Ugolino and the partridge

Willem de Kooning, Untitled, 1966


Commentary on the book by Davi Arrigucci Jr.

who opens Ugolino and the partridge, the novel by Davi Arrigucci Jr., knowing that the author is a critic and an erudite historian of literature, can be led astray, at first, by the epigraph with the verses of the Divine Comedy on the portico of the book. There are at least two Ugolinos in the great poem, one in hell and one in purgatory, but it is clear that it is the infernal that inhabits Arrigucci's imagination.

But let's avoid the misunderstanding to which we are invited: Dante is present, of course, on the horizon, but in a very indirect way, which takes its substance from the passage through São João da Boa Vista, in the interior of São Paulo, close to Minas Gerais, and from a practice of the language that touches the writing of our greatest writers, Manuel Bandeira, Guimarães Rosa and Carlos Drummond de Andrade. Like these authors, Arrigucci brings popular and sertanejo talk to his writing, keeping its freshness in his new and worked stylistic framework.

Let's start by differentiating the Ugolinos. Ours no longer has much of the tragic Ugolino della Gherardesca, from canto 33 of “Inferno”, already nationalized by Manuel Bandeira, who brought it to our Northeast in the poem “O Cacto”, meticulously commented by Davi Arrigucci in the cactus and the ruins (Ed. 34). Ugolino from São João de Boa Vista doesn't even lack bonhomie, far from the caatingas and tragedy, frequently wandering contentedly through intricate thickets. He is, of course, a non-trivial character: he decorated verses by Dante, he is an artist in the sophisticated construction of his stained glass windows (his full name is Ugolino Michalangeli), he is an inventive storyteller, he almost reaches the status of a “philosopher”, “paradoxic” in tracing the meaning of the words. But he is above all a hunter, a condition inseparable from that of an interrogative narrator, since “…for him, tracing the meaning of a word was still a form of hunting”.

From the beginning we realized that, despite the well-defined geographical and social horizon, we are not facing a realistic narrative, in the manner of the regionalist novel. The narrator warns, already on the first page, after tracing Ugolino's profile: “... and what I tell, without taking anything away, are his exact words. Unfortunately, he is no longer alive and cannot confirm the veracity of this story…”. Without an objectifying gaze flying over geography and society, they do not fail to appear from the different perspectives of the characters, involved in the ways in which their use of language differently shapes the world.

But that doesn't mean that the flames of Dante's hell sometimes fail to shine in the narrative, with the brilliance and explosion of shots in the hunt. Even more, something like a certain sertaneja “cosmotheology” (similar to the “demonology” of Big hinterland: veredas), which refers both to Divine Comedy as to Drummond's “Machine of the World”.

We already know that there is an internal link between hunting and storytelling. What we have to discover is how a fracture is to break the beautiful circularity between the hunt and its narrative. Even before the crisis in which the novel ends, we could already guess the grain of anguish that inhabits the pleasure of hunting: “The hunter is what he hunts [...]. With the hunt, the hunter is gone.” But it will always be possible to narrate the hunt that was lost in the past with its hunter and as pale as he was. Then we still have a living present, even if the hunter is dead. But what if the hunt is unattainable? We will be condemned to pure literature, outside of life.

This seems to be one of the meanings of the novel. In effect, Joãozinho and Ugolino manage, by means of a discreet threat to the farmer Aquilino, permission to hunt on their land, after the news that something so rare had been seen there in recent times, a magnificent partridge, not just a partridge among others, but rather somehow, The Partridge. With his knowledge, Ugolino devises successive tactics to hunt her down, against the background of a kind of topology (not exactly “geometry”), defined by the terms of the circumference and its center.

Indeed, the bird's cunning is to hide, motionless, from the hunters that surround it or to fly in an orbit that transcends the range of possible shots. After failing in his plan to trick the partridge, supposedly hidden and camouflaged, by immobilizing himself in the center of the circle, in order to surprise her there, Ugolino devised the supreme cunning: to surround her on all sides, as the octopus does. with its fangs. Four hunters and two dogs, “16 legs and six heads”, a gigantic octopus with 22 tentacles, that would indeed be an infallible weapon. But it is at that moment that the topology is radically transformed, for the astonished eyes, into a cosmology in which the positions of the circumference and its center are inverted, as in the beatific vision of the verses of “Paradise” inscribed in the epigraph of the novel.

The flight of the partridge traverses an infinite circle, as in Nicholas of Cusa's definition of God: that infinite circle which has its center everywhere, which has no exterior and which, therefore, no shot, not even any straight line, can touch, tangent or tangential. Remember: “E' si distends in circular figure,/ in so much che la sua circumference/ sarebbe in the sun troppo wide waist".[1] It is "head down" (like Drummond's walker on stony roads, with "thinking hands", after the metaphysical vision of the "Machine of the World"), that Ugolino, after being illuminated by the light of the intangible partridge, which in its flight circumscribes the world, abandons hunting and resigns himself to just telling stories, to literature.

*Bento Prado Jr. (1937-2007) was professor of philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos. Author, among other books, of some essays (Peace and Earth).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, section “mais!”, on 18/01/2004.


David Arrigucci Jr. Ugolino and the partridge. São Paulo: Cosac & Naify, 80 pages.


[1] “Paradise”, 30, 103-106, “The circular figure was so vast/ that it surpassed in circumference/ the Sun itself the very ample waist”, in the translation of Cristiano Martins.


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