Memoirs of a militia sergeant / Memórias de um sargento de milícias
Manuel Antônio de Almeida
Translated and annotated by Mark Carlyon
The flight of the Portuguese royal family, their confused departure, the hazards of the journey and the impact on Rio de Janeiro of the arrival of the royal court, accompanied (by the end of its first year in situ) by 15,000 officials, courtiers and hangers-on, is one of the truly extraordinary events of the beginning of the 19th century.
Equally extraordinary is the existence of this remarkable work of fiction that depicts the life of the city during the years that it was the capital of the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves (1808-1821). In Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant Manuel Antônio de Almeida (who wrote the book between 1852 and 1853 at the age of twenty-one) not only depicts the customs and life in the town at the time, but pays tribute to the indomitable carioca spirit – the irreverence, the roguery and the joie de vivre – that were as much a part of the city then as they are today.
There are two main versions of the book: the first which the writer wrote in instalments; the second which he revised and shortened to be issued in book form (which is the basis for this translation). The writer adopts a stance of an all-seeing narrator, with constant asides to the reader; it is in these asides that he describes the religious processions, the festivals and other favourite pastimes of the period, constituting a unique portrait of the city and its inhabitants ‘at the time of the king’.
One curious aspect of the book is that the writer sees little need to give his characters names; the Sergeant himself only gets a name in Chapter 28, more than halfway through the book.
Almeida completely ignores the artifices and stylised writing of his romantic contemporaries (“Vidinha was a beautiful girl but she was equally light-hearted and volatile… what I mean to say, in plain language, divest of rhetoric, is that she was a tremendous flirt…” he writes in Chapter 33). The book is considered ahead of its time and a forerunner of Brazilian realism. Almeida even goes to the extent of introducing characters that actually existed, notably the much feared head of police, Major Vidigal (1745-1843).
In Chapter 43, towards the end of the book, he says in one of his numerous asides: “It was the ill fate of the major to have as his duty destroying the pleasure of others; as it is the misfortune of the writer of these lines to risk boring his readers by recounting so many similar scenes with only slight variations; but in order to be faithful to the period, many of whose customs it is my intention to depict, I am obliged to do so.” With a remarkable sense of self-criticism the author himself describes the work’s strongest and weakest points.