Essa Terra, A Contemporary Classic – Aleilton Fonseca

Essa Terra, A Contemporary Classic

Aleilton Fonseca*

This year Antonio Torres’s novel Essa Terra commemorates twenty-five years of circulation with the publication of a fifteenth edition by Record Publishing House. The novel has been translated into ten different languages since its debut in 1976, and studied in articles, essays, and theses in Brazil and abroad. It was an instant success, deserving of critics’ praise as a mature and masterful work, and many additional editions have since been published.

Essa Terra focuses on the experience of a family from the Bahian Sertão, who suffer the drama of migration from the northern states south to São Paulo, and its psychological and social consequences. We see the protagonist’s story unfold through the eyes of his younger brother, Totonhim. Nelo is a migrant who leaves his home, family, and identity behind in order to become part of the great Paulistano metropolis, and in it becomes lost, only to later find himself broken and without roots. He returns to his parent’s home sick, abandoned, and disillusioned, and unable to shoulder the weight of his shame at not having lived up to his family’s expectations, especially those of his mother who had imagined him as rich and successful. Nelo’s suicide is the knot in the theme, a synthesis of the problems of frustration and loss of roots that eventually destroy the character. This pungent drama is a very precise kind of fiction, of great aesthetic force, that serves as testimony to a dramatic aspect of mid twentieth century Brazilian society. It can also be considered a consolidated memorial to the screaming contrast between the great centers of urban development, and the forgotten Sertão, left to its own destiny, and from which the only escape are the lonely highways that stretch into the horizon.

Essa Terra has the magic touch of great novels, awakening in the reader a commiserate sense of reflection over familiar characters and the conditions of their existence, instigating a desire for understanding and solidarity, and provoking a more profound image of man. The novel makes us see the reality of those cast out more clearly and thoroughly, recognizing them as victims of a historical drama. As we read we feel the same sensation provoked by Vidas Secas, as well as the mark of dignity embodied by the people of the Sertão in Os Sertões. The writing is dense yet not overly formal, and is masterfully woven, incorporating technical precision into the delicate treatment of its subject. Despite the plot’s tension, the author maintains a balanced camaraderie between his characters, in a prose that seduces its readers and appeals to their sense of compassion, as it draws them into the personal dramas of each character.

Migration is a universal phenomenon, as is demographically unequal development. Country, city, and metropolis, the same patterns of development can be seen in all countries around the globe. The dramas of travel, of losing one’s roots, of diaspora, and of the loss of values make Essa Terra a universal novel. It addresses the particular affect that this tendency has had in Brazil, in the trek from Sertão to metropolis and back again, not only in the most obvious differences caused by people and lives that are essentially displaced, but also in the more subtle transitions of values, behavior, personal dreams, and living conditions.

The existence of such a widely known and unanimously praised work is highly auspicious for Brazilian literature. Written on the auge of the fourth quarter of the twentieth century, Essa Terra is of the same vein as O Quinze, Vidas Secas, and Vila Real, gifted with the same ability to truly understand the saga of the people of the Brazilian northeast, and the adverse conditions that surround them. Given the high critical acclaim that it has received bit by bit in its successive 15 editions, and the saga that it passed in foreign countries and universities in respective translations, Essa Terra deserves to be ranked among other great Brazilian novels. It is one of those contemporary classics that becomes steadily more visible on the list of books that will never be forgotten. Those books that have become the object of constant study and references, material for exams and competitions, and that compose part of the current scholastic cannon, a place held by only the most highly revered of novels. Torres’s novel has the rare quality of being at the same time profound and accessible to a widely varied public. Rich not only aesthetically, but also in social significance, the novel uses a dialogue that bridges educational interests, equally intriguing to those who study culture, history, and human geography, among other things.

Essa Terra, this life, this search – this journey, on which we’ve been invited in such a way that at the end of its trajectory we too can exorcise the human and social drama of Nelo in the narrative and comprehensive way that Totonhim, the narrator, has taught us to do. Teaching how to understand life isn’t the social role of the writer, but does it go beyond his irrefutable commitment to art? To better understand these questions, we read Totonhim, Totonho, Totinho, or simply, Antônio Torres.

*Aleilton Fonseca is a writer and a professor at UEFS, author of Jaú dos Bois (1997), and O Desterro dos Mortos (2001), and short stories, both published by Relume Dumará. He is currently working on Nhô Guimarães: Estórias Gerais, a fictional biography of Guimarães Rosa.