When the American poet Elizabeth Bishop arrived in Brazil in 1951, she expected to spend two weeks there and ended up staying 15 years, a time of emotional turbulence and creative productivity. Bishop wrote poetry and prose and translated Latin American writers, including Octavio Paz, but this project, suggested by friends as a way to improve her Portuguese, is something completely different. It’s a teenager’s diary, written between 1893 and 1895 in the remote mining town of Diamantina, the highest town in Brazil. It’s a delightful, funny and revealing memoir, a little bit of Austen in the Americas.
Helena’s real name was Alice Dayrell, (the pseudonym came from her English relations). At the time she was writing, Diamantina was ten days’ journey from Rio de Janeiro, two by train, eight by mule. Set in a weird landscape of giant boulders and ant-hills, it’s a town where everyone knows everyone else’s business and, as Helena often reminds us, all of them are lunatics. ‘Just build a wall around the town. The place is a regular asylum.’
Helena’s father is mostly absent; he’s invested in a new diamond mine, so far with nothing to show for it. Many of the region’s inhabitants are after that elusive, fortune-making diamond that will change everything. Helena’s family live in hope of future riches and scrape by as best they can.
Her diary is wonderful because it is mundane. The stories of annoying teachers and classmates could just as easily come from a 14-year-old today; the indignation is the same, even if its expression has changed. Permanently hungry and worried about her looks, in one huffy entry she writes, ‘Jesus Christ suffered because he wanted to, but I’m suffering for no reason at all.’
Her descriptions of other people are wonderfully droll. There’s the goody-goody cousin whose endless praying means ‘my life has been a hell’. There’s a professor who’s drunk at every party, a cheapskate dentist, a neighbour who checks her children for lice on the front porch. Helena’s beloved grandmother, Teodora — so fat she’s permitted to hear Mass from her balcony — keeps a large household of free slaves. Emancipation came to Brazil in 1888 but Teodora’s slaves, after celebrating noisily in the garden, decided they didn’t want to leave her or her well-stocked larder. There seems to be real affection between the ex-slaves and ex-owners though some observations, for example about the cuteness of ‘little n—s’ strike a jarring note.
The family’s various business ventures are all doomed: Mama’s trays of biscuits and sweets come back from market untouched. Brother Renato’s bottled vinegar ferments and explodes all over the shop. Even Helena, whose doting father thinks she’s a genius, admits that she would do better at school if she weren’t so easily distracted and prone to laughing fits.
We are bound to admire the mysterious workings of Helena’s faith when the Virgin Mary answers her prayers for a new school uniform with a sanction to sell Mama’s gold brooch for funds. By the time the ruse is discovered the brooch has been melted down, but nobody gets angry, because benevolence runs through this narrative like a seam of diamonds. With Elizabeth Bishop’s 1952 introduction and a new one by Diana Athill, it’s a greatly uplifting read.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £8.54, Tel: 08430 600033. Miranda France is the author of Bad Times in Buenos Aires.