Dustin Hixenbaugh on "The Enchanting Soul of the Streets"
The Enchanting Soul of the Streets
Translated by Mark Carlyon
Reviewed by Dustin Hixenbaugh
The Brazilian writer Paulo Barreto (1881-1921), better known today by the pen name João do Rio, once volunteered for a diplomatic envoy to Colombia. Gay, mulatto, and obese, he was rejected by the mission’s commander, who deemed him unfit to represent the new republic abroad. He became a journalist instead.
A century later, The Enchanting Soul of the Streets (A alma encantadora das ruas, 1908) becomes the first of João do Rio’s many book-length works to be made available, in full, to readers in English. The translation is courtesy of Cidade Viva’s ambitious new “River of January” series, which has also translated texts by such notables as Machado de Assis and Lima Barreto, and which promises to expand to include additional authors in 2012. A chronicle of the public lives of Rio de Janeiro’s street musicians, longshoremen, child tattoo artists, petty thieves, and other “poets of the pavement,” The Enchanting Soul of the Streets is an apt introduction to one of the twentieth century’s essential writers and a suggestive counterpoint to canonical European and North American urban exposés such as Friedrich Engels’s The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) and Jacob A. Riis’s How the Other Half Lives (1890). It merits the attention of anyone whose interests include literary realism, urban journalism, urban ethnography, or the artistic rendition of the proletariat.
For João do Rio, the history of civilization is the history of streets. In the book’s introduction, he invites a presumably elite and bourgeois readership to join his flânerie–that is, to stroll the city’s streets—“to be a vagabond; to gape, to reflect, to comment; to have the virus of observation combined with the virus of loitering.” He vaunts the urban perambulation of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd” (1840), a story and a character I find more frenzied and far more sinister than João do Rio apparently does. He casts the street as humankind’s natural habitat (“Instinctively, when a child begins to crawl, it has but one idea: to go into the street!”). Though we are all driven to the street, however, only the few of us who are imbued with patience and an extraordinary penchant for observation can expect to deduce its secrets. ‘Observation’ slides easily into ‘interpretation,’ and though João do Rio’s reports prove rather more impressionistic than accurate, they nonetheless refract life amongst the urban poor at a time of colossal national and cultural upheaval.
There is, for example, the moment when the author catches sight of an old coach driver’s prominent belly and is swept back to “the tender age when emotion is new.” Born into a progressive family, João do Rio is believed to have led a joyful childhood. However, like the coachman’s belly, swollen not due to too rich a diet but rather to decades of malnutrition, even the pleasantest childhood memories reveal to the adult’s critical eye traces of the history of inequality. João do Rio was already six years old when Brazil became the world’s last nation to abolish slavery in May 1888. He was eight when Positivist rebels overthrew the monarchy in 1889. For the son of a half-black woman and a white, Positivist man, these two national milestones must have been profoundly personal. For the coachman, they are personal, too. “Don’t think I’m an enemy of the republic,” he insists; but “the monarchy had its advantages.” “With the republic we got the Stock Exchange, and a whole lot of foreign coach drivers—gringos and clean- shaven Englishmen with carriages not even I know the name of!” Republican Brazil’s entry into modernity, its capitulation to the demands of global commerce, and the forward march of technological innovation, had, in just fifteen years, made the coachman obsolete. “Turned to dust beneath the carriage wheels of history,” as the author puts it.
The Enchanting Soul of the Streets jabs in the ribs the elites, the bourgeoisie, and the ivory-tower intellectuals who, for fear of whom they may find there, cloister themselves far from the street. Nevertheless, João do Rio seems aware that his role as class informant (or ‘spy,’ if we are to be cynical) is enabled by his readers’ comparative ignorance. As he says in one chronicle, it is “what the world expect[s]” of a journalist to tour the privileged classes through the metropolitan “underworld.” Of course, we may doubt whether his impressionistic reports allay or ultimately further entrench that ignorance; after all, even when he expresses genuine sympathy and admiration for his subjects, particularly those compelled to commit petty crimes in order to survive, his tone betrays embellishment and even condescension. João do
Rio indeed immerses himself “in the misery of the city, in the dry, dusty, sordid alleyways, the dark cubicles of squalid boarding houses,” but like Dante, he is led by savvy guides—in “A Good Night’s Sleep,” for example, he tours an overcrowded tenement accompanied by the chief of police!—and, for all his appeals to common dignity, he consistently depicts the locations he profiles with condemning adjectives like “dry,” “dusty,” “sordid,” “dark,” and “squalid.” As the collection presses forward, from chronicles about thieves and indentured children to others about men, women, and children imprisoned for violent crimes, it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that João do Rio is not, nor does he desire to be, a member of Rio de Janeiro’s disenfranchised multitude. He is, rather, a comfortably middle-class journalist who reports to the city’s streets for a standard day’s work, and it is in this, perhaps, that the project disappoints. One cannot help but wonder just how many descriptions the author embellishes and whether the embellishment draws earnest attention to the plight of the poor, aims to earn him ‘street cred,’ or is merely an artist’s flourish. Certainly, we understand why the enfranchised would opt not to visit in person the shadowy realm of “backstreets and stabbings.”
Nevertheless, this new translation of The Enchanting Soul of the Streets is easy to recommend. Joseph Conrad, a contemporary of the author, wrote a rather well-known novella about a nation’s need to examine the brutality that occurs at its periphery to illumine the darkness at its center. But, as the chronicles of João do Rio remind us, brutality and inequality persist in the streets at the hearts of nations, too.