The psyche of much Latin American literature is inhabited by storytellers of a mystical, mythic rural past. Oral tradition left a substantial legacy for ingenious writers as it faded away during the century. Ghosts can be conjured up explicitly by Isabel Allende, or they may merely permeate the narrative: witness the veiled but ubiquitous appearances of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's grandmother.
Nélida Piñon, best known for her epic of New World immigration "A Republica dos Sonhos" (The Republic of Dreams), is one of a handful of Brazilian novelists who can claim full dues-paying membership in this spiritual club. As Brazil watchers like to say, that country mostly sat, as was its custom, with its back turned to this, yet another Latin American phenomenon. Jorge Amado, to be sure, saw to it that one of Dona Flor's two husbands was biologically dead. But the deceased's frolicking presence explored not tragic mysteries but posed an idiosyncratic, playful - and typically Brazilian - question: what if Carvanal really could extend beyond Ash Wednesday? João Ubaldo Ribeiro, in "Viva o Povo Brasileiro," makes a Garrincha-style fake toward the spirits, but ultimately scores his goals by other means.
Piñon urges us to dust off our Ouija boards and put out an APB to our ancestors. If we know what's good for us, we'll ask them to stay for dinner and coax them into telling their stories. "We're experiencing a bitter, ungrateful and inglorious concentration of urban life," observes the author of 11 books of fiction. One extreme example: a couple of generations ago, in 1890, São Paulo was an outpost of just 60,000; today, the metropolitan are counts upwards of 16 million inhabitants. "We've witnessed the abandonment of the rural way of life," she continues. "A way of life that was impregnated with myths. What myths do we have in today's urban world? The myth of violence, of solitude, of invincibility; we have the esthetic of isolation, the esthetic of prison bars."
If we're lucky, the old storytellers will accept our dinner invitation. "The myths eat with us at our table," Piñon says, recalling a section in "O Pão de Cada Dia," her 1994 book of snippets, observations and mini-essays.
Piñon takes refuge in those myths - from classical (her speech is unaffectedly peppered with Greek gods) to folkloric - and their once living storytellers. That makes her a prime candidate for the quintessential Brazilian crossover act for the rest of Latin America. She is at once rooted in modern Brazil and the heroic, tragic Iberian tradition. She represents a literary version of the musical encounter between the famed Spanish flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia and Rafael Rabello, a Brazilian guitarist bent on revolutionizing the sophisticated, samba-based chorinho style before his premature death last year.
Little wonder, then, that is was Piñon who last year became the first Brazilian to win the Juan Rulfo literary prize, awarded annually to a leading Latin American, Caribbean or Iberian writer. In the bargain, she also became the first woman to secure the prestigious honor.
The award's regional nature was apropos in more than one way: Piñon is a descendent of Galician immigrants, and the motherland dug in deep. "I am the child of two cultures," she observes during an interview in her elderly mother's comfortable but modest Rio de Janeiro apartment. Overlooking the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Rio's urban lake, the view is anything but modest: the late afternoon sun charms a sparkling show of reflections from the surface; shadowy mountains watch sternly. The dichotomy between the simple, if well appointed, apartment and the spectacle outside evokes Piñon's erudite yet relaxed and friendly personality.
"I was born into a home that was different from that of my neighbors," she continues, allowing the little girl's spirit and enthusiasm to possess her mature body. "I was a Brazilian and I spoke the Portuguese language, but at home or in my grandparents' house, where affection flowed like a river, there were only foreign presences - particularly Spanish and especially Galician. It is an intense, archaic, old world. I circulated between the Spanish-Galician language and the Portuguese language. Between Brazilian food and foreign food."
These characters could indeed populate a potent novel. One grandfather, Daniel, was a rabid anti-cleric who married a devout, church-going Catholic. In "O Pão de Cada Dia," Piñon bestows upon him a one-line epithet: "My grandfather is my narrative." Grandma was no slouch, either. "My beloved grandmother pretended to be sweet, but she was a guerrilla of the soul," says the author. "She listened to [her husband's] complaints about the Church, the clergy, religious institutions. She pretended not to hear. Her's was the resistance of silence, therefore the resistance of persistence."
At the age of 10, Piñon's family moved back to her father's Galician farm village for two years. Her imagination ran circles. After all, she'd slipped into a virtual time warp. Her father's native village was surrounded by small holdings, each closed in my old Celtic-style rock fences. "It was marvelous because I integrated myself into rural life, the life of the European interior - therefore into an old way of life," she says. "It is as if I'd gone back to the 12th or 13th or 14th century because it had changed very little."
During her stint in rural Spain, Piñon's soul became enchanted by the spirits of the region's ancient storytelling tradition: their myths, their narratives - even their archaic grammar and syntax.
"I used to always go talk with those old men, the popular narrators, the storytellers," she recalls. "They taught me that there is a story to be told, that the history of man is waiting there to be narrated. No story had a final ending: it was always to be continued - because the history of man is to be continued."
When she wasn't learning about the storytellers' mythical truths, the impressionable young girl was sauntering about the countryside in search of nature's story. Her companions were the barnyard cows. "I wanted to take the cows up into the mountains, way up there, and my father let me. I would climb up the mountains, prodding the cows along," she says. The only other things present were the region's whispering "aire norte" wind and the wolves that inhabited the surrounding forest. Each could be identified by its eerie, distinctive, sound. "The two strong impressions I had were enchantment and fear," she notes. "I understood that this enigma would be present in my life forever. It was a blessing for me. With that background, I can jump right into the mythological world."
A two-year immersion in rural Galicia left an indelible mark on Piñon's distinctive Portuguese-language writing style. "By speaking Galician as a girl, I was actually navigating amid the rivers and the streams of the Portuguese language itself," she explains. "There once was the Galician-Portuguese language, with a shared root. Portuguese took off and traveled the world, and Galician remained imprisoned by its origins because the region was annexed by succeeding empires. The fact that I spoke a 12th century language consolidated my passion for the Portuguese language. I purified my feelings through language. The language echoes in me not only in phonetic, grammatical and semantic terms, not only in its lexical richness. Language is the eye of my soul. The old form is always with me."
Piñon pays homage to the past without ignoring the chills and spills of the present and future. She boldly made clear her opposition to the 1964-85 military regime. Her final act of defiance was to rush through the 761-page "A Republica dos Sonhos" - often putting in 16-hour days and working weekends - to publish in time to help celebrate what she had hoped would be direct presidential elections in the mid-1980s. The book came out, all right, but the transition to civilian rule was disappointingly made via indirect balloting. Later, she got inadvertently caught up, like most Brazilians, in the hyperinflationary daisy chain. The scramble for daily survival became infinitely more hectic during the inflationary 1980s, and Piñon hasn't slowed down since the 1994 anti-inflation Real Plan. She writes a newspaper column, teaches during one semester every year at the University of Miami, accepts myriad speaking engagements. One result: she often writes on airplanes, in coffee shops, or during rural respites sprinkled between appointments.
"O Pão de Cada Dia" was mostly written in this fashion. Inadvertently, perhaps, the book also provides us with a glimpse at the novelist's creative process. We are, it seems, allowed to study her preparative notebooks. Some snippets hint at form, others at characters.
Even in conversation, Piñon is constantly creating images, correcting them, refining them. Metaphors appear from around the corner, charging out of nowhere, and make a perfunctory rolling stop before entering the flow of traffic. Here, for instance, she begins to discuss a heartfelt desire that our society begin to seriously "debate human issues": "We're being ephemeral. Our lives evaporate, without a fixative; human life is evaporating, without the fixative of good French perfume. Brazil and the rest of the world needs to be less frivolous, less banal, less vulgar. I'm sad about the legacy that we are leaving our children. Tennis shoes are flying like Icarus. Tennis shoes today are more sensitive than human souls."
These intellectual acrobatics just may become part of Piñon's next book. "Before I get to work on a book, the first thing I do everyday is think," she says, explaining her pre-game warm-ups for a book project. "I thoroughly enjoy thinking. It is a daily exercise. I'll go out with some friends for a pizza. I look at the waiter. I invent a story. More than that, he forces me attribute a story to him. It is invention, but invention that is born from human circumstances. To create, in one sense, is a preliminary condition."
Gone are the days when she enjoyed the methodical, calm if arduous, pace popularly attributed to writers. "I used to be known for my self-discipline," she says. "I would get dressed up. It was funny. I liked to use good perfume - as if I were going to the altar. I obeyed a ritual. An initiation ritual. So I had to be well prepared."
With the burgeoning number of female fiction authors in recent decades, some critics have proffered a hypothesis that women are particularly adept at noticing meaning-laden details and transcribing their importance in narratives. In "O Pão de Cada Dia," Piñon recounts the tribulations of the Biblical character Sarah, Abraham's wife, during her husband's intimate partnership with God. "Not even Abraham," starts one passage, "owner of her body and destiny, could say in what corner of his people's history nestled Sarah's memory." As Abraham chases after God, Sarah sorts out the attic of Abraham's memory.
"I think that woman is a great observer because she has to save her soul," Piñon says. "Her soul perished in history because it was not asked to speak. She was aphasic for millennia. I always think that women have an old, archaic memory. She received information about plots and intrigues, even if she couldn't be at the center of action. But she was on the periphery and her sensitivity stems from that. So she had to invent, when details were missing, to understand the story. She developed a capacity for observation that originates from this need. She was forced to look through the key hole."
Piñon is now offering her own keen powers of observation to younger generations. She published her first book for children, "A Roda do Vento," in May. It counts the imaginative explorations of an inventive aunt and her niece and nephew.
A writer who pins her own creative imagination on her childhood, Piñon hopes that similar benefits will accrue to today's youngsters. "They say that the man emerges from the boy, the child," she notes. "In my case, it is true. The woman emerged from the girl."
Order The Republic of Dreams and other works by Nélida Piñon
BrazilMax Pledge Drive - Did you like this article? Consider making a contribution to BrazilMax.