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The biggest recent Brazilian literary phenomenon is Torto Arado—“crooked plough” in English—a novel by Itamar Vieira Junior that has been both a critical and a public success.1 Set in a quilombola community in the Chapada Diamantina (in the state of Bahia), the narrative follows two sisters, Bibiana and Belonísia, who are involved in an accident that deprives one of them of the ability to communicate. Their father, Zeca Chapéu Grande, is a religious and community leader.
The story presents the exploitative condition of labor that is practically slavery, racism, and the oppression of women in a patriarchal society. But there is also room for poetic fruition and optimism, especially associated with mysticism, which makes room for poetic language and affirms the Afro-Brazilian cult of jarê (a type of Candomblé in Brazil’s Chapada Diamantina region) as a unifying element that promotes solidarity among the characters.
Torto Arado dialogues with the tradition of Brazilian literature, especially the second and third phases of Modernism, regionalism, and the neorealist novel. It is curious to note that the very paratexts of the work derive from intertextuality: the title comes from a verse of Marília de Dirceu, by Tomás Antônio Gonzaga, and the epigraph is from Lavoura Arcaica by Raduan Nassar: however, in both cases, the passages are re-signified, taking a meaning opposite to that of the original context.
The book also dialogues with so-called Latin American magical realism. Two works come to mind: Pedro Páramo, in which communication with spirits is similarly ingrained in the narrative structure, and One Hundred Years of Solitude, a novel in which family generations overlap in a manner analogous to that of Torto Arado.
The author explains that his objective was to talk about “black lives,” especially those of black female characters, the most vulnerable people within a racist and patriarchal society. The white characters in Torto Arado are directly descendants of the (not so distant) colonial past. White elites continue to subject the Afro-Brazilian population to a regime of servitude analogous to slavery: the owners of Água Negra farm simply “started calling the slaves workers” (III-1)2. Torto Arado shows the struggle of these populations for survival and their rediscovery and identification as quilombola populations. The book is born from the author’s experience as a civil servant of the Instituto Nacional de Colonização e de Reforma Agrária (National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), and as an academic in the fields of Geography and Anthropology studying the quilombola population of the Chapada Diamantina.
As a solution to the problems presented throughout the novel, political struggle appears in its final pages, when the narrative acquires a marked didactic, almost pamphleteering tone. One of the issues debated is the legitimacy of violence as part of political resistance. Clearly, the violence on the part of the bosses in Torto Arado is repugnant, dating from the days when slaves had their hands chopped off as punishment, or were tied to a post and beaten. While Zeca Chapéu Grande, the community leader in the novel, chose to avoid direct confrontation with the bosses, the new generation seems less willing to accept this strategy. This is visible in passages such as the breaking down of the gates of the local cemetery, as the populace violates the prohibition against burying their dead there. Ultimately, however, the solution to resistance is not found in violence, but in organizing strategies to claim rights. The author himself, as a civil servant, is a defender of this legal framework of protection for the descendants of enslaved people, established by the “Constituição Cidadã” or “Citizen Constitution,” the moniker given to the Brazilian Constitution of 1988.
A weak point of the novel in dealing with political struggle is its falling back on a certain paternalistic tone: the character of Severo, Bibiana’s husband, “traveled to meet the people who taught him things, about the precariousness of the work, about the suffering of the country people” (II-14). It is possible to recognize here a dated discourse (which once guided leftist engaged literature) of pretension to “conscientization of the people.” But it is a mistake to imagine that the exploited need an external explanation to become aware of the precariousness and suffering to which they are subjected.
In any case, throughout the novel, the relationship between literate culture and the traditional knowledge of the quilombolas (symbolized in the jarê) appears in a balanced way, without one knowledge system being valued at the expense of the other. This synthesis is represented in the character of the “teacher who taught about the history of the black people, who taught mathematics, science and made the children proud of being quilombolas” (III-10). Obviously, every novel is representative of literate culture, especially Torto Arado, written from academic research. It is important that a work with “subaltern” characters already be considered a classic, destined to integrate the literary canon.
The two sisters in the novel, Bibiana and Belonísia, invent a sign language, which suggests a sort of literary stylistic invention. Just as one sister becomes the spokesperson of the other, the author speaks for the quilombolas, his characters. When the sisters separate, writing becomes the only form of expression for the one who lost her speech. Her habit of writing mirrors the writing of the novel itself, and is reflected in her appreciation for the verb “arar” (“to plough”), synonymous with “to cultivate.” The poetic prose of Torto Arado is a field cultivated by the author’s ploughing along crooked paths.
The book adopts an admittedly Brazilian language, which is notable, for example, in the pronominal placement. But, despite its regionalist traits, the book was well received in Portugal, where it was initially published after receiving the LeYa Literary Award. The fact is that Torto Arado does not resort so much to regional words, nor does it try to mimic local speech, which certainly makes it less unfriendly for non-Brazilian readers, and contributes to its “translatability”: indeed, its publication rights have already been sold in a dozen countries, including the United States.
The author has announced that Torto Arado is the first book of a trilogy he will write about the people’s relationship with the land. It is natural that the issue of land is especially dear to a geographer dedicated to agrarian reform, who has worked to guarantee quilombola populations the right to land. Without a doubt, land itself is the principal metaphor in Torto Arado. Symbol of death and life, it is the soil that the descendants of African expatriates would learn to love and plow, covering the seed “so that the movement of the world would take care of the rest” (III-13), and also to interpret: “I tried to listen to the most intimate sounds, from the most hidden places within the earth, to rid the planting of the plague” (III-13). It is the land that unites them in kinship, expressed in the novel in the relationship between the two sisters, and also in the filial relationships established within the religious practice of jarê.
But land also symbolizes death. The very title of the work comes from a verse about death. We can observe that death has marked the trajectory of Torto Arado. While writing the work, the author received the news that rural workers with whom he had contact had been murdered in a massacre (an indication of the reality of violence in the countryside, which sadly persists). Furthermore, the author’s moment of joy at receiving the LeYa award was closely followed by the death of his father.
Within the work, as we know, it is the interdiction of burying the dead in the homeland that triggers the conflict with the bosses: “If we could not lay our dead in the Viração it was because soon we would not be allowed on the same land either” (II-19). The book recalls the “Women who removed their children still in the womb so that they would not be born slaves” (III-2): paradoxically, the pain of loss is mixed with the struggle for survival, which also fills the book with vitality. Belonísia feels her body fertile “like damp earth” (II-4). It is in that earth that they buried the umbilical cords of their newborns. The name Bibiana (deriving from Viviana) comes from the Latin “vividus” which means “alive,” so it is no coincidence that the character extols life on that land:
[…] this earth dwells in me, she said, pounding her chest hard, it has sprouted in me and taken root. Here, she beat her chest again, “is the dwelling place of the earth. It lives here in my breast because my life was made of it, with all my people. Água Negra lives in my breast, not in you and your husband’s deed to the farm. You can even rip me from it like a bad weed, but you will never rip the earth from me (III-7).
Associated with the land, the ambiguity between death and life is represented in the clay with which they built their houses, that is, in the paradox of “putting down roots” in that territory without having the right to build using durable materials such as masonry; with abandonment and time, the clay of the houses ends up dissolving and returning to the earth. The same ambiguity permeates other moments in the novel: it is in the pain of loss that Belonísia recovers her speech: “after years, they were the first moans I let escape from my mutilated mouth” (II-15)—this murmur is also a rebirth, like the cry of a newborn baby. This ambiguity can be found further in the expression “rivers of blood,” which first appears representing extermination and then the vital blood flow of a being that is reborn: “it was good to once again be enveloped in the rivers of blood” (III-14). Death and life alternate in Torto Arado, in a cycle in which grandmother, daughters, and granddaughters recognize each other—“she is curious like we used to be” (III-8)—finding it “funny to be able to see life repeating itself like an old story” (II-14).
The term genocide—usually used to refer to the past—is currently evoked also to define the present time. The numbers show that the Covid-19 epidemic kills more black and marginalized people. In the sad times we live in, marked by death—which will soon have reached half a million Brazilians—Torto Arado is a very welcome dose of hope.
Without a doubt, part of the book’s editorial impact is due to the dialogue it establishes with the moment of retrogression we live in, when the scars of the slave-owning past are evident. Just like the new house built next to the old one, abandoned until it dissolved—“while we were making the new one, we let the old one fall apart there” (II-11)—our society is also being built next to the ruins of a past that is still visible. As such, it seems significant that the author has chosen not to situate the narrative chronologically in a clear way. Reading the book ends with a note that baffles the reader: “This is a work of fiction, although inspired by real life.” Although the time of Torto Arado is post-slavery, there is nothing that allows one to claim that it is an era truly left behind.
It is sad to see that all the problems portrayed in the book are echoed in Brazil today. Work analogous to slavery is still a sad reality, in both rural and urban areas, and recent labor laws do not seem to have contributed to improving the dignity of workers. Torto Arado calls our attention to the persistence of labor relations analogous to those of the slavery period, such as that of “the day laborer in domestic services, who takes care of children” (III-4), and refers to the (still current) struggle for housing and for land, for the “right to live” (III-13). He also remembers racism and the “prejudice in public health clinics, in the market or in the notary offices in the city” (III-10). The relationship between the policy of drug repression and black extermination is also pointed out: “the same excuse of drugs to enter the houses, killing the black people […]. We knew it wasn’t an exchange of gunfire. We knew it was extermination” (III-5). There is also in Torto Arado a defense of the ecological cause: an example is in the case of a river that used to flow freely, “[B]ut mining [had] brought a lot of sand to the riverbed” (III-6).
This book began to be written more than two decades ago, so it clearly does not have its genesis in our recent political context. However, in the period when the author takes up and finishes Torto Arado, we were already living through the period of institutional crisis that culminates with the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president in 2018. It is emblematic that the author of Torto Arado received the LeYa award exactly in the days between the first and second rounds of the elections. The president-elect is known for his prejudiced statements towards quilombolas and women, and is openly opposed to pay parity. He has already declared that “minorities have to bow to majorities,” and expresses support for evangelical movements that persecute Afro-Brazilian religious practices. He is also critical of the environmentalist struggle and defends predatory mining.
Despite these difficulties, Itamar Vieira Junior is optimistic, and has hopes that Brazil will soon overcome this phase. This optimism overflows in Torto Arado, anchored in the idea of solidarity (which in the book appears associated with jarê). The editorial success of Torto Arado is a good sign for Brazil today: a ray of hope that, in the future, the slave-holding past and the nefarious present will be overcome once and for all.
Translated by Mark Lokensgard
1 Vieira Junior, Itamar. Torto Arado. São Paulo: Todavia, 2019.
2 The quotations from Torto Arado refer to each of the three parts of the novel (I, II and III) and then to the chapter number. The author’s comments come from an interview on the “Roda Viva” program, broadcast on TV Cultura, on February 15, 2021.
Mark Lokensgard (Ph.D., Brown University, 1999) is Professor of Portuguese at St. Mary’s University of San Antonio. He was a Fulbright Lecturer in American Studies in Brazil in 2010. His research interests include representations of conspiracies and the paranormal in Brazilian and American Culture. His translations of Luso-Brazilian Literature have been published by Gávea-Brown and in the Oxford Book of Latin American Poetry (2009).