Multiple faces of Lima Barreto



In the writer's work, the voices of the silenced by cultural history.

Afonso Henriques de Lima Barreto (1881-1922) is one of the best-known Brazilian writers, although the critical reception of his works is characterized by the circulation of some discourses that have two peculiarities: (a) it is marked by the biographical bias (the way in which lived, with whom and how he related, acting in literary life) which restricts all aesthetic quality to “confessional” and/or “resentment”; (b) the reduction of the work to a libel and its value is limited to the content of social criticism, in the irreverence of attitudes and gestures.

But, how to deal with the reciprocal and paradoxical movement that is only resolved at the moment of creation, that is, “the writer's life is in the shadow of writing, but writing is a way of life” (Maingueneau, 2001, p. 47 ) considering the work of the author of Memories of the clerk Isaías Caminha? How to read his works accentuating the current freshness they carry without neglecting the aesthetic richness of his texts? It might be interesting to know some of the multiple faces of the writer in his works.

The collector and literary creation

A lesser-known side of Lima Barreto is that of a researcher and scholar with a peculiar method: collecting “scraps”, or newspaper clippings. He organizes notebooks in which newspaper clippings are pasted on various subjects, from political and cultural events to criticism of his works, which are cut out and archived, in addition to studies and drafts of initial texts for short stories and novels. They are supported by paper, in notebooks with pages completely covered on the front and back by newspaper clippings, accompanied by the registration of the date and vehicle of publication, without observing a clear chronological or thematic sequence. Some handwritten notes are made on the margins of these clippings, horizontally or vertically, according to the spaces left on the notebook page. Next to the clipping, there is sometimes an observation or a small handwritten text.

This practice is not unique to Lima Barreto. Guimarães Rosa wrote down in his notebooks stories told by sertanejos, heard during his travels. He used these records as suggestions for descriptions of spaces and, also, for story themes. The most emblematic case is that of André Gide (1869-1951), who expressed the desire to write a novel based on news collected by the author over many years. “I picked up some newspaper clippings again this morning concerning the case of the counterfeit money changers. I regret not having kept more of them. They are from the newspaper of Rouen, September 1906. I believe that it is necessary to start from there without trying to build a priori any longer” (Gide, 2009a, p. 26).

Witnesses to the genesis process, the notebooks full of sketches that foreshadow the writing, newspaper clippings and notes from books whose themes or language resources contained therein open to the perception of traces or descriptive memory. The notebooks offer, above all, space for the writer to reflect on historical-cultural discourses and the frame of reference he uses to think about writing.

The debut novel: at the window of reality

In the preface of Memories of the clerk Isaías Caminha Lima Barreto dramatizes the authorship process — the publication of the manuscript by “friend Isaías”, inserting himself as a character. First, we observe the account of the stages of publication of the work, that is, the sending to Portugal in search of a publisher, the justification for the inclusion of the preface, which does not appear in the first edition. Next, we are presented, in the first person, data on the reception of the work, with facts related to his literary life and others already known to the reader.

The most interesting thing is the inclusion of José Veríssimo's criticism, when the novel appeared, in chapters, in the magazine Floral. In the second edition, Lima Barreto publishes the preface by the “author Isaías Caminha”, who had been eliminated from the first edition, adding data on critical reception and his personal career as a writer, thus fictionalizing the entire editing process.[I] The preface presents three different but coherent and similar tenses.

The first time corresponds to the present of the publication of the second edition, 1916, when the author comments on the critical reception of the first chapters that appeared in the magazine he directed. He also informs that ten years have passed, both from the first publication and from the writing of the manuscripts by Isaías Caminha, a resource that allows narrating the events in the protagonist's life after the end point of the novel.

The preface also contains another preface, that of the alleged author of the Memories, transcribed by Lima Barreto. In it, appears the justification for writing the memoirs, which dates from 1905 and marks a second time. The third part, still in the preface, deals with the past of the clerk Isaías, resumed by summary images, based on reflections, of his trajectory prior to 1905.

We observed mirroring of the text and rereading of its meanings, that is, the editor and writer Lima Barreto resumes notes contained in the notebooks patchwork about the critical reception of his debut novel and examples of his own activity, as an editor, in literary life. It explains the preface and objectives of the fictional writer Isaías Caminha, and also reports the final trajectory of the novel's protagonist. An example of mise-en-abyme that “constitutes an utterance that refers to another utterance”, and has strong roots, therefore, “in a process of intertextuality, the so-called internal intertextuality, understood as the relationship of a text with itself” (Dallenbach apud Natividade, 2009, p. 53) .

We see in the preface of Memories of the clerk Isaías Caminha to a narrative game through the effect of mise-en-abyme which has the specular folding effect of the narrative. It is a mirroring of the same theme and, in this case, a dramatization of the backstage of creation for readers. Method that had André Gide as its most famous practitioner in the fake coin changers.

In chapter X, of the 1917 edition, the author includes four paragraphs after the comments about the “by request”[ii] and cites two short stanzas of popular verses, with no connection to each other, attributed to a mad poet, and then closes the inclusion with a comment on well-known figures of Rio urban life such as “Mal das Vinhas” and “Principe Ubá”. Inclusion mixes the cultural context of the streets and comics recorded in the notebooks patchwork accompanied by the handwritten note: “Written in a window of the Hospital for the Insane in Rio”. Lima Barreto was admitted to the asylum from August 18, 1914 to October 13, 10, five years before the second edition of Memories of the clerk Isaías Caminha. However, in the passage from the notebook to the novel, the quatrain is attenuated in order to appear in the work. in the notebooks patchwork the second line appears like this: “30 for a ring / 40 for a rod / 60 for a shit / 70 for a shit”.

The example shows us the space between what was experienced and the notebooks, a space made up of tensions and vestiges that writing will fix, but exposing the fissures of the process. Therefore, the text is never what is lived: “It is the product of a movement of the spirit (thought, drive, reaction), which takes shape, and brings to light the work of the pen” (Hay, 2007, p. 13). Mosaics, fragments taken from the window of reality and made into fiction.

the notebooks and Sad end of Policarpo Quaresma

Among the notebooks in the collection patchwork, archived in the Manuscripts Section of the National Library, there is a newspaper strip with the title “Floriano Peixoto. The political and financial moment in 93", without informing the place of publication, the clipping brings the writer's observation on the side: "On the occasion of the death of Saenz Peña".[iii] The article reports curious episodes about Floriano's performance in the presidency of Brazil. The violence used by the government of Floriano Peixoto leaves an indelible mark on the cultural memory of the period.

Lima Barreto also pasted a piece of news published in News Gazette of 1913 with the headline “The shots of the Fortaleza de Santa Cruz, in Santa Catarina. A request from the families of the victims to Marshal Hermes”. In it, the terror installed on the island of Desterro, today Florianópolis, with the arrival of Colonel Moreira César in April 1894 stands out. trial, was the bloodthirsty response of Floriano's government to the participants in the Federalist Revolution (1893-1894) and the Revolt of the Navy (1891 and 1893). The news also referred to the request presented to the then president, Marechal Hermes da Fonseca (1910-1914), requesting permission to remove the bones of the victims that were found in Fortaleza Santa Cruz, on the occasion of renovation work and installation of new ones. cannons.

Lima Barreto in Sad end of Policarpo Quaresma after much research, as his notebooks testify, he produced a long drawing of the Marechal, whose striking traits are: “lukewarmness of heart”, the exercise of “domestic tyranny”, “sickly laziness”, the “man-perhaps” who, paradoxically, it garnered a fanatical following.

Lima Barreto creates one of the most harrowing pages in Brazilian Literature when he describes, from his character's perspective, the massacre of prisoners in the revolts against Floriano's government. Appointed as jailer of innocent young people, Policarpo Quaresma is indignant with the fate promised to the recruits: taken prisoner, they would be killed and their bodies thrown into the sea. He records in a letter all his indignation to the President of the Republic and is accused of being a traitor, taken prisoner and soon also condemned to death. The newspaper clippings, in this case, become documents of external genesis. They allow to follow how the writer imports, deforms, transforms, integrates the discursive fragments of the newspapers.

The result is in the novel, which is an unavoidable work in the set of works by Lima Barreto and deserves reading and rereading today. The work draws attention to the way in which nationalism is constituted and presented: through narratives and discursive strategies (and this applies both to the First Republic and to the contemporary period). At the beginning of the XNUMXth century, many intellectuals idealized national projects, with science as a strong ally in the defense of sanitation, eugenics and whitening as solutions for the country.

Few like Lima Barreto and Manoel Bonfim explained the problems by social reasons and not by biological causes. An entire generation with a scientistic profile sought to argue with society that the republican experience represented the historic moment of the “foundation” or “refoundation” of the country, along with the regeneration of the people. In a tense dialogue with the historical past, the intellectuals proposed “new techniques”, “new knowledge”, “new society” as well as “new government”.

Then, at the height of this nationalist euphoria, with scientific inks, Lima Barreto presents his “sweet, good and modest Policarpo”, who paid with his life for concluding that “the homeland was a myth” and the character exposes to the reader where he assimilated these nation narratives: in literature, history books, in travel narratives, in songs and legends, etc. All are discursive devices that planted “palm trees and thrushes”, symbols of an “exuberant” nature in our imagination. Discourses that deny the structural question that crosses Brazilian culture and cracks the homogeneous image of Brazilianness: slavery (indigenous and black), matrix of violence, authoritarianism in the control of excluded, stigmatized bodies and subjects, compulsorily collected or expelled from the beloved homeland .

The impressionist technique and militancy

Lima Barreto brings to Brazilian literature of the first decades of the 1993th century the characters of low social extraction, but not to show them only as part of a project to denounce the marked inequality in the country. The writer is interested in, and attentive to, “the mosses of the molds of the soul”, as Flaubert (XNUMX) had also stated about the elaboration of his characters. Lima Barreto's texts carry out a sophisticated move: they deepen the character's development over time, replacing action with psychological analysis.

With this, they allow a critical look at impasses, dilemmas and failures of figures who, for society, have no voice. Thus, they give psychological density to commonly invisible characters. One of the strategies used for this is literary impressionism, the significant technique for representing the impasses of consciousness and acts of perception, presenting simultaneously spatial and temporal processes, as in Clara dos Anjos.

The novel is very rich, with several plots in parallel, and was extensively worked on by Lima Barreto in numerous versions, having been posthumously published (unfinished) in serials in the magazine Sousa Cruz, Rio de Janeiro, between 1923 and 1924.

Created in an ambience whose general features encouraged fantasy, painful music with repetitive verses, a whole universe of exacerbations of the senses with “magic sounds” of guitars, the character of the protagonist, Clara, is being molded by idealization mixed with vague dreams of love . Reality gradually becomes a pale reflection of the imagination whose content interests you more than the world around it. However, the young woman with “weak intelligence” and “lack of experience”, according to the narrator, goes through a relevant process of self-knowledge and deep recognition of the tensions of race, class and gender. This process will be anticipated through the image “charcoal stain”, often used throughout the novel and with different possibilities of meaning.

Gradually, as if it were a camera, the narrator's focus narrows. First, we see the classic flirtatious girl at the window and then, gradually, the exterior space (the sky, the stars, the trees, the moonlight, the darkness of the night) and the “wandering thought” (and anguished) of the character.

“Clara contemplated the black sky, studded with palpitating stars. The darkness was not total, because of the luminous dust that sifted from the heights. [..] she Ran with wandering thought the whole length of the part of the sky which she saw. She returned to the Cruzeiro, in the vicinity of which, for the first time, she noticed that there was a black spot, the deep and homogeneous black of charcoal. She asked herself:

- So, in the sky, there are spots too? (Barreto, 1956, p. 175).

Following these images, the narrator clarifies: “She combined this discovery with the trance she had gone through. It didn't take long for her to see tears; and, sighing, she thought to herself: "What will become of me, my God?" (idem, p. 175). We see the writer using light/dark to reveal the intimate pain of the characters. The “charcoal” color, which does not reflect light, is subtly invaded by “a luminous dust”. The darkness of Clara's anguish is consistent with the “black stain, a deep black” to represent the first stage of the character's awareness process. The “stain” is “black” as the moral reprisal she will suffer for being pregnant and unmarried. For the first time, Clara dos Anjos became aware that guilt, judgment, impotence would follow her, like a “stain”. Sweet, naive and angelic Clara becomes aware of the gender oppression of patriarchal society — mountains that, like “black giants”, stand sentinel, indifferent to her pain.

The strategy that uses literary impressionism to give humanity and greatness to his characters is very interesting. In case the readers have not understood the language of light and shadow that externalizes the content of the character's emotions, the narrator provides the information through indirect speech. In a monologue, Clara speaks to herself, revealing to the reader the content of her anguish. “What would become of her now, disgraced, vexed in front of everyone, with that indelible stain on her life?” (Barreto, 1956, p. 187).

Noticing the “indelible charcoal stain” transforms the character. The disdainful gaze of Dona Salustiana (mother of Cassi Jones, father of the child Clara dos Anjos is expecting) was fulminating and decisive for the protagonist's new stage of maturation. “The girl was noticing this and filled with anger, resentment for that humiliation she was going through, in addition to everything she suffered and would still suffer” (Barreto, 1956, p. 193). Faced with humiliation, she responds out of her mind about the reason for her visit: “I want you to marry me”. The reaction followed. “Dona Salustiana was livid; the intervention of the “mulatinha” exasperated her. She looked at him full of malice and indignation, lingering purposefully. Finally, she expectorated: "What do you say, you black woman?" (Barreto, 1956, p.194).

Subtly, Lima Barreto shows us that power is inside and outside people, that is, the force from the outside molds, fixes, intimidates, provokes, debases, controls. An issue explored by Franz Fanon in Black skin, white masks: “[…] the other, through gestures, attitudes, glances, fixed me as one fixes a solution with a stabilizer. I got furious, I demanded explanations… It didn't help. I exploded. Here are the crumbs gathered by another self” (Fanon, 2008, p. 103).

As “another me” that emerges putting the pieces together, Clara sees her ethnic characteristics and structural racism, her economic vulnerability and, as the narrator explains, “Now it was that she had the exact notion of her social condition” (Barreto, 1956, p. 196). In fact, the character learns to glare back as an attitude of resistance, even if still fragile. By bringing together all these strategies that alternate between subtleties and explanations, it becomes understandable why the novel ends with Clara dos Anjos’ affirmation to her mother, pronounced with “a great accent of despair: — We are nothing in this life” (Barreto , 1956, p. 196).

The prominent use of color in Clara dos Anjos, allows a dive into the character's consciousness and the perception of how she is deeply affected by social pressures, coming from the education she received, the color of her skin, being a woman and poor. Impressionist techniques make it possible to explore the painful maturing process of subjectivity in order to cultivate a critical awareness: Clara dos Anjos learns to look and see. In a kind of drama with images, the tensions and dilemmas of silenced and invisible subjectivities are revealed. Therein lies the strength of his literature — far-fetched, critical, attentive and, ultimately, militant.

The intellectual in the press tribune

The writer from Rio de Janeiro demonstrated, in the chronicles published in the newspapers, sufficient erudition and knowledge of the main trends in critical thinking. He accompanied and participated in the debates with propriety and pertinent argumentation, built from readings made.

An astute intellectual, Lima Barreto sent a letter to the French sociologist Célestin Bouglé (1870-1940), a disciple of Durkheim and professor of Sociology at the Sorbonne, to contest “the false judgments with which the civilized world surrounds men of color”. Says the writer: “while reading your beautiful book, I noticed that you are aware of things in India and know little about the mulattoes of Brazil. In Brazilian literature, already flourishing, mulattos occupied a prominent place. The greatest national poet, Gonçalves Dias, was mulatto; the most erudite of our musicians, a kind of Palestrina, José Maurício, was mulatto; the current great names in our literature – Olavo Bilac, Machado de Assis and Coelho Neto – are mulatto” (Barreto, Correspondence, 1956, volume I, p. 158). The writer also demonstrates knowledge of the works of Booker Taliaferro Washington (1856-1915), African-American leader,[iv] who, after the civil war, defended technical education as an education exclusively centered on work for the abandoned black population with no prospects.

The intellectual's concern with the important issue of Brazilian culture is strong, especially in the period in which the theories of whitening, among others, gain strong support and defense, concomitant with the violent repression of cultural manifestations of African origin, which are oppressed, segregated or made invisible, in the name of sanitation and hygiene in pursuit of progress.

In a chronicle of August 16, 1919 for the newspaper ABC, Lima Barreto makes a long presentation on the arguments adopted by intellectuals to justify the killing of black groups in the United States and, indirectly, naturalize the same procedure in Brazil and other countries in the name of science. The chronicle begins with a quote from the book Le Prejugé des races (1906) by the French sociologist, Jean Finot (1856-1922), one of the few French theorists opposed to the theory of races in the period. It is worth following some moments of the debate.

“With my ignorance acknowledged, on behalf of someone more competent, I intended with these light lines to say that Science (with a big C) does not authorize, in its current state, any killing of human beings, because they are of this or that race. It authorizes them as much as the Gospels authorized the bonfires of Seville, in the time of Torquemada or Saint Berthélemy” (Barreto, 1956, Fairs and Mafuás, P. 188-193).

Also noteworthy in the set of his work in the newspapers is the questioning of the forms of control and violence aimed at the poorest, particularly in the capital of the Republic, in the name of sanitation and progress.

As an intellectual, Lima Barreto mediates between diverse ideologies and the needs of common citizens. There is, in the critique, the look at those who in the city inhabit the zone of invisibility without access to the urban conditions announced by the discourses of order, progress, civilization. And attention to the violence committed against workers impoverished by inflation and high prices caused by great financial speculation; against immigrants and former slaves who roam the city; against women and precarious workers called vagrants by police repression.

A large contingent of Brazilians, mostly black, who, at the height of scientism, were placed in a racially and biologically inferior category. Consequently, they suffered discriminatory practices in the labor market, in access to education and all the cultural heritage they carry is read as a manifestation of unemployed, uncivilized, barbarians.

The poor population is seen as the sick part of the social body that needs to be healed, disciplined, with its diversity – and voice – silenced, repressed with violence. The creator of Policarpo Quaresma suspects the pedagogical look of the messengers of progress and questions the scientific apparatus of control over subjects and culture. After all, in the First Republic, “poverty came to mean dirt, which meant disease, which meant degradation, which meant immorality, which meant subversion” (Patto, 1999, p. 184).

On the agenda, in the scenario of the First Republic, there was also the debate on education as a lever for progress, an important topic for Lima Barreto. However, the writer has always been critical of what was advocated as “public instruction”, that which proposes to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, without any premise of awareness. Still, inaccessible to most of the population. “The municipality no longer gives out books, pencils, or notebooks – it gives nothing! How can poor poor parents, earning barely enough to eat and live in, be able to afford the small expenses of maintaining their children in primary school?” (Barrett, marginalia, 1956, p. 112). So we can understand why the public health booklet, which requires immediate and unrestricted adherence by the population, could not be understood. In place of guidance and education, harsh punitive (and repressive) measures come in, which intimidate and do not guarantee critical social formation.

This criticism by the writer is very significant, as it brings up structural issues of Brazilian culture, still present today and wide open in the difficult moment of the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences. Governments maintain wrong actions, abandonment of poor urban areas that suffer from the absence of basic hygiene conditions and inadequate housing in densely populated places. In addition, the residents of these areas continue to be at the mercy of police repression which, as in the first decades of the XNUMXth century, still invades homes and practices violence in the name of the safety and well-being of the city. In this respect, we have improved little in Brazil.

In its multiple aspects, the work of Lima Barreto brings us the voices of those silenced by cultural history, with a language that knew how to incorporate new technologies, the richness of urban experience, the tense dialogue with literary tradition.

May this 13th of May make it possible for new readers to meet the work of Lima Barreto.

*Carmen Negreiros is a professor at the Institute of Letters at UERJ. Author of Lima Barreto in four strokes (Reliquary).


BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de Lima. Memories of the clerk Isaías Caminha. Sao Paulo: Attica, 1990.

BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de Lima. Sad end of Policarpo Quaresma. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliense, 1956. v. two.

BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de Lima. Clara dos Anjos. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliense, 1956. v.5.

BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de. Correspondence. Volume 1. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliense, 1956.

BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de. Fairs and Mafuás. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliense, 1956. v.10.

BARRETO, Afonso Henriques de. marginalia. Rio de Janeiro: Brasiliense, 1956. v.12.

FANON, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Translation: Renato da Silveira. Salvador: EDUFBA, 2008.

FLAUBERT, Gustave. exemplary letters. Organization, preface, translation and notes by Duda Machado. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 1993.

GIDE, Andrew. diary of fake coin changers. Translation by Mario Laranjeira. São Paulo: Liberdade Station, 2009a.

GIDE, Andrew. the fake coin changers. Translated by Mario Laranjeira. São Paulo: Freedom Station, 2009b.

HAY, Louis. The Literature of Writers. Genetic Criticism Issues. Translation by Cleonice Paes Barreto Mourão. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 2007.

MAINGUENEAU, Dominique. The context of the literary work. Enunciation, writer, society. Translated by Marina Appenzeller. São Paulo: Martins Fontes, 2001.

PATTO, Maria Helena Souza. State, science and politics in the First Republic: the disqualification of the poor. advanced studies, Sao Paulo, vol. 13, noo. 35, p. 167-198, Jan./Apr.1999. Available at:


[I] It is worth remembering here that the magazine Floreal — bimonthly publication of criticism and literature, founded in 1907 by Lima Barreto and friends such as Antonio Noronha dos Santos, among others, lasted only four issues, the fourth and last issue being published on December 31, 1907. In it the author published the first chapters of the novel, accompanied by a preface by the fictional author, Isaías Caminha.

[ii] Formerly present in newspapers, the section represented the space for readers to publish opinions on personalities, cultural and political events and everyday situations; to establish polemics from offenses and accusations; for declarations of love, epigrams, exposition of excerpts from popular poems, with the language approaching obscenity, the vulgar or the absurd.

[iii] The year of publication of the article can be deduced as being 1907. Year of death of Luis Saenz Peña (1822-1907), who governed Argentina between 1892-1895. His son, Roque Saenz Peña (1851-1919), also ruled the country from 1910-1914. There is an important square in Rio de Janeiro's Tijuca neighborhood named Saenz Peña.

[iv] Despite the successful project of creating technical schools for blacks in a large part of the US territory, Booker Taliaferro Washington was also harshly criticized by thinkers such as William Edward Burghardt, known as WEB Du Bois (1868-1963), author of the classic The Souls of the Black People (1903) and considered the founder of American sociology – whose works Lima Barreto was also familiar with. Amongst the criticisms, there was the accusation of not encouraging this population to go to university, the proposal of subjection to the segregationist policy and for not acting in an incisive way against the frequent lynchings common at the time.

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