Itamar Vieira Júnior’s newly translated 2018 novel elucidates, through the lives of two sisters, the enduring dysfunction of a nation
The defining moment of Brazilian sisters Bibiana’s and Belonísia’s lives happens in the first few pages of Crooked Plow, Itamar Vieira Júnior’s newly translated award-winning 2018 novel. The two girls, barely out of their toddling years, have dared each other to open a suitcase stashed under their grandmother’s bed. Carefully, when grandma momentarily leaves their tiny mud home on a plantation in Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia, her ‘voice fading into the distance amid all the clucking and birdsong’, they open the case to discover, among other things, a knife. Curious to experience this shining treasure in all its senses, Bibiana, narrating the first of the novel’s three parts, places the weapon momentarily in her mouth. Her sister follows suit, until, accidentally, they both draw blood.
Vieira Júnior describes the panicked trip to the hospital using the kind of vivid imagery that continues throughout the book: ‘overwhelmed by our own suffering, by the smell of clotting blood and the prayers of our stunned parents’, they drive along miles of dirt tracks and wide roads that the pair have never seen before. One sibling is rendered mute by the accident (though which one, we only learn much later on), while the other’s wounds to the tongue are superficial. The latter learns to read the facial expressions of the former, becoming her guide as they grow up: ‘we’d become one’. Arguably, whatever the tribulations engendered by the accident, the sisters’ fate in life was sealed long before the reader met the pair: Bibiana and Belonísia are just three generations out of slavery but the terms of their Afro-Brazilian family’s work on the plantation, within which they are able to build a small house (but not out of brick, which is forbidden) in exchange for otherwise unpaid labour in the fields, reflects negligible advancement.
Though Vieira Júnior is never heavy-handed in his symbolism, the silenced sister, as her story evolves, becomes representative of the voiceless poor and Black of Brazil, for whom progress arrives at a glacial speed. Nonetheless these characters aren’t mere victims, but rounded individuals, full of hope, ambition and pride: the sisters’ father is a Jarê healer, making him an influential figure in the Afro-Brazilian religion locally; their mother provides midwifery to the community. Belonísia marries disastrously, but stands up for herself (‘I wasn’t submissive, I wouldn’t forgive’); Bibiana is the more intellectually curious, a trait that inevitably sees her stray from the village and become politicised. She bemoans her father for being ‘complicit in his own exploitation: as the spiritual leader of the community, it was he who made sure the work continued without disruption’.
The social-realist literary lens, with its inherent politics, is generally turned to the urban poor in Brazilian literature (or at least that portion of it which makes it into English translation), be it the memoirs of favelada Carolina Maria de Jesus or the more recent fiction of Paulo Lins (and the film adaptation of his most famous work, City of God, 1997). While Crooked Plow carries in its DNA the early books of Jorge Amado, the famed modernist writer who also took Bahia as inspiration, many of Vieira Júnior’s themes are drawn from his day job of 15 years at INCRA, a government agency dedicated to rural land-reform and the legacy of the quilombos (the settlements established by runaway enslaved people). At one point, Bibiana’s boyfriend notes the slippage of identity in response to the vagaries of Brazilian law: ‘we started calling ourselves Indians. Because we knew there was a law, even if it was regularly violated, that forbade Indians to be expelled from their lands.’ In the final third of the book, the story takes an even darker turn, one that again reflects wider Brazilian history, as the disenfranchised begin to grapple not just with state violence and economic exploitation, but with that of criminal parastates in which the lines between legitimate business and gangs, politician and kingpin, are blurred. This is a saga that tells not just the story of two siblings, but the enduring dysfunction of a nation.
Crooked Plow: A Novel by Itamar Vieira Júnior, translated by Johnny Lorenz. Verso, £10.99 (softcover)