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O feitico da ilha do Pavao.

Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro. Rio de Janeiro. Nova Fronteira. 1997. 323 pages. ISBN 85-209-09094.

Nothing among the author's dozen-odd titles, from novels of varying thematic hues to political treatise and contemporary, social commentary, is quite like "The Spell of Peacock Island." Only Viva o povo brasileiro (1984), Joao Ubaldo's voluminous roman fleuve, beckons serious comparison. Now, as if in homage to fellow Bahian and longtime mentor Jorge Amado, the novelist has produced a charming, funny, and harmless satire where, amid romanticized anarchy and the dialogic discourse of a supportive narrator, neither heroes, heroines, nor villains lose their lives.

The title-locale, close to yet isolated from both Salvador and environs, proves both microcosm and metaphor for the nation's perennial problems and promise, set in traditional - i.e., northeastern - Brazil during the colony's formative years. Plot, in itself, is a temporally linear string of several action-filled episodes, coupled with a sort of ever-present, amorous coda. At the outset, crown military boss Borges Lustosa, assured of local oligarchic acquiescence, decides to expel the urbanized Indians, many of whom are already happily acclimated. Nevertheless, the ingenious Native Americans, headed by Baldufno, vanquish the well-armed colonial forces through a decidedly low-tech solution: mass diarrhea. In another battle co-plot, Io Pepeu, hedonist son of the decent, much-admired, and powerful Dao Baltasar Nuno Feitosa (alias Captain Horse), together with major assorted good men and women, notably German naturalist Hans, black belle Crescencia, and diaphanous curandeira Degredada, is taken prisoner while passing through the nearby quilombo or freed-slave community, ruled by a tyrannical African. Although all but Crescencia are released, Balduino organizes a brilliant, full-scale attack and frees her too. Meanwhile, Borges Lustosa, still smarting from his humiliating defeat, again attempts to exceed legal bounds by, in essence, inviting in the Inquisition. Fortunately, though, his megalomaniacal designs fall through when his and other upright citizens' largely homosexual indiscretions threaten to be uncovered. Finally, running parallel to or sometimes crisscrossing such epic misadventures is lo Pepeu's obsessive relationship with Crescencia. In all instances, mimetic re-creation bows to caricature, and caricature, to unabashed satire.

In terms of structure, Joao Ubaldo opts for a circular format presented as an extended flashback, an equally thematic continuum that literally compresses the narrative between the first and last pages. Here, much allusion is made to the locale's mysterious, indeed supernatural power as the familiar triumvirate of Captain Cavalo, Degredada, and Hans swears to uphold a pristine Pavao, a.k.a. Brazil, by limiting outside access and maintaining permanent vigilance against social inequities. Just as those guardians of the faith epitomize strength through unity (a crucial thesis throughout), they also provide, by association, a utopian portmanteau of desirable behavior. After all, black slavery is ended; discrimination against the Indian is prohibited; racism is condemned; the Church is derided for its cruelty, arrogance, and deceit; females are freer of male dominance, and homophobia is ridiculed. (The latter two lambaste traditional machismo by their mere presence.) As for the sci-fi, time warp, and hint of Einsteinian physics, they only reinforce the transcendental notions of such behavior modification while stressing the fusion between present and future.

For the author, language is a semantic cascade of varied period syntax as well as vocabulary which was or could have been - at times justifiably erudite a la Alencar and his traditional historical novels, at times appropriately distorted as, for instance, in Luso-Indian-speak. Adding to this linguistic melange is Joao Ubaldo's incorporation of a massive amount of truncated dialogue into the text. In so doing, he not only conserves the flavor and very speech patterns of the original speaker but often does so in a context of parallel, alternative ideas and thesauruslike synonyms. Hence, for the most part, the reader gets not one chance at any point to delve into character psyche but many. As for the narrator-storyteller whose mock-heroic tone oscillates between ironic and sarcastic, he is sure as well to exude multiple parody. In fact, the novelist's intertextual incursions spread from a neo-Gothic opening and closing, crowned with a supernaturalism a la Adamastor, to distant echoes of Devil's Island. Furthermore, Borges Lustosa's political scribbling could just as well form a modest synopsis of The Prince if not of Hobbesian logic vis-a-vis decent government - all this while the forces of good remain immersed in a compassion a la Antonio Vieira.

With his new work, the novelist has produced much more than a distortion of historical record: he has forged an apocryphal utopia that, paradoxically, already existed in the back of readers' minds. It thus comes as no surprise that 0 feitico da ilha do Pavao is an upbeat novel wherein the protagonist is the multiracial collective and daily survival is still an option. In mixing satire, parody, and a busy deus ex machina, Joao Ubaldo has arrived at yet another plateau in an already enviable career of reinvention and interpretation.

Malcolm Silverman San Diego State University
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Author:Silverman, Malcolm
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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