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Oswald de Andrade: Serafim Ponte Grande (Seraphim Grosse Pointe)

Oswald de Andrade travelled extensively in Europe where he was very much influenced by avant-gardism movements there and published his Anthropophagite Manifesto as a result. A quick read of this manifesto will show you that avant-garde, anarchy and absurdism was the order of the day. This is certainly the case with this book.

I shall unusually start with the cover blurbs. I am not sure whether they are real or not though the authors of them certainly are. The greatest book produced by Brazilian modernism… the complete and powerful application of social satire in Brazil, says Geraldo Ferraz (link in Portuguese) while the review A Critica says a degenerate invention of a quasi novel. There are other similar comments. All may be accurate.

De Andrade apparently wrote three versions between 1924 and 1928 and then merged them. He states in the book that it was written from 1929 backwards. The book was finally published in Portuguese in 1933. I doubt if it was a bestseller.

The book is clearly a subversion of the traditional novel as it is fragmentary, full of word games – translating it must have been a bit like translating Finnegans Wake into another language, very satirical and completely absurdist.

It uses a lot of parody, in that it jumps around from style to style – the personal diary and courtroom scene, letters and dialogue, newspaper articles and poems, entries in a dictionary and drama. One comparison might be with Alfred Jarry‘s Ubu Roi, which de Andrade may have read or seen performed. Daniil Kharms is another possible comparison ,though it is very unlikely that de Andrade ever saw any of his work.

The basic plot follows the story of the eponymous Seraphim Grosse Pointe. He works for the Federal Division of Health and Safety but does not like the job or his boss, Benedict Cannondodge. He marries Lalah. There is a scene in a courtroom where various people persuade him to marry her. They have three children but it is not a happy marriage and Seraphim is not a good father. He falls in love with a woman who runs off with another man. At this point, he says that his life is becoming a Dostoevsky novel. He gets involved in the Paulista Revolt of 1924, claiming to have killed his boss and having his own cannon.

At this point he sets off on his travels. My country has been sick for some time. It suffers from cosmic incompetence. His first trip is to Paris, with his friend, Joe Raggs-Gallsworth Fos’Dick, but they get diverted to the Belgian Congo when Fos’Dick, using a banister stolen from the ship, rows them in the wrong direction. In Paris, he masquerades as Brazilian nobility but has another failed love affair and acquires a dog called Petite Pointe.

He is then off to the Near/Middle East, visiting Palestine, telling us that Christ was in fact born in Bahia and then heading off to Egypt.

He sums it all up. The Orient closed up. Everything disappeared like a city in the sea, its brilliance, its whites, its points of land, sphinxes, caftans, fezzes, camels, dragomen, pyramids, harems, minarets, habits, pilafs, deserts, mosques, temples, carpets, acropolises, Englishmen, Englishwomen.

And, as he says in the foreword I am simply nauseated with the whole thing.

It is witty and satirical, it is anarchic and clever, it is innovative and subversive. It is, of course, out of print in Portuguese and English.

Publishing history

First published in 1933 by Ariel, Editora
First English translation in 1979 by New Latin Quarter Editions
Translated by Kenneth D. Jackson and Albert Bork