Sunday, 28 December 2008


Cordel is the name given to the folk literature of the northeast of Brazil, printed in small pamphlets on cloth or paper, often with wonderfully illustrated covers. The stock themes are redemption, betrayal and revenge, and cuckoldry and sex in general, and the stories are usually based around prostitutes, God, The Devil, northeastern cowboys, and the Robin Hood-ish bandit (though considerably more bloodthirsty than Robin Hood), Lampiao.

Anyway, rooting around the markets on the eve of an epic journey from Recife to São Luís in Maranhão, and then on to Belém in Pará, I came across this particularly relevant bit of cordel, entitled (or not) In Which Judgement Day Comes To Recife.

One hot Monday in Recife people were going about their business as usual – eating, talking, thinking about working – when a man with wild white hair and beard came running down Conde Da Boa Vista. The man was carrying a crooked stick and wearing a dirty white robe.

The end of days, shouted the man. It’s the end of days! He is coming! He is coming!

The people of Recife were amazed but happy. They were good, religious people, especially the evangelicos, who thought rock was The Devil's music and didn't watch TV. And now He was coming! This was the moment they had been waiting for all their lives!

Soon a huge throng had gathered at Marco Zero. Almost the entire city was there, apart from those who were still too drunk from the night before to get out of bed. Even the author of Your Life Is An Impossibility was there, and his friend Mr X (neither of them believed much in God, but they were curious to see what was going to happen). People were eating coxinhas and drinking Skol. When they finished they threw their litter on the ground, as was customary in Recife.

Before long a whisper went around the crowd. He’s here, people said to one another, he’s here! The crowd parted. A little old woman shuffled forward, wearing a Santa Cruz t-shirt. She was accompanied by a large black cat.

There was some consternation amongst the people of Recife.

Who are you?, someone cried.

Me? I’m God, said the little old woman. What, you thought I’d be a man? Ha! Fooled you, didn’t I?


And who are you?, someone shouted at the cat.

Me? I’m The Devil, said the cat, licking his whiskers. Haven’t you read The Master and Margherita? Bloody philistines, he whispered, turning to the little old woman. The little old woman/God nodded.

Upon hearing they were in the presence of The Devil, someone screamed, and then someone else screamed, and pretty soon almost everyone was screaming.

Calm down, calm down, said God, waving her hands in the air for calm.

When everyone had calmed down a bit, she continued. Right then. As you may or may not have heard, today is Judgement Day, and I’ve got a lot to do, so let’s crack on. She pulled a crumpled bit of paper from her pocket. Let’s see…Rejkyavik, Rotterdam, ah, here we are, Recife. God stared at the page for a moment. Hum, she said, and she looked out at the crowd. She showed the page to The Devil. The Devil clapped his hands together. Excellent, he cried, excellent!

Well, ok, there’s no use beating around the bush, God said. I’m afraid you’re all condemned to burn in the hellfires of eternal damnation for the rest of time. Everyone except…let me see, the author of Your Life Is An Impossibility and Mr X. They can come with me to never-ending paradise.

Oxe! Oxe! screamed the people of Recife, who were very upset (especially the evangelicos). It can’t be true! There must be some mistake! We’re good, god-fearing people! Please, God, Little Old Woman, whoever you are, check again!

No, no mistake, said God. Let me see, usually there are some explanatory notes or something – ah, here we are…yes, that’s right – I gave you this little bit of paradise to live in – the mata atlantica rainforest, this glorious turquoise sea, these wonderful rivers, 365 days (or near enough) of balmy sunshine and blue skies every year, correct?

Yes, yes, thanks be to God!, said the people of Recife. Bless him! Praise him!

Her!, shouted God, beginning to get angry.

Yes, sorry, her, said the people of Recife, looking a bit embarrassed.

And what did you do with it?, asked God.

Silence. No-one could think of an answer.

You threw litter everywhere, and you turned it into the messiest city in the world! Look at the place! It’s a bloody disgrace! So that’s why you’re going with him – and she pointed in the direction of The Devil, who nodded his head enthusiastically. These two – she looked over at the author of Your Life Is An Impossibility and Mr X – they don’t even believe I exist, but at least they don’t throw rubbish in the street! The people looked down at their feet. They saw the rubbish. They felt a bit guilty. Somone who had just finished his coxinha even stopped, mid-throw, and put the little paper napkin in his pocket.


And then The Devil clapped his hands, once, twice, three times. A great black hole appeared in the earth in front of him. The Devil stepped into the hole. Come on then, he said, no dawdling! The people of Recife, looking very despondent about how things had turned out, followed him slowly.

Ok, Mr Writer, and Mr X, said God. Time for a quick beer before I move on to Riga?

5 comments:

bosh said...

James, our povo seriously woudldn't believe that God was a woman and would end up throwing the paper at her and kicking the cat!

bosh said...

but good story though, I liked it!

zack said...

Here is one of those sweeping generalizations which I apologize for in advance [I think such things are just lazy thinking - but forgive me - they do tend to spark debate): Why is it Brazilians do not read? I mean, I rarely see a Brazilian reading in public; on a bus, in an airport, on a plane, why is that?

Brazilians certainly have a passion for life, for the dramatic (just stand around near an accident and listen in, colourful and dramatic commentary is offered up genereously). But, reading does not seem to be part of the equation, from what I can see.

Do you think if there was some way of packaging those god-awful novelas into paperback a new craze could be started. The covers of the livros de novela would have to be eye-catching, lurid and colourful. Sort of like those romantic tomes one sees in the supermarkets of North America - rack upon rack of swooning femme's being supported by their cavaliers.

A belated Merry Xmas (but still heartfelt), James. And, a healthy and happy 2009.

....zack

cabobranco said...

Ola James

Great to read about Recife. Love the cordel and the photo from the place in Olinda. A great thing about the northeast, the character of the interior and the coast. I used to live in Caruaru and Joao Pessoa, now back in New Cross.

Back soon!

James Young said...

Thanks Bosh and Zack and Cabobranco...Zack, no need to apologise, I think it's universally accepted that Brazil isn't a great country of readers, and there's probably a major sociological study waiting to be written about the reasons. A few random observations - phenomenally high price of books (R$40 for a paperback, which is like someone in the US paying $40, or someone in the UK paying £40), high levels of illiteracy, a society that is built around music and oral forms of art and culture, perhaps the most gregarious people in the world - sitting reading a book in Brazil is no guarantee of quiet solitude, as few Brazilians would understand why you want to sit and read alone when you could be chatting....happy Christmas and New Year to you too...