Kiss me where the sun can't reach

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By REMY J. FONTANA*

Commentary on the book of fiction by historian Mary Del Priore

With this sensually provocative title, historian Mary Del Priore makes a successful foray into fiction, however based on facts, documents and true characters from Imperial Brazil during the Second Reign, a period in which the Tupiniquim aristocracy associated with the coffee barons lived their final decades , trampled by the abolitionist movement and republican agitation. One questioned the economy based on slavery, the other pointed to the end of the monarchy, placing on the agenda, respectively, the question of introducing “free work”, of capitalist wages – which would have European immigration as one of the answers, and in the same movement the abandonment of former slaves to their own fate -, and the emergence of the republic, which would take place through the not very promising tricks of a military coup.

In an ingenious construction that alternates between characters' reports, diaries, letters and journalistic chronicles, the author recreates an era, gives contours to a type of society, projects us into the processes lived there, making us, as it were, contemporaries of those beings who inhabited those times. preterits, that social ground, that cultural climate. It is a transport of regressive imagination, a dive into the personal memory of characters, of a collectivity, of a sociability.

It is against this background that we will meet Nicota Breves, a coffee baroness, Maurice Haritoff, a Russian count who will become her husband, Regina Angelorum, a former slave, lover of the count and later his wife and many other extras, whose journey we will follow in the details of their experiences, their circumstances, their conditions, their moments of elevation, pleasures and ostentation, and of their opposite, the affective mistakes, economic bankruptcies and moral collapse. They move between different societies and cultures, Brazilian, French, Russian, with their particularities, their codes, their determinations that are imposed on the characters, marking their behavior, demarcating their expectations, and their destinations.

Nicota's existential path can be demarcated by three feelings, resignation, melancholy and death. The alternating and combined times and ways that she experiences such affections are as if summarized in her lugubrious reflection on the imminence of her death: “I die of pain, covered in blue stains that mark my arms. They are the stains of melancholy. I drink the rest of my life without thirst”. (…) “I must accept my destiny”.

On board the ship that brings him to Brazil from Paris, where in the hold are some poor German immigrant settlers who have been promised a world of riches, Maurice anticipates what awaits him in this tropical land with promises of eternal summer. Also with the expectation that there is a fortune to be made, not because of the arduous effort to which poor immigrants are consigned, but because of the wide and elegant avenue of marriages with coffee farm heiresses, who in this exchange of mutual advantages would be awarded with honorary titles of European nobility (at that time, decadent).

From this aristocratic opportunism that comes to the new world to obtain easy riches no longer available in its homeland, Maurice will take a long time before stripping himself of the swagger that marked his character and lifestyle in St. Petersburg or Paris. His ingrained arrogance, typical of those of high status at the time, would only begin to give way when economic difficulties and personal hardships began to impose a reality on him that went beyond the “frofros”, the frivolous curtseys and courtesies of his environment and his relationships.

It is when he realizes that there is a justice for the powerful and rich, and another for the poor and disinherited, that instead of judging errors, misdeeds or crimes according to their importance, he did so according to the social class that committed them; when he bitterly realizes that the society to which he had belonged until then fawned over him and showered him with attention while he was rich, and that when he finds himself poor, it treats him with the delicacy of an ass's kick. It is when, already widowed by Nicota, at the moment when he intends to rescue the “poor girl”, a former slave, his mistress from her degraded condition by making her his wife, that Maurice finds the path of his disalienation, in search of a redeeming dignity .

In a sad reckoning with friends, family and with himself, when he has nothing else to do or say in the face of the emptying of his world, he finds a moment of lucidity by way of consolation: “Intelligence has the instinct for Truth; conscience, the instinct of Justice, the heart, in short, the instinct of Love”.

What we know in this account of the peculiarities of Brazilian manorial society comes mainly from the characters of its upper strata, from their class position, from the prerogatives of their privileged status, from an ideology that delimited their interests as those of the country. For this reason, the end of slavery, which guaranteed them wealth, form and lifestyle, appeared as an intolerable specter, as a threat to be exorcised, as a negator of “their good society”, as national economic ruin, the end of times , harbinger of chaos.

This perspective of the ruling class is inextricably understood by that of the opposing class, mostly composed of slaves; we see how their working condition was configured, especially in the coffee plantation, but also in a subsidiary way in the variety of menial occupations, inside the manor house or in urban occupations. Other spheres of slave sociability are also described, such as religiosity, entertainment, knowledge, which build up a panel of their way of life and their position in that type of society.

With the end of slavery, the monarchical political regime also goes down the drain; an aging world is preparing to leave the scene, its characters have exhausted their strength, their manners and lifestyles have lapsed, it is the end of a class, of an estate, of a system. Another class and another system are preparing to take their place: the industrialists and the republic; would these be heralds of progress and a bright future, or would they already bring with them the corrupting germs, sources and origins of other inversions of values, other plutocratic ostentations, other exclusions and discriminations?

Del Priore's book joins the lineage of those who help to make the past intelligible, from whose remains the plot of subsequent history is woven. The more we learn from this process, the greater the chance of unraveling some knots and impasses of the present, as well as unveiling some virtualities and promises contained therein.

*Remy J. Fontana is a retired professor at the Department of Sociology and Political Science at UFSC.

Reference

Mary del Priore. Kiss me where the sun doesn't reach. São Paulo, Planeta, 2015 (https://amzn.to/3KLD6tu)

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