More than a decade ago, Eliane Brum came across a German evangelical pastor on the banks of Brazil’s Juma River. He introduced himself as a “creator of churches,” but he was guarding the gate to a muddy parking lot, charging gold prospectors to enter: $10 per car. “God writes right with crooked lines,” the pastor assured her. Brazilians recite this theodicean proverb not only as moral justification for individual deviance but also as an expression of faith in divine wisdom—and, indeed, in national destiny.
Here, in Stefan Zweig’s “land of the future,” God’s plan is inscribed with the secular promise of modernity, and for a small, historically privileged minority, fulfillment of this promise has never been in doubt. But most Brazilians live between a less fortunate past and a future that will never be realized.
“God writes right with crooked lines.”
Brum’s reportage—nowadays generally found in her column for the Spanish daily newspaper El País—explores the lives of those who constitute this often silenced majority; her new book, The Collector of Leftover Souls, brings together stories about their “everyday insurrections.” One of the most harrowing of these stories introduces the “Pietàs” of Brazil’s drug war: Selvina, a 74-year-old mother of 12, who has lost 10 fingers, 10 toes, and 10 children, 4 to murder; Eva, whose husband stuck a knife in her vagina after they lost three sons, lest she conceive any more; and Enilda, who started paying for her son’s casket five years before she had to bury him. For these women, trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence, “the pain of death intertwines with the pain of life.” Brum tells of their struggle for dignity as they ward off psychosis in a pathologically unjust society.
Some of the stories are lighter, like that of Oscar Kulemkamp, a diminutive widower who protests against consumer society by assembling bric-a-brac, “cast-off lives”: “broken fans, cracked vases, abandoned toys.” His neighbors complain about the overspill onto the street, but he remains resolute in his quest for a world where “neither things nor people are disposable.”
Most Brazilians live between a less fortunate past and a future that will never be realized.
Brum is a keen and patient observer of the unfamiliar compatriot, an ethnographer of the Brazilian Other. “A journalist is an intimate foreigner,” she tells us in the introduction. But hers is not conventional journalism. Through a sort of deep hanging out, she closes the distance between herself and her subjects that could otherwise give pretense to objectivity. To tell a news story, she suggests, you must “uninhabit yourself to inhabit the Other.” Brum is candid about the kind of intimacy this can produce. In one story, she recalls stepping in to sign the wedding certificate of a couple she was writing about because one of the witnesses didn’t have identification.
For Brum, closeness is a means to demonstrate human particularity. “There are no ordinary lives,” she asserts, “only domesticated eyes.” In Brazil, domesticated eyes normalize everyday atrocities (like the more than 1,800 state killings in Rio de Janeiro last year, rationalized into a statistic, to be inserted between brackets). Brum, rather, casts a curious gaze upon the singular and the neglected, those who resist “between the lines.”
Throughout this collection, the author’s prose plays in the space between. Between self and Other, life and death, past and future, reality and fiction. This is where we ultimately discover ourselves—where our assumptions encounter limits and rebound to expose our own absurdities. Between meanings is where humanity is ultimately revealed, beyond the reach of the word. In her El País column over recent years, Brum has often bemoaned the emptying of words. But she recognizes that the limit of meaning lies in the space between, most obviously the space between languages. In the translator’s note, Diane Grosklaus Whitty affirms that she wants readers to feel they have “crossed a border.” On occasion, her translation is necessarily difficult, even jarringly literal, demanding pause for contemplation.
“There are no ordinary lives, only domesticated eyes.”
Despite their struggles, the subjects of Brum’s stories are not given to resignation. Their resistance is expressed through a “stubbornness not only to live but to live with joy.” Transmitting “the flicker of hope coursing through [their] veins,” Brum manifests her own humanist faith that perhaps the crooked lines of Brazil’s fitful modernization can be straightened. Reaffirmed by the “everyday insurrections” of others, this faith might be an essential instrument of survival. Like Oscar Kulemkamp, Brum gives the impression that she collects “cast-off lives”—leftover souls—to salvage her own.
But, for many in today’s Brazil, faith is thinning. Drastic cuts to public education and social-security reform deflate the promises of yesterday’s social contract; the accelerating destruction of the Amazon threatens tomorrow altogether. Unable to imagine another future, the president exalts the worst from the past: torturers, dictators, colonizers. In a column last year, Brum wrote of a burgeoning epidemic of anxiety and depression. People are becoming “sick from Brazil,” she argued. The specific cause of this sickness, it would seem, is the prospect that crooked lines are all there is.
Juliano Fiori is at work on an intellectual history of humanitarianism. He lives in Rio de Janeiro