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Reading can be experienced in over a thousand ways, here’s one of them

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Reading can be experienced in over a thousand different ways. One of the most common types of reading makes you follow the quest or journey of a great hero, and you embark on adventures with them.

Usually, you have a protagonist, someone who wants something, but there’s an obstacle for them to have it. So they face a conflict, they struggle, they resolve it, and, finally, they get what they want.

But that is not what happens in O Cortiço (“The Slum”) by Aloísio de Azevedo. This novel written in Brazil, in 1890, is not about a protagonist with a name, it’s about protagonists. Archetypes. A society. A country. It’s not a story either, it’s more like a painting. Yeah… that’s what it is.

My experience with this novel was different. It felt like watching the author painting a picture from scratch. I stood there still as he got ready to stroke his first traces. Silence. It’s like you’re in a dark room in silence with only a spot of light over this artist’s canvas, and his hands on his painting tools. You’re sitting on a stool, watching him create.

First, the charcoal. Black and white figures and lines that seem random at first. Then the paint. And as the colors dry shift, the light goes bright. That dark room is filled with colors and light. Then you look around and you’re in the scene. Just like that. Can you believe it? You’re at a tenement in Rio de Janeiro, watching people come and go, moving, being alive, surviving. You smell the scents around you, you hear the voices of the people, you see and feel everything.

O Cortiço is one of the most important works of Brazilian literature. It’s a novel that swings between naturalism and realism. It portraits the Brazilian culture at the end of the 19th century, the roots of Brazil as it is today. Portuguese and other European immigrants, mulattos, and former African slaves living together and working together in their own built community.

The characters, defined and influenced by their environment, race, and social positions, are not fictional characters created by Aloísio de Azevedo, they are real ones who belong to Brazilian history. That’s why this novel is so powerful. It’s a photograph, a painting, like I said.

Now, reading this book as a writer, you’ll notice that sometimes we are too constrained to formulas. The Hero’s Journey for example. I know it’s an old novel, probably influenced by the works of Flaubert and the naturalism movement of that time. But it proves you can write something that is not formulaic and still write a beautiful story.

Also, when you write, you’re not just telling a story sometimes. You’re also registering something. Feelings, values, history. I heard many people reading classics and saying they don’t believe the story is real because it’s so different from our days. Well, can you guarantee that this is not going to happen with our contemporary novels twenty or thirty years from now?

Now, for the comments…

Can you remember a novel you read that felt more like a painting as I described above? What novel was that?

2 Comments

  • Portia

    I love books like this. When done well that is, otherwise I find they can seem quite self indulgent. I think it depends on whether the writer is trying to impart something on the reader or just to show the reader how well they can ‘paint’.

    One of my favourite ‘just a painting’ of society novels is Saturday Night & Sunday Morning by Alan Silitoe.

    Loved reading your descriptions above.

    • Beardy

      Thank you! And I definitely know what you mean. Sometimes I think Flaubert was one of those writers who loved to show more how they could paint, yet he still “painted” beautifully.

      And I’m adding Alan Silitoe to my list now! Thank you!

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