Now that Zendaya won a Best Actress Emmy for the role of the drug addict Rue in the successful HBO series Euphoria, I’m rewatching the second season. I want to check out her performance and decide if the show is as good as I thought it was when I first saw it.
The series is definitely not for the faint of heart. The story, set in the fictitious town of East Highland in California, is about a group of High School teenagers, most of them still living with their highly dysfunctional middle-class families.
Drugs, sex, and cell phones abound. These characters are portrayed in all their rawness, brutality, and emptiness by an extraordinary cast of young and mature actors.
The highlight of the second season is a play within the show (“Our Lives”), created and directed by one of the students, Lexi, who seems to act as the moral center of the story. The play – stunning in itself for us, the home audience – helps the characters sitting in the school theater see themselves as they really are, with all their flaws and inconsistencies (rather than the fake personas they try to create and project), therefore stirring strong emotions, and leading to a huge unscripted fight on the stage. “Art should be dangerous”, says an assistant to the devastated director to soothe her. But the show must go on.
Most of the relevant current themes are discussed in Euphoria, to some extent: friendship, loyalty, love, the opioid crisis, fluid sexuality, transsexualism, pedophilia, toxic masculinity, feminism, sexual orientation, the breakdown of the traditional family and its values, the difficulty to communicate real feelings or develop an authentic personality.
There’s a lot of physical and verbal violence too. Keeping in mind that the objective of ambitious shows is not only to entertain but also to discuss controversial issues and provoke change, Euphoria is a great show, if you can manage to watch the frequent uncomfortable scenes.
Have you had a chance to watch the show? Please leave your comments in the section below.
This text was first published on February 28, 2016. I felt I should republished it now after the death of Charlie Watts this week. This is for him.
Feb 27th, 2016: Rolling Stones Latin America Olé Tour. After the competent and traditional paulista band Titans, who opened for the Rolling Stones in their two São Paulo shows, completed their participation, the stage began to be cleaned up and prepared to receive rock’n’roll royalty.
The atmosphere of anticipation was almost unbearable; you could sense the electricity in the air. The Stones’ clever choice of Jumpin’ Jack Flash to kick off the evening struck the unfailing spark to detonate an explosion of historic proportions. The crowd went crazy. It may be only rock and roll but we love it!
For the next two hours, some 70,000 fans, composed of grandparents, parents and kids, rocked, sang and responded, as if in a trance, to Mick Jagger’s antics, which, besides great singing and dancing, included greetings, swearing, and jokes in clear, yet heavily accented, Portuguese – he introduced the circumspect drum player Charlie Watts as Rainha da Bossa Nova (Queen of Bossa Nova). I hope poor Charlie did not get the joke.
In certain moments, the show just felt like some sort of ritualistic exorcism, with people jumping up and down, yelling, sobbing and pulling at their hair – I hadn’t seen this kind of fan hysteria since the worn-out footages of the Beatles arriving in the USA in the early 60s.
As the Stones were not promoting any new record, the show was a dizzying succession of classic hits (Wild Horses, Brown sugar, She’s a Rainbow, Miss you, Paint it Black, Honky Tonk Women, You Cant Always Get What You Want – the latter accompanied by the members of the Coral Sampa – which both moved the older guys who packed the Morumbi stadium, and drove the teenagers and 20-somethings wild. I don’t think the younger generations had ever experienced anything as good in terms of a rock and roll concert here in Brazil. Even better: the band seemed to be having the time of their lives: playing like fiends, smiling widely, being nice and friendly to their adoring Brazilian fans.
The show was indeed iconic, offering the public, at least, two sublime moments:
1. Mick Jagger and the beautiful black vocal singer Sasha Allen took the stage catwalk, which jutted into the audience, and sang what will surely become a legendary version of GIMME SHELTER while the light rain that began to fall shone against the bright spotlights, providing a wonderful and unexpected cinematographic context to the song. As the singers danced, embraced – and even simulated copulation on the stage – I noticed people’s eyes welling up at the exquisiteness of the performance. The rain lasted for the entire number and felt like a momentous gift from heaven to enhance the show. See the unedited, raw video clip below:
2. The audience was also awarded a historic 10 min long rendition of MIDNIGHT RAMBLER, electrifying the crowd, who either sang along or just stared wide-eyed at that mysterious 73-year-old sage, a force of nature, with the face of an old and battered seaman who’s been exposed to the harshest elements, yet carrying the body of a supple teenager, serpentining across the stage with his trademark moves, and slyly raising his t-shirt now and then to show off his well-defined six-pack abs!
But when we hear the first chords of Sympathy for the Devil (three-quarters into the show), and witness Mick Jagger stepping onto the stage in a flaming red boa (repeating an act he had already performed in Martin Scorsese’s documentary SHINE A LIGHT – with the difference that, in the movie, they used real fire!!) everything falls into place: we get confirmation of what we have known all along and yet refused to believe. Mick Jagger is either Faust, having struck a pact with Satan, or an alien dropped by mistake and forgotten on this planet!
To say the concert was perfect would be accurate, if only Keith Richards had refrained from singing two songs half-way into the event. Embarrassingly out of tune, he must abandon this recurring fit of narcissism and stick to what he does best: playing the guitar like a god.
The concert finished with the anthemic I can’t get no satisfaction, followed by a discreet display of fireworks. To its credit, the whole show keeps visual effects and pyrotechnics to the barest minimum. What we get is two hours of solid, raw, and uncompromising rock and roll. Worth every cent you may have spent on the ticket!
On a final note, let’s just point out that, although Mick Jagger avoided making political comments on the situation of the country during the show, whenever the movie crew who was registering the event trained their cameras at the audience, small groups would spontaneously break into offensive chants against President Dilma Rousseff.
In his in-depth work, K. David Jackson, Professor of Portuguese at Yale University, focuses on the oeuvre of Machado de Assis, rather than on more personal aspects of his life. If, on the one hand, you wish you’d get to know more about the man behind some of the greatest works of the Latin American literary canon, Jackson’s choice is understandable. Machado was a very private person, who led a rather uneventful and quiet life, totally devoted to his artistic objective: the construction of a philosophical and fictional world.
This detailed work by K. David Jackson isn’t, therefore, your typical biography, but a fascinating study of Machado’s output, illuminating unsuspected aspects of his fiction and acquainting the reader with hidden facets of his creative process.
Here are some of the most engaging points made in the book:
1. Biographical landmarks: Machado de Assis, known as the Wizard of Cosme Velho (the neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro where he lived), was the co-founder and first president of the Brazilian Academy of Letters (1897). His most famous works are the Carioca Quintet (a set of five novels published from 1881 to 1908: The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas; Quincas Borba; Dom Casmurro; Esau and Jacob; Counselor Aires’ Memoirs). He died in 1908 at the age of 69. His image was used on a Brazilian banknote in 1988, and he was the featured author at the International Literary Festival Party of Paraty (FLIP) in 2008, to celebrate the centenary of his death.
2. His importance: According to Jackson, Machado’s writings ought to be placed alongside the works of Dostoevsky, Gogol, Hardy, Melville, Stendhal, and Flaubert.
3. Innovation: Having started off as a romantic writer and progressively become associated with the Realist artistic movement in Brazil, Machado is said to have anticipated the modernist narrative features found in Proust, Joyce, T.S. Eliot, Camus, Mann, and Borges.
4. Features: Machado’s work is hybrid and cannibalistic (intertextual). Through extensive reading, he assimilated and digested an incredible amount of information on Western culture as a whole (arts, music, philosophy, and literature), and based on these sources produced a very original body of work, using the social context of the city of the Rio de Janeiro during the Empire as a means to discuss and represent, mainly through parody and satire, universal truths and human dilemmas.
5. His most important works (such as The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and Dom Casmurro) feature unreliable character-narrators, whose hallucinations dreams and obsessions are said to anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories.
6. Theater and opera: These are among the main influences in the construction of the fictional space of Machado de Assis. Rio de Janeiro hosted a great number of European theater and opera companies in the 19th century, which allowed Machado to be exposed to a lot of comedic operas (opera buffa) and plays, which are not only frequently referenced in his fiction, but are also woven into the fabric of his works.
7. Shakespeare’s Othello: the classic story of the Moor who kills his wife Desdemona out of jealousy is reflected in the feelings – if not the actions – of important protagonists of Machado’s fiction. Othello is, for example, one of the main inspirations of Bento Santiago, the character-narrator of Dom Casmurro, whose insecurity and obsessions prompt him to write his memoirs as a way of persuading himself and the readers that his wife, Capitu, had an affair with his best friend Escobar, bearing an illegitimate son, Ezequiel.
8. Social Darwinism and Positivism – dominating scientific theories at the time – were strongly criticized and ridiculed by Machado, especially through the fictitious philosophy of HUMANITAS, summarized by the motto To the Victor, the Potatoes, created by the mentally unstable character Quincas Borba, who first appeared in The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. He later made a comeback in the novel Quincas Borba (although, in typically oblique Machadian fashion, he’s not the protagonist of the book).
9. Main themes: Machado’s work is a profound depiction of Rio de Janeiro society during the Empire. This microcosm, however, is used by the author only as a familiar context for the highlighting of universal themes, such as legitimacy, chastity, honesty, hypocrisy, adultery and cruelty, which receive a modernist treatment in his hands.
If you haven’t had the chance to read Machado de Assis yet, K. David Jackson’s book will surely whet your appetite. For those, like me, who have read and reread Machado on a regular basis, Jacksons’ work was a surprising and welcome source of new interpretations of the familiar novels and short stories the Brazilian author is most famous for.
Jorge Amado (1912-2001), one of the most popular and internationally known Brazilian authors, started his career writing realistic books that carried a biting criticism of the economic elites and their exploitation of the working classes and the poor. This Marxist phase characterized the first of his works. After the publication of Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon in 1958, however, his novels became more populist and satirical, with a stronger focus on the sensuality and picturesque aspects of the afro-Brazilian culture of the author’s native state of Bahia, located in the northeast of the country. The author was harshly criticized by many for having changed his tone.
With Tent of Miracles, first published in 1969, one could say that Amado managed to strike a fine balance, providing a serious examination of Brazilian socio-economic issues and highlighting the hedonism and colorfulness of the Bahian culture, with its stunningly beautiful mulatto women, the freewheeling sensuality of its people, their lively songs, and dances and the prevalence of African-originated religions and cults.
Tent of Miracles is a strong satire on the parochialism of the Brazilian intelligentsia – which needs validation from developed countries, especially from the US, before appreciating local talents in all areas of art and knowledge. The novel is also an inspired ode against racism, praising the power and beauty of miscegenation. In that respect, we can say that the themes of the book are more relevant than ever in today’s global context of generalized xenophobia, racism, and prejudice against diversity.
The story kicks off when a Nobel Prize-winning North-American scholar, D.J. Levinson, comes across some forgotten books in the library of Columbia University and decides that their author is one of the best anthropologists he’s ever read. The racial considerations and the detailed description of the customs and “folkways” of the racially-mixed people of Bahia found in those four dusty volumes deserve to be known and discussed by the global academic community. The author, a black Brazilian called Pedro Archanjo, lived in Bahia for 75 years (1868 -1943), doing menial work in the streets of the city of Salvador (called Bahia at the time), destitute and unrecognized by his upper-class contemporaries. Levinson then comes to Brazil to experience first hand the theories put forward in the books and to promote their author.
Of course, the announcement of the arrival of the US luminary makes headlines in the biggest newspapers of Brazil. This arouses the interest and greed of the local authorities, intellectuals, and politicians, who wish to advance their own personal agendas, tapping into the newly-elevated status of Pedro Archanjo to scientific prodigy. It’s decided that the centenary of Pedro Archanjo’s birth – about to take place at the end of the year – deserves a fitting and official celebration in the city after all.
At this point, the lesser writer and poet Fausto Pena is hired by Professor Levinson to do research into the life and times of Pedro Archanjo, spanning more than 70 decades. In reality, Levinson’s main objective is to get Pena out of they way so that he can enjoy the pleasant company of the poet’s girlfriend, the journalist Ana Mercedes, an unashamedly social climbing mulatto beauty.
As a result, it is through Fausto Pena’s eyes that we get to know the story of Pedro Archanjo, despite all the gaps, incongruences and half-truths he gathers in his notes. We learn about Archanjo’s popularity among women, the innumerable children he fathered out of wedlock, his work as a runner for the School of Medicine and, finally, his rising awareness of the social conditions of the underprivileged people of Bahia, subject to all kinds of oppression, violence, and prejudice. Archanjo then decides to self-educate, write about race relations, and become a political militant.
Despite its important and political undertones, the story, of course, unfurls against the backdrop of a poetic and colorful Bahia, with humorous anecdotes and detailed descriptions of the rituals of the local afro-influenced religions, the local foods and spices, the dance and music. Jorge Amado kept many original African words in these passages – wisely kept in the translation into English – presenting a complete glossary in the back of the book.
The characters of Tent of Miracles are not entirely realistic, but ironic representations of specific types that populate the Brazilian collective imagination. We can split them into the powerful (corrupt politicians, controlling newspaper editors, arrogant college professors) and the disenfranchised (the malandros, bon vivants, ruffians, drunks, gorgeous mulatto women, old wise men, and gold-hearted prostitutes).
Most of them, however, come across as a bit underwritten; they are not fully rounded characters. Pedro Archanjo, of course, personifies all the contradictions of a typical popular hero, as all his facets are praised in the Carnival celebration held in his honor at the end of the book: minor candomblé priest, vagabond, striker, runner of the School of Medicine (where he started his more formal education), heavy drinker, womanizer, teacher, sorcerer and writer!
Although the book has strong elements of magical realism, especially in the scenes that take place in the candomblé terreiros, the space where the afro-religions and cults have their rituals (devotees embarking in trances; divinities taking possession of their bodies; supernatural events occurring; myth and reality getting intertwined), most of the plot develops in a fairly realistic and straightforward way.
The Relevance of Tent of Miracles Today
Written during the first years of the Brazilian military dictatorship, the passages depicting the brutal repression by the police of the Afro-Catholic cults, the bloody raids against the terreiros, and the beating or killing of their members – which happened especially during the 1920s and 30s – can be interpreted as a fitful metaphor of the times.
The novel, however, does not feel dated at all, as its themes are still universal and very concrete. The irony made explicit in the story is that miscegenation deeply permeates the whole of Brazilian society, and, thus, the bigotry and racism of people whose mixed-race blood is either carefully hidden in the family past or even naively ignored are laughable and hypocritical. It’s time for Brazil – and other countries in the world – to bury the myth of white supremacy and come to terms with the fact that we’ll carry on living in an irreversibly multicultural, mixed and diverse society.
In February 1888, Vincent van Gogh moved to Arles, in the south of France, to make use in his paintings of the bright colours under the Provence sun. He had a dream and a plan to make it happen. He wanted to create a community of artists, all living together, exchanging ideas and techniques, inspiring one another, sharing their innovations and taking art to a whole new level. A new Renaissance would be the inevitable outcome of this experiment. This was the utopia Van Gogh conjured up in his unstable and tortured soul. This is why he moved from cold, gray Paris and rented the famous Yellow House at 2, Place Lamartine, in Arles, in the south of France. It would be the sunny headquarters of a commune of innovators and founders of the Studio of the South, where a new tropical art was to be born.
Van Gogh’s Plan
Whether Van Gogh’s true ambition was to finally fit in, to become part of a group of avant-garde artists and to make up for a life of social ineptitude, loneliness and failure is anybody’s guess. He was no longer young, and he knew he had to find a way for his art to be recognized if he was to accomplish, if not fame, at least financial independence. He probably thought it was high time to free his brother Theo from the burden of supporting him. Perhaps he hoped to pay Theo back all the money he had spent on Vincent over the years without ever receiving any returns. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if Theo’s expenses finally turned into a highly lucrative investment?
Trying to entice Paul Gauguin
Paul Gauguin, the wild artist Vincent and Theo had met in Paris, was Vincent’s first choice for a guest in this community. Gauguin had spent time in Martinique, painting powerful, idealized versions of a tropical paradise. He could teach Vincent something – or so Vincent believed. Gauguin was older and wiser, with a lot more experience and more refined painting techniques. Vincent needed a mentor, a friend, a guiding hand. Surely Theo could help him out with this last financial contribution, supporting the Yellow House project, until their new art became profitable. Vincent was convinced it wouldn’t take long for this to happen. Recognition, fame and fortune were just around the corner.
With this in mind, Van Gogh started a relentless campaign to bring Gauguin – who had also left Paris but chosen the wild primitiveness of Brittany, in the northwest of France – to the Yellow House to share the Studio of the South. Gauguin seemed open to the plan, but he kept putting the trip off. Van Gogh sent him dozens of invitations, trying to lure Gauguin to Arles by singing the praises of the “Midi” (as the south of France is known colloquially), the healthy air of the region, its incomparable light and colors. Gauguin kept accepting the proposal but never actually came. Months went by until, in the autumn of 1888, Gauguin finally decided to travel south and put Van Gogh’s ideas to the test.
The Yellow House
The Yellow House had four rooms. Van Gogh’s plan was to have one of the downstairs rooms turned into a studio, which the artists could share. The other room would be the kitchen. The upstairs rooms were to be the bedrooms. To get to his room, Gauguin would have to walk through Van Gogh’s, but this would certainly not be a problem. Vincent asked Theo for more money to decorate and furnish Gauguin’s room in a suitable manner. His own bedroom would be more monastic. He thought of himself as a monk after all, one whose religion would be his new art. He had decided to live for it. Most of the artists’ time should be dedicated to painting. Their energy should be channeled toward the production of this new art. Despite the famed beauty of the Arlesian women, they would have less sex, avoid distractions and focus entirely on their work.
Unfortunately, it turned out Gauguin had other plans. He and Van Gogh were very different types of men, with idiosyncratic ideas about art and lifestyles. The weeks right after Gauguin’s arrival were peaceful, as Van Gogh made sure to show his guest all his favorite spots in the region, extolling its beauty and the benefits of painting outdoors (en plein air) and explaining his ideas about having nature and people right before the painter’s eyes as models. He also stressed the importance of contrasting complementary colors in paintings and talked about applying the strength and simplicity of Japanese art techniques.
The peace didn’t last long, however; soon, the fabric of Van Gogh’s dreams began to come apart. Gauguin preached about how important symbolism was to art. The motifs, the forms, the colors of a painting should not be linked to direct observation of the subject, he maintained, but come from memory, with all the distortions this might entail. Art must stem from the idea, from the mind, not from the eyes. Art should be enigmatic and mysterious. Gauguin wasn’t interested in painting outdoors. He would see something outside, maybe sketch it and then paint it as he remembered it in the peace and quiet of a studio.
Around this time, reports arrived from Theo in Paris, celebrating the success of Gauguin’s paintings, which had started to attract a lot of attention – and buyers. Theo was very excited about his investment.
Gauguin versus van Gogh
Gauguin painted slowly and methodically; Van Gogh, furiously and passionately. Serious tension began to build in the Yellow House, which assumed a claustrophobic atmosphere when both men were there together. The fear of being abandoned by his mentor reinforced Van Gogh’s latent paranoia, and he soon started to behave in erratic ways, which both bothered and frightened Gauguin. Van Gogh’s mind began to spiral down toward his inevitable breakdown. Gauguin’s success became another source of conflict, as the younger artist resented it and became even more frustrated with his own lack of recognition.
Despite clashes between the artists, Van Gogh was terrified of losing Gauguin and having his dream of the Studio of the South fail like all his previous enterprises. Gauguin, on the other hand, felt sure he needed to leave Arles as soon as possible, before Van Gogh became violent; his behavior was becoming increasingly explosive and unpredictable.
A final altercation between the men on Christmas Eve made it clear to Van Gogh that Gauguin would abandon him and his dream would be crushed. The tortured artist resorted to an act of self-mutilation out of sheer despair: with a razor, he cut off part of one of his ears, wrapped the torn piece in a newspaper and sent it to a prostitute he thought Gauguin was with at the time. Soon afterwards, Van Gogh was committed to a mental institution in Saint-Rémy.
That was the end of the utopia of the Yellow House. Van Gogh’s dream had lasted only nine weeks. However, the works both artists produced during this troubled time are worth millions of dollars today.
Even if the reader did not watch these shows when they first aired, there were reruns throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties, and some of them can still be watched on cable TV and streaming services. Besides, most of them are available as DVD box sets.
Younger people may find it hard to believe we loved those shows. How could we stand the primitive and amateurish visual effects? How could we tolerate the bias against women, gays, blacks and other minorities? How could we sit still through the slow pace, and the lack of jokes and punch lines present every other second in today’s sitcoms?
Well, those were more innocent times, we were naïve viewers, we couldn’t anticipate the complicated nuanced plots, complex social analysis and great acting of shows like THE SOPRANOS, MAD MEN, BREAKING BAD or HOUSE OF CARDS. Those early shows were all we had back then, and the whole family gathered together in front of the bulky black and white TV set to watch them. Few families had color TV in the early seventies in Brazil. Besides, now and then, one of us would have to stand up and reach for the TV aerial to adjust it or pound on the top of the TV set to get the image to straighten up. Did I forget to say there were no remote controls either? Bad news for the couch potatoes.
These were the most popular shows among my friends in those days:
Lost in Space. This was by far the kids’ favorite show. When I was older, my mother explained the reason we were so into that show was that it featured a well-adjusted, loving family confronting the tough obstacles an ominous Universe put in their way. Could be. The aforementioned family – the Robinsons (any reference to The Swiss Family Robinson, the novel by Johann David Wiss published in 1812, is not coincidental) – sets off to investigate conditions to colonize a planet near Alpha Centauri, due to the overpopulation on Earth in the inconceivably distant future of ….1997!
Their trip would last 4 years, during which time they would remain frozen in suspended animation. However, many other nations were working on similar projects, competing with the US. Therefore, the wicked and ambitious Doctor Zachary Smith (Jonathan Harris), who worked for the US project as a psychologist, was hired as an agent by one of these competing nations. He carries the responsibility of sabotaging the mission. The problem is Doctor Smith gets trapped in the spaceship, the two-story disc-shaped Jupiter 2, seconds before it takes off, being forced to leave Earth with The Robinsons. The extra weight veers the spaceship off its original course and they get inevitably lost. He will be a burden to the family and their pilot, Major West, as they face innumerable perils in space or on the alien planets they sometimes land on. Rumor has it the producers’ plan was to feature the family patriarch Professor Robinson (Guy Williams, of Zorro fame) and his co-pilot Major Don West (Mark Goddard) as the stars of the show. But as the episodes developed, the focus shifted almost 100% to the adventures of Doctor Smith (played hilariously by Jonathan Harris), the male kid, Will Robinson (Billy Mumy), and their loyal Robot, who stoically took all the abuse heaped upon him by Smith. The trio simply stole the show. Smith was supposedly gay (and rather camp), but no one talked about it at the time, and there was never any fear that he could corrupt his young partner, Will. The visual effects were pathetic and look ridiculous by today’s standards. The settings and monster costumes are incredibly amateurish and silly too. But we loved the show.
I dream of Jeannie. Everyman’s sexual fantasy come true, there was never, however, a more innocent relationship between a master and his sexy slave than the one sustained by Astronaut Major Nelson (Larry Hagman) and the genie he finds imprisoned in a bottle on a desert island on the Pacific, setting her free.
Actor Barbara Eden, who played Jeannie, was at the height of her beauty and sensuality in those days, and, although the network decency guidelines wouldn’t allow us even a glimpse of her navel, she must have stirred the hormones of many a teenager and young man. Major Nelson, though, seemed immune to her attractions. We, on the other hand, were too young for those kinds of feelings and sensations. Girls loved the little doll house Jeannie lived in inside the bottle, while boys had the time of their lives watching the problems she caused Major Nelson by timing the execution of her magic tricks, accomplished by blinking her eyes and crossing her arms, to whenever Doctor Bellows (Hayden Rorke), the space program psychiatrist, was around.
The Time Tunnel. This show did what every school should be doing: teaching history in a fun and engaging way. This, of course, was far from the objective of the producers, who only came up with a clever premise to raise their ratings, without any noble educational purpose in mind. The show featured two scientists trapped in a time machine built by the US government in the shape of a tunnel, hence the title.
The machine gets out of control and the scientists cannot return to the present. Every episode would feature a story in which they’d land either in the future or the past. The episodes depicting important past events (the Second World War, the eruption of the Krakatoa and the sinking of the Titanic, among others) outnumbered the ones set in imaginary futuristic scenarios, which turned the series into great history lessons. We learned a lot from watching it, and had fun at the same time.
Batman. The most psychedelic show of the era, the 60s version of the Dark Knight was an explosion of color (for those who could afford color TV), unforgettable idiosyncratic nemeses (such as Catwoman, the Joker, The Riddler and The Penguin) and exciting fight scenes during which innovative onomatopoeic speech bubbles popped up on the screen (Pow! Plop! Bang! Craack!). The costumes worn by most characters were duly ludicrous and it never crossed our naïve minds that the whole thing was supposed to be a parody of the comic books. We took the adventures very seriously: the anthological death scene of Catwoman, falling from a tall building after dangling for a couple of tense minutes by the grip of Batman’s heroic hands before plunging into the void, depressed the most sensitive kids of the time. We all loved Catwoman, she was sexy and fun, who cared if she was evil?
Many other shows of the time were also popular, such as Land of Giants, Bewitched and The Monkees. Television evolved a lot in more recent years, and I daresay some of the new shows have way more quality than many of the movies we watch in theaters. I was lucky those silly shows coincided with my childhood and early teenage years: I was able to enjoy them fully without any sense of shame or guilt.
What was your favorite TV show of the sixties and seventies?
Our readers trust our book recommendations. We have been asked to recommend important novels that, for some reason, might not be on our followers’ radar. Therefore, I’m sharing with you five gems of Brazilian Literature, from different times and regions of our vast country, all beautifully translated into English. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did.
The Alienist by Machado de Assis (Originally published in 1882)
What is madness? How can you differentiate mad people from sane minds? These are the questions this timelessly hilarious novella puts forward. Readers will meet the psychiatrist Dr. Simão Bacamarte, an academic luminary of the fictitious city of Itaguaí, near Rio de Janeiro. Having studied in two of the best universities of Europe, Coimbra, and Padua, Bacamarte turns down the Portuguese king’s invitation to remain in Europe as a court physician, deciding to go back to Brazil to conduct experiments and scientific studies in the field of mental health. The plot, however, is only a pretext for Machado to, sarcastically, criticize the theories of positivism, scientific racism and social Darwinism, prevalent at the end of the XIX century. The story takes place a century earlier, though, when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony. After committing 80% of the town’s inhabitants to the special asylum, the Casa Verde (The Green House), erected with public funds, Bacamarte realizes that, statistically, there must be something wrong: maybe it was the remaining 20% of the people, kept outside, who were crazy after all! But the development of new insights will take him a step further…
The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector (Originally published in 1977)
The last book by acclaimed writer Clarice Lispector, published shortly before her death, is the moving account of the life of a poor migrant woman, Macabea, who leaves her hometown in the state of Alagoas, in the northeast of the country (the region in which Clarice Lispector herself grew up, after arriving in Brazil from Ukraine in the 1920s) in search of the elusive dream of a better life in the metropolis of Rio de Janeiro. In addition, the novel is also an insightful reflection on the act of writing, as the fictitious narrator, Rodrigo, in quite a few asides, analyzes his own skills as a writer. According to Clarice Lispector, who summarized the book during a famous TV interview, this is “the story of a girl who was so poor that all she ate was hot dogs. The story is about a crushed innocence, about an anonymous misery”. The book was made into an award-winning movie directed by Suzana Amaral in 1985.
The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado (The Portuguese edition came out in 1988)
The holy icon of Saint Barbara (or Yansan, the goddess of thunder and lighting, as she is known in the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé) is taken by boat from her original site, at the Church of Santo Amaro, to be part of a religious art exhibition in Salvador. When the boat docks, the saint miraculously comes to life, smiles, winks at her fellow passengers and simply walks off through the quay market, raising Cain in the city of Salvador. Her mission is to liberate the young and beautiful Manela from the repressive grip of her aunt and guardian Adalgisa. The plot, however, is only a pretext for the author to take the reader on an unforgettable and hilarious 48-hour tour of the city of Bahia during the oppressive years of the military dictatorship, introducing us to a series of colorful characters, savory foods and sensual religious rites. Mixing fact and fiction, where references to real musicians, singers, artists and political figures of the time abound, the narrator makes hilarious digressions, discussing, among other things, the nature of his narrative and making self-deprecating comments about his writing in a delicious conversation with the reader. This is undoubtedly one of the most accomplished and subversive books ever written by the author.
The Brothers by Milton Hatoum (Originally published in 2000)
Not many books in Brazilian literature tell stories that take place in the north region of the country. So The Brothers (Dois Irmãos, in Portuguese) will probably sound rather fresh to many readers. Besides having the exotic city of Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian region, as its backdrop, the novel explores the life of a range of characters who are also singular in our literature: members of the community of Lebanese immigrants who live in that region. This is the family saga of the tradesman Halim, a muslim, his beautiful wife Zana, a Maronite christian, their identical twin sons, Yaqub and Omar, and their enterprising daughter Rania. The plot focuses on the rivalry and hatred between the twin brothers: the dissipated Omar, who lives at home, wasting his nights on drinking and prostitutes, and the ambitious, goal-oriented, Yakub, who, after being sent to Lebanon at the age of 13, where he lived for 5 years, comes back home only to leave again for Sao Paulo to become an engineer. This conflict between brothers is, of course, an archetypal motif, reminiscent of the biblical tale of Esau and Jacob, or Cain and Abel. Despite its universality, the plot is effectively localized in Hatoum’s fascinating Brazilian tale. Told by a peculiar narrator, Nael, the illegitimate son of the family’s native in-house maid, fathered by one of the twin brothers, the ill-fated story of passions, hatred, and revenge has unpredictable turns and a surprising end. The story also works as a metaphor for the contrasts within Brazil, especially between the underdeveloped North and the more progressive and industrial South.
The Eternal Son by Critovão Tezza (originally published in 2007)
What does it feel like to find out that your firstborn has Down syndrome? This Jabuti prize-winning autobiographical novel by Cristovão Tezza tries to answer the question, as we follow the difficulties of a young father to come to terms with his son’s disability during the 1980s – when this condition was still called mongolism! Finding out that Felipe – the only character given a name in the book – has Down syndrome comes a terrible blow to this twenty-eight-year-old writer, who feels he himself has yet to become a full adult. He still doesn’t have any published books, his wife is the family breadwinner and his uncertain future becomes now even more complicated with the devastating arrival of this special kid. The description of the conflicting emotions the father goes through on his long journey towards the acceptance of Felipe, who lives in an eternal present, can at times make us uncomfortable, as the narrative – written in the third person – is brutally honest, letting the reader into the father’s most intimate thoughts and feelings, while avoiding any trace of sentimentality or self-righteousness. As a bonus, readers who might not know much about Down syndrome, are offered a great deal of information on this debilitating genetic condition.
Dystopias are a subgenre of science fiction that depict a nightmarish society, usually autocratic and controlling, in which the inhabitants or a section of the community are submitted to horrors imposed by the abuse of power or by the fact that technology has gone awry. The plot is usually embedded in a strong political context; the authors predict developments that might occur when trends in social conditions of their own times, combined with ill-use of technology, are taken to extremes. Having said that, some dystopias are written with the future in mind (1984 by George Orwell; Brave New World by Aldous Huxley; or The Circle by Dave Eggers); others take place in the author’s present (Animal Farm by George Orwell, for example). Others are even set in the past, as is the case with Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro, the extraordinary novel we’ll be reviewing in this post.
Kazuo Ishiguro and His Novel
Authors who have made their names writing what is considered high literature – such as Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day– can produce exceptionally refined sci-fi/dystopian novels. This is because they do not overemphasize the importance of the plot or try to deliberately shock the reader with the strangeness of their imaginary dysfunctional world. They build well-rounded characters who are incredibly believable, stressing their nuanced emotions, their heroic and/or flawed deeds, their generosity and their meanness: The overall complexity of human relationships. The drama and thrills emerge naturally and slowly from the characters and their behavior. Besides, these stories give us new insights into the human condition and, under the guise of this imaginary world, the authors tend to be discussing relevant current issues metaphorically.
The plot and the characters
Never Let Me Go is the poignant story of three friends – Kathy (the protagonist), Tommy and Ruth – whose only purpose in life is to grow up to serve as organ donors for other members of society. They are part of a group of people who have been specifically cloned from models (other human beings) and are raised in special training centers, boarding schools in the UK, which lend the whole process a pretense of normality and humaneness. Soon after they finish their education, as adults, they are trained as carers – to look after donors after their surgeries – before they themselves start receiving notifications to begin donating all their viable organs in sequential surgeries, until they die, having, thus, accomplished their function.
The novel is narrated in flashback by the protagonist Kathy, when she is already a carer in her early 30s. She nostalgically reminisces about their time at the idyllic Hailsham, their boarding school, which we find out later was famous for offering the best conditions for the raising of clones in the whole of the UK – unlike the first centers set up as an experiment during the 1950s and 1960s, where thousands of people were submitted to horrific upbringings before they became donors.
Kathy’s childhood and teenage years are spent in the late 1970s and early 1980s. That’s when we get to know Ruth, Kathy’s best friend, who has a strong manipulative streak; Tommy, the short-tempered sporting boy, who is unfortunately terrible at arts, a rather valued skill at the school; and the young and sensitive Kathy herself, who has mixed feelings towards Tommy, but can never engage in a full relationship with him, as Ruth steps in first to become his official girlfriend. Tommy’s personality – his aggression and lack of artistic ability – makes him the target of bullies at the school, until he is aided by a sympathetic teacher who helps him manage his feelings and learn to come to terms with who he really is.
The students have a vague notion that they are being prepared for an unusual kind of future. However they will not know all the details about their tragic fate until much later when they enter society. The novel’s atmosphere is dark, ominous and deeply poignant – almost gothic in certain passages – as we see these kids growing up only half realizing what the future holds for them.
Of course, as in all kinds of impactful dystopian works, the author comes up with specific language to define processes and entities of that special reality. In this case, donors do not die, they complete (passing away after a number of operations); the teachers of the special school they go to are known as guardians. The breed of humans cloned to serve as donors have a first name and only a capital letter for surname: Kathy H, Tommy D, and Susanna C, for example. Possibles are random people they run into occasionally and suspect they are probably the models from whom they might have been cloned.
In the last part of the book, as Ruth’s donations have already started, Kathy becomes her carer; later she is finally persuaded by Ruth to go and look after Tommy, who has already undergone two donations, so they can develop the autumnal – and doomed – romantic relationship that Ruth believes she has made impossible for them to enjoy so far, by standing between the two of them all their lives. She wants to make up for it now that she is about to die.
Some critics say this is the best book Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro has written since The Remains of the Day. It’s certainly a great achievement, having been shortlisted for the 2005 Booker Prize.
The book was also turned into a movie in 2010 and has become more popular ever since. Nevertheless, the language of some of the scenes created by Ishiguro is in itself so visual, beautiful and emotional, that I refuse to let the painful yet rewarding experience of reading those wonderful pages be influenced by any movie director’s interpretation or view of that special world.
No movie for me, thanks! The book has all the magic I need.
“Look, everything the Communists say about capitalism is true, and everything the capitalists say about Communism is true. The difference is, our system works because it’s based on the truth about people’s selfishness, and theirs doesn’t because it’s based on a fairy tale about people’s brotherhood. It’s such a crazy fairy tale they’ve got to take people and put them in Siberia in order to get them to believe it.”