Memories of childhood in 19th and 20th century Brazil: the works of Raul Pompéia and Pedro Nava

Franco Baptista Sandanello
Universidade Estadual Paulista-UNESP

How can childhood be represented in fiction? And what challenges can one face when translating the past into written words, on the years lived within the walls of a boarding school? There are many possible answers to these questions, although the present article aims to compare two specific responses crafted masterfully by two Brazilian writers, and by two Brazilian works: Memórias and O Ateneu.

On the one hand, the memoirs of Pedro Nava constitute the autobiography of a XXth doctor, published at the age of 69. Up to this age, Nava, apart from being a close friend of important novelists and poets, such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade, and contributing to the modernist magazine A Revista, has published only articles and works on Medicine. As a matter of fact, his memoirs only are written after his retirement, in a period when his partial deafness started to get in the way of his career. Memórias, a vast literary enterprise divided in seven tomes and never concluded, comprehend not only his life, from the early years of childhood to moments prior to his death, but also the life of his ancestors in Minas Gerais – how his parents and grandparents met, what places they used to frequent, what changes they’ve seen in Juiz de Fora, Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro etc. To this effect, as pointed out by Otto Lara Resende (apud Meneses [s/p]), it is “mais importante para a literatura brasileira que Marcel Proust para a cultura francesa.”

On the other hand, O Ateneu is a fictional novel situated in the 19th century Brazil, written by a young writer and journalist and published in the same year of the abolition of slavery. It depicts the destruction of a boarding school in Rio de Janeiro alongside the end of Monarchy, which would take place not more than a year after its publishing (1888 – 1889). The novel was serially published in the front pages of Gazeta de Notícias – the second major newspaper at the time –, although it hadn’t much of the feuilleton characteristics. It is the personal account of one of its interns, Sérgio, who recollects his childhood with bitterness, seventeen years after leaving school.

Taken solely these initial remarks into consideration, there would seem to be little resemblance between both works and authors. Jumping to conclusions, however, could be a little rash. There are, in fact, interesting points common to the both of them. For instance, biographically speaking, both writers attended to D. Pedro II boarding school, in Rio de Janeiro; both were talented drawers and painters (as we know, there is in O Ateneu 42 drawings made by the author, printed from the novel’s second edition on); and both committed suicide – Pompéia at 32, and Nava at 81. There is even a possible link regarding their sexual issues, as made known by the famous duel between Olavo Bilac and Pompéia, and by the possible blackmail Nava suffered from a male prostitute.

Adding to these biographical similarities, Nava textually quotes O Ateneu in several passages of his memoirs – especially on its first two volumes, dedicated to Nava’s childhood and earlier years of education. To him, Pompéia faithfully translates into literature the oppressive environment of boarding schools, such as the Colégio Abílio, whose interns were Pompéia and Nava’s father, and, of course, the D. Pedro II:

Nele instalou-se o Colégio Abílio, do Barão de Macaúbas, evocado em Raul Pompéia com o nome de Ateneu. […] À noite, […] haviam de planejar para meu Pai a matrícula que o levaria ao ambiente que fora ou seria o mesmo do solitário Sérgio, do competente Nearco, do sonhador Egbert, do renegado Franco […] – que eu iria encontrar iguais, iguais, iguais no Internato do Colégio Pedro II. (Nava, Baú de Ossos 76)

As Nava states, O Ateneu is not just a precedent account of his own childhood sorrows; it is also one of his foundations to revive his memory of things past:

Mas para reavivar a memória e poder contar dos cinco anos que passei interno recorri também […] ao Ateneu que é Colégio Abílio, mas sobretudo Chácara do Mata (a ambiência do recreio onde conversavam Sérgio e Egbert é essencialmente tijucana e não se adapta de jeito nenhum às Laranjeiras) e tudo que ali se diz repetia-se tanto, tanto, mas tanto! no Internato que eu conheci – que o livro de Raul Pompéia indifere a datas e ficou retrato válido de quase noventa gerações (contadas do tempo provável daquelas “memórias de saudades” até o incêndio de 1961. (Nava, Balão Cativo 348)

It is important that Nava quotes Pompéia’s novel mistakenly: the subtitle of O Ateneu is not “Memórias de saudades”, as he affirms; it is, reversely, “Crônica de saudades”. This deliberate quotation of the book, taking “Crônica” – or chronicle – for memoirs, is a good point for us to develop here. It summarizes how Pompéia and Nava’s views of the past can point out to a more objective and unilateral approach of what has been – as in O Ateneu, whose narrator insists that his version of the facts can be accounted for a “chronicle” –, or to a more subjective and harmonious approach – as in Memórias, whose narrator, Nava himself, recognizes the distance implied by his remembrance. (Valle, 546-548)

Let us start, then, by briefly discussing the concept of memory in narrative fiction. Next, let us review Nava’s memoirs and its capacity of reviving Pompéia’s novel, which, in spite of the fact that O Ateneu precedes chronologically Memórias, sheds a light on its similarities and differences.
The concept of memory in narrative fiction: an aporia

Memory, as a re-vision of the past, acts in fiction reproducing the temporal relationship between the present of the narration and the past of the narrative voice. In this regard, remembering something corresponds fundamentally to a narrative act. “Memory is an act of ‘vision’ of the past, but, as an act, situated in the present of the memory. It is often a narrative act: loose elements come to cohere into a story, so that they can be remembered and eventually told”. (Bal, p. 147)

This means that, instead of a conceptual dependence of narration towards memory, there is a practical dependence, regarding individual memory, of the narrated universe towards narration: events narrated are evaluated as fictional recriations and / or part of the diegesis: “os personagens […] são compreendidos em relação ao narrador-eu. Isto não significa uma relação pessoal com o narrador-eu, mas apenas o fato de que são vistos, observados, descritos exclusivamente por ele.” (Hamburger, 1986, p. 226)

This way, in theory, representation of memory is capable of reproducing the temporal duality expressed by the narrator’s remembrances; however, in practice, memory is just an option among many others, chosen by this same narrator. It may be difficult to clearly state the linear order of the events narrated, but the linearity of the written text is obvious, and contradicts the conceptual fluidity of memory as a textual “motor”. Therefore, in this limited sense, it is valid to say that “a narração indica a diegese, mas ao mesmo tempo dissimula-a e denuncia-a. A diegese nunca é total ou acabada, tem de ser progressivamente inventada […]; ela permanece indefinida e, por vezes, até puramente hipotética”. (Lefebve, p. 75)

Consequently, extracting its subject from the past of a fictional character without being able to fixate his accurate image, memoiristic narrative is bound to surpass definitions. Not being accurate, it is logically not faithful to its protagonist – and, by being unreliable, it expresses more than the subject it leans on. This paradoxical condition guarantees an autonomous existence, although always under a “provisional” basis (i.e., relying on its “temporary” and “temporal” qualities).


nas obras de ficção que tomam a forma das Memórias, [o narrador] tenta reunir e dar um sentido a toda uma parte da sua vida, esforçando-se por destacar as suas linhas de força; [ele] conhece antecipadamente o ponto de partida e o ponto de chegada do itinerário. [Senhor] dos cordéis a mexer, pode generalizar, tirar a moral e emitir um juízo, tal como o [narrador] onisciente. Com efeito, se se debruça sobre seu passado é porque, na maioria das vezes, no declinar da vida, pensa poder fazer aproveitar outrem de uma sabedoria tão caramente adquirida. (Borneuf; Ouellet, p. 114)

Therefore, we can only consider an enumeration of its “norms” with caution. Indeed, how can we suggest that there are two, three or twenty types of uses of memory in narrative, when we are aware that there are thousands of different narrators, each one occupying a central position in its own narrative? “A literatura memorial, portanto, há de ser sempre uma literatura crítica, no sentido de ser em crise […]. Cada obra que se preze equivale a um reinício do gênero, porque sua matéria só se pode acreditar como especialíssima.” (Zagury, p.15)

In face of this aporia, let us pay attention to the texts of Nava and Pompéia, and analyze how these specific narratives represent childhood in XIXth and XXth century Brazil.
Memórias: a recollection

Although the first experience as an intern began for Pedro Nava in the Colégio Anglo-Mineiro, in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, the true ordeal would take place in Rio de Janeiro, as intern of the Colégio D. Pedro II. Poor and orphan, Nava entered the D. Pedro II with the help of his uncles Antonio and Modesto Salles; equally, his admission exam is “saved” by one of his aunts ‘friends’, the “old Silva Ramos”:

A prova oral eu comecei com o velho Silva Ramos, cravo vermelho à lapela, cabelos de algodão e sotaque de português que se interessou mais pelo meu nome que pela minha leitura e análise. Com que então o m’nino é Nava. O que vem a sere? da excelentíssima senhora dona Cândida Nava de Luna Freire, minha culega de magistério ao Sacré-Coeur? Ah! Sobrinho? pois muito bem, muito bem. Plenamente. Diante da benevolência do Silva Ramos fizeram coro os outros membros da banca e eu acabei aprovado com quase distinção. (Nava, Balão Cativo 335)

Finally admitted, Nava starts to face the suppression of his individuality – that has been cultivated and somewhat maintained from his house to the Colégio Anglo- Mineiro. His first impression of the boarding school are mixed and intertwined with that of O Ateneu, up to the point of complete non-differentiation:

Subitamente apagaram quase todas as lâmpadas e só ficaram acesos uns poucos globos azuis que espalharam no dormitório o bálsamo de uma claridade lunar. Alguns afetavam um esboço comovedor de sorriso ao lábio, boca entreaberta, pálpebras entrecerradas, mostrando dentro a ternura embaciada da morte. Mas… com todos os diabos! Isto é Ateneu, não é meu, é Chácara do Mata e nós estamos em meio século depois, ou mais, estamos no Campo de São Cristóvão… (Nava, Balão Cativo 360)

The strict discipline of the boarding school is described by Nava, again, with the support of O Ateneu – as an Argus of a thousand eyes, but blind to the sexual development of the students:

Isso mesmo, milhares de olhos de Argus mantendo uma linha certa de conduta. A derivação se dava pela pornografia, a compensação pela autogratificação que Raul Pompéia apontava como velho hábito do colégio. Aliás universal e natural. Estava na idade. Lá vem ainda o sempre citado O Ateneu: E diluía-se pelos semblantes a palidez creme, cavavam-se olhares vítreos das regiões do impaludismo endêmico. Ora se… nós também tínhamos a ideia de conhecer os que abusavam pelas suas caras amarelas, orelhas transparentes, langor e bistre do olhar. (Nava, Balão Cativo 406)

There are other several minor references and quotations of O Ateneu – always remembered by Nava –, such as the episode of the shooting, out of jalousie between employees of the school, the resemblance of certain people to characters of Pompéia’s novel (Bolinha and Bataillard, Pizarro and Bento Alves) etc. Nevertheless, Nava finishes his studies in Pedro II and is approved with distinction, keeping no hard feelings from life. The difficulties are seen with the tranquility of the old narrator, who looks back on his past with no regrets:

Lembro com saudade esses dias de angústia, espera, ansiedade, cagaço, alívio e triunfo distinção triunfo. (Nava, Chão de Ferro 249)

As we can see, in Nava, “a sua combinação com o discurso memorialístico e autobiográfico dedicava-se a acirrar o resgate do passado narrado, submetendo-o a uma tentativa radical de presentificação. Tratava-se de torná-lo redivivo pela invenção, como aliás já dizia Antonio Candido” (Valle 547). In other words, the past is brought to life through the media of literature, and the memories have the particular function of re-enacting the nostalgic time of youth. In this regard, Memórias is indeed a “memórias de saudades”, as Nava wrongfully – and very artistically – interpreted O Ateneu.
O Ateneu: a payback

Unlike the nostalgic and autobiographical Nava, Sérgio, the fictional narrator of O Ateneu, is one of the happy few and wealthy heirs of the Brazilian oligarchy (Abdala Jr 153), whose prejudices are common to that of the people who made their fortunes with slavery. As he states, Ateneu is the school of this elite, built upon the very image of what he calls

a fina flor da mocidade brasileira [… onde], não havia família de dinheiro, enriquecida pela setentrional borracha ou pela charqueada do sul,que não reputasse um compromisso de honra com a posteridade doméstica mandar dentre seus jovens, um, dois, três representantes abeberar-se à fonte espiritual do Ateneu. (Pompéia 35)

Sérgio, seventeen years after the burning of his school, writes his “Crônica de Saudades” not understanding fully if he misses or not the years spent there. As a matter of fact, it’s not him, but his father, who initially speaks. The novel opens with these classical lines:

Vais encontrar o mundo, disse-me meu pai, à porta do Ateneu. Coragem para a luta. Bastante experimentei depois a verdade deste aviso, que me despia, dum gesto, das ilusões de criança educada exoticamente na estufa de carinho que é o regime do amor doméstico; diferente do que se encontra fora, tão diferente, que parece o poema dos cuidados maternos um artifício sentimental, com a vantagem única de fazer mais sensível a criatura à impressão rude do primeiro ensinamento, têmpera brusca da vitalidade na influência de um novo clima rigoroso. Lembramo-nos, entretanto, com saudade hipócrita, dos felizes tempos, como se a mesma incerteza de hoje, sob outro aspecto, não nos houvesse perseguido outrora, e não viesse de longe a enfiada das decepções que nos ultrajam. (Pompéia 29, 31)

All along his narrative, Sérgio intends to prove the accuracy of his father’s warning, playing the role of a skilled spokesman or lawyer of his causes. The world, as he father says, is a generalized fight, a struggle for life and power. Accordingly, a fight is what Sérgio is going to describe, chapter by chapter, between him and the institution of Aristarco, the head teacher – and owner – of the Ateneu. Starting with Aristarco, Sérgio makes a full inventory of his moral flaws, and criticizes his false pedagogy, exposing his financial hunger:

A cada entrada, o diretor lentamente fechava o livro comercial, marcando a página com um alfanje de marfim; fazia girar a cadeira e soltava interjeições de acolhimento […]. O pai, o correspondente, o portador, despedia-se, depois de banais cumprimentos, ou palavras a respeito do estudante, amenizadas pela gracinha da bonomia superior de Aristarco […]. A cadeira girava de novo à posição primitiva; o livro da escrituração espalmava outra vez as páginas enormes; e a figura paternal do educador desmanchava-se volvendo a simplificar-se na esperteza atenta e seca do gerente […]. Quando meu pai entrou comigo, havia no semblante de Aristarco uma pontinha de aborrecimento. Decepção talvez de estatística, o número dos estudantes novos não compensando o número dos perdidos. (Pompéia 51, 53)

Unable to fit in at school, Sérgio faints when first presented to the classroom, feeling the hostility of his colleagues:

De pé, vexadíssimo, senti brumar-se-me a vista, numa fumaça de vertigem […]. Cambaleei até à pedra. O professor interrogou-me; não sei se respondi. Apossou-se-me do espírito um pavor estranho. Acovardou-me o terror supremo das exibições, imaginando em roda a ironia má de todos aqueles rostos desconhecidos. Amparei-me à tábua negra, para não cair; fugia-me o solo aos pés, com a noção do momento; envolveu-me a escuridão dos desmaios, vergonha eterna! liquidando-se a última energia… (Pompéia 60)

Strange to the formality of the school’s schedules and subjects, Sérgio finds himself in need of a tutor. Sanches, an older colleague, helps him with the studies, but demands dubious and somewhat sexual favors, not well explained by the narrator:

Eu não estudava […]. Mantinha-me em satisfatória média; mas o risco da decadência era constante. O método constituía o pior dos obstáculos; sem o auxilio de alguém, mais prático, estava perdido. Sanches havia sem dúvida de valer-me com a sua capacidade de grande estudante, sobretudo com a boa vontade insinuativa que desinteressadamente manifestava. (Pompéia 78-9)

Feeling like a perfect outcast, Sérgio blames everything and everyone for his failure in the first exams – even the Empire, the State and the social order:

A estréia do primeiro exame foi de fazer febre. Três dias antes pulavam-me as palpitações; o apetite desapareceu ; o sono depois do apetite; na manhã do ato, as noções mais elementares da matéria com o apetite e com o sono […]. Que barbaridade aquela conspiração toda contra mim, contra um, de todos aqueles perfis rebarbativos […]; mais alto que tudo, o Ministro do Império, o Executivo, o Estado, a Ordem social, aparato enorme contra uma criança. (Pompéia 219-220)

It is clear that Sérgio finds difficult to have at school the same privileges he had at home, where he, as the son of his father, could and should have. One way or another, “salvam-se as aparências, mas no fundo ainda refulge o estigma do passado, pois a história está sendo evidentemente mal contada” (Santiago 80). Sérgio holds a grudge against his former colleagues and teachers, and plays the victim for as long as he can. For him, the flaws and fluctuations of memory are perks in his hands, used as tools to rebuild his past according to his own point of view. This way, as a narrator, Sérgio continues and expands his wealth and social status into fiction, i.e., looking back upon his past from above, ignoring the pains and troubles he once had, as a helpless boy.

But then again, Sérgio didn’t have to worry to this extent about his image: he convinces even Nava, who once were a poor and orphan boy, of his innocence and truth. There is no victory, for a narrator of a “Crônica de Saudades”, bigger than that.
From Nava to Pompéia: or the anxiety of self-assurance

To conclude our discussion, let’s just remind ourselves that, from Nava to Pompéia, memory ranges from autobiography to fiction, and any comparison between both works – Memórias and O Ateneu – could never overemphasize it. It is even logical that Nava, narrating his own life, finds it difficult to remark solely the bad moments he’s been through, as Sérgio does, without a glimpse of nostalgia. Nava does not intend to destruct all that has been – he calls instead for a recollection, accounting for many decades of the XXth century he has seen. Sérgio, however, embodies the criticism of Pompéia to the social inequalities of eighteenth century Brazil, created by people as unfair and single-minded as the narrator of O Ateneu.

It is overwhelming that Nava finds himself so close to Sérgio: after all, they both have outlived rigid boarding schools, imaginary or not. Or, perhaps, it is not such a surprise: memory was never meant to be just about the past. Moreover, the passion of Nava for O Ateneu reaffirms the instability of memory in narrative fiction, as well as its problematic definition (and reliability). How could he be misled like this? Anyway, the intertext of Pompéia in Nava is just one of the many aspects of the Memoirs – and, by finishing its dialogue, we are left with pretty much what we started: an inevitable urge to relive again, through the linearity of the written text, the shattered pieces of their (likely or not) childhoods.

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______. Memórias 2: Balão cativo. Rio de Janeiro: Nova Fronteira, 1986.

______. Memórias 3: Chão de ferro. Rio de Janeiro: José Olympio, 1976.

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