- Resisting Boundaries: The Subject of Naturalism in Brazil
Eva Paulino Bueno is one of a handful of scholars who are successfully rethinking, in light of Latin American cultural and historical contexts, genres and periods fashioned in Europe. Bueno’s contribution is especially welcome because it does not sacrifice the notion of genre in its context-driven analysis.
Resisting Boundaries examines five late-nineteenth century naturalist novels of Brazil, canonized or marginalized to varying degrees by publishers, by the public and most particularly, by critics. Bueno asks of them the following: why did their authors choose naturalism, considered by most literati of the time as decadent and inappropriate? How did they adapt—or pervert—an essentially European genre to respond to the realities of Brazil? And finally, how and why has the critical apparatus of this century failed to appreciate the radical nature of those adaptations?
Bueno’s conclusion, that these novels are a “counter-hegemonic resistance to the writing of . . . official history” (ix) is convincing and enlightening. Her argument that naturalism is particularly suited to challenging the Republican, positivist “idea” of Brazil—and to countering literary criticism’s perpetuation of that idea—is most provocative. In addition, Resisting Boundaries raises some fundamental unanswered questions about how naturalist authors viewed their own relationship to the cultural system they were critiquing, and how they expected their critiques to be received.
Bueno’s introduction ably traces the simultaneous, complimentary development of positivism and naturalism in Brazil, summarizing how positivist philosophy failed to account for the “space for excluded energies” staked by its own cultural production (19). The institutionalization of positivism ultimately caused naturalism to grow as a “decentered” aesthetic practice, formed in debates by intellectuals who lacked a single, coherent program. Naturalism, accordingly, found its expression in aesthetic responses to “Brazilian difference” (17).
Bueno goes on to argue that as a result of naturalism’s “rebuke to all totalizing schemes” (34), critics systematically “. . . read (naturalism) out of contention in the stakes for national representation” (34). Bueno’s objective is not only to rescue the Brazilian naturalist aesthetic. She also seeks to reveal how naturalist novels fought for their counterideological space in the representation of the nation, forging a new aesthetic territory while simultaneously critiquing the aesthetic standards that would reject that territory.
Each of Resisting Boundaries’ five chapters deals with a different naturalist novel. In her incisive reading of Aluísio Azevedo’s O mulato, Bueno concludes that Azevedo pointedly adopts naturalism to condemn the Church’s suppression of miscegenation and its subordination of blacks and mulattoes. But her discussion of Azevedo’s O Cortiço introduces one of her primary arguments: that the struggles in these novels among members of different classes, colors, [End Page 286] and sexes are primarily contests to “command the process of representation” (74). Here Bueno also consolidates two other central conceits. First, she demonstrates that in these naturalist novels the main ammunition for such battles is the body and its energies. Second, Bueno posits the “absent center” (76) of a hegemonic structuring principal or force—the stock market in the case of O Cortiço—against which the characters must all struggle.
Bueno’s discussion of Júlio Ribeiro’s A Carne reveals how the instability of the Portuguese language in the text leaves the novel “centerless,” highlighting the consequent competition for legitimacy among the many other languages used in the novel. Bueno’s objective is to demonstrate that A Carne is purposely an ungrounded novel in search of an ideology. At the same time, her contention that critics have condemned the novel by imposing, in effect, the wrong ideology is as provocative as it is problematic.
In discussions of Adolfo Caminho’s Bom Crioulo and Manoel de Oliveira Paiva’s Dona Guidinha do Poço, Bueno adroitly applies this idea of “absent center” to questions of race, gender, sexual behavior, family dynamics, and by extension or analogy, to Brazilian society and state. Particularly gratifying is her repudiation of Bom Crioulo as merely a “celebration of homosexual love” (132). Reinforcing the analogy between...