na sua capacidade de travar as injustiças, a fome e a opressão, capaz, por fim, de transformar a realidade, superando-a, está plenamente expressa neste romance exemplar. Victor Hugo encena em Os Miseráveis (apesar dos fortes componentes românticos que o estruturam, mormente no último capítulo) as experiências de amplas camadas humanas e do começo da tomada de consciência do operariado. Zola tornaria ainda mais evidente estes pressupostos, e ambos, Zola e Hugo, com o seu exemplo e o manancial humano e social, o romantismo como elemento de transformação do real que os seus textos imprimem e transportam, serviria, oito décadas depois, como esteio do nosso neo-realismo. Ou seja, 150 anos depois, Os Miseráveis ainda é, face às derivas deste nosso desgraçado tempo, um romance actual e pleno de sinais e ensinamentos. Os poderes de hoje ainda prendem e perseguem um homem que tenha fome e roube pão.