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Lima Barreto: Triste fim de Policarpo Quaresma (The Patriot; later: The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma)

This book was first published in the Jornal do Commercio and only appeared in book form in 1915, paid for out of Barreto’s own pocket. There are two English translations, as you can see below. I read the Penguin one.

The novel is set in Brazil in the 1890s. Floriano Peixoto is the president. He will make several appearances in this novel, particularly during the Brazilian Naval Revolts.

Our eponymous hero works at an unnamed ministry as a civil servant. Quaresma was esteemed at the ministry: his age, his erudition, his evident modesty and honesty earned him the respect of all. He has never married and lives with his sister, Adelaide, who has also never been married. She is devoted to him but more than once will say that she does not understand him. They live in a prosperous area of Rio de Janeiro. (Rio de Janeiro was capital of the country at this time and would remain so till the founding of Brasilia in 1960.)

They live in an upmarket neighbourhood. General Albernaz was a near neighbour. This book is satire, sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh. There was nothing soldierly about the general. He didn’t even seem to have a uniform. Throughout the whole of his military career he hadn’t seen a single battle, held a command or done anything related to his profession or his artillery training. He is close friends with Rear Admiral Bustamante. In the navy he had come dangerously close to being as inactive as Albernaz had been in the army. He had never boarded a warship, except during the Paraguayan War, and even then only for a very short time. He had been put in command of a battleship – the Lima Barros. He went off to find the ship – and could not. It was not where it was meant to be nor, indeed, anywhere else. It had been sunk in the Paraguayan war but this fact seems not to have been recorded.

While the two men will play a sort of military role later in the book, at the beginning General Albernaz is more concerned with his five daughters, specially with getting them married. We follow their fate, particularly that of the second daughter, Ismênia, engaged to the would-be dentist, Cavalcânti.

Apart from his job and his sister, there is one thing that is of prime importance to Policarpo, namely Brazil. He is a most ardent patriot. He spends his money on buying books related to Brazil and is always reading them in his spare time. He has recently focussed much of his reading on the native population, the only true Brazilians. He is learning Tupi-Guaraní, one of the native languages of Brazil, and feels that it should be the national language of Brazil, instead of Portuguese, a foreign language.

Tupi-Guaraní will turn out to be his downfall. He submits a proposal to Congress that it should be declared the national language. The congressmen and press laugh at him for it. However, his department is not amused. The petty jealousy in bureaucratic circles regards superior intelligence that reveals itself in any way other than through official correspondence, neat handwriting and knowledge of the rules and regulations with great hostility. When he translates an official document into Tupi-Guaraní and it is inadvertently submitted to the higher authorities, instead of the Portuguese version, it causes. great embarrassment and he is suspended. Policarpo has a nervous breakdown.

His next adventures will take him first to the country, where he buys a house and plans to grow his own food, only Brazilian food,of course. He is determined that the Brazilian soil is the most fertile in the world and needs no fertiliser. He is also determined the that the Brazilian peasant is hard-working and eager to cultivate the fertile Brazilian soil. We learn, if he does not, that neither proposition is true.

Then the Brazilian Naval Revolts mentioned above take place and Floriano Peixoto is threatened. Policarpo sends him a telegram and tells him to hold firm, as he, Policarpo, is on the way. Policarpo holds the rank of major and is drafted into the army, along with General Albernaz and Rear Admiral Bustamante. The attempt by three three and others to save Brazil is firmly mocked by Barreto. As the title tells us, it does not turn out well.

Barreto had to pay for publication of the novel in book form. He did not live to see another edition. Indeed, the book disappeared for a while, till it was revived well after the author’s death. It is now considered a Brazilian classic.

Much of it is satirical. Barreto clearly has a grudging admiration for Policarpo who is essentially honest, perhaps too honest in a thoroughly corrupt world. However, at the same time he mocks him for his excessively fervent patriotism, his pigheadedness and his inability to see how other people might react to what he says and does. It is this latter trait that will be his downfall on more than one occasion. Of course, Policarpo is not the only victim of Barreto’s satire. From Ismênia and her naivety about her prospective husband and her whole view of marriage, to her father and his non-military career, from Floriano Peixoto (his predominant characteristic was inertia; by temperament he was extremely lazy. His was not a laziness of the ordinary kind, such as we all experience, it was pathological, as if he had no blood in his veins, resulting in a numbness of the nerves) to Dr Campos, the populist politician, happy to change sides when it was convenient but also thoroughly corrupt, Barreto mocks most of his characters in some way or other.

The books starts with a quotation from Ernest Renan: The major drawback in real life, and what makes it unbearable to the superior man, is that if one applies idealistic principles to it, qualities become faults, so that very often distinguished men do not succeed as well as those motivated by selfishness or by mere routine, which might well be Policarpo’s motto, even if he does not realise it. Is he a good man or a foolish man or, perhaps, both? The world really has no room for either good men or foolish men, is Barreto’s view.

Publishing history

First published in 1915 by Revista dos Tribunaes
First English translation as The Patriot in 1978 by Collings
Translated by Robert Scott-Buccleuch
First English translation as The Sad End of Policarpo Quaresma in 2014 by Penguin
Translated by Mark Carlyon