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Nélida Piñon: A república dos sonhos (The Republic of Dreams)

The book opens with the family matriarch, Eulália, announcing that she was going to die and taking to her bed to do so. It will take her well over six hundred pages to do so. The book tells her story and the stories of her husband, Madruga, her children, Miguel, Esperança, Bento 1 Bento 2, Antônia and Tobias, Madruga’s best friend, Venâncio, Breta, granddaughter of Eulália and Madruga, and various other friends and family members. The stories will be primarily told by a third person narrator but also by two first person narrators, Madruga and Breta.

The story opens in Galicia, Spain, in the period after World War I. Eulália and Madruga live in the village of Sobreira, though we do not meet Eulália at this time. The region is very poor and many of the people emigrate to what they call America, which, for them, means Brazil. (Galician is much closer to Portuguese than Spanish is). Some of them succeed but many do not, and come back, their tail between their legs.

Madruga is determined that he will emigrate despite the varying views on Brazil. Here in Sobreira there is no way to grow except within oneself. But it’s a monotonous journey and few people book passage for the trip. What’s the use of spending one’s life with no other company than one’s own guts and one’s own soul? For some America is a fountain that could cure ills and exorcise Demons while for others, Madruga’s mother, for example, it is full of Indians and blacks, not to mention the Portuguese with their mania for invading other peoples lands. They tried to take Galicia but since they couldn’t they went off to plunder Brazil.

At age thirteen, Madruga is even more determined to depart but clearly will not get his parents’ permission and, more importantly, has no way of getting the money for the journey. However, he decides that his Uncle Justo is a possible source. Uncle Justo is single with no children and has some money. Though Madruga does not know this till later, he had been to Brazil, failed and come back. Madruga has the gift of the gab and is very entrepreneurial and manages to persuade Justo to lend him the money. Justo not only lends him the money for the journey, he also lends him some for initial expenses and takes him to Vigo, where the ship will leave from.

On board ship, Madruga will meet Venâncio. Neither we nor Madruga know where Venâncio comes from, till much later in the book, as he refuses to say. The two are complete opposites and, indeed, throughout the book Venâncio will be part alter ego, part conscience for Madruga. Madruga is a man of action, Venâncio has more talent for dreaming and is a man of the intellect. Despite Madruga’s help, he is often poor. He never marries and his greatest pleasure is to go to the library and read. The two will be contrasted throughout the book.

On arrival in Brazil, Madruga soon finds a job working in a hotel for a Spaniard, and gets Venâncio a job there as well. As mentioned, Madruga is very entrepreneurial and is soon expanding the hotel and doing very well for his employer, so much so that when he asks to be partner, he is accepted, as the hotel owner and his wife realise they are better off with Madruga as a partner than managing on their own. They even hope that Madruga will marry their daughter. He has other ideas.

Madruga is determined to marry a Galician woman and he has his eye on one particular one, even though he has never spoken to her. After four years, he has paid Uncle Justo back and now plans to return home, to visit his parents but primarily to get a wife. He is well aware that Don Miguel, Eulália’s father, will not consider him suitable. He is not aware that Eulália is considering becoming a nun. However, as with Justo and others, his charm and gift of the gab win the day and the couple return to Brazil.

Madruga is very successful in his business but Piñon is not terribly interested in the details. She is much more concerned with the relationships: the Madruga-Venâncio relationship but also the relationships between Eulália, Madruga and their children and between their children and with Breta. The first child called Bento dies on the voyage back from Galicia, where he was born, to Brazil, so their next son is called Bento. As children Miguel and Esperança are very close though they do fight (Freedom was easy for you. You didn’t even have to fight for it. All you had to do was sleep with your first woman). As adults, Bento and Miguel are keen on joining their father’s business, which they do, though when Esperança wants to get involved, Madruga is reluctant but finally concedes. Esperança wants freedoms not available to women. Both Bento and Miguel become very right-wing, while Tobias and Esperança are more rebels and clash with their brothers and, on occasion, with their father. These fights are key.

While Miguel and Bento turn out to be similar in business matters, Miguel has one flaw, he is sex-obsessed and frequently unfaithful to his long-suffering wife, Silvia. She even taunts him about how close he was to Esperança – Only Esperança would have done for you. However, by this time, as we have long known, Esperança is dead, killed in a car crash, leaving behind an illegitimate daughter, Breta.

Eulália and Madruga will bring up Breta, and Madruga, in particular is very close to her. While she has some of her mother’s waywardness – her marriage lasts a mere six months – she generally has her feet on the ground and is able to make her own way.

The key aspect for Madruga – and the others, though to a lesser extent – is the relationship between Brazil and Galicia, both in their minds and in reality. Madruga has been very much influenced by the stories of his grandfather Xan and he carries these stories with him, including one that is not complete. They will continue to influence him throughout his life and he is always trying to bring his wife and children closer to them. One person with whom he struggles on this issue is Venâncio who, though probably not from Galicia, seems to be more connected to Spain than Madruga. Madruga comments I often wonder whether I’ve ever really managed to leave Sobreira.

However, it is the dreams that count. Speaking (in his mind) to Eulália as she is dying Madruga says What’s going to happen to the dreams you value so highly? Does there exist a single mortal who possesses the authority to collect the stories of the dead buried in the shade of trees without memory? though it is Venâncio who is more the repository of his dreams. He’s my daily ration of dreams.The dreams I don’t have time to dream. Venâncio is now in charge of dreaming in my name..

The Spanish Civil War is just one of the political events we follow and which influences the family. Venâncio is very much opposed to Franco, while Madruga feels that the Republic betrayed Galicia. However, we also follow Brazilian politics, particularly the fate of Getúlio Vargas, whose death has Odete, Eulália’s black servant, in deep mourning, even as she is by the side of the dying Eulália.

The book seems to take on a darker tone as we near the end. The dreams are still there but, more and more, the family is shown to be entirely dysfunctional, Part of the problem is Esperança’s illegitimate child, which Madruga considers disgraceful. However, it seems that there is massive disagreement between all siblings on politics, their father’s business and their views on life. None of the children seem to be happy or content with their life, always wanting more or always failing to fit in or just generally disagreeing with their siblings or parents. Indeed, Eulália, even though she is dying, is called on to intervene. Part of it is inter-generational, part is the role of women, seen differently, naturally, by the men and women but much is simply that they all seem to be very different in attitudes.

This is a complex but thoroughly fascinating book. Piñon jumps about chronologically, with key revelations about their early life only appearing late in the book with, for example, details of Esperança’s illegitimate child only appearing well into the book. Of course, this adds to the atmosphere of dysfunctionality. Piñon clearly has her favourites, which makes me think that this book may be at least in part autobiographical (her family were also immigrants from Galicia). However, though this is a family saga, with all that that entails, it is a lot more, as Piñon explores the Brazilian-Galician issue, the role of women in a changing Brazil, the history of Brazil and Spain during that era, the importance of stories, politics and how we react to politics in very different ways and human relations in the broadest sense. This is now rightly recognised as a classic of Brazilian literature.

In much of Latin America, novels by women played only a limited role during that era but Brazil produced several top quality women novelists, quite a few of whom have made it into English (though we are still waiting for Maria Alice Barroso (link in Portuguese)), and this novel is one of the best.

Publishing history

First published in 1984 by Francisco Alves
First English translation in 1989 by University of Texas Press
Translated by Helen Lane