A few days ago, a perhaps-not-unprecedented-yet-still-weighty crop of books arrived at Biblioklept World Headquarters. Five, to be clear, which is a lot of good mail in These Uncertain Trying Unprecedented Challenging Difficult Fucked the Fucked Up Times™. At first I felt electric joy, and then I felt overwhelmed, burdened even—I’m in the middle of Pynchon’s latest novel Bleeding Edge and I’m reading this really great as-yet-unpublished novel by Adam Novy and I’m still making my merry way through the voluminous volume The Complete Gary Lutz. (And how did Tyrant, the publisher, get that name? Do they plan on assassinating Lutz to ensure their book is truly complete?) I’m also doing my job, which is a bunch of reading and writing, and trying to do the homeschool thing. Is this a complaint? It is not. I am okay.
But so well and anyway—
The five books that showed up initially were a source of joy but then caused a weird panic. I picked up Graciliano Ramos’s novel São Bernardo (new translation by Padma Viswanathan, btw) this afternoon because it was on top of a neat stack I’d stacked. (A big part of my day is going around and stacking things and wiping down surfaces.) I started reading, and the sentences were good. The first sentence made me want to read the next sentence, a pattern that continued. I read the first eight chapters (I love short chapters, and I love short books—books should be over 700 pages or under 200), and really dig the voice Ramos channels here. Let’s take these early paragraphs, which might could maybe perhaps be the germ of its own separate novel:
Until I was eighteen, I hoed a hard roe, earning five tostoes for twelve hours’ work. That was when I committed my first act worthy of mention. At a wake that ended up in a free-for-all, I moved in on this girl, Germana—a sarara, a blond mulatta, flirty as hell—and tweaked the stern of her ass. The kid about wet herself, she love it so much. Then she flipped and made up to João Fagundes, a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses. The upshot was that I knocked Germana around and knifed João Fagundes. Sot the police chief arrested me. I was beaten with a bullwhip, took my medicine and stewed in my own juices, rotting in jail for three years, nine months, and fifteen days, where I learned to read with Joaquim the shoemaker, who had one of those tiny Bibles, the Protestant kind.
Joaquim the shoemaker died and Germana was ruined. When I got, she’d gone downhill—had an open-door policy and the clap.
(lmao — “a guy who changed his name so he could steal horses.”)
Our narrator is a charming brute who brutally charms his way into ownership of São Bernardo, a ranch gone to seed.
Here’s NYRB’s blurb:
Paulo Honório is a sometime field hand who has kicked and clawed and schemed his way to prosperity, becoming master of the decrepit estate São Bernardo, where once upon a time he toiled. He is ruthless in his exploitation of his fellow man, but when he makes a match with a fine young woman, he is surprised to discover that this latest acquisition, as he sees it, may be somewhat harder to handle. It is in Paulo Honório’s own rough-hewn voice that the great Brazilian writer Graciliano Ramos, often compared to William Faulkner, tells this gritty and dryly funny story of triumph and comeuppance, a tour de force of the writer’s art that is beautifully captured in Padma Viswanathan’s new translation.