Literary Symposium Explores the Representation of Amazonia

“In order to know the people of other nations,” the Marquis de Sade once said, “you must have suffered as their victim.” As an advocate for realist representation in works of fiction, de Sade warned writers that they had to know the regions they wrote about or be ridiculed as “armchair travelers.” Recently, a group of literary scholars gathered at UC Davis to discuss the question of literary realism in 19th century novels on the Amazon region. How well did Jules Verne’s Eight Hundred Leagues on the Amazon (La Jangada) represent Brazilian reality?

On May 13th and 14th, specialists from Brazil, France, and several University of California campuses participated in an interdisciplinary symposium on the literary representation of the Amazon from the 1850s until today. The event was organized by Professor Leopoldo M. Bernucci of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, and was sponsored by the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the Université Sorbonne, UNICAMP, the Hemispheric Institute on the Americas (HIA), the UC Davis University Outreach and International Programs, and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese.

The Symposium opened with a collaboration by Professors Márcia Abreu and Thomaz de Almeida (UNICAMP, Brazil), who compared two novels set in the Amazonian rainforest, Verne’s La Jangada (1881) and Herculano Inglês de Sousa’s O Missionário (1888). In the last decades of the 19th century, Almeida observed, scientific interest in the Amazon region had reached a broad audience through editorials, articles, and fictional narratives such as these. Through these texts and the photographs that accompanied them, the Brazilian jungle travelled abroad and avid readers could become armchair explorers of this exotic landscape.

Almeida looked at Brazil’s critical reception of Inglês de Sousa’s novel, and found it to be overwhelmingly positive. He had broken with a romantic literary style and sought to depict nature in its brutal reality, following the naturalist tendency of Emile Zola. In O Missionário, the Amazon was a dangerous place, teeming with voracious mosquitos, piranha, and cannibals. National critics lauded the local author’s realistic descriptions and considered him a trustworthy national author. The irony, of course, was that Inglês de Sousa had spent a very small portion of his life in the Amazon and wrote his novel from Rio de Janeiro; perhaps more nationalistic sentiment than realistic descriptions were responsible for his literary success.

In her study, Márcia Abreu found that while well-informed by his insatiable reading of scientific and travel literature on the Amazonian region, Jules Verne wrote a romantic novel that diverged significantly from reality. La Jangada was quickly translated and widely distributed, and brought Verne continued success, but most Brazilian critics panned it as being full of “blunders and nonsense.” Verne’s Amazon was like a beautiful garden, a place that a French citizen could consider moving to.

Yet, while neither of these “Amazon” novels made a faithful representation of the forest´s reality, what they did accomplish was to connect Brazil with the rest of the world. In this sense, as Abreu argues, both La jangada and O Missionário are important contributions to understanding the country, and notions of national sentiment, through literature.