Serendipity, a Journey into Brazil`s past
Visiting the Yellow Woodpecker Farm – “Sitio do Picapau Amarelo”
My regular reader will probably recall that I am an absolute advocate of serendipity and its beneficence. I have recently been the beneficiary of a recent dose of serendipity, stimulating my little grey cells since returning to Brazil for my current visit, which happily coincides with the forthcoming Rio Olympics – but more of that another time.
Fatima is fully aware of my proclivity for history, of course, so, last time I was here she introduced me to her friend and colleague Maria Ana who teaches history and during that brief meeting we did, indeed, chat amicably about the subject in the midst of someone`s birthday Festa. Subsequently Fatima persuaded Maria Ana to let me browse through her Doctoral thesis on “National identity, Race and Gender in Monteiro Lobato`s Yellow Woodpecker Farm Stories”, thinking I may be temporarily amused and diverted at least.
Not only amused and diverted, I have to say, but fascinated and engrossed!
Not only have I browsed, but I have delved, probed, explored and investigated. And it is helping me to learn and understand something more of the economic and political history of my adoptive, second, country, Brazil. Some words of explication might help, no doubt.
The Yellow Woodpecker Farm – Sitio do picapau amarelo – is the location of a series of children`s books for which Monteiro Lobato is famous here. Lobato is a sort of cross between Enid Blyton and JK Rowling in a Brazilian, inter-World-War-years context. (There will be a series of possible links to Lobato and his various works and other links at the end of this blog.)
José Bento Renato Monteiro Lobato was born in 1882, in Taubaté, near São Paulo, and died at age 66 in 1948, a year after I arrived on this earth. His maternal grandfather owned a coffee farm in the Paraiba Valley and had been created Baron, and then Viscount, of Tremembé by Emperor of Brazil, Pedro ll. His father’s family were also coffee farmers, all of which farms depended upon slaves to function, so José Bento’s early life saw the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 and would, no doubt, have been influenced by the fairly rapid decline of slave-based coffee production fortunes.
His grandfather seems to have been a key influence in his life and insisted on him studying law rather than the fine arts he wished to indulge in. He nevertheless dabbled in the intellectual life whilst at University and contributed articles and criticisms to literary journals which were then springing up. He also consciously developed these intellectual links as he continued to undertake life as a lawyer from his graduation until he inherited his grandfather’s farm, in 1918, whereupon he had the financial freedom to invest more time and money on his literary career.
As well as his own writing of adult fiction he became well known and respected in his literary circle as an editor and publisher. Although he was regarded by a number of his peers as a man of letters he was twice unsuccessful in becoming a member of the National Academy of Letters.
Initially the issue that captured my attention was the strong contrast between the reverence in which he appears to be held in respect of his children’s stories which have captivated many generations of Brazilian children from the 1920s onwards through several iterations of television programmes for children through to the latest (2012 onwards) cartoon versions of his stories; and the rather extreme racialist (please note – ‘racialist’ not racist) views as expressed in his adult fiction and correspondence, but also interpretable from his racial stereotyping in his children’s literature.
However, I started this blog post by referring to serendipity, so let me explain where reading Maria Ana’s dissertation has led me! Firstly there is the agrarian aspect of Lobato’s writing and the fact that he extols a balanced rural way of living within the environment as opposed to the vicissitudes of highly urbanised way of life that was beginning to show the ugly side of overcrowded urban living even in Lobato’s lifetime. This chimed with my environmental concerns. The population of Brazil then was about 40 million, now just over 200 million!
The real serendipitous discoveries, however, came from a reference to the fact that Lobato was suddenly dismissed in 1930 from his posting to the USA as a member of the Brazilian Consulate. Delving deeper into this – away from the Doctoral dissertation – it turns out that the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Depression probably had a more significant effect upon Brazil than it had even within the USA, both economically and politically.
It appears that the Brazilian economy at the time was effectively a one-trick pony, almost entirely dependent upon the tax incomes from the success of Brazilian coffee around the world. The effect of the Depression, however, was to decimate world commodity prices and without the comfort of the coffee royalties the then Brazilian Government of President Washington Luis could no longer manage conflicted pressures of rural landowner privileges and growing urban needs. The ‘Brazilian Revolution’ of 1930 was effected by a military junta and ceded power to strong man Getúlio Dornelles Vargas.
Initially something of a Populist and a Liberal reformer, Vargas governed by decree as Head of the Provisional Government instituted by the Revolution, pending the adoption of a new Constitution, from 1930 to 1934. Once there was a new Constitution in place, he ‘naturally’ became elected President by the Constituent Assembly under the transitional provisions of the Constitution and thus governed as President, alongside a democratically elected Legislature, through to 1937.
Seven years in power, however, clearly gave him a taste for the trappings, and the application of that power, and he decided to follow the routes taken by European Dictators of the decade, with a political bias towards the ideas of Mussolini, apparently. He gradually accreted more power to himself and ruled as a dictator in Brazil until the end of World War ll in 1945
This dictatorial bias might, one thought, have taken Brazil into the arms of Germany and Italy but, in fact Brazil remained neutral until 1942. Then the significant accumulated losses of Brazilian shipping to the actions of German U-boats caused Brazil to declare war against Germany and Italy in August of 1942 and join the ranks of the Allied side of the war.
Fatima’s Uncle Junho, whom I met a few times before he died was a huge fan of Winston Churchill, obviously stemming from this time. And Brazil played a significant role in the South Atlantic and as a host for the US Fourth Fleet in Recife, as well as sending troops to fight in Italy, a contribution not well known even in Brazil.
Amongst the effects of Brazil’s involvement in the war were improved port facilities, new modern airfields from Belém to Rio de Janeiro, as well as refurbished railroads, stimulated manufacturing, agriculture, and mining, and a burgeoning steel complex. Its army, air force, and navy had gained combat experience and the latest equipment. Its foreign stature had also improved and along with this came heightened political expectations, too, providing the basis for more recent historical developments in this country.
But, what about friend Lobato – we left him above as he was just getting the sack in 1930 from the Consulate, and, moreover the new government didn’t even pay his fare home. He had also made significant losses on the USA stock market in the crash; after hoping to make a fortune, he lost one instead. This meant he had to sell his share of the publishing house he had founded in Brazil and sell the copyright to his books in order to pay off all his debts.
It also meant he now had to earn his living as a commercial writer, rather than seeking to become an influential intellectual novelist at the risk of making little money. He had already had some success with his children’s stories based in the Sitio do picapau amarelo, which was, in his own words, a metaphor for the emerging country of Brazil. So he continued to engage and teach the developing minds of little Brazilians by educating through the medium of tales told by Dona Benta (a round and cuddly white grandmother figure) to her grandchildren Luciá (known always as Narizinho because of her little snub nose) and Luciá’s cousin Pedro, known as Pedrinho.
Folklore tales were related by cuddly black cook Aunt Nastácia and friendly Uncle Barnabé, a former black family retainer who now lived in a shed in the woods. An alternative world view was provided by a rag doll brought to life as Emilia, with science taught by a corn dolly who magically read all the books in the house and was brought to life as the Viscount of Sabugosa. The cast also included a number of humanised animals, showing various good and bad human characteristics in fantasy form.
Lobato’s readership was supposed as primarily children of the white Brazilian elite, so all the stereotypes, viewed from that perspective raised no more qualms in society here, in Brazil, than Enid Blyton’s stereotypes or the Rupert Bear comic strip character raised in the 1920s and 30s – they were simply accepted as part of the story.
The books were always very popular and sold in the millions. A full length film emerged after Lobato’s death but he was never successful in selling his ideas to the Disney studios although he apparently tried a number of times to get them to convert his tales to animated form. Soon after he died a theatrical presentation of his tales was brought to early TV screens in the tiny TV population of the 1950s, then again in the 60s and again in the 70s and the 90s. There has, more recently, been a Brazil-based animated series of the stories.
So there are many generations of children, both black and white who have grown up knowing the tales of the Yellow Woodpecker Farm, as well known here as Noddy and Big Ears are known in the UK. And I am indebted to Maria Ana whose thesis has provided such serendipitous enlightenment over recent days!
Oh – and, by the by – I meant to add a comment about Michelle Obama`s comments last night at the Democratic Convention in the USA since they also speak to the way the world has changed since Lobato wrote his stories. Michelle Obama made the very emotionally charged comment that every morning she (obviously a black woman!) woke up in a House built by slaves and was so proud to see her beautiful black daughters playing on the White House lawn with their dog. She praised Hilary Clinton for making it apparent that it would (will?) be no surprise to see a woman President of the USA, so soon after seeing the first Black President.
For Brazil, there has, of course, been the first woman President, but one wonder when there will be the country`s first black President? Marina Silva came closest in 2014 and may yet stand again in the next presidential elections of course.
Also when I first published this post I forgot to add the links to other sources of information so here are some below – in no particular order….
For information about Brazil’s involvement in WW2 see – http://eial.tau.ac.il/index.php/eial/article/view/1193/1221