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Graciliano Ramos: São Bernardo (São Bernardo)

This novel is generally considered a major classic of Brazilian literature. It is set in the backlands of North-East Brazil and is about the traditional fight between the landowners and peasants. It tells the story of Paulo Honório. He tells the story in the first-person and does not to try to burnish his reputation. Indeed, he is a complete scoundrel and makes no attempt at hiding it. Indeed, he is generally proud of it. He has had a hard beginning, rising up from the slums and a spell in prison. After prison, he was determined to make something of himself and borrowed money at a high interest rate. He traded all sorts of items throughout the area, often having to fight to get his money. When a local landowner, Padilha, Honório’s former employer, dies, his son inherits. Instead of going on to be a doctor as his father had hoped, he fritters away his money. Honório cleverly lends him money till Padilha cannot pay and he forecloses, thereby gaining possession of the estate of São Bernardo.

In developing the estate, he has no qualms about cheating and exploiting anyone. He steals his neighbor’s land, exploits and abuses his workers, who now include Padilha, and bribes journalists to write positive stories about him. He tells all this in a very straightforward style as though his behaviour was normal and accepted. Eventually, he meets a good-looking and intelligent woman, Madalena, who is a teacher. He offers her a job teaching in his school but when she declines, he proposes to her. Once married, he makes her life a misery. She tries to help the downtrodden and he put all sorts of barriers in her way. Her aunt, who brought her up and lives with them, is abused as, indeed, is she. When they have a child, he neglects the boy and despises his weakness. He soon starts imagining that she is having affairs (she obviously is not) and spies on her and torments her. Eventually, his cruelty causes her to kill herself. The aunt leaves, as do some of his employees, some of whom go off to join the communists. He slowly goes mad.

Told in the third person, this might have been less interesting but, in the first person, seen through the eyes of the perpetrator, it works very well. Honório cannot see that his behavior – towards his wife, his employees and others – is wrong. He is convinced that they are exploiting him and that he is right in everything he does. Indeed, he is not all bad. He brings a former employee – an old woman – to his farm at his expense and looks after her. He sets up a school for the local children (though as much to impress the governor as to help). In short there is a shred of humanity there but Graciliano Ramos’ skill is to show how it has broken down and, in doing so, ultimately brings down the man.

Publishing history

First published 1934 by J. Olympio
First published in English 1975 by Peter Owen
Translated by R L Scott-Buccleuch (Peter Owen edition) , Padma Viswanathan (NYRB edition)