Brazil hosts the FIFA World Cup (soccer) in June/July. Not that it mattered to me! Sports don’t figure at all in my diverse fields of interest, but the unavoidable publicity for the event drew my attention to the country and I realised that I knew next to nothing about her literature. The only Brazilian author who came into my mind was Paulo Coelho and I reckon that I’m not the only one who is painfully ignorant of the gems that Brazilian literature has to offer. Certainly this lacuna in my reads is partly owed to the fact that translations aren’t easy to find. So I decided to do some research and finally picked for this week’s review a Brazilian classic which is on many school reading lists and which is available in English: The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz.
Rachel de Queiroz was born in Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, in November 1910. As from 1927 she worked mainly as a journalist for different newspapers writing very popular chronicles, but also dedicated herself to fiction. Her first novel, O Quince, came out in 1930 and was received with immediate acclaim. Other novels followed: João Miguel (1932), O caminho das pedras (1937), The Three Marias (As três Marias: 1939), O galo de ouro (1950), Dora Doralina (1975), and Memorial de Maria Moura (1992). Rachel de Queiroz died in Leblon, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in November 2003 shortly before turning 93 years old.
It’s Brazil in the 1930s. In the beginning of The Three Marias the narrating protagonist, Maria Augusta called Guta, is a twelve-year-old girl, a sensitive and fearful child used to carefree country life. It’s her first day in the boarding school attached to a Roman Catholic convent in Fortaleza and the austere atmosphere intimidates her from the start. Despite all she quickly finds friends, but it’s her class mate Maria José who takes the initiative and introduces her to the other girls. Before long they form a party of three with Maria Glória. One of the nuns jokingly refers to them as the Three Marias which is how the three stars of the Orion’s Belt are called in Brazil. The life of the girls in boarding school is strictly regulated and at least as secluded as that of the nuns. Guta feels encaged and shut out of life. She suffers under the harsh conditions, sheds many tears and is full of fears that make her consider suicide sometimes. Time passes and the girls grow up with the romantic ideals that they find in cheap novels and the small or big scandals that their hunger for life and love provokes. Soon school years are over and the now eighteen-year-old girls are sent out into the world to deal with real life. The three Marias return to their respective families, but Guta can’t bear the regulated routine of home where she feels like a stranger. She convinces her father to allow her to go back to Fortaleza to attend a typing course and earn her living as a typist there. At last she is free! Free to come to know the world and the ways of men. Raul, a horny aging painter of some renown, Aluísio, a melancholic young men who doesn’t dare revealing his love to Guta, and Isaac, a Jewish physician from Greece who has to pass exams to have his degree recognized in Brazil and to be allowed to stay, court Guta, while Maria Glória makes a happy marriage and Maria José turns into a devout teacher fearing for everybody’s soul.
Quite obviously the first-person narrative titled The Three Marias is a coming-of-age novel and my German edition calls it “the best and most entertaining women’s fiction of Brazilian literature”. Well, there’s definitely some truth in the latter although I don’t like the label at all. In any case, Rachel de Queiroz’s novel made quite a stir when it first came out in 1939! Just imagine strictly Catholic Brazilians reading a book in which the female protagonist handles men without the caution that six years of convent boarding school should have instilled into her and also without always having marriage in the back of her mind, moreover a book written by a woman of only twenty-nine. And yet, it cannot be said that Rachel de Queiroz advocated shameless behaviour or talked openly about sex. On the contrary, the author’s language is very decent and oblique by today’s standards. Often she only slightly hints at what happens. The story itself, of course, isn’t as innocent as moralists would wish it to be, above all towards the end. In addition, the author displays the full scale of social reality in the 1930s without closing her eyes before the improper and the unpleasant. Prostitutes, illegitimate and orphaned children, an eloping couple, a hard-drinking husband, a blind baby, an abandoned worn-out wife and mother,… they all make a background appearance in this novel.
When I found out that The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz was a coming-of-age novel, I wasn’t quite sure if I would really wish to review it. At my age I’m not easily intrigued by such reads, but this one definitely gives an interesting insight into the mind of a young woman and after all I already reviewed other novels of the kind. Nada by Carmen Laforet (»»» see my review) can’t really be compared to this one because it has a different focus and as for Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan (»»» see my review), I liked this Brazilian novel even better. In a nutshell, The Three Marias by Rachel de Queiroz deserves much more attention.