Graciliano Ramos and the Plague


Arts & Culture

Graciliano Ramos.

In 1915, long before he became one of Brazil’s most acclaimed novelists, Graciliano Ramos was a young man trying to make it as a journalist in Rio de Janeiro. I’d always heard that he failed in his pursuit of this career. Shy, homesick, and unsuited to the sophisticated conditions of big-city life, he was a thousand miles and a world away from his remote provincial hometown of Palmeira dos Índios, located in Brazil’s dry northeastern interior. I imagined him beating a retreat, returning to become a shopkeeper like his father before him, getting cranky at customers who interrupted his reading.

In 1928, though, Ramos was elected mayor of Palmeira dos Índios and, by this unlikely route, came into national literary prominence. As a municipal leader, he was required to submit annual reports to the State of Alagoas on budgets and projects, income and expenditures. He treated these reports as a kind of formal challenge. In a narrative divided into subheads such as “Public Works” and “Political and Judicial Functionaries,” he sketched drily hilarious portraits of small-town life, rivalries, corruption, bureaucratic waste. The reports went viral—to import an anachronism—circulating around the country in the press and attracting a publisher’s query: Had he written anything else, by chance? His first novel, Caetés, was published shortly after, launching a luminous literary career.

Ramos would eventually write three more acclaimed novels, a childhood memoir, a monumental account of his incarceration during the Vargas dictatorship, and numerous short stories, essays, and children’s books. A 1941 national literary poll named him one of Brazil’s ten greatest novelists. His influence in the years since has been profound and enduring. Most educated Brazilians have read at least one of his books. His last novel, Vidas secas (Barren Lives), has gone into more than a hundred editions.

Recently, though, I learned that a viral narrative of another sort lurks within his story. After a year in Rio working as a typographer and then proofreader with multiple newspapers, the young man who lamented his timidity in letters home received some ego-boosting news: a number of his nonfiction pieces would shortly be republished in Gazeta de Notícias, one of the most prestigious newspapers of the day. Things looked hopeful, but fate soon intervened. In August 1915, Ramos’s father telegrammed to say that three of his siblings and a nephew had all died in a single day from the bubonic plague then ravaging Palmeira dos Índios. His mother and a sister were in critical condition. “There was no longer any way for him to remain in Rio,” the biographer Dênis de Moraes writes in Velho Graça, his account of Ramos’s life. Ramos abandoned his big-city ambitions, boarded a boat home, married his local sweetheart, and settled down. He wouldn’t move back to Rio for twenty-three years.

I translated Ramos’s municipal dispatches because they’d never been published in English and I love their outraged rectitude and sly humor. Learning about the role of the plague in his biography, though, shifted my view on one mayoral passion that stands out in these reports: hygiene. “I care deeply about public sanitation,” he declared in the 1929 report. He had communal washrooms built; he passed laws against littering. “The streets are swept. I have removed from the city the garbage accumulated by generations who have passed through here, and have burned immense trash heaps, which the Prefecture can’t afford to remove.” He got sarcastic when he mentioned detractors: “There are moans and complaints about my having messed with dust preciously saved up in back gardens; moans, complaints and threats because I ordered the extermination of some hundreds of stray dogs; moans, complaints, threats, squeals, screams and kicks from the farmers raising animals in the town squares.” (I’d forgotten about the dog killings when I read some of my translation of the 1929 report aloud to my kids. They’d been laughing along till then, but now decided they hated this guy. If only I could have explained that dogs can carry fleas and fleas can carry plague and plague decimated the author’s family. Or maybe I should have just skipped that bit.) Ramos even fined his own father for violating the law against letting pigs and goats roam the streets of town. When his father complained, he retorted: “Mayors don’t have fathers. I’ll pay your fine but you will round up your animals.”

Although he’s still admired for the work he did as a mayor, Ramos got out of that game after two years. His writing career had taken off, though he netted more critical plaudits than cash in his lifetime. I’m sure the writer in him enjoyed the acclaim, but as a father of eight, he had bills to pay. By 1950, he was living once more in Rio and well-connected in the literary community, and so was offered the chance to translate Albert Camus’s The Plague into Portuguese. I’d previously assumed Ramos took on the project out of an interest in Camus. On learning about his own tragic losses from the plague, I speculated that he might have been drawn to the novel for what it says about the illness, perhaps even as a charm against some fear at having once more come south, away from his home region.

As it happens, I didn’t find much proof for either supposition: the critical consensus seems to be that, as one of Brazil’s best-regarded novelists in a time when publishers wanted to bring more contemporary foreign literature to the Brazilian reading public, he was commissioned to translate The Plague, though his name wouldn’t appear in the book itself until the second edition. Ramos was originally reluctant—he in fact didn’t think much of Camus’s writing, finding it too ornate—but he needed the money. His solution was to retool the novel, sentence by sentence, in the image of his own chiseled prose—to effectively, as the critic Cláudio Veiga put it, treat Camus’s novel as though it were an early draft of one of his own.

The Plague starts out with a description of a place that sounds familiar to readers of Ramos’s books: an isolated provincial town where people are bored, where they work a lot, “interested most of all in commerce—business keeps them busy, as they like to say.” Camus’s narrator is a reluctant amateur writer, unidentified until the very end. (Ramos, too, centered a couple of his novels on amateur writers, indirectly addressing, as does The Plague, problems of self-expression and storytelling legacies.) We know the narrator is a resident of this place—Oran, on Algeria’s northern coast—left to chronicle the mayhem wrought by an outbreak of the bubonic plague. He frequently slides into the collective first-person, speaking of “our town” and “our citizens,” though he refers to himself in the third-person. Among Ramos’s many modifications to Camus’s style and delivery is the elimination of those our’s and we’s, effacing the sense of community that comes along with those pronouns. And Ramos reduces: he boils sentences down to their essences, not only rendering the narration more distant but making the novel overall terser and tighter.

It was no more rigorous than the process he used for his original prose, which he—no surprise—described in terms of hygiene. As he famously said in a 1948 interview:

Writing should be done the way Alagoan laundry-women do their work. They start with an initial washing, wetting the dirty clothes at the edge of a pond or stream, wringing out the cloth, wetting it again, then again wringing it. They blue it and soap it, then wring it, once, twice. After rinsing it, they wet it again, this time by throwing water on it. They beat the cloth on a slab or rock, then wring it again and again, wringing it until not a single drop of water drips from the cloth. Only after having done all this do they hang the clean clothes on a washline to dry.

Scrub it, pound it, hang it out to dry: that, apparently, was his translation approach as well. I couldn’t help noting a certain irony, reading all this as his translator: I was motivated in large part to translate Ramos into English because I felt he’d been ill-served by translators insufficiently respectful of his stylistic exactitude. And now here he was, radically modifying a French Nobelist who was equally deliberate in his stylistic choices.

But none of Graciliano Ramos’s translators, present company obviously included, have been among their nations’ premier novelists. So when we ask what Ramos was doing, shrinking Camus’s sentences like a mad laundress, reshaping them to his own constricted vision, we need to remember that it’s as if a late-career Faulkner (to whom Ramos has often been compared for his stark illuminations of an isolated region) were translating him. We’d likely be unsurprised by the hubris and curious about the result.

Many dogs are shot in The Plague. Cats, too. But it’s when the rats start reappearing, scurrying from place to place, busy with their business, that the townsfolk of Oran realize life as they knew it is once more resuming. Toward the end of The Plague, Oran’s citizens “threw themselves outside, in this breathless minute when the time of suffering was about to end and the time of forgetting not yet begun. There was dancing everywhere … The old smells, of grilled meat and aniseed liquor, rose in the fine, soft light falling on the town. All around him, smiling faces turned up toward the sky.”

Ever since Susan Sontag crystallized the idea in “AIDS and Its Metaphors,” it’s become a commonplace that we think of plagues as invasions. “One feature of the usual script for plague: the disease invariably comes from somewhere else,” she wrote, listing fifteenth-century names for syphilis—the English called it the “French pox,” while it was “morbus Germanicus to the Parisians, the Naples sickness to the Florentines, the Chinese disease to the Japanese.” We want to believe that plagues visit or are visited upon us from afar, that they are not our own, much less our own fault.

Camus’s radical innovation was to show the plague as arising spontaneously from within Oran’s population—the book ends by saying the bacterium can lie dormant for years before “awakening its rats to bring death to some happy town”—though since the book is most often read as an allegory of the Nazi occupation of France, the alien-invasion metaphor isn’t much of a reach. But what do you do if, like Ramos, you’re trying to define and valorize a national literature in a country still emerging from colonization, when you can’t make a living from your own writing (even though you think it’s going to make a mint after you die) and your publisher wants you to help popularize European writing by translating a plague-y French novel? Maybe you make that novel your own.

Despite its final, dark notes of warning, The Plague is interested in being reassuring in a way that Ramos rarely is. Camus’s narrator tells us he wrote this account as a testimony to the injustice and violence suffered by Oran’s citizens and “simply to say what a person learns in the midst of an epidemic, that there is more in men to admire than to despise.” Ramos’s novels tend to be circular, not linear. They don’t end with faces upturned toward the sun and encomia on man’s essential goodness. Rather, his books bear witness to the marvelous unseen ways people struggle against their fate and fail to change it, because of their own blindness as much as anything. His characters, despite their ambitions, never quite triumph over human nature, their own natures, or nature itself; plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

When Camus’s narrator comes clean about his identity, we learn he is not, paradoxically, either of the two men we have seen actually writing. One of those, who has spent years compulsively revising the first sentence of what will surely be his magnum opus if he can ever make it beyond that opening line, finally achieves some small measure of satisfaction: “I’ve cut all the adjectives,” he says—words Ramos could have lived by.


Padma Viswanathan is the author of two novels, The Toss of a Lemon and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, as well as plays, personal essays, cultural journalism, and reviews. Her short stories have appeared in Granta and The Boston Review. Her translation of the Graciliano Ramos novel São Bernardo was recently published by New York Review Books.