Comments by Bob Corbett
The year is 1999 and Ana has been preparing a reunion for The Useless which will be held on January 1, 2000. “The Useless” was the ironic name which a group of hippie-like university intellectuals gave themselves in Brasilia of the 1970s. The name was a clever frame ironically emphasizing to themselves that they talked much more about changing society than they actually did change it. Ana herself was one of the group and one of those professors, but at only 55 is retired though still writing, including telling the story of The Useless. Back in the 1970s she was charged with organizing a reunion of the group for January 1, 2000, the day of the beginning of the new millennium.
Ana is a split personality and at times she is Diana, a much more aggressive and assertive woman. She tells us:
Sometimes I imagine myself as Diana, doing what I fear, saying what I silence. She always has the answer on the tip of her tongue. I bite my tongue. This is how it works. When I am, I’m Ana. When I am who I want to be, I’m Diana
The novel is set in the city of Brasilia, where she was an early resident. It is a city whose shape and structure have toned her personality and that of The Useless.
There was a certain style in men and women from Brasilia even if no one was born there. The imagination sparked by the freedom and lightness of those concrete slabs, defying the engineer’s numbers.
Ana has been living a quite reclusive life resting on memories and slight hopes of a future. She has a small income from her early retirement and alimony.
The novel traces both five aspects of love, one for each of the chapters, and is a sort of memoir not just of her own life, but of The Useless. Some 30 years earlier they were a group much like the hippies of U.S. of the 1960s. Their battle was not the Vietnam war, but many of the other issues – individualism, feminism, social justice and life as it was lived in Brazil at the time. However, since this circle included quite a few intellectuals, the tone of discussion and activities were a bit different from the less educated, rock music centered hippies of the U.S. 1960s.
Given that this is a sort of memoir of The Useless, there is a huge cast of characters, not always easy to keep straight. They include Eduardo her ex-husband, Norberto, who in 1999 has undergone a sex change to become Bertha, Helena, an old guard revolutionary who disappeared with rebels, is presumed dead and whose identify Norberto wants to assume. The list goes on and on -- interesting people who pop up in her memory and many who show up in 1999. I’ll mention a few more below.
Ana lives with her niece, Vera and nephew, Formigo. Ana herself was childless, and while she gets along with her niece and nephew, she doesn’t really play the role of mother, and doesn’t quite know what to make of the young folks:
… they’re part of a generation with no direction and alienated from the problems around them.
She sees her generation, especially The Useless, as having been deeply involved in the problems of their time, attempting to solve them or at least ameliorate them. It is this view of the world that touches me very deeply and made this novel a powerful read and comparative reflection. She gets into some of the fundamental issues of human existence and the meaning of life when a group of the “old guard,” members of The Useless, are invited to present a panel at the university in late December of 1999.
The fundamental question is: what over-arching theory will best explain the path to decent living. Ana is among the invited presenters and maintains the position of “instantanenism” “Let’s not run from the instant,” she argues. The best way to live is with that mantra – embracing the current instant and not allowing the past or the future to interfere.
Another of The Useless replies:
What matters in history isn’t the virtue of the elite Chicao says but the level reached by the multitudes of the mediocre. If they become educated, have enough
Maria Antonia, still an active radical leftist interrupts him:
-- The problem is also that these bureaucrats do nothing…
Chicao doesn’t let her finish
-- It’s better to do nothing at all. If you do something, you’re screwed. To begin with doing is expensive. And these days the best administrator is one who doesn’t spend.
Later after the debate, at a dinner with other members of The Useless, Japona attacks the position of the radical leftist, Maria Antonia and the inactive intellectual Chicao: He says: “Chicao talks and talks and does nothing; and for Maria Antonia action is only worthwhile if it is impossible.”
Ana later writes:
In each of us there is complicity from the old days. We have changed physically and spiritually. But we still trust each other, not because of either common interests or similar ideas. Because we lived through some crises together and together we lost some of the same things. We dreamed the same unfulfilled dreams. I recognize something artificial in this enduring friendship: we have all changed and, despite that, in relation to each other it’s as if we were frozen in time, seeing each other not with today’s eyes but rather with eyes of thirty years ago. We don’t remake our relationships based on who we are; we play out our old relationships, or more precisely, our idealized relationships.
This was a passage that touched me deeply. Just about two weeks ago I was at a dinner party that was so similar to events in the novel. An old friend and colleague at my university in the 1960s, part of our comparable group to The Useless (with a more flattering view of ourselves that their ironic name suggests), had returned to the U.S. for a short visit from his home in southern France. He had recently celebrated his 80th birthday (our group was from 15-25 years older than the characters in the novel). That evening we had very similar arguments, but most of all it was clear that we were each seeing the other as we saw each other 40 years ago, yet each of us had significantly changed over the years, yet had many of the same fundamental views of human existence as we did in 1965!
While Ana presents her ““instantanenism” theory as sort of carrying the debate that 1999 day, I realize that most of us in our group could never have embraced that view as she presents it. In my own case I am very sympathetic to the notion of being free to and encouraging myself to embrace the instant, each and everyone. However, I embrace each instant with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, and most of the time with an eye on where this instant is tending. It isn’t the instant itself that is the end, rather there are goals, more consistent with the sort of utopianism of many of Ana’s friends – values of working to improve the human condition, to advance the notions of freedom and individualism. Like her colleague, Chicao, many of us talk about issues without doing much, at least any longer, and like her colleague, the radical Maria Antonia, we often intellectually embrace and demand actions that are relatively impossible to expect will be actualized in the current political world, perhaps in any future political world. We still tend toward utopianism.
The novel is also significantly about the notion of love – love in a very broad sense, or rather, love in many different senses. Ana sees herself as never having been very interested in sexual love and not very good at it. Yet she has had some enjoyable sexual affairs, and as the group reassembles, she develops some sexual desire toward Cadu, still a dashingly handsome womanizer as he was so long ago. She has sex with him, but on her terms and feels very good about it. She says of him:
Cadu’s sensuality is not selfish or narcissistic; it’s generous. He would be capable of sacrificing his own life for a woman’s body He is a hero of a vain heroism. An idealist of an illusory ideal. His illusion is to think it possible to fill life solely with sex, repeating the attempt with every woman. This isn’t living in a void, as many people believe. It’s filling the void with enthusiasm and pleasure — momentary, of course. What enthusiasm and pleasure are not momentary?
He sees the world as freedom and hope. His ideal causes less damage and is more within reach than many other equally illusory ideals — national, ethnic, religious, political — that have mobilized men’s actions so stupidly... There is a certain freshness -- a white kernel of innocence — in his attitude. An endless youth … A joy... A desire to please the women he falls in love with, truly falls in love with. He is certainly capable of loving one woman while pursuing others for his passing pleasures.
Cadu enjoys Ana (or perhaps she had become Diana in that relationship) and when he presses her toward a longer relationship she tells him: “Today I think that marriage and love are truly incompatible.”
I loved the novel and found it quite intellectually stimulating. I’m not sure every reader would find it so. In some measure it was that it brought me back to my youth and the circles I lived and thought in during the turmoil of the 1960s. While I’ve mainly stepped away from social activism since my retirement from the university some 9 years ago, I still think much the same way and advocate the same sorts of views. The novel was a nostalgic trip back to a world I so loved and remember with great fondness. And yet so much about the novel was completely different from our themes. Brasilia itself figures significantly in the novel, a place I’ve never been. The social issues The Useless dealt with we not the ones I struggled with. The age group was different. Yet the fundamental issues of the meaning of human existence and the values of a humanistic approach to society were the same.
For me it was a delightful and very nostalgic read.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org