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The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poemsThe St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
The St. Lawrence Book Award for a first collection of short stories or poems
Life As It Is 
by Nelson Rodrigues

Host Publications, 2008

Reviewed by K. T. Mitchell

Lust.  Anger . Jealously. Greed.  From Britney cavorting as Madonna for the new millennium, to gavel banging judge shows, down Wisteria Drive and hanging a left on Wall Street, the cardinal sins have become passé for Americans.  For Brazilians, grapping with vices they so often flaunt makes for drama more wrenching than anything prime time television can churn out. During the 1950’s, dramatist Nelson Rodrigues focused his pen on sketching the conundrums of Rio’s middle class in plays, short stories and soap operas.  Taken from Rodrigues’ sensational newspaper column, the short story collection Life As It Is delivers on its title, exposing the middle class’ subverted passions that are fueled by Catholic ideology.
Rodrigues’ blunt, punchy style immediately envelops the reader into a world of salacious scandal.  The level of intensity is so high, more than one reading is necessary to disentangle the convoluted plots from Catholic psychology that propels the characters to act the way do.  Throughout the tales, the tenants of Catholicism remain unspoken.  The middle class of Rio was reared in the church, so church philosophy is hard wired into each individual and considered a given part of daily interaction. The climatic points of life, christenings, marriages, deaths, all revolve around the church. This silent part of the text that is “lost in translation” for protestant American readers, proves indispensable when comprehending the context for each dramatic scene.

In the minds of Rodrigues’ characters, sex is an undying obsession because sensuality is the main thing the church demands parishioners refrain from. For those of the genteel class, God is not some bearded giant in the sky. He is polite society at large, gleefully waiting for a façade of bourgeoisie refinement to slip.  Secrecy is of the utmost importance in these liaisons, with the perpetrators acting as if maintaining the illusion that nothing happened is just as good as if the sin was never committed.

Under Rodrigues’ hand, lust transmutes into jealousy, yet both sins are forgivable because they are easy to conceal.   Anger that gives way to publicly violent or shameful acts is also understood but unforgivable. It shows a loss of control. In “Thy Neighbor’s Wife,” Gouveia endures the public humiliation of being spit upon by the husband of his lover wherever and whenever they meet, which is frequently.  Gouveia takes to “walking around with a special handkerchief that he tucked into his breast pocket for such occasions.” Gouveia’s friend glibly tells him, “You won’t be the first or the last to covet his neighbor’s wife,” exposing the commonality of disregarding Catholic rules of morality in order to make Gouveia feel absolved for breaking one of the ten commandments.  An uncle encourages Gouveia to “break [the husband’s] face.” Yet any instinct Gouveia has to protect himself or flee disappears whenever he sees his nemesis approach.  Rather than seek retribution, Gouveia internalizes his humiliation, then turns his desire for violence on himself. 

The sanctity of marriage is used as a tool to control sexual urges.  Unfortunately for those caught within this ideology, its effectiveness is quite limited.  Like Gouveia’s friend states, adultery is rampant.  In these tales, women still pick up strangers on buses to satiate their lusts.  Men borrow their co-workers’ apartments to delight in affairs.  Moreover, under Rodrigues’ hand, marriage becomes the crux of psychosexual issues.

A young Eusebio is forced into marriage by his sisters, aunts and mother in “Delicate”.  When he protests, asking why his sisters don’t get married, the women reply “Women are another matter.  They are different.”  Their not so honest answer hints they are worried Eusebio lacks traditional masculinity. It is normal for a woman to be a spinster but for a man to be without a woman is considered strange. Yet the word homosexual is never uttered as it is an unspeakable concept for these traditional Catholics.  Marriage is presented as a means to protect Eusebio.  Instead it is the catalyst that sets his self-destruction in motion.

Aside from lust, almost each of the seven deadly sins is touched upon in Life As It Is.  Envy between two sisters results in murder in “Twins.”   A widower is driven to madness when his business partner smears his dead wife’s name out of greed in “The Mausoleum.” 

In spite of all the viciousness displayed, virtue shines through in a place where the reader expects the worst after getting a taste of Rodrigues’ style.  “A Cadillac For A Kiss” places Percival, a young handsome man, in a situation where he has to choose between his wallet and his heart.  Pushed to kiss an unattractive woman in exchange for the cost of a Cadillac by Mendes, a boxing promoter turned gigolo pimp, Percival has reservations about taking advantage of a woman’s desperation.  Just as it seems Percival is going to sink to the depths of depravity, he performs an act of chivalry that shows a tremendous amount of compassion for the woman while preserving his masculine pride.  It is in “Cadillac” that Rodrigues shows his true skill as a realist who is willing to balance what he sees as the worst in the world with what is the best in human nature.  It is in this stroke of brilliance that   Rodrigues reminds his audience that life as it is can be quite beautiful.

K. T. MITCHELL is currently writing a novel transgressive fiction while enjoying the pastoral scenery of the San Joaquin Valley.  To read her work in other genres, please go to www.ktmitchell.com.