Analysis of Erico Verissimo’s Crossroads

Crossroads is the second of 12 novels written by the Brazilian writer Erico Verissimo (1905–75). In contrast to the writer’s debut novel, Clarissa (1933), in which a teenager’s life is told in a romantic, rather rosy tone, Crossroads is the work of a satirist and the expression of the novelist’s protest against and nonconformity with the inequalities and injustices of bourgeois society. Crossroads is thus connected to the larger panorama of the Brazilian prose of the 1930s, which remained faithful to the romantic and naturalistic tradition that had used the novelistic genre as an instrument of social analysis and observation since the 19th century.

Following the transformations occasioned by industrialization, the Brazilian novel of the 1930s documented the passage of power from the traditional rural patriarchy to urban bourgeoisie. This literature of social denunciation found its expression in the novel of social color, especially in the northeast of Brazil, as in the novels of José Lins do Rego, Jorge Amado, and Graciliano Ramos. Regionalism, which had been masterfully explored by writers such as Simoes Lopes Neto and Alcides Maya in Rio Grande do Sul, did not seem a viable alternative to Verissimo. Preceding novelists such as Octavio de Faria, Marques Rebello, and Cyro dos Anjos, Verissimo became the first Brazilian writer of the 1930s to produce an urban novel of social analysis, an option that was first clearly manifested in Crossroads.

At a time in which Brazilian intellectuals sought inspiration in the French culture, Verissimo leaned toward Anglo-Saxon prose. Having developed a preference for realistic novels of social denunciation and for investigations of man in his dynamic relationships with the social fabric, Verissimo was naturally attracted to the American novel, which from the late 19th century had explored an undercurrent of social protest, as expressed in the naturalism of Stephen Crane and Theodore Dreiser; in the muckraking novelists; and in later socially engaged authors who showed a concern for the welfare of others, such as Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck, and John dos Passos.

In spite of the recurrent comparison between Crossroads and Aldous Huxley’s Point Counter Point (1928), Verissimo acknowledged a much deeper influence from dos Passos’s Manhattan Transfer (1925), whose representation of New York inspired him to attempt a similar collective representation of Pôrto Alegre. Huxley’s Point Counter Point offered Verissimo an insight into the narrative possibilities offered by the use of the counterpoint technique—the crisscrossing of lives and intrigues, the absence of central characters, and the possibility of avoiding long descriptions and deep characterization. Both dos Passos and Huxley registered the crisis of individuality, the loss of meaningful interpersonal relationships, and the fragmentation of modern life, modern traits also found in Verissimo’s Crossroad. However, similarities between these novels and Crossroads could be summarized by a remark made by Verissimo on the influence of Huxley’s Point Counter Point on his novel: “The recipes are similar, but differ in nature and in the quality of the ingredients.”

Crossroads lacks dos Passos’s deterministic tone, which suggests unacknowledged forces shaping individual destinies. Unlike Manhattan Transfer, which, in spite of its multiple characters, centers around the romance of Jimmy Herf and Ellen Thatcher, Verissimo’s novel, like Huxley’s Point Counter Point, does not present a central character. Intending to trace a crosssectional view of society, Verissimo opts for adopting a wide panorama of social life in Pôrto Alegre, much more encompassing than the one presented in Point Counter Point. Brief sentences lend a staccato quality to Verissimo’s prose, and psychological characterization falls to a minimum.

Verissimo’s novels show the author working with much-reduced time, place, and characterization. All action is compressed into five days, Saturday through Wednesday, and takes place either in Travessa das Acácias, where the have-nots live, or in the fancy neighborhoods inhabited by the haves, such as the Moinhos de Ventos, as well as in the clubs where the wealthy spend their leisure time. Narrative takes the form of short sketches in a succession of scenes that examine the lives of people from seven main households, whose stories run parallel. Story lines only occasionally crisscross to accentuate the contrast between the two worlds depicted in the novel; an exception is the intersection of the worlds of the rich and the poor through the romance of Noel and Fernanda. Action does not lead to conflict and resolution but serves, rather, to help build each of the recurrent characters, consisting of actions that typically reflect their behavior. Verissimo opts for plain, caricatured characters. The writer is well aware of the limitations and possibilities of caricature and acknowledges an oversimplification in his characters’ psychology. He emphasizes, however, caricature as a widely accepted technique in the visual arts, used by painters like João Candido Portinari, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, and Lasar Segall who, like him, engaged in social protest.

Characters belonging to the world of the wealthy are expertly drawn and represented. They include the Leitão Leirias, representing the well-established bourgeoisie who circulate among the upper class and the political circles; the Honorato Madeiras, a comfortably set middle-class family whose money comes from small business; and the Pedrosas, representative of the old rural patriarchy who, suddenly enriched by a lottery prize, come to town to dispute political and social power with the Leirias, the Madeiras, and their ilk.

The have-nots find expression in the household of the widow Eudoxia and her children, Fernanda and Pedro, who make just enough money to survive; and in the family of the unemployed Joao Benévolo and of Maximiliano, who, afflicted with tuberculosis, await death. Between these worlds circulates Professor Clarimundo, who earns his living in the regular school system and who also teaches private classes to well-to-do youngsters. The author also includes whores like Cacilda, who attends both the Leitão Leirias and the Pedrosas. The Leitão Leirias attract people like Salustiano (Salu), a handsome young man who uses his attractive athletic body to gain access to the upper circles and conquer the naïve Chinita; and the lawyer Armênio Albuquerque, who typifies pedantic shallow intellectuality. João Benévolo receives frequent visits from the down-to-earth Ponciano, who disputes his wife’s love.

Besides representing different social segments, each family is composed of representative types. Dodó Leitão Leiria, businessman Honorato Leiria’s wife, is an overly pious woman who is always engaged in promoting charity events but delights in having her efforts publicly acknowledged. In contrast with her mother’s piousness, Vera is a worldly girl with lesbian tendencies. Virginia Madeira, uncomfortable in her role of mother and wife, forever dreaming of parties and attractive men, contrasts with her complacent husband and dreamy son Noel, who is unable to face the hardships of life. Nouveau riche Coronel Zé Maria Pedrosa curiously preserves his rural tastes, transplanting them into the urban scenery, and is a risible but respected character. His daughter Chinita is the provincial girl who, aspiring to a better and more glamorous life, imitates Hollywood artists. The family also includes Manuel, Chinita’s brother, and Maria Luisa, Pedrosa’s wife, the one who most deeply feels the dissolution of family ties in the new urban scenario. The poor at times try to escape their hardships through fantasy. They are typified by João Benévolo, who finds solace in the world of D’Artagnan, and his wife, the hard worker Laurentina, who, unhappily, does not make enough money to survive.

Crossroads offers, for the first time in Verissimo’s prose, characters that embody the function of writers and readers, providing reflection on the role and social responsibility of the writer. Professor Clarimundo and Noel Madeira pursue writing projects; however, their projects never really prosper once they dissociate art from life, as they ignore the life that unfolds around them. It is Fernanda who suggests that Noel consider the drama of the dispossessed João Benévolo as a worthy theme. By doing so, she voices a concern with the kind of social realism that readers have come to identify with Verissimo as a writer of social investigation and denunciation.

Chaves, Flavio L. Erico Verissimo, realismo e sociedade. Pôrto Alegre: Editora Globo, 1976.
Verissimom, Erico. Brazilian Literature: An Outline. New York: Macmillan, 1945.
———. Solo de clarineta, memorias. Pôrto Alegre: Editora Globo, 1974.

Categories: Latin American Literature, Literature, Novel Analysis

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