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. Read More