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Márcio Souza: Mad Maria (Mad Maria)

“Ah, what a beautiful land is our Brazil, where an author who writes in a neo-Latin tongue can compose an entire novel filled with Anglo-Saxon names.”

Souza’s novel is set in Brazil in the early part of the century but most of the characters are anything but Brazilian. The story is primarily about the construction of a railway line whose function is never entirely clear – to link to the rubber plantations?, to give Bolivia access to the ocean? The actual construction is managed by an Englishman who has become a cynic after fighting for the Confederates in the American Civil War. He is aided by an American doctor, initially an idealist who comes from a rich family but whose idealism eventually disappears after a grim introduction to reality of life in the jungle. The workers are a mixture of nationalities with Barbadians remaining throughout. At first the Barbadians’ main colleagues are Germans but, when the Germans escape (and finally reappear, headless and decomposing in the harbor of Porto Velho), they are replaced by “untouchable” Indians, many of whom have leprosy.

The construction of the railway is the responsibility of Percy Farquhar, the American capitalist (who really existed), whose aim is to exploit Brazil for his own ends and whose dealings with Brazilian politicians for his own ends are as cynical a portrayal of US economic exploitation as you are likely to find in literature. The few Brazilians we do meet – the inept president, the scheming minister who is opposed to Farquhar and the even more scheming lawyer who assists Farquhar – are as unpleasant as any of the foreigners.

Souza tells us, with grim humour, of the horrors of Brazil at that time. The routine deaths during the railway construction – by malaria (because the workers sold their quinine for a few cents), by pneumonia, leprosy, drowning, decapitation, burning, shooting – are treated almost casually. The casual way in which the Americans and Brazilians carve out their political and economic domain are equally as horrendous. The violence and exploitation of the Indians are shown in the case of Joe Caripuno whose hands are brutally cut off and who goes on to make a career as a piano player, using his feet, not in Brazil, as Souza is quick to tell us, where this kind of novelty act is despised, but in the United States.

And Mad Maria? Mad Maria is the locomotive on the railway line, run by the two British engineers. She breaks down a couple of times but she is possibly the only sane creature in this book.

Publishing history

First published 1977 by Civilização Brasileira, Rio de Janeiro
First published in English 1985 by Avon Books
Translated by Thomas Colchie