Books: Postcard from Rio / A deadly, virtuous thug: Amanda Hopkinson talks to a great literary figure in a macho tradition

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The Independent Culture
'My favourite way of exposition is digression.' So said Bunuel, echoed now by Joao Ubaldo Ribeiro, one of Brazil's most popular and internationally acclaimed contemporary authors. Our conversation, taking place high in his eyrie overlooking a street market in the smart district of Rio's Leblon, is as culturally eclectic as the books lining the walls. Many of them are in English, a language Ubaldo reckons he writes in almost as readily as Portuguese ('albeit with an American accent'), with Churchill and Pepys jostling Lewis Carroll and Bertrand Russell.

Ubaldo's cultural parameters are esoteric. If you mention Bahia's common description as 'little Africa', for its predominantly Afro-Brazilian culture and traditions, he retorts: 'There's no such thing as Africa, any more than there's a Europe.' His vision of Brazil's unique identity is extensively explored in his magnum opus, the sprawling historical epic, Viva o Povo Brasilero]

Sergeant Getulio, first published in 1971 and recently re-issued by Andre Deutsch, takes many of the same themes and compresses them into a fraction of the length. The eponymous hero is charged with a mission that is also a quest: to capture and transport a prisoner to his political bosses for a punishment he would far prefer to have administered himself. The quest takes place amid the ferocious upheavals preceding the seizure of power by the populist dictator Getulio Vargas in 1937, and moral confusion reigns. This does little to endear the author, he believes, to British critics by whom he's 'never felt understood, always at best snottily received'. Understandably, they see Getulio simply as a murderous thug, overlooking the title page's description of those that follow as 'a tale of virtue'.

Getulio's 'virtue' is an unbending honour that refuses to move with momentous times. 'I knew many Sergeant Getulios when I was growing up, petty local police chiefs with disproportionate powers over life and death - including one called Getulio, and you can take it as a homage to him. If you were an English aristocrat living with a Sergeant Getulio, you'd have the most loyal of servants.' What of Getulio's graphic deliberations over which physical portions of his prisoners or enemies he should wrest from their bodies, and their equally graphic executions? 'You have to remember that, two years earlier, where Getulio's morality is marooned, he'd have been decorated for beheading a lieutenant who dared to call him a cuckold.'

Ubaldo's literary views of men and woman are firmly rooted in the macho tradition that he believes has formed him. Women are strong and virtuous, while men are intimidated 'at this unique capacity for absolute faithfulness' and seek to decry or destroy what they cannot aspire to. Homer and Shakespeare are invoked as further evidence of the clash of virtue and its frequently bloody consequences.

Minutes later, fumbling over his littered desk for his glasses, he reminds me of the blindness of Milton, and Joyce's acute myopia. Faulkner is cited for saying that 'you only have to start with one character, then follow them around noting whatever they do or say'. Or Vargas Llosa, for saying that 'the moment you sit down to write, you decide whether to be a bad or a good writer. It's the fact of deciding that determines whether you'll be a writer at all.'

Ubaldo's conversation is sprinkled with such literary aphorisms. 'Writing is meant to allow you to do what you like. It's meant to be Heaven and it's always Hell.' 'I do not write easily. An orator writes easily. A writer writes with difficulty.' 'It's a vulgar impulse to write. Fortunately most resist.' But his sense of literary tradition remains immensely personal: 'I read Shakespeare all the time. I rewrite or edit Shakespeare all the time. Most writers want to change the original just a little bit.' For Ubaldo, the issues that literature confronts have changed remarkably little from ancient Greece, to Shakespearean England, to the cusp of the second millennium in Brazil.