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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

Zero was written in Brazil in the late 1960’s, during the first years of the repressive military regime which took power in 1964. The setting of Zero as a “Latindian American country, tomorrow,” stated on the introductory page, is a thin disguise for Loyola Brandão’s contemporary Brazil. Certain dates, historical...

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Zero was written in Brazil in the late 1960’s, during the first years of the repressive military regime which took power in 1964. The setting of Zero as a “Latindian American country, tomorrow,” stated on the introductory page, is a thin disguise for Loyola Brandão’s contemporary Brazil. Certain dates, historical names, geographical references, and institutional acronyms link the novel to that country, although many of the events and the atmosphere could fit several other Latin American countries ruled by authoritarian military regimes. Finished in 1969, Zero was too controversial for Brazilian publishers in the early 1970’s, despite the author’s previous respected and successful publications, and was first published in Rome in Italian in 1974. The following year, during the beginning of the regime’s political opening, it was published in Brazil to the acclaim of critics and a public thirsty for a literary treatment of the country’s dark period, during which censorship was in effect.

The salient characteristic of Zero, as a novel, is unconventionality. It is an extensive prose narrative containing a degree of character and plot development and thus may be deemed a novel. Its unconstrained language, its bizarre characters and episodes, and especially its chaotic structure, however, clearly set it apart from the norm. Yet this unconventionality is the critical element for the author’s creation of a critical, surrealist portrait of the times in his homeland.

Zero is a series of titled, disjointed narrative units, lists, drawings, and graphs, the majority of which sketchily relate major events in the characters’ lives, but many of which serve to convey social, political, and philosophical commentary linked to the plot only as a backdrop to reinforce tone and atmosphere. The plot revolves around José Gonçalves’s evolution from vagabond to subversive. At the outset of the work, the reader sees José doing the first of his odd—both diverse and strange—jobs, killing rats in a run-down film theater. Later, he writes slogans for Coca-Cola bottle caps and books acts for a national freak show that makes up an entire neighborhood. Finally, he carries out robberies and assassinations for Gê, the leader of the subversive “Commons.” Other significant events in his life are his residence in an abandoned book warehouse, where he reads and gains political consciousness; his courtship of and marriage to Rosa, whose dubious background causes him anguish; his murder of individuals whom he believes are doing him wrong; and his arrest, torture, and subsequent escape.

Plot development is secondary to tone and atmosphere, and the reader is required to piece it together from frequent but disjointed and transitionless glimpses that are intercalated among other, unrelated but equally chaotic observations and commentaries made by the narrator. These latter elements include statistics on Latin American countries, mini-subplots on exploited individuals, a labeled drawing of a malnourished man, ludicrous Orwellian government pronouncements, plentiful ironic footnotes and “Free Associations,” and even strings of nonsense syllables. Attention is focused naturalistically on torture, pain, sexual acts, deformities, and the like through detailed listings.

The chaotic nature of the novel’s structure is underscored by the deliberate breaking of convention in punctuation and spelling, seen, for example, in the placement of commas between verbs and their objects and the phonetic rather than normative spelling of many words. The novel’s emphasis on the base and the ugly is heightened by frequently coarse and brutal language almost devoid of any lyric quality.

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