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Graça Aranha: Canaã (Canaan)

This is one of those strange books that set off on one course and, just when you have an idea where they are going, suddenly veer off on another course, essentially abandoning the first plot line.

The hero of this novel is Milkau, a German immigrant to Brazil. We first meet him as he is riding from Queimado to Porto do Cacheiro, now called Santa Leopoldina. He is guided by a seven year old boy who tells him that, despite the long journey and the return, this is only a small part of his duties for the day. En route they stop briefly at the house of a former slave. The former slave very much bemoans his lot. He was much better off as a slave, getting fed and clothed. He still owns nothing, renting his land and struggling to get by. When Milkau tells him he is going to settle here, he tells him that he will be stinking rich within a year. I have seen your compatriots arrive here pockets absolutely empty and now they have a house, coffee plantation, a herd of mules. The government has taken everything from the Brazilians, ranches, horses, Negroes. The only thing they did not take from us is the grace of God

When he arrives in Porto do Cacheiro, he goes and meets the leading German who, thinking that he is looking for a job, discourages him but when he tells him that he wishes to buy a plot of land, he encourages him. Milkau comments I hope now that I shall settle here for good. I am an immigrant and my soul longs to rest. This will be my last journey on Earth.

It is here that he meets Lentz, son of a famous German general. (Note that we never learn the first names of Milkau and Lentz; both address each other using their surnames). They decide to make common cause and buy a plot together. They head out to Santa Theresa, where there are plots for sale, very much enjoying the Brazilian forest. It is during this ride that they get into a long and involved political/philosophical discussion which,essentially, has Milkau proclaiming his love of nature and his love of the New World, while Milkau argues that civilisation will never be accomplished by inferior races. Milkau argues that there is a crisis in everything, the ground itself is shaky and tremulous, the world is stumbling, the atmosphere is unbelievable and adds that Europe’s greatness is in its past.

We learn about their troubled pasts and why they are in Brazil as well as about their philosophy life. Despite their obvious differences, they remain friends.

The plot they purchase has fertile soil but needs to be cleared and, though this book was written in 1902, their methods are very relevant to what is happening in Brazil today. They employ a gang of men to clear the land and they burn down the brush and trees. The fire gets out of control and kills a lot of animals, before it is brought under control. Milkau had been against clearance in this manner but Lentz states Man must always destroy life in order to create life.

Milkau soon fits in with the other colonists but Lentz does not. Soon the two divide tasks, with Milkau as the farmer, growing the coffee, and Lentz as the hunter, bringing in the meat. However, Lentz is not happy.

It is at that point that the novel suddenly changes course. The two go into a nearby town for some local festivities and it is there that Milkau meets Mary Perutz. She had been born in Brazil but her father died when she was very young. Her mother hired herself out as a servant to the Kraus family. Her mother had also died and Mary remained as a servant in the Kraus family. Mary is very close to Augusto, the patriarch of the family but soon becomes very close to his grandson, Moritz. They have an affair, which ends up with Mary getting pregnant. When Augusto dies, his son, Moritz’s father, does not approve of Mary as a future daughter-in-law, having his eyes on a richer prize for his son. Moritz is sent away and soon Mary’s position becomes untenable. She is eventually driven out, without anything.

Eventually, Milkau intervenes and manages to get her a job with a local family but Mary’s problems are only just starting, particularly when she gives birth, even with Milkau’s aid.

However, there is also another story line going on, which affects Mary to some degree. Graça Aranha was a judge and he gives us a somewhat scathing portrait of Brazilian law and justice. One day, sometime after Augusto Kraus had died, a sheriff turns up with a document for his son. The document is is in Portuguese which the son cannot read but he is told that a court will be held in his house, that he must put up the officials (board and lodging) and that he is on trial because, apparently, he should have paid some sort of inheritance tax. Mary is still working there and one of the judges feels that the free board and lodging includes Mary. She resists but the judge will bear a grudge. The judges are ruthless towards the locals, for example, charging a penniless widow a large sum for the tax. We will meet them again when Mary is on trial sometime later and again Graça Aranha is scathing about them. In Brazil there is no law and no-one can feel safe, he states.

In his introduction to my 1920 translation of the book, Guglielmo Ferrero, presumably this one, states that this novel is a classic of Brazilian literature and it still remains so. It is easy to see why, as it touches on important themes for Brazil: colonisation by immigrants from Europe, exploitation of the jungle, Old World vs New World, corruption in high places, sufferings of the ordinary people, the decline of Europe and a rotten legal system. However, for modern readers, it may seem a bit archaic in places, though whether this is the original or the translation is not clear. However, it makes for an interesting read just because it does touch on those themes and shows how Brazil developed and the issues it faced.

Publishing history

First published in 1902 by Livraria Garnier
First English translation in 1920 by Four Seas, Boston
Translated by Mariano Joaquín Lorente