An Invincible Memory by João Ubaldo Ribeiro

Editor’s note: this is the first installment of what is projected to be (at least) a monthly column by yours truly. The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

About João Ubaldo Ribeiro: Born on the island of Itaparica, Brazil on January 23, 1941, Ribeiro started working as a journalist for the local newspaper when he was about 17 years old. A year later, he went to university to study law. He wrote his first novel in 1963, titled Setembro não faz sentido (roughly translated as September is Nonsensical). The next year, he emigrated to the U.S. for political reasons and studied economics there, returning the following year to his alma mater, Universidade Federal da Bahia, to lecture in political science, but after six years, he decided to return to journalism. In 1971, he published his next novel, Sargento Getúlio (Sergeant Getúlio), to critical acclaim. Among other works, he wrote 9 novels and two children’s books. Luckily, most of the former have been translated into English (An Invincible Memory is the only novel that Ribeiro translated himself, taking about two years to do it, longer than it took to write the novel in the original Portuguese). He died in Rio de Janeiro on July 18, 2014, at the age of 73. Although he is an invisible author in the U.S., he is still read and celebrated in Brazil.

Before the novel begins, we read these words on an otherwise blank page:

The secret of Truth is as follows:
there are no facts, there are only stories.

And psychology tells us that people are often resistant to changing their minds in the presence of facts, but are much more open and malleable toward stories. Magical realism, which this novel occasionally toys with, is as much about skepticism as it is about credulity. As the novel explains, “To know the truth and try to impose it on others, in a world where everything changes and is cloaked under all kinds of appearances, is a serious madness.”

An Invincible Memory. The title, although it rings nobly, must be ironic, if not outright oxymoronic. Perhaps similar to the novel’s original title, Viva o povo brasileiro (translated as Hail the Brazilian People).

“[Here], we have a novel of ideas told by a student of history, rather than a story told by a real storyteller,” wrote a careless hack in the New York Times in 1989. Additionally, the ‘reviewer’ claimed Ribeiro’s novel lacked the familial threads found in Cien años de soledad or La casa de los espíritus, while paradoxically asking for a family tree. There are in fact ancestral threads of multiple families, from slaves to knaves, peons to scions, many of which, if not all, cross over. And if they don’t always connect genetically or physically, then they do so psychically. Think Cloud Atlas. While this Brazilian (anti-)history is meandering over the course of its some 400 years, it’s because that is what most closely resembles reality: polyphonic and multi-linear at varied velocities while simultaneously finite and ouroboric.

The novel’s beginning had my brain titillated, tantalized, and tickled with its oxygenating sentences and at times alien vocabulary. The closest thing to a climax occurred quickly, on page 5, in which there is an extended metempsychotic passage that is part soul-journey and part reincarnation dissertation: “In Amoreiras, for instance, it is said that a special conjunction of cardinal points, equinoxes, magnetic lines, mental meridians, highly potent stellar influences, esoteric poles, alchemical-philosophical currents, attractions of the moon and of the fixed and errant heavenly bodies, and hundreds of other arcane forces all cause the souls of the dead to refuse to leave, and to continue moving about freely among the living, interfering in everyday life and sometimes making countless demands.” Reading it was, well, transcendent.

Not too long after the passage on/of souls, and a comic-horrific tale about a madman-turned-cannibal who fancies Dutch flesh (“Better game than this, so pale and translucent, solid but at the same time delicate to the touch and taste, firm yet soft, wholesome and savory, rare yet easy to hunt for—better game than this there has never been and there never will be…”), the novel hits a plateau in terms of style and content. We mostly live with the slaves and also with their slave masters. Vox populi against vox Dei. Although all lives, all souls, are illustrated and woven with a true storyteller’s care. And there is more: a group of death-defying and -inducing consumers of the puffer fish, a hunter of armadillos, a bird-whispering bastard of rebellion named Maria da Fe, and an overall zeitgeist of the oppressed planning to usurp their oppressors, including a poisoning that gives a hilarious depiction of scatological blockage. At one point, obscure African gods unite in order to aid their favored side in a war, controlling them Homerically and annihilating the enemy.

In the tradition of lists, which Ribeiro wonderfully indulges in from time to time, here is a list of words which were fairly foreign to me (ironic and humbling, considering they belong to my native tongue), and if anything I would have loved to see even more of this pleasurable verbosity (although there were plenty of esoteric/archaic words I was already privy to): 

• Contubernium
• Phlogistic
• Riparian
• Canicular
• Secundines
• Impavid
• Maieutic
• Nescient
• Rugosities
• Cacothanasia
• Intercalated
• Cozenage
• Niveous
• Stridulation
• Columboid
• Eburean
• Atramentous
• Contumely
• Paludal
• Exophthalmic
• Trismus
• Plumbous

Overall, I wanted more of everything, and so I have another Ribeiro on the way: The Lizard’s Smile.

I’ll leave you with this: “But, the blindman explained, history is not just the one that’s written in the books, if for no other reason than that many of those who write books lie much more than those who tell fairy tales. In the time of ancient Egypt, in King Solomon’s land, near the Queen of Sheba’s land, above the Jewish Kingdom, there was a great library, which contained all knowledge, called Alczander [sic]. So very well, one day this great library catches fire and all that knowledge goes up in smoke, with even the names of those who had more of that knowledge and had written the books kept there. Since that day it’s known that all history is false or half false, and each generation that arrives decides about what happened before it, and so book history is as invented as newspaper history, where you read so many lies that your hair stands on end.”

What is worse, false or forgotten history? Or are they the same?

George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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