Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1510
FOGO MORTO (dead fires), the tenth novel by Jose Lins do Rego, marks his return to the themes of his original Sugar Cane Cycle, after four weak experiments in other fields. The author, descendant of an aristocratic planter family settled for years in Northeast Brazil, was educated for the law, but friendship with Brazil’s great sociologist Gilberto Freyre showed him the rich literary inspiration in Brazil’s ingenhos, or sugar centers, and turned him to fiction writing. Beginning with the novel PLANTATION BOY, Lins do Rego went on with DAFFY BOY, BLACK BOY, RICHARD, OLD PLANTATION, and THE SUGAR REFINERY, all dealing with the same characters. In 1943, after four lesser novels based on other themes, came FOGO MORTO, his masterpiece, in which some of the characters from the earlier novels reappear. The novel is marked by improved technique, a greater use of dialogue, less morbidity, and better character portrayal.
Some critics see in Victorino, the penniless, abused lawyer, a Brazilian Don Quixote, sure of what is right, hating bandits, cruel soldiers, and haughty plantation owners alike, and fighting all injustice, regardless of the cost to him. Like the Spanish don, Victorino was an aristocrat, related by blood to many of the important families of the region, but censuring their use of power because of his feeling for the common man. There is also a parallel with Don Quixote in the way Victorino was first ridiculed and then admired.
The main character, the crippled and ugly saddlemaker Jose Amaro, was a failure who tried to hide his sense of inferiority and cowardice behind a biting tongue and a scornful attitude toward everybody. He insisted that nobody owned him, or, as he expressed it more vividly, that nobody could scream at him. His only friends were the kindly black hunter Leandro, who occasionally left part of his bag at Jose’s door, and white Victorino, sunk so low that even the moleques, the black boys, mocked him in the streets, calling after him “Papa Rabo.”
Jose’s attitude toward the bandit, Captain Antonio Silvino, arose from the admiration of a coward for a man daring enough to brave the power of the plantation owners. The imagination of the saddlemaker built Silvino into a kind of Robin Hood, siding with the poor against the grasping landlords, especially at the moment when the bandit attacked the town of Pilar and sacked the strongbox of the prefect, Quinca Napoleon. Afterward, he invited the villagers to pillage the house. Jose was grateful because the bandit came to his defense when he was ordered evicted from the house his father and he had occupied for half a century. However, Silvino’s threats of interference stiffened the determination of Jose’s landlord.
Not until the end was Jose disillusioned and the bandit’s self-interest revealed. Attracted by rumors that Colonel Lula still possessed the gold inherited from his father-in-law, Silvino came after it, threatening torture unless the hiding place was revealed. In reality, the wealth was not at the plantation. Lula, vanquished by circumstances and about to abandon his estate for the big city, had sent the money ahead. An attack of convulsions momentarily saved the landowner from torture; the protests of Victorino brought him further respite; but it was the arrival of Colonel Paulino that drove off the bandit. Until he realized Silvino’s cruelty, Jose Amaro made sandals for him and his men, spied on his pursuers for him, and even got food and provisions to him when Lieutenant Mauricio and his soldiers were on his trail.
Jose’s feelings toward the wealthy plantation owners were determined by their attitude toward him. The novelist introduces two of them as representative of the landed gentry of the nineteenth century in northeastern Brazil, men who derived their titles from their social and political positions.
With Colonel Jose Paulino, whose family had long owned the Santa Clara plantation, Jose Amaro was continually at odds because, as the wealthy man rode past the saddlemaker’s house in his family carriage, he would only nod condescendingly. At the beginning of the novel, when Laurentino, the house painter, paused to talk on a May afternoon, while on his way to help the colonel beautify his manor house for the wedding of his daughter, Jose from his doorway said angrily that he would never work for a man he hated as much as he hated Colonel Paulino.
His attitude toward the other big sugar planter, Colonel Lula Cesar de Holanda Chacon, supposedly modeled on a cousin of the author’s grandfather, was less bitter. He finally agreed to go to the Santa Fe plantation to repair the family carriage, whose history is related in the second part of the novel.
During the Revolution of 1848, Captain Tomas Cabra de Malo arrived with his cattle, his slaves, and his family in Parahyba (or Paraiba). He took possession of the Santa Fe plantation, adjoining Santa Clara, bought additional land from the Indians, and planted cotton. About then, a penniless cousin, Lula, turned up and began courting the plantation owner’s daughter.
Having won the captain’s permission, Lula took her away on a honeymoon from which they returned with a pretentious carriage, practically useless in that roadless region. The rest of Lula’s progress, as told in FOGO MORTO, makes him anything but admirable. At Captain Tomas’ death, he fought the widow for control until her death. Then, in complete possession of the plantation and sugar refinery, he revealed his avaricious and cruel nature. Jose overlooked the past of his landlord, however, because Lula occasionally exchanged a word with him.
Jose’s family is introduced early in the story. When Laurentino stopped to talk, the saddlemaker invited him for supper with his wife and their thirty-year-old daughter. The woman had never married because she insisted that she did not want to, but she nearly drove the old man frantic because she spent her days weeping. Eventually, in his exasperation, he beat her until he dropped unconscious; from that time on, his wife thought only of ways to get herself and her daughter safely away. Jose had no other children. Lacking a son to carry on at his death, he had no incentive to enlarge his leather business or attract new customers.
Lins do Rego continually makes thrifty use of minor episodes, not only to carry forward the story, but to reveal character. For example, while working at Colonel Lula’s plantation, Jose revealed his trait of showing contempt for those he tried to impress; and by his actions, he so roused the enmity of Floripes, the Santa Fe overseer, that from then on he worked against Jose and hastened his tragedy. It was Floripes’ lie, the report that Jose had promised aid to Victorino’s candidate against the politician backed by Lula, that persuaded the landowner that his tenant was ungrateful, and so Jose was ordered to leave the cabin occupied by his family for many years.
The kindness of the hunter in leaving a rabbit at Jose’s door revealed the old man’s nausea at the sight of blood, while the blood started a rumor that Jose was a werewolf. This rumor was crystallized into belief when he was found unconscious beside the river, where, in reality, he had collapsed trying to warn the bandits of the coming of soldiers.
In telling the story, Lins do Rego divides his narrative into three parts, with the second one, “The Santa Fe Plantation,” a flashback of half a century, covering the rise to power of Lula.
When Isabel, daughter of Emperor Pedro, freed Brazil’s last slaves in 1888, Lula was left without anyone to run the plantation or the refinery, for his slaves were quick to get away from a master who used to beat them until he fell down in convulsions. In contrast, Colonel Paulino’s field hands, who had been treated kindly, stayed on even after the liberation, and so he was able to lend his cousin by marriage enough laborers to help with the work. Still, the hearth fires of Santa Fe burned lower, and the plantation was doomed. Neighbors brought suits against Lula that were settled only because Colonel Paulino intervened; and Lula could find no one willing to marry his daughter.
Jose’s fortunes also declined. Disillusioned about the outlaws, he found the soldiers of Lieutenant Mauricio even more cruel. Coming to protect the villagers, Lieutenant Mauricio beat blind Torcuato as a spy, arrested Jose, and mistreated Victorino, who had won the admiration of his fellow citizens by facing the domineering officer with a writ of habeas corpus in order to free the saddlemaker.
Freedom was meaningless now to old Jose. His family had left him, and he had no friends. He committed suicide in his empty house, where his friend, Pajarito, found his body. Two cycles had ended. When Pajarito looked out the window, smoke was billowing from the chimneys of the Santa Clara sugar refinery, but he saw no activity at Santa Fe—where the fires were dead.
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