Erico Veríssímo: Caminhos cruzados (Crossroads)
This was Veríssímo’s second novel but the first to be published in English. It had some problems in Brazil as the Catholic Church did not like it, probably because it contains prostitution, extramarital sex and mockery of pious Catholics and the priesthood. By today’s standard, it is, of course, very mild.
The novel is set in and around Porto Alegre, where Veríssímo lived for some time. This novel does not tell one story but, rather, several stories, concerning people who live on or have lived on or have some connection with a street called Travessa das Acácias. Like most people, they have their issues and their problems, their view of the world and their ups and downs.
We start with Professor Clarimundo who has lost his way in the real world. As well as teaching classes, he gives private tuition to various students and lives on his own. He is writing a book which will be a masterpiece; into it he will pour all his erudition and talent but apart from that he realises he has achieved nothing in his forty-eight years. However, he impressively reads Einstein’s book on relativity theory in German (indeed, the title is given only in German and not translated).
Virgina Madeira is married to Honorato who has a flabby corpulent face, swollen eyes, a shiny bald pate and a bovine air. She is neither happy with him nor their son, Noel, and tries to forget them. Honorato is boring. She wants to go to the ball that night but Honorato does not. She also wanted to send their son to boarding school but the household servant, Tante Angelica, was very much opposed. She complains about everything. She wants new clothes, a new fridge, a new radio and an electric carpet sweeper. Noel finds life monotonous. He is becoming aware of the opposite sex but is unsure how to react. He had been persuaded by a friend to go to a prostitute but did not find the experience enjoyable. However, he is happiest when he is reading. He reads and enjoys, for example, Katharine Mansfield’s Journals.
Salustiano knows what he wants – women. He awakes one morning and finds a strange woman in his bed. He has no idea how she got there. She is Cacilda and we later learn that she is a prostitute. Both are attracted to one another but she leaves without any information being exchanged.
It is not all entirely miserable. Ze Maria Pedrosa (Ze is short for José; he is called Willy by his wife and Colonel by most people) is married to Maria Luiza. Like most marriages in this book it is not happy. Maria Luiza is always finding fault with things and complains bitterly, They have a shop but it is not doing well and they are in debt. Ze Maria bets on the lottery and wins a lot of money. Is Maria Luiza happy? No, she is not. She is worried about thieves, beggars and pedlars. They are now spending too much, she feels.
There are many other characters like this, generally unhappy with their lot and always complaining. João Benevolo has lost his job working in Leitão Leiria’s expensive shop What does he do? He reads The Three Musketeers. His wife, Laurentina, who makes a pittance from sewing, wants him to look for a job but he does not. Indeed, when he gets some money, instead of buying food, which they need, he buys a copy of Treasure Island. Laurentina had been wooed by Ponciano many years ago but had chosen João. Ponciano now turns up and visits every night to João’s disgust. He even gives them some money. João’s pride is hurt but he takes the money and uses it to buy Treasure Island.
Leitão Leiria, despite his success, is not entirely happy. He is tired of his wife (she won’t even let him read Edgar Wallace novels) and goes to a prostitute, Cacilda, though he feels mildly – but only mildly – guilty about it. His wife is too busy as head of the Pious Ladies Society, doing good works, to pay much attention to him, except for making sure that he behaves in a proper manner (in her eyes).
The young people are naturally more active on the sexual front, with Noel pursuing Fernanda, daughter of the permanently miserable widow Eudoxia and employee of Leitão Leiria, while her brother, Pedrinho, still only sixteen, is pursuing Cacilda. Salustiano, meanwhile, has turned his attentions to Chinita, daughter of the Pedrosas, with his enthusiasm for her resulting in him getting carried away.
We nominally follow these and a few other characters over a period of five days but, given what happens, it is clearly a much longer period. Virtually everyone is unhappy with their lot. Parents do not get on with their children, and vice versa. Spouses are unfaithful and of those are not being actively unfaithful, a few are considering it. A few characters die. Many are poor but even those that have money are far from happy with their lot. Those that are in a relationship are generally not happy with it.
Professor Clarimundo, about whom we were told at the beginning of the book that he had lost his way in the real world, seems, despite this, to be one of the few who is not too miserable. He is paid to give tuition to Chinita but she never actually is available, though he still gets paid. At the end of the book, he has had a satisfactory class teaching maths. He is on good terms with his neighbour. Despite their political differences – the neighbour is of Italian origin and a keen supporter of Mussolini – they regularly meet and chat. More particularly, he is very excited about his book which will recount the point of view of someone from Sirius observing Earth. He is enjoying writing it and is convinced that it will be a huge success However, he has no romantic interest, no spouse/lover and no children, the three issues that seem to make many of the characters of this book miserable.
The book ends with Professor Clarimundo, happily making his coffee. However, Veríssímo clearly has a very negative and cynical view of life in Porto Alegre. We might keep expecting a glimmer of hope but, with a very few rare exceptions, we do not get it. By the end of the book, virtually everyone is as miserable if not more so than they were at the beginning. If you enjoy a bit of Schadenfreude, you will probably enjoy this book.
First published in 1935 by Edição Da Livraria Do Globe
First English translation in 1943 by Macmillan
Translated by Lewis C Kaplan