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.’