*Cunha, Euclides da
Cunha, Euclides da
When Samuel Putman translated Euclides da Cunha’s Os sertões (1902.; Rebellion in the Backlands), he called it “Brazil’s greatest book.” Cunha’s masterpiece, as it was labeled, was one of the first prose pieces effectively to combine two genres: essay and fiction. The text is too scientific to be called an historical novel, although it was based on an historical event, and too fictitious to be called a scientific treatise. The essays that make up this “novel” can be classified as geographical, geological, ethnographic, philosophical, sociological, and historical.
All but forgotten, except by students of Brazilian letters, Cunha was once again discovered and analyzed when Mário Vargas Llosa published his La guerra del fin del mundo (1981; The War of the End of the World), a novel based on Cunha’s Rebellion. In A Writer’s Reality (1990), Vargas Llosa describes his reaction to Cunha’s text: “For me all of this was like seeing in a small laboratory the pattern of something that had been happening all over Latin America since the beginning of our independence.” Thus, Vargas Llosa recognizes in the turnof-the-century text the beginning of the current debate on “barbarism and civilization” that still fuels the passions of Latin American essayists.
The three sections of Rebellion—“Land,” “Man,” “Struggle”—reflect Cunha’s scientific knowledge, which is greatly influenced by European positivism. Cunha “proves” that the jagunço (ruffian) is not guilty of rebellion, but is the product of racial, geographical, and historical factors that create a kind of semi-barbaric existence. To be sure, Cunha represented the view of the elite of the time: the struggle between the “primitive” citizens of the interior and the “civilized” citizenry of the coastal areas.
Cunha’s essay becomes, then, a description of turn-of-the-century Brazilian ideology.
Although one cannot deny the racist implications in Cunha’s text, such as the “degeneration” of the races in America due to miscegenation, the author also saw that not all barbarism lay on the side of the rebels, and that civilization meant more than the political and military establishment of Brazil. Cunha’s primary purpose was to re-create the peasant revolt against the republic, but what he achieved has been recognized as the first attempt within Brazilian letters to probe beneath the surface of Brazilian reality and to expose forbidden topics of discussion. For the student of turn-of-the-century Brazilian literature, Cunha provides a backdrop against which to measure current trends in the attempt to describe and define Brazilian identity in terms of what is European or North American (i.e. foreign); what is “native”—meaning authentically Brazilian and a problematic term in itself; and what is African. Many critics continue to live under the positivism that gave Brazil its motto “Order and Progress,” while unwilling to discuss
openly issues of miscegenation, racism, discrimination, and classism. In many cases in the contemporary debate, critics fall into the same trap experienced by Cunha. Raymond Williams, in his book Mário Vargas Llosa (1986), concludes that “Da Cunha was ultimately seduced by the beleaguered inhabitants of Canudos. Consequently, everything that supposedly stood for the opposite of civilization appealed to him most strongly.” It is in this very attraction to the “Brazilian race” – the mixed races that comprise the majority of the population—that Cunha’s essays need re-evaluation. He opened the way for a “scientific” view of culture that today has become fashionable once again.
Cunha’s style is excessively baroque, characterized by antithesis, hyperbole, paradox, and an inordinate use of adjectives and repetition. Critics have noted these flaws in his style, but most have also acknowledged his extraordinary facility with and manipulation of the language. A journalist by training, Cunha was able to combine journalistic prose with a poetic artistry of discourse that made most of his essays masterpieces of discursive development.
CARMEN CHAVES TESSER
Euclides Rodrigues Pimenta da Cunha. Born 20 January 1866 in Santa Rita do Rio Negro. Studied at the Colégio Aquino, Rio de Janeiro, 1883–84: cofounder, with fellow students, O Democrata (Democracy); Polytechnic School, Rio, 1884–86; Praia Vermelha military school, Rio, 1886–88: expelled for openly insulting minister of war, and briefly imprisoned; traveled briefly to São Paulo, 1888, and began writing for A Provínda de São Paulo (Province of São Paulo); resumed military education at Praia Vermelha, 1889–92, degree in military engineering. Married, 1890. Worked as a government engineer, from 1892, traveling often on government commissions. Journalist for various newspapers, and covered the War of Canudos for O Estado de São Paulo (The state of São Paulo), 1897.
Lived in São José do Rio Pardo, 1898–1901, where he wrote Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands). Member, Brazilian Academy of Letters, 1903. Died (shot by his wife’s lover) 15 August 1909.
Essays and Related Prose
Os sertões, 1902; edited by Walnice Nogueira Galvão, 1985; as Rebellion in the Backlands, 1944, and as Revolt in the Backlands, 1947, translated by Samuel Putnam
Contrastes e confrontos, 1907; edited by Dermal de Camargo Montrê, 1967, and Araripe Junior, 1975
A margetn da história, 1909; edited by Dermal de Camargo Montrê, 1967
Canudos e inéditos, edited by Olímpio de Souza Andrade, 1967; revised, enlarged edition, as Canudos e outros temas, edited by Cyl Gallindo, 1994
Uma paraíso perdido: Reuniāo dos ensaios amazônicos, edited by Leandro Tocantins, 1976
Other writings: notebooks and letters.
Collected works edition: Obra completa, edited by Afrânio
Coutinho, 2 vols., 1966.
Reis, Irene Monteiro, Bibliografia de Euclides da Cunha, Rio de Janeiro: Ministry of Education and Culture, 1971
Sousa, J. Galante de, “Algumas fontes para o estudo de Euclides da Cunha,” Revista do Livro 15, no. 4 (1959): 183–219
Venâncio Filho, Francisco, Euclides da Cunha: Ensaio biobibliográphico, Rio de Janeiro: Officina Industrial Graphica, 1931
Bernucci, Leopoldo M., Historia de un malentendido: Un estudio transtextual de “La guerra del fin del mundo” de Mário Vargas Llosfa, New York: Lang, 1989
Booker, M. Keith, Vargas Llosa Among the Postmodernists, Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1994
Levine, Robert M., Vale of Tears: Revisiting the Canudos Massacre in Northeastern Brazil, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992
Reale, Miguel, Face oculta de Euclides da Cunha, Rio de Janeiro: Topbooks, 1993
Vargas Llosa, Mário, A Writer’s Reality, Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1990; London: Faber, 1991
Wasserman, Renata R. Mautner, “Mário Vargas Llosa, Euclides da Cunha, and the Strategy of Intertextuality,” PMLA 108, no. 3 (1993): 460–73
Williams, Raymond Leslie, Mário Vargas Llosa, New York: Ungar, 1986
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