Years of Lead and Other Tales

Image: Michelangelo Pistoletto


Commentary on the book by Chico Buarque de Holanda

“It is almost the symbol of the Brazilian cultural crisis that filmmakers, poets, novelists, theater men, plastic artists try to solve through populism, which is the cultural manifestation of the present social and political moment in Brazil” (Jean-Claude Bernardet, Brazil in movie time).

“Also within the scope of the superstructure, appearance is not only the concealment of essence, but derives forcibly from essence itself” (Theodor W. Adorno, “On the fetishistic character of music and the regression of hearing”).

Rightly or wrongly, it doesn't matter, the reading public expects a lot from a new book when the author is a famous, award-winning writer and, even more so, when he is also an internationally renowned singer, composer and performer like Chico Buarque de Holanda. Perhaps it is even an exclusively Brazilian case, a writer who has previously built a professional career as a musician and achieved such success. Hope in this case seems to be valid based on a kind of imaginary promise that sometimes conditions excessive demands; on the other hand, as usually happens, the book's announcement triggers a flood of laudatory judgments that, at other times, dispense their heralds from reading, in the same proportion of the dogmatic and obnoxious adherence from which they result.

The fact is that, especially in Brazil, we read the musician more than we listen to the writer. And this perhaps because of the history of the constitution of the artistic work that reached fame, first and preponderant, on records and stages, while literature followed in the office and library, at a regulatory distance from popularity and musical consecration. For this reason, the public in front of Chico Buarque's books seeks to confirm in the books the critical suggestion, the political protest, the social denouncement and the artistic ability of lyrics such as "Construção", "Meu caro amigo", "Despite you ” and many others.

And some of those stories years of lead confirm, in part, this intention. Cida's daughter “was born looking hungry”; won't the boy narrator of the short story “Years of Lead” say to his military father: “When the time comes / this suffering of mine / I'll charge it with interest, I swear”? The short story “O Sitio” expresses something from the lyrics of the song “Bastidores”: “I ran back to our home/ I came back to make sure/ that you will never come back/ You will come back, you will come back.”

It may be of minor importance in the economy of these considerations, but I would like to address part of the materiality of the book, as the editorial solution was certainly planned to reach both the musician's and the writer's public, which, not infrequently, coincide, and , therefore, made use of a peculiar type of nostalgic appeal by summoning the golden years of opposition to the years of lead, and, with that, the youth of that same audience. The emphasis on the title of the last short story as the title of the book could not be more accurate in this “no more nostalgia” project and perhaps the pocket format, due to its size, the typographical stain and with a good legibility font, recall the solutions of the famous paperbacks from the Folio/Gallimard collection, even though it contrasts with the hard cover, which is perhaps something like the prêt-à-porter resistant, durable and convenient to the shelves of bedspread in ports, airports, roadports, kiosks and similar department stores.

It is always useful and providential to guard against the typical cynicism of the middle and upper classes, in its version of cultural varnish, whose risk Theodor W. Adorno recalled and emphasized something in the text “The schema of mass culture” (p. 164) about the publishing phenomena absorbed by the cultural industry and transformed into bestseller. “As for the social criticism novels that travel through the machinery of best sellers, it is no longer possible to distinguish to what extent they mirror social atrocities with the intention of denouncing or serve as entertainment for an audience that actually expects something similar to Roman circuses”. The problem here, therefore, concerns the public and is rather about the reception of the work, how it should not be read, and less about how the author intended to present it. Learning to see the world is, above all, learning to read it.

Therefore, when faced with the title and the author's name, fans, intellectuals, former militants, militants, followers, faithful and admirers recognize the great conjunction that we dream of as political militancy (alternative), artistic ideal (libertarian), antidote social (symbolic) or front of resistance (effective) to the political, social and economic catastrophe, in the past and in the present. We feel, finally, concerned, contemplated, justified and perhaps even rehabilitated, even if, rigorously, the world and Brazil remain full in what Oswald de Andrade called “the system of Babylon”. However, limited to the care of the call, above all, to the usual high-class cats, to the dwindling middle-class intellectual dilettantes, to a few well-off lower-class people, to a pittance of poor people and not a single miserable person.

If, according to what appears in the author's biography as an appendix to the volume, Chico decided on a musical career when he released, in 1959, the album Enough of longing, by João Gilberto, this may give notice of how Chico remains attentive to quality artistic creation, according to his own criteria, and how much inspiration he draws from this to design the next step. Perhaps it is not an exaggeration to assume that with the literature that practices something similar has happened, both as a playwright (halfway between text, song and theatrical performance), and as a novelist and short story writer. In this case of Years of Lead and Other Tales, we could even consider short story writers/chroniclers who were contemporaries of the father of bossa nova. And Chico's preferences, models and inspirations seem to be present in these texts by years of lead.

In review for Folha de S. Paul On the occasion of the launch of the book, last year, Alcir Pécora highlighted some of Chico Buarque's important references: Rubem Fonseca, José Agrippino de Paula, Sérgio Sant'Anna, Dalton Trevisan. I would also add the prose of Drummond's chronicles and the rawness and brutality of Nelson Rodrigues' formulations, the police narrative of Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza and the urban-anthropological prose of Paulo Lins's Quebrada. In this text, I would like to mention some of these supplementary approximations (Drummond, Nelson Rodrigues, Luiz Garcia Roza and Paulo Lins) and, if possible, highlight some of the peculiarities of the author of Years of Lead and Other Tales.

We know that one of the criteria for examining works, whether artistic or critical, is the author's ability to convince critics and artists about the proper and consistent insertion, in a given tradition, of what he proposes and makes public. Any new perspective does not matter beforehand, therefore, if it is not a way of expressing affiliation and a certain family air. It is not a question of manifesting an interpretation if the roots to which it is linked are not more or less clear. This is basically the opposite condition to that of the naive reader once praised by the critic Augusto Meyer. Because the seasoned reader, if we can put it that way, is not fooled by the plot, by the beautifying makeup, because he is permanently alert to more essential depths. In other words, the seasoned reader is self-sufficient.

And what does this have to do with Chico Buarque's book? Almost everything, because being from the generation that it is; having participated in what he participated and participates in, politically and artistically; being the son and brother of who he is; given the age he is and the commitment he calls for, then nothing more permissible, it seems, than to scrutinize, according to the experienced reader, what and how these affiliations are expressed and reverberated in the work. But I would like to combine the attitude of pretending to be seasoned and experienced that school and perhaps gender habits demanded of me with some residual (if not illusory) naive point of view, of the reader who participates and surrenders to the superficialities that the story account. After all, they have said it with more elegance and authority than any commentary on literature that boils down to a bit of autobiography.

In order of presentation, the eight short stories (eight times favela?) years of lead are: My uncle, The passport, Cousins ​​of Campos, Cida, Copacabana, To Clarice Lispector, with candor, The site and Years of lead. If it is acceptable to reduce the plots, respectively, to the following formulations: The girl prostituted by the family, The great scoundrel artist, The miserable life of the boys, The miserable life of the pregnant beggar, Torture and delirium, Obsession and deviations of a young/old fan , Misadventures of a Couple in the Dark Forest, Horror and Sadness in the Years of Lead, then, adding the fact that seven of these tales take place in the city of Rio de Janeiro and “O Sitio”, despite being in a mountain town, has the life of city ​​of the characters as a reference, the set results in urban stories of material misery (of the poor) and spiritual misery (of the wealthy). The naive reader sympathizes with what poverty entails for both.

I think that all these stories would accept the connection with the title of Nelson Rodrigues, Life as it is…. The formula spread so much from the newspaper and through speech that it became synonymous with reality, with the crudeness or brutality that would profoundly characterize life, above all, beyond the narrow limits of perception of the average urban existence, of its reddened moral scruples, with the right to three meals a day.

But it seems that Nelson Rodrigues' influence on Chico Buarque has a political limit, which in the latter's case implies the need to be cautious, while the former felt authorized to insult anyone in a different position, see the tremendous excesses and prejudices he cultivated and manifested without mincing words. The theme of sexuality in years of lead, for example, is fixed from the exclusive heteronormativity, swear words are behaved, inequality is schematized and violence is stylized[I].

Em Speak, almond tree, from 1957, Drummond wrote a chronicle, “by poetic enlightenment”, telling how he received, together with his friend Abgar Renault, Greta Garbo at the Grande Hotel, in Belo Horizonte. According to Drummond, “Greta traveled incognito in South America, possessed by tedium vitae, and found his angular and disturbing figure in the capital of Minas Gerais”. Greta was tired of the many cinematographic roles and, according to the poet-chronicler, “I would like to stay with you forever, milking the cows on a farm in Cocais.”

José Agrippino de Paula published in 1967 the novel panamerica in which the narrator character coexists with celebrities of American cinema and some Americanized ones. In the short story Copacabana, Chico puts all this together and conceives, through the narrator's delirious route, a variety of writers, filmmakers, singers, actors and actresses, among which Ava Garder and Romy Scheider stand out in the narrator's admiration, however, with a cat's hand trained in other political rooftops, presented these ingredients in the suggestion of the most perverse instrument of any dictatorship, torture[ii].

The psychoanalyst and writer Luiz Alfredo Garcia Roza became famous as an author of crime novels in the late 90s, with the debut of the silence of the rain. One of the outstanding characteristics of Garcia Roza's literature is both the use of famous authors of detective novels (Doyle, Christie, Chandler, Poe, Hammett, James etc.), the type of sympathetic and temperamental detective (sometimes cultivated, insightful, patient, sometimes brutal, violent and impulsive, but almost always accurate), as well as for what is perhaps one of the hallmarks of the genre, although it is not the rule, the fact that they take place in urban settings. One of the social types represented in Garcia Roza's books is that of the beggar who knows every corner of Copacabana in detail.

For the account of these approximations, it would be worth nothing if it did not bear a resemblance to the life and dramatic conditions of the life of Cida, a character in Chico, queen and wife of the emperor of Labosta, whose daughter, Sacha, has the same name as another princess, daughter of the famous “queen of the little ones”. In the case of our author, however, the distinctive trait is that the focus is entirely on the character, and only secondarily on the narrator who accompanies her and is, by her, taken, at times, as a policeman, spy and lawyer, without him denying . Antônio Callado square, where she “lives”, at the beginning, disappears in the end as a public place, passing to the domain, with the participation of the city hall, of interest only to the residents of the buildings in the surroundings. The character's madness is completely helpless. There is no State, only landlords and, in this case, the homeless solitary.

This is combined with a narrative mode that Paulo Lins developed from his training in anthropology and that appears as a resource in City of God which is based on examining life in poverty in detail, following the dynamics of communities, interviewing residents about the most problematic issues and gaining confidence to the point of being able to enter people's homes, as a narrator, as a participating member of Rio's poverty, which provides the basis of the legitimacy and consistency that anthropological research seeks.

Paulo Lins gave literary form to the social content with full knowledge of the facts, and united a part of his own life, personal and academic, and another part of the literary tradition. There are very few characters in City of God whose condition of life is not invaded by the narrative camera. Perhaps it is not for nothing to highlight one of those who escaped this consented invasion, the white Sandro Cenoura. In the short story “Os primos de Campos”, the narrator in the first person, as in City of God, gives testimony about her own shame, the ills she suffers from enuresis, about fears and doubts, and takes the reader to the half-open door of her mother's room, where she is naked with her police boyfriend. The cousins ​​could be from Cidade de Deus.

In Chico's tale, however, the boy who tells the story uses formulations that are sometimes implausible. For example, we know that he is an admirer of his brother and goes to beach games, but when his brother starts training at Fluminense's field, and later when the youngest gets permission to attend training, he writes: "And here it is for me given to see, from the edge of the Xerém field, the peculiar technique that he [the brother] developed to penetrate the opposing defense”. I imagine some character from City of God listening to this kid: “Are you kidding me?” Another example, a little earlier, to break the news that his brother had passed the Fluminense screening, he wrote: “It goes without saying that my brother passed the tests right away.” Well, well, mate, is that a way of saying it? When he later forgets the death of his younger cousin, he reflects: “It is not the first time that I have erased an extraordinary, incomprehensible event from my memory, more or less as a dream from which we wake up with a start fades away.”

That same boy who, despite catching his mother with the policeman and his girlfriend with his older cousin, “doesn't really believe that”, as he repeats. He doesn't convince us either of being naive, or of having learned to write just with tips from his girlfriend. In any case, the same elements of the others are present in this story: police, torture, militias, misery, lack of rights, violence and helplessness.

Two features stand out from years of lead, time in ruins due to the emphasis on what the 1960s/70s called “Youth Power”, from which the relevance of youth would gain public space, even if the stories are not limited to that time, the title, in a way, bundles -as in a kind of imaginary and allows a hypothesis of connection between past and present, but no longer as a source of expectation, but as the exact opposite, that of the new time in the world.

And it is not despicable that the poor and poverty appear and star, directly or indirectly, in the stories. There is a peculiar treatment that became possible only by the accumulation of experiences from the artistic, political and historical tradition from which Chico benefits and materializes in a great style of narrative fluency, appeals to sensitivity and intelligence, sophistication in the construction of plots and thought-provoking formulations.

In my view, some of the distinctive traits could be outlined as follows: the stories in this book unfold in the time and space of violence, times of dictatorship and spaces of torture; urban prose is politicized here and its aspects in each story converge to link the stories; no kind of natural or social exoticism and wonderful city is resorted to, and Rio, in these stories, is a city submerged in political disaster, past and present, so nothing in the book can be edifying, the rule is an open fracture in the ruins of a democracy that did not take off, where scoundrel and violence are, indeed, broad, general and democratic rules.

Perhaps this can be a sample of life as it has been (and literary dexterity does not distract us), but as it should not continue to be, and if it continues, we are all and all from now on active participants, therefore, to a certain extent authors, accomplices and co-responsible, call it what you will, for the duration of the dramatic social and political misery, whether those who have nowhere to live or what to eat, or those who are concerned about someone else's passport or whether their diet will be vegetarian. As many have recognised, with or without exaggeration, years of lead It's one of those books that, once read, it's hard to take your mind off the problems it captures and frames literarily.

*Denilson Cordeiro Professor of Philosophy at UNIFESP, in the Department of Exact and Earth Sciences, campus Diadema.



Chico Buarque from Holland. Years of Lead and Other Tales. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras, 2021, 168 pages.



[I] Em Brazil in movie time, Jean-Claude Bernardet, considering the film five times slum, especially referring to the second episode, “Zé da Cachorra”, writes about the characterization of the privileged condition of the high-end grileiro: “A left-wing film that borrows its conception of the high bourgeoisie from Nelson Rodrigues. It is about exposing the wealthy to public depreciation. This naive and unrealistic view of grand finism is the result of the authors' exclusive imagination and does not hide the secret aspiration, which remains alive in any petty-bourgeois group, of someday reaching that level of life. […] Behind this epidermal satire, the bourgeoisie remains intact, without a scratch.” This is the political limit from the perspective of left-wing filmmakers that Bernardet identifies and studies in relation to the bourgeoisie, in this case, mainly the industrial one. I owe the memory of this passage to Silvio Rosa Filho.

[ii] Eduardo Socha sees in the short story “Copacabana” and in the centrality of the theme of torture a decisive key to understanding and interpreting the book. The image on the cover of this edition, by Solange Pessoa, in what it contains as a suggestion of a person writhing and, it seems, unwillingly confined, can perhaps be understood in the same sense as this hypothesis about torture.

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