Friday, January 7, 2011

A COMPANION PIECE TO MY BRAZILIAN YEARS…

When we meet for morning coffee at author Morris Raphael’s home, we frequently share in a conversation about the numerous people Morris and Helen know who live throughout the world. Yesterday, we met to talk about his upcoming book, CIVIL WAR VIGNETTES OF ACADIANA, and at the end of the visit, Morris gave me a copy of a book about Brazil written by his close friend, Jane Durand Smith Randolph.  Jane is a native Louisianian who sojourned in Brazil during the time that Morris worked as a project engineer in the construction of the Copebras plant near Cubatao, Brazil.

Jane Randolph, a native of Bunkie, Louisiana, traveled to Sao Paulo with her father and mother in 1955 where she met Morris and his soon-to-be wife, Helen, who worked with the U.S. Information Agency. Jane's father, James (“Tiger”) Alexander Smith, had engaged Morris in the construction of a carbon black plant, and during the time that Smith explored the possibility of building the plant, Celanese Corporation joined the venture as a financial partner -- the carbon black plant eventually burgeoned into one of the largest privately-owned industrial complexes in the world.

Jane’s book includes interesting notes that provide perspective about the carbon black industry; e.g., a definition of carbon black as “breaking down hydrocarbons according to color, size, and density for use in the manufacture of inks, dyes, plastics, rubber, paints, as well as many other products” --a note which underlines the importance of establishing a plant of this type in forward-looking Brazil and throughout the world.

A journalism graduate, Jane’s memoir contains excellent concrete detail, and she injects personal impressions in a lively style that engages readers immediately. She describes Brazil: “The energy of Brazil is like a thousand neon lights flashing along the Las Vegas strip. Each area of the country is different in tempo, but the rhythm is the same. Brazilians laugh at themselves without shame. They laugh at politics. They laugh at life. They laugh at the world…”

Jane visits the Instituto Butantan, a century old research and anti-venom production facility, which is a “must see” in downtown Sao Paulo. It contains about 50,000 snakes in its collection and thousands of spiders, scorpions, and caterpillars maintained by 1100 employees. Jane writes: “Thousands of snakes such as fer-de-lance, constrictors, pit vipers, coral snakes, bushmasters coral snakes, and the deadly jararaca writhed silently over each other in each deep abyss. Some of the reptiles were small and active while others were huge and lumbering…attendants reached into a pit and removed the unhappy and active snakes with a long pole and attached lasso. The snakes were brought to surface and milked by hand. The attendants grabbed the snakes’ heads, squeezed along the sides of the heads, and collected the venom in glass vials…”

Descriptions of social activities are interspersed with cultural information in the text, including a party honoring Queen Elizabeth II at the English Club in Sao Paolo. Jane writes about her family sharing meals with Morris in Santos where he entertains them with stories about characters on the plant site. “He seems to know everyone in Santos,” she writes. “We went nowhere with him that he wasn’t shaking hands and chatting with the locals. He always livened up a visit to Santos…we were excited when Morris met Helen and the courtship seemed to prosper…” When American freighters arrived periodically, Morris arranged for the Smith family to go aboard and enjoy an American dinner, and they departed the ships with “precious gifts,” such as the world-touted hot sauce, Tabasco, which is produced at nearby Avery Island, Louisiana.

Jane relates that she developed hepatitis and while bedridden, Morris loaned her his small black and white television set so that she would be entertained while confined. She also studied Portuguese, the language of Brazil, sampled trigonometry and the work of Jung, the psychoanalyst.

BRAZIL includes photographs of the murals of Alberto Santos Dumont, a national Brazilian aviation hero and rival of the Wright Brothers, of monuments and buildings in Sao Paolo, and of the architectural work of Oscar Niemeyer whose work can be viewed throughout South America and in Russia, Spain, and France. An architect who chose curves over right angles, Niemeyer revolutionized architecture with his modernist style. Jane describes his buildings as “functional, modern, with an ‘over the edge’ feel.”

A chapter entitled “The Other Side of Life” chronicles Jane’s experiences with beggars, some with elephantiasis and gaping wounds infested with insects. She describes the wretched slum areas where mass cremations took place and the smell covered the city, reminding her that much of Brazil remained Third World. “I wondered how the German population did not know about the cremations in the concentration camps for the stench was unforgettable,” she writes. Life in refrigeration cartons or shacks made of loose boards and found objects gave her a glimpse of “the other side” where outsiders, like wealthy Americans, were not welcome. From one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Bishop, she borrows a description of the poverty-stricken children, revealing that “pink dogs” (dogs with mange) are often better treated than children in the slum sections of Sao Paola. Voodoo practitioners abound in this area, and the Smith family often saw macumba (voodoo) candles glowing in the streets of Sao Paolo slums at night.

This is a colorful memoir and an excellent companion piece to Morris’s MY BRAZILIAN YEARS that bears out the quote on the front cover: “embroidered nature…tapestried landscape” (Sir Kenneth Clark in LANDSCAPE INTO ART). A good read for any expatriate who has lived abroad and expanded his/her vision of the world.

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