How Czechs See Classic Brazilian Literature: The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

“The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma”, published in its entirety in 1915, is one of the greatest classics in Brazilian literature. With easy-to-understand writing and a satirical atmosphere, the book tells the story of Policarpo Quaresma, a dreamer and a nationalist who does everything for what he believes to be the best for Brazil, his beloved homeland. Policarpo is a very polite and well-educated man that works as a civil servant, but his idealism and beliefs in the greatness of Brazil’s natural resources and culture always end up putting him in comic situations. The main character can be even described as an “ufanista”, a word in Portuguese (that comes from Spanish) for exaggerated patriots who do not admit any defects in their country and only emphasize its good qualities. Throughout the book, this characteristic of Quaresma damages, to a variety of degrees, his life, and the author uses this to criticize this blind nationalism.

The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto, the author of “The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma” (considered by many as his masterpiece), is undoubtedly one of the greatest Brazilian authors of all time. Born in 1881 in Rio de Janeiro, Lima Barreto did not have an easy life. He lost his mother when he was only a child and was left in a vulnerable economic situation. However, a wealthy godfather helped him to pursue his education. During his life, Afonso was a journalist and civil servant. As Lima Barreto was a poor brown man – a descendent of formerly enslaved people – social and racial topics are very present in his own works. Some other aspects of the author’s life can be perceived in this novel, like it being set in the city that he lived in, Rio de Janeiro, and the madhouses that are cited: he spent a period of his life in one because of his alcoholism. Besides references to the author’s life experiences, the book has a strong historical connotation, referencing many events of Brazilian history and also some of the people that were integral to them. 

Lima Barreto

For historical context, in the late 19th Century, the Brazilian Empire was in crisis, rapidly losing the support of the military after the Paraguayan War (1864-1870). In that war, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina assembled (forming the Triple Alliance) to fight against Paraguay; the Brazilian government spent too much money in the battles and suffered around 50,000 deaths. The military forces were expecting better salaries, career recognition, work conditions and more political influence after fighting in that war, but Dom Pedro II (Emperor of the country at that time) did not accomplish those expectations. In 1888, Brazil finally abolished slavery, being the last nation among the Americas to do it. However, the decision was considered too late by many abolitionists who sided with the republicans; it also did not please those – especially coffee producers – who were accustomed to using slave labour. It made the Empire lose their support. Then, the Brazilian government, which used to be a constitutional monarchy, became very fragile without the support of the majority of the classes, culminating in the Proclamation of the Republic in November of 1889, when the military coup d’état deposed D. Pedro II and banned the royal family from the country, making them move to Europe. Later on, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca was chosen to be the president and Marshal Floriano Peixoto (a figure present in “The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma”), to be his vice-president. A short time after his rise to presidency, Marshal Deodoro da Fonseca resigned and Marshal Floriano Peixoto, as his V. P., took power and became the second president of Brazil; that did not please part of the population, especially the Navy, that asked for another election as both Deodoro da Fonseca and Peixoto were part of the Army. That caused conflicts such as the Navy Revolts and the Federalist Revolution, which were important parts of the plot of “The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma”.

Deodoro da Fonseca

Living in the late 19th and early 20th Century, Lima Barreto is labeled as a pre-modernist writer. He did not support the elitist view that all pieces of literature should be written in the standard language, as the Brazilian parnassianism (literary movement) defended, so his works are more colloquial and easy to comprehend, being more accessible to people that did not have a good education. With that in mind, it is important to say that pre-modernism is not a literary school itself, but a transitional period into Modernism, that was marked in Brazil by the “Modern Art Week” that happened in 1922, with the presence of huge artists and writers such as Oswald de Andrade, Mário de Andrade, Heitor Villa-Lobos Tarsila do Amaral, Anita Malfatti and many others. That week brought a strong sense of change for arts in general, breaking chains and shaping an authentically Brazilian art and literature (but, of course, it was not well-received by the conservatives at the time). Unfortunately, Lima Barreto died later in that year.

Anita Malfatti

Even though this book is set in the 19th Century, it still has many current themes. The quote “It is not just death that equals (the people); the madness, the crime and the illness also pass through the distinctions we invented” (“Não é só a morte que nivela; a loucura, o crime e a moléstia passam também a sua rasoura pelas distinções que inventamos”, in the original language) is a great example of anti-asylum discourse, expressing the misery of those who are delivered to those institutions. Such themes as the political prison and social injustices, present in the book, are still part of our reality. Lima Barreto’s “The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma” is simply a timeless masterpiece that balances well comedy, tragedy and historical realism.  

Questions: 

  • Which character did you like the most? Why?
  • Who did you dislike the most? Why?
  • Which part did you find funniest?
  • Why is there a chapter named ‘Goliath’? Who was David in the book?
  • Could you understand the references to Brazilian history?
  • What are your thoughts on Quaresma’s nationalism?
  • Do you think that Quaresma should be mocked because he suggested that Brazil should use tupi-guarani (an indigenous language)?
  • What were you thinking while reading about 19th-century Brazil? Is it very different from what you imagined?
  • Do you think that Cavalcanti had a good excuse not to marry Ismênia? Was Ismênia’s plot a criticism of the obligation of marriage?
  • Do you think that Policarpo should have gone to the battle? Or was it a bad decision?
  • What sort of impression did Marshall Floriano Peixoto leave?
  • What did the president mean when he said that Quaresma was a “visionary”?
  • How did you feel about the ending? Did you feel that it was too abrupt? Did Policarpo Quaresma lose his nationalism by the end of the book? Was Policarpo murdered at the end? Or did Olga accomplish her goal to set her godfather free?
  • What was the target of Barreto’s criticism? 
  • Do you like Lima Barreto’s writing? Would you like to read more of his works?
  • “The sad end of Policarpo Quaresma” is a pre-modernist book. Are there any pre-modernist authors (or something similar) in your country?

Which character did you like the most? Why?

Personally, I really liked Policarpo’s goddaughter Olga who was really warmhearted, courageous and kind. At the end of the novel, she represented the only hope for Policarpo Quaresma and, metaphorically, for the whole of Brazil. Moreover, it is not a pointless coincidence that Lima Barreto chose the intriguing name ‘Olga’ for this character. In the author’s own book collection, there were works by famous Russian writers such as Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Anton Chekhov, Dmitry Merezhkovsky or Maxim Gorky whom he, as the first Brazilian author, discovered. Hence, Olga symbolised the change which either Brazilian or Russian society longed for.

Smutný konec Policarpa Quaresmy / The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma

Who did you dislike the most? Why?

To be frank, I didn’t fancy general Albernaz much since he appeared insufferably magniloquent, wannabe wise, insincere and spineless. The only thing could do was babble about battles he could have fought in but ultimately didn’t and the things which happened to his friends. His character was just a mixture of other people’s stories and fictional narratives and therefore, he seemed untrustworthy.

Even though Albernaz, as a high-ranking army officer, might have felt inferior and basically useless as he didn’t have any real war experience, he ultimately decided not to behave bravely when he got the opportunity to help his friend Policarpo Quaresma out of the prison. Hence, I infer that Albernaz was a vaunted prattler undeserving of any respect.

Which part did you find funniest?

There were several parts of the novel I found funny and liked a lot. To be precise, my favourite chapters were ‘The Guitar Lesson’ and ‘Patriots’.

In ‘The Guitar Lesson’, the first chapter of the novel, Lima Barreto wrote:

“As usual, Policarpo Quaresma, better known as Major Quaresma, came home at four-fifteen in the afternoon. That had been happening for over twenty years. Leaving the Arsenal de Guerra, where he was undersecretary, he bought fruit at the bakeries, bought cheese, sometimes, and always bread from the French bakery.”

The fact that Policarpo Quaresma, a passionate Brazilian nationalist, regularly went to a French bakery is totally ludicrous. Anyway, there are more similar ironies of his character in the book.

The chapter called ‘Patriots’ contained a lot of criticism about Peixoto’s dictatorship and his character which was very funny thanks to Barreto’s historical similes. Furthermore, I also enjoyed the depiction of the brown-nosing literary style of Olga’s husband. Lima Barreto’s humour was generally pepperily ironic and thanks to that, the whole novel was truly readable and amusing. 

Why is there a chapter named ‘Goliath’? Who was David in the book?

In my opinion, the name of the chapter refers to Policarpo’s unsuccessful attempt to become a farmer. Hence, Policarpo Quaresma symbolises the metaphorical Goliath who is ultimately defeated by David – in Policarpo’s case – by gigantic ants which devoured all of his supplies.

Over all, allusions and intertextuality played a significant role in the whole novel. Olga’s character was based on the Russian-literature tradition, Lima Barreto’s caricatural animadversion of Brazilian bureaucracy and the usage of speaking names were inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s works and the character of Policarpo Quaresma can be understood as a Brazilian adaptation of Don Quixote, the main character of – the second most translated book in the world and the first modern European novel – ‘The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha’ written by Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes. The biblical allusion to the story of David and Goliath shows how well-read Lima Barreto was.

Don Quixote

Could you understand the references to Brazilian history?

In view of the fact that my edition of ‘The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma’ contained a special literary-historical study written by the book’s translator, and a brief biography of Lima Barreto including explanations of the historically cultural background of Brazil, I think I could understand it well. Moreover, even though the supplemental texts depicted the history of the end of Brazilian monarchy, the republican movement,  Paraguayan war, Brazilian romanticism and the influences of other (mainly European literature) on Brazilian literature vividly, I have to admit that I researched a lot of information diligently in order to be able to easily puzzle out the novel’s story. This wasn’t completely necessary but it nevertheless made reading the book much more captivating.

Thanks to my good knowledge of Don Quixote and Russian literature, it wasn’t difficult to understand all the hidden allusions. Although the most common interpretation of ‘The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma’ is primarily related to Cervantes’ fantastic knight Don Quixote, I found Barreto’s discovery of Russian literature and the inspiration from Nikolai Gogol very interesting. I’m fascinated by the fact that despite its unimaginable distance, Russian literature, which I absolutely adore, could influence writers in a country which was totally different.

Floriano Peixoto

What are your thoughts on Quaresma’s nationalism?

From my point of view, nationalism has always been something I can’t properly understand. However, I think that Lima Barreto wanted to react to Brazilian romanticism which affected the mentalities of average Brazilians and made them be overly proud of something which wasn’t as flawless, pure and perfect as was described in the books. Barreto mocks this through the hypocrisy of Brazilian elites such as general Albernaz, marshal Floriano Peixoto, doctor Amando Borgesand or admiral Caldas and criticises it with a great array of absurd paradoxes associated with the character of Policarpo Quaresma who goes to a French bakery, whose best friend Vicente Coleoni is Italian and who is eventually condemned by the authorities of the regime he dogmatically supported.

Do you think that Quaresma should be mocked because he suggested that Brazil should use tupi-guarani (an indigenous language)?

This is one of the moments when Quaresma behaves like a dreamer. Policarpo’s idealism doesn’t deserve to be mocked because it actually shows us an interesting point of view around the issue of the indigenous legacy in Brazil and in the Americas in general. I would define this bold and surreal proposal with the term ‘Quixotism’ which is defined as an impracticality in pursuit of ideals, especially those ideals manifested by rash, lofty and romantic ideas or extravagantly chivalrous action (Wikipedia). I consider this idea to be a very good proof that total decolonisation would be nonsense.

What were you thinking while reading about 19th-century Brazil? Is it very different from what you imagined?

Before reading the novel, I actually looked up some pictures of 19th-century Brazil to find out what the country looked like at the time. I was really amazed by it since it looked very exotic and beautiful. The most compelling aspect of Rio de Janeiro of that epoch was the iconic trams – I was really fascinated by them as they were mentioned in the novel many times. They look just so pretty!

Trams in Rio de Janeiro
Trams in Prague

Do you think that Cavalcanti had a good excuse not to marry Ismênia? Was Ismênia’s plot a criticism of the obligation of marriage?

Cavalanti hypocritically abused Albernaz’s family’s hospitality and destroyed Ismênia’s life as she died because of his dissemblance eventually. I don’t think he had any good excuses for not marrying her, he only wanted to gain as much money from Ismênia’s family as he could. She believed him, her father believed him and he cruelly betrayed them. Cavalanti was one of the book characters I resented immensely. 

Also, Lima Barreto deliberately lambasted the typical perception of marriage and women’s dependence on men. This criticism wasn’t present only in the Cavalcanti-Ismênia relationship, but also in the Amando-Olga relationship. However, unlike Ismênia whose fate was solely tragic, Olga’s brave character represented the last hope for Policarpo Quaresma and for Brazil metaphorically.

Do you think that Policarpo should have gone to the battle? Or was it a bad decision?

To be frank, I am not aware of any good decisions made by Policarpo Quaresma as all of his plans failed. Therefore, I consider his military activity to be a climax of his bold tomfoolery.

What sort of impression did Marshall Floriano Peixoto leave?

I believe that Floriano Peixoto, who represented a real historical figure – the 2nd president of Brazil, symbolised a typical populist dictator obsessed with power. Quaresma, because of his naivety, yielded to his dominant authority and decided to fight for his regime. Ultimately, Policarpo realised that Peixoto’s regime was spoiled, and ended in a prison during the usual post-war ‘house cleaning’. Peixoto was another of many hypocrites in the story. It is ridiculous that Policarpo is mocked by others even though he is the most positive and innocent character. Quaresma becomes a victim of evil society.

What did the president mean when he said that Quaresma was a “visionary”?

As I feel it, the president is referring to Quaresma’s ability to see things differently to other people. In the whole concept of the novel, Lima Barreto used this as an allusion to Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Visionaries struggle with being understood by other people and this was both Policarpo’s and Don Quixote’s issue. Sometimes, because of their ability to interpret the world distinctly, visionaries reveal something controversial and potentially dangerous for the ruling regime. Quoting the essay ‘Power of the Powerless’ by the first post-communist president, democratic underground activist, revolutionary and human-rights defender Václav Havel, Policarpo’s genuineness can be described this way:

‘He has upset the power structure by tearing apart what holds it together. He has demonstrated that living a lie is living a lie. He has broken through the exalted facade of the system and exposed the real, base foundations of power. He has said that the emperor is naked. And because the emperor is in fact naked, something extremely dangerous has happened…’

Hence, for not being a hypocrite, and instead being an honest visionary, Policarpo had to be muffled.

Václav Havel and the Rolling Stones

How did you feel about the ending? Did you feel that it was too abrupt? Did Policarpo Quaresma lose his nationalism by the end of the book? Was Policarpo murdered at the end? Or did Olga accomplish her goal to set her godfather free?

Frankly, the end was interesting. I actually liked it because I don’t mind open endings. I infer that, although Policarpo eventually lost his nationalist illusions,it was too late in. According to the book’s title, I don’t think that poor Policarpo Quaresma managed to survive. Nevertheless, we will never stop hoping because Olga is the only person who can save both Policarpo and us.

What was the target of Barreto’s criticism?

I think it was mainly Brazilian bureaucracy, unjustifiable nationalism, brown-nosing, hypocrisy, traditional conception of marriage and hatred towards people who are different somehow. 

Do you like Lima Barreto’s writing? Would you like to read more of his works?

Yes, I really enjoyed it. At the beginning, I had to get used to Barreto’s style concerning the huge number of characters for such a short novel. Nevertheless, it was very interesting and I liked the novel a lot. Furthermore, I immensely appreciated the extra-texts containing the explanation of Brazil’s late 19th-century history and the author’s biography. I feel stupendously culturally, historically and literarily enriched. 

Otherwise, I would really want to try other works by Lima Barreto but the problem is that there aren’t any others translated into the Czech language.

‘The sad end of Policarpo Quaresma’ is a pre-modernist book. Are there any pre-modernist authors (or something similar) in your country?

Pre-modernism didn’t influence Czech literature. Concerning the European literary evolution, the first half of the 19th century was mainly related to Romanticism (Mácha, Erben), in the second half, realists dominated (Neruda, Němcová). At the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, modernists began to be widely popular (Březina, Dyk) and then, during the era of the First Republic (1920s and 1930s), the avant-garde seized the Czech literary scene (Nezval, Seifert).

However, there is one book which is, in many ways, similar to the ‘Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma’. In the early 1920s, Jaroslav Hašek, a significant Czech author published a novel called ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ which later became the most successful Czech book in the world. Hašek narrated a story about a Czech soldier who served in the Austro-Hungarian army in WW1 (Czechia was a part of the Habsburg monarchy from the 16th century to 1918). Nevertheless, characters in ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’ are basically caricatures of the Czech nation (not only) in the times of WW1. Today, Švejk represents a stereotype of the typical Czech and this funny novel amuses thousands of people all around the world. Although Švejk is a cunning prattler who constantly drinks beer, tell stories and loves playing with the ambiguity of the Czech language and on the other hand, Policarpo Quaresma is a bamboozled and kind Brazilian nationalist who becomes a victim of his beloved country’s regime, these two characters have one vital aspect in common – they are both literary figures whose certain striking characteristics are exaggerated in order to create a grotesque effect. In other words, they aren’t meant to look vivid and instead, their characters should give us an insight into the societies of Brazil and Czechia at the turn of the 20th century. I recommend both of these books to everybody who is interested in literature.

Portuguese edition of ‘The Good Soldier Švejk’

Vojta

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