Peter Nava

Image: Elyeser Szturm


In the writer's memoirs, a certain anthropophagic dimension of Brazilian society is present


120 years ago, Pedro Nava was born in the city of Juiz de Fora. Carioca by circumstances, and Minas Gerais by mood. Nava was a renowned rheumatologist, having dedicated himself both to the clinic and to the most varied work in his area of ​​expertise. Before achieving great success with his memoirs in the 1970s, he attempted some intellectual works based on a kind of social history of culture, having as its object, as mentioned, medicine itself, a job that he started to practice as something that would give him no only one status professional, but a disposition as much as existential. He then published Territory of Epidaurus, Chapters of the history of medicine in Brazil, Rheumatological minutes, The amphitheater (organized by Paulo Penido) and Medicine of Os Lusíadas. He left a biography about Torres Homem unfinished.

This medical experience prepared him for his memoir, with, in a certain way, an expanded awareness of the meanings of the evidentiary paradigm, which has ancestral roots, among others, in the recommendations of Hippocrates, which he mobilized for the elaboration of its production. Nava's evidentiary proposition, which in some way permeates medical practice for millennia due to investigating deep causes through symptoms, sought to make the past visible through elements considered insignificant, unnoticed – a model supported by clues. As demonstrated by historian Carlo Ginzburg (1989), what we would indicate is the technique of investigation, something perceived in Nava through his movement that makes the past come alive, the passage from the known to the unknown through signs that are often imperceptible.

Pedro Nava's memorial work began in the 1970s, when the rheumatologist was already 69 years old. The books are these: Chest of Bones (1972) captive balloon (1973) Iron Floor (1976) Sea shore (1978) dark cock (1981) the perfect candle (1983) and The wax of souls (2006). The latter is unfinished, containing few pages. The writing of Nava's memory was interrupted on May 13, 1984 when he decided to end his own life. He received the nickname “Proust of the tropics”, an epithet that amused him and even made the writer from Minas Gerais proud, as he was a contumacious reader of In search of lost time. His reflection on memory is sophisticated, in which one can perceive the appreciation for its dynamicity and its living character, far from a disposition that is only close to the sphere of storing information and memories, even having, it does not seem inappropriate to point out, a sense of rescue of future-pasts, in some way, unrealized:

Memory – not as an immobilized memory and paleontological contemplation of dead ages, but as a representation of the paths that were taken in vain and that cannot be resumed; as the criticism of past errors which is a warning to the obstinate; such as the analysis of the old arrangement that is the current orientation of the similar search (NAVA, 2003, p. 12).

Chest of Bones, the first of his memory books, and which seems to be the one whose reception is the most heated by the public and critics, in addition to making it offer innovations within the country's canon of memoirs, it makes clear Nava's desire to flex the reaches of memory – which was of oneself, but also of others, in a spectral combinatory that establishes the injunction between private and collective. His indexicalism is blatant, in a gesture that pluralizes the openings in the past, moving something like a multidirectionality of meanings, while signaling, correlatively, the incompleteness of the act of remembering. This is evident in this passage:          

The dead... Their dead houses... Their complete evocation seems impossible because only fragmentary memories remain of things and people. However, one can try to reconstitute a disappeared family group using as material this daughter's laughter that repeats her mother's laughter; this intonation of voice that the granddaughter received from her grandmother, the tradition that prolongs over time the conversation of mouths long ago muffled by a handful of earth (– They had a language, they had… They spoke and sang…); this hereditary way of being that we see in the living repeating the half-faded portrait of deceased relatives; the fascinating game of guessing their traits through the exclusion maneuver (NAVA, 1974, p. 40).

Nava's indexicalism intersects, in this sense, with the gesture of the attentive observer, being moved beyond the objective environment available, that recovered by the clues collected in the archive, orienting himself, passi passu, through other speculative arrangements, such as a flash mnemonic, in which images and sounds are relived through sensations. So Nava, and the reader must know this, did not trigger a spontaneous memory and pour it directly and spontaneously onto paper. He really uses the most ancient notion of research, that is, investigation. The writer from Minas Gerais was the guardian of family memory, and to this end, he had collected the most varied types of documentation, such as postcards, photographs, certificates, as well as furniture. Nava therefore used varied vectors to make the past tangible: it is an investigation in which an autobiographical pact is established, secured by veritable intention, but with fictional licenses, which, in this case, were moved, even though this may seem paradoxical, to reinforce the very tangibility of the past.

Nava prepared himself over the years for the attempt, something that can be confirmed from the establishment and conservation of the family archive, the notes made over the years and even the accumulation of meditations and speculations elaborated throughout his life, in which his own body became a mnemonic inventory. Ginzburg (1989, p. 63) helps us once again, and for the Italian scholar the heterogeneity of resources for opening up the past offers the conditions of possibility for the execution of indexicalism, which makes us understand the modulations of memory evoked by Nava through the dynamic game between gaps and integration of historical time: “(…) when documents exist, images are read in a psychologizing and 'biographical' register; when they are lacking or not sufficiently eloquent, it relies on a more descriptive type of ‘reading’”. In this sense, we see Nava concerned with the transmissibility of family tradition, which develops through ruptures and continuities, never in an essentialized state or linearly framed. It also mobilizes the resources firasa, that is, the operation that bends the evidence through direct testimony, which in this case is perceived by the author of the memories through contact with his family members generation after generation. This confirms the questioning power of firasa, making it possible to establish and arrange the moving pace of history through, for example, laughter or the intonation of a relative's voice crossing time. 


Nava is conscious about the paths of writing his memories, and even more so about the procedures used, in which he wanted, correlatively, to establish a certain truth of fiction and a certain poetry of truth, this being the possible condition in his opinion to organize his singular autobiographical pact with the public, whose primary intention was to promise the combination of sincerity and the spirit of truth. And the author was aware of his task, given that memory, in his opinion, would be lacking, and it would not be credible to establish an absolute view of the past, something that will make him reinforce that his work would be closer to the anamnesis, also taking into account that it would become necessary to activate mnemonic supplements that would be, exactly, yours – hence the metaphor of chest of bones. Let’s look at your operational perception:

I pay close attention to these portraits in an effort to penetrate the people I knew (some well, others badly) and whose pieces I recognize and identify in myself. In mine, in theirs, in our inferiorities and superiorities. Each composes the hereditary Frankenstein with pieces of their dead. Taking care of these people among whom I was born and from whom I received the load I carry (load of stone, earth, mud, light, wind, dreams, good and evil) I have to tell the truth, only the truth and if possible, the whole truth (NAVA, 1974, p. 211).

The combinatorial game, in which mutual reinforcement is established between fiction and the reality of facts aiming at a singular autobiographical pact, can be verified through the notion of character that Cristina Ribeiro Villaça (2007) recovers from a fruitful dialogue between Antonio's theories Candido and the meta-memory itself created by Nava. The approach is directed towards understanding the work of the writer from Minas Gerais in which the relived subjects in his memories appeared as characters, something that reminds the scholar of Candido's signs that indicate they would be capable, even if entangled by fiction and fantasy ( and hence its power), evoke a absolute existential truth. In this sense, the people evoked in Nava's memories are assimilated as characters, which involves and combines the inherent movement of (re)invention of reality, something specific to human dispositions and which highlights, passi passu, for the incompleteness of memory, which makes its operation over time an exercise in transfiguration, explanation and interpretation of passing.  

Nava's considerations go towards considering the fragmentary nature of memory, its status of incompleteness and mobility. And, at this point, the need for the fictional narrative comes into play, not in the sense of filling in gaps disconnected from that narrated reality, but, on the contrary, to strengthen the dimension of abstraction, as discussed by Ivan Jablonka (2018), or that of glance and intuition, according to the propositions of Ginzburg (1989). Pedro Nava offers a picture of the above:

As a musical sonata motif – long hidden but always felt – appears, after two centuries, the head of D. Antônia Teresa de Barros continuing, incorruptible, immutable and eternal in her reincarnations. Now, in this precise and transitory instant, the comet's orbit touched her descendants Sílvio and another Teresa. With a patient hand we compose the puzzle of a landscape that is impossible to complete because the missing pieces leave holes in the skies, gaps in the waters, holes in smiles, holes in interrupted silhouettes and in chests that open into the void – like fractured stained glass (where in a saint's burel we see – outside! – deep skies, trees branching in the wind, planes, clouds and birds fleeing), like those cutouts that suppress the limits of the real and the unreal in Salvador Dali's dreamlike canvases (NAVA, 1974, p. 40).   

Arrigucci Jr (1987) also noted the feedback exchanges between memory, history and fiction in memories, positioning them based on a “dramatic dialogue with the past”, very devoted to his indexicalism that activates voluntary and involuntary memory, flexing concreteness, even aware of the fragmentary dimension of the memorial repertoire, with its narrative intentions. This movement would make Pedro Nava a late modernist, because beyond the evocation of a microcosm, as in the emblematic case of Marcel Proust, there is a certain desire for the “rediscovery of Brazilian reality”:

Reach a deeper and more general knowledge of the ways of life and sensibilities of Brazilian society in its day-to-day life, through particular and concrete forms of its daily life, suddenly called to life by the touch of art that then triggered the resurrection of memory (ARRIGUCCI, 1987, p. 110)

It is noteworthy that the past, in Pedro Nava, in addition to being fragmented, porous, multiform, also bursts into the present in an unplanned way. It would be precisely because of this condition of memory that would lead the doctor to abolish, in a large sense, chronological time. With this in mind, the operation undertaken by the writer from Minas Gerais is established based on the evidence of this past that emerges in an uncontrolled way, thus starting to assimilate his meanings and expanding the contexts that framed them through the game between remembrance and historical research, which would only demonstrate, on both sides, that Nava's memories are organized by a sui generis discipline, that is, not configuring itself spontaneously. Perhaps we can say that Pedro Nava's writing of memories had a cathartic function, in the classic psychoanalytic sense. Let’s see what Nava wrote:

The past, however, always resurfaces in pieces, especially when the distance between writing and narrated facts is long. To fill in the gaps, it is therefore necessary to resort to documents that, even they, present stains and voids in what cannot (or should not?) be written: It is impossible to give a chronological impression of this phase of my childhood. Just one thing or another with grown-up people and that was remembered in old documents, in letters where the ink has faded (NAVA, 1974, p. 230).

 Nava, in a gesture of methodological honesty, leaves his readers knowing that the complete reconstruction of memory, or the past, is impractical. Ordinary, everyday facts, which unfold in everyday life, are lost, making it impossible to reconstruct and reestablish their possible meanings. Due to the impossibility of being situated, or even understood, they sometimes appear without a logical meaning in the subjects' conscious plan. However, in their invisible pole, the unconscious, they gain meaning – a meaning that is largely inaccessible, which would therefore strengthen their non-integrating character, but which, paradoxically, points to their existence, even if imperceptible. at first glance.   

 The considerations of André Botelho, a scholar committed to understanding Naviana memoirism, seem very pertinent to us, given that it is noted that the writer's intention falls on a story of his sentimental, moral and intellectual formation:

More than simply containing the chronicle of an entire era or a social class, they lay bare fundamental aspects of man, men and the social world formed by them, as well as the intersubjective meanings they give to their actions on all levels, in public and private sphere, as in the world of love, sexuality and the body, for example (BOTELHO, 2023, s/p).

What must be inferred from these statements is that Pedro Nava offered a turning point in the Brazilian memorial tradition. In terms of intellectual history, with the writing of memoirs as their object, Nava's books take the form of an event. Added to the operational, critical and aesthetic resources worked on previously, we see that the author offered something like a hermeneutic depth for his analyzes and descriptions, previously very hostage to a factualism engendered by a chronology supported by administrative history, something that made the reports of memory plastered and artificial.

In any case, we must, once again, speak of the multiplicity of time extracts created by Nava and for an important dimension, and perhaps here the approach to Proust recurrently remembered by critics: his memories, supported by a research Quite peculiar, they are sensorial, reminding us, in many ways, of the Madeleines operated by the French intellectual. The fairest thing to say is that, with discipline, Pedro Nava activated a variety of forms of access to memory, which would imply, correlatively, varied forms of communication and making this past available – be it in the mode of presence, in the willingness to pour it tangentially to readers, either through meaning, that is, through the organization of available temporalities. Another issue, in the wake of sociologist André Botelho's accurate notes, is that we see a memory expanding to the social, capturing organizing meanings and collective affections, in addition to exploring unusual themes, and not only in memorialistics, such as those related to corporeality , to affections and, also, to subjectivities.


As pointed out in this article, Nava's memoir focuses not only on writing himself, on the elaboration of his subjectivity, but on the Brazilian social fabric, making his Self dialogue with a broader national picture. This is why we can conceive of the Juizforano writer as an “interpreter of Brazil”. The study proposed by José Maria Cançado (2003, 13) is interesting, in which the researcher also follows this understanding. Cançado admits that one of the hallmarks of the Navian interpretation of Brazil is that which turns to a dialogue with otherness, conceived by the sign of the “unknown”. The counterpoint, even though they are close in terms of text composition and stylistic techniques, as well as in the use of memory as a source of knowledge, is Gilberto Freyre. Nava, unlike Freyre, would distance himself from a kind of Ego evocative of a patriarchal matrix. Even though the writer on screen comes from a certain elite in the country, what we see in his mnemonic elaborations is the mobilization of something like an “anti-identity triumph”, the activation of a “class and clan counter-patrimony”. Nava thus appears as a critic of fixed national identity, including inserting his body into history, where he performs a true exorcism of himself, or rather, of his constitution as a subject in the world.

 Several topics of Brazilian political and social thought run through his memories, here being the possibility of seeing in the author some form of late modernism. Let's look at some of them: that of national identity placed in an artificial mode, the first cause of the country's original modernisms, in confrontation with the possibility of several layers of emancipation (which what he seeks in himself), such as in the field of letters , social identities and their diverse heritage; a communitarian and solidarist vision, even if it sometimes tends towards a certain pacification of conflicts, in the face of the clan domination of the country's elites; a more comprehensive perspective regarding the characterization of the people; the emphasis on the uniqueness of the nation in a non-romantic key. The movement printed by Nava is interesting, which makes his texts a flagrant gesture of self-knowledge and the search for transcendence of impediments and historical-social restrictions. Nava does not fail to consider his place of speech, his social place. It is precisely this observation, the perception that he is shaped by history, that enables him to transgress the memories evoked. It is a continuous game of refusals of something ingrained in your own body. Wouldn't it be, even though it is a very particular attitude, an anthropophagic gesture? What can be assimilated from this movement is its sensitivity towards the multiplicity and complexity of the world, because when seeing all this in itself, seeking, then, to see itself in a plural way, almost as a puzzle in continuous (re)construction, and not hostage to the social conditions set in advance, it begins to conceive a non-static or essentialized social being.

As far as possible, it can be said that Nava, in his view of Brazilian history, searches for absences (SILVA, 2010). Remembering that the awareness of absences also has historicity. Perhaps that is why his memories were so successful, given that his kaleidoscopic vision proved to be more welcoming and broader in terms of appreciation and sociocultural understanding. Or using a more technical-historiographic term: communicative pregnancy (RÜSEN, 2010). Readers tend, even though I do not present a reception study in this article, to identify with the content of their books and the situations narrated there. This is the case of the text with historical dimensions in action, both in terms of revealing a certain past ambiance and establishing it, or establishing dialogic communication.

Ultimately, as Arrigucci Jr. (1987) has already argued, Pedro Nava's memories, in addition to the search for self-knowledge, print a genealogy of absences in Brazilian history. And this movement, which we believe dialogues with the available modernist interpretations, brings with it, both in form and content, aesthetic, critical and political discussions that invoke new ways of perceiving nationality. It seems possible to point out that Nava expanded the present in which he lived, making it inhabited by pasts that, in some way, became absent, which leads us to perceive him almost Benjaminian as someone interested in a “history against the grain”. Even though in the author's writings a dimension of presence predominates, we can find, in them, forms of meaning, or rationalities, for the Brazilian experience. What the interpretation of Brazil proposed by him reveals to us, then, is a broader horizon for the cultures that inhabit our experience, in addition to a critical look, which is taken by its own place of speech, which implies marks on the body of those who narrate, about the dimensions of domination and hegemony present in our history – subverting them as far as possible. It would not be an exaggeration to say, and other scholars on Pedro Nava have already pointed out this, that in his memoirs a certain anthropophagic dimension of Brazilian society is present.

*Piero Detoni He has a PhD in Social History from USP.


ARRIGUCCI JR. David. Riddle and commentary. Essays on literature and experience. São Paulo: Cia. das Letras, 1987.

Botelho, André. 120 years of Pedro Nava: a cosmopolitan Brazilian imagination. Nexo Newspaper, June 03rd. 2023. Available at: Accessed on: December 02nd. 2023.

CANCED, José Maria. Visionary memories of Brazil: the work of Pedro Nava. Belo Horizonte: UFMG Publisher, 2003.

GINZBURG, Carlo. Myths, emblems and signs: morphology and history. Translated by Federico Carotti. São Paulo: Companhia das Letras, 1989.

JABLONKA, Ivan. History is a contemporary literature: manifesto for the social sciences. Trans. Nathan J. Bracher. London: Cornell University Press, 2018.

NAVA, Pedro. Chest of bones. Rio de Janeiro: Livraria José Olympio Editora. 1974.

NAVA, Pedro. Chapters in the History of Medicine in Brazil. Cotia: Editorial Studio; Londrina, Eduel; São Paulo: Oficina do Livro, 2003.

RÜSEN, Jörn. Historical reason: theory of history: foundations of historical science. Brasília: Editora da UNB, 2010.

SILVA, Lenina Lopes Soares. Narratives of Brazil in the work of Pedro Nava. Thesis (Doctorate in Social Sciences) – UFRN, 2010.

VILLAÇA, Cristina Ribeiro. Pedro Nava: anatomist of memory. Dissertation (Master of Arts) – UFJF, 2000.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Union registrationSUBWAY 11/06/2024 By LAWRENCE ESTIVALET DE MELLO & RENATA QUEIROZ DUTRA: The Ministry of Labor has decided to grant union registration to Proifes. However, union registration is not the same as union representation
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Confessions of a Catholic LadyMarilia Pacheco Fiorillo 11/06/2024 By MARILIA PACHECO FIORILLO: Congenital reactionism is not only the preserve of evangelicals
  • The STF, Artificial Intelligence and the Labor Courtsouto-maior_edited 07/06/2024 By JORGE LUIZ SOUTO MAIOR: The implementation of the replacement of the human being by AI presupposes that it has already been trained to act in the way desired by the ruling class
  • A myopic logicRED MAN WALKING _ 12/06/2024 By LUIS FELIPE MIGUEL: The government does not have the political will to make education a priority, while it courts the military or highway police, who do not move a millimeter away from the Bolsonarism that they continue to support
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario