Milton Hatoum’s multicultural Amazon

This week Arts on Sunday takes a brief look at one aspect of contemporary Brazilian literature.  The culture of South America’s largest nation is becoming increasingly important in this part of the world for many different reasons, as links between Guyana and Brazil intensify.  The article below, ‘Milton Hatoum’s multicultural Amazon’ by Roseli Siepamann of the University of Rondonia in Brazil and Miguel Nenevé, comments on the fiction of the mythical Amazonia.  Dr Miguel Nenevé is Visiting Professor of Portuguese in the Department of Language and Cultural Studies at the University of Guyana.

By Miguel Nenevé and Roseli Siepamann

Much has been written about the Amazon, many works have been produced on the world´s last frontier.  Greedy foreign eyes observe and describe the region as exotic, chaotic (and erotic), either a green hell full of danger or a paradise where lies the last hope.  Most of the time,  travel writers, novelists and journalists, reveal a classificatory view, monopolized by a discourse which homogenizes the region, putting it into a frame to be seen by the whole world. This discourse suggests that cultures do not change, that the Amazonian way of life is static and homogeneous and so, of easy definition. It seems that since travel writings such as The Sea and the Jungle by HM Tomlinson (1912), Amazon Town by Charles Wagley (1953), and down to the end of the century through works such as The Burning Season (1990) by Andrew Revkin, Amazon Watershed by George Monbiot (1991), and The World is Burning (1990) by Alex Shoumatoff, one perceives a generalizing tendency to classify the Amazon and even to extend this classification to the whole Brazil. “The Brazilians see nothing here but rubber” affirms Tomlinson.

Milton Hatoum
Milton Hatoum

There is no concern with the difference and diversity. Besides, many times people are not even mentioned in the books, as if the Amazon were only a green hell, empty and ready to be occupied by colonizers, as Mary Louis Pratt argues in her work Imperial Eyes. Taking a work published in the last decade of the twentieth century one realizes that the same theme is repeated.  George Monbiot, for example, in his Amazon Watershed (1991), when referring to Porto Velho and the cities in the Amazon states:  “Porto Velho, like any large city in the Amazon, is ugly and brazen.” There are several examples which could be quoted here, but we would like to present an author who does not follow this model of discourse.

Milton Hatoum, a Brazilian writer, born in the Amazon, seems to present a counter-discourse to the foreign travel writers. His Amazon has a very multicultural characteristic as it is populated by several ethnic groups. In fact, Hatoum has a multicultural experience in his own family. Born in the Brazilian Amazon in 1952, the author grew up in the city of Manaus, a city surrounded by green forests, but also the home of diverse ethnic groups, cultures, and social classes that would become part of his works. So far he has written the novels The tree of seventh heaven (1989), The Brothers, (2000), Ashes of the Amazon (2005) and The Orphans of  Eldorado (2008), besides several short stories and a critical work. In his article, ‘à Margem da História’  ( At the margin of history),  the author informs us that his experience in a multicultural Manaus has helped him to broaden his horizon: “My mother language is Portuguese, but as I have lived with people of the Middle East and Jews of the Northern Africa, I could assimilate a little of other culture and religion.” He also says that he grew together with the indigenous culture as indigenous people frequented his house.

Milton Hatoum’s Amazon is therefore quite multicultural as we will see, particularly in the works Ashes of the Amazon  and The Orphans of  Eldorado, his last novels. Amazon is a region presented by his narrators without any idealization, without the extremities “either Hell or Heaven” as seen in many travel works. Hatoum’s narrators are part of this Amazonian universe and present the place with nostalgia, trying to recover its history.

In Hatoum´s works  Manaus is imagined and at the same time the fruit of the author´s memory – a hybrid memory, heterogeneous, decaying but also revealing great mixtures of races, colours and smell. It reveals a great cultural diversity, a multicultural life visible in the costumes, in the names of the places, in the conversations with people. There is in fact an integration between the immigrants and the natives which establishes a relation of identity and estrangement; a diverse world. One realizes the multiple voices, as being something melancholic but which must be remembered, as the narrator of Ashes of the Amazon, says: “in that time, the horizon was still visible, the small wooden houses inundated or submerged…” Mundo the protagonist of Ashes of the Amazon  reveals the idea of a world much bigger than Manaus, bigger than the stereotyped Amazon, a world that connects the region to Germany, France and England: “In a short time Manaus got so big that Mundo could not recognize some neighbourhoods.”

Nature exists, but the human beings are there too. The city is inhabited by some rich people and many others who live in misery after the presence of the colonizers.  Hatoum’s Manaus, therefore, is a city with men and women who may be the victims not only of the external explorer, but also of the very conditions they face. The human beings, like the forest, suffer violence.  In search for his lover Arminto, the protagonist of The Orphans of  Eldorado says:  “I spent my money with the boatmen. And what did they bring to me? Myth and violated girls.”).

Revealing the multicultural aspect of the region, the narrator of The Orphans of Eldorado refers to the thousands of nordestinos (Northeasterners) who went to work in the rubber production. “The paradise was in the Amazon, it was what people said. One can see, therefore, a mixture of cultures, of origins, that forms the environment not only of Manaus, but of the Amazon. In this way, we argue, the author dismantles that stereotyped vision of the Amazon. The multiplicity of voices and people is seen in Ashes of the Amazon: there are the ambitious, the greedy ones, there are also all those victims of ambition and there are people escaping from other places in search of a better life.

In contrast to the history of the colonizers, the author also presents the history of the indigenous people, suggesting a multicultural aspect of the region and the necessity to rethink Amazon: “They told us that in 1839 Edilio had commanded an attack on the Indians and Caboclos disarmed.”  The region, therefore, was seen by the colonizer as a region empty to be explored and exploited. If someone hindered the plan of colonization, he would get killed.

The aim of the narrator of The Orphans of Eldorado seems to be to bring the legend of the place to the present, to mix the past with the present, to break the stereotypes, as one can see in the following quotation: “The enchanted city was an ancient legend, the one that I had heard in my childhood. It emerged in the mind of almost everybody.”  In the afterword of the novel The Orphans  the author confirms that “many natives living in the riverbanks of the Amazonian rivers believed – and still believe – that in the depth of a river or a lake there exists a rich town, splendid, an example of harmony and social justice, where people live as enchanted beings.”

Therefore, Milton Hatoum, by presenting a multicultural Amazon, urban, hybrid, but also wild and the victim of colonization, and by recovering the history and the legend of the place through his fiction, does what Edward Said suggests that intellectuals should do:  present alternative histories different from those given by the official memory.

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