The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma / Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma
Translated and annotated by Mark Carlyon
The end of the 19th century was a time of great upheaval in Brazil. The new republic, founded by an alliance between positivist idealists and the military with virtually no popular support, got off to a difficult start. Its unwilling first president lasted less than two years in office. But the army had no intention of losing what it had gained. The vice president, Marshal Floriano Peixoto, seized power, ignoring the recently promulgated constitution that required new elections, and proceeded to confront rebellions on two different fronts. The first took place in the capital; it was led by three naval officers who gained control of the Guanabara Bay, from where they proceeded to shell the city. The second, in the south, was the re-emergence of an older problem, the aspiration of the southern states to break away from the Union.
Floriano, the usurper of power, the military dictator, the centre of a cult of authoritarianism, with his mediocre character and ruthless elimination of all opposition, is in many ways the central character around which Lima Barreto’s story and its characters revolve. As he tells it, he gives us a vivid picture of the inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro in the early 1890’s: Albernaz and Bustamante, promoted through the ranks to retire as a general and an admiral, but who had somehow always avoided being sent to the front; Genelício, the pompous, self-serving bureaucrat; Doctor Campos, the populist politician who will stop at nothing to keep his party in power; Coleoni, the Italian immigrant who made his fortune in Brazil but who is excluded from carioca society – and above all the introverted but determined Policarpo, who has made his love of his country into his life’s central mission, a love for which he is to die in the deepest disillusionment.
These lives are set in a city that in losing its monarch had lost a large part of its identity; a city traumatised by the struggle for power, against the constant background of a greater trauma still: the Paraguayan War, a war that left sixty thousand Brazilian soldiers dead and thousands more crippled for life, that devastated the country’s self-esteem and destroyed the spirits and the health of the emperor. Barreto’s book denounces war, nationalism, military dictatorships, the system of political patronage and the abuse of human rights; it is as relevant today as it was when he wrote it a hundred years ago.
Since then, Lima Barreto has become a Brazilian icon. The story of his life with his father’s insanity, his cruel rejection by carioca literary society, his poverty and alcoholism, is in itself as extraordinary as anything that could be produced by fiction.