Arts, Culture & Media

Why Brazil Loves the Cordel

Cordel-Encantado.jpg

A scene from "Cordel Encantado" (Photo: cordelencantado.globo.com)

While soap opera fans in America lament the loss of "All My Children," telenovela fans in Brazil are also saying goodbye to a beloved–although much shorter lived–TV drama called "Cordel Encantado." In it, a family of European royalty goes into exile in northeastern Brazil, and their personal dramas play out against a backdrop of outlaws and magic and folk tales and cowboys.

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This backdrop is inspired by a hundred-year-old sort of Brazilian poetry called "Literatura de Cordel." Cordel stories are numerous and infinitely varied. One popular one goes, roughly, like this: Once upon a time, a young man fell helplessly in love with a very lovely young woman. The young woman was also very unavailable, because her father kept her stashed away at home under lock and key. But the boy wasn't easily deterred. He engages an engineer to craft a mechanical peacock, and uses the peacock to spring the young woman and carry her off to a distant land. They live happily ever after.

This story is set down in a poem called "O Pavão Misterioso," or "The Mysterious Peacock." It's is one of the best known examples of "Literatura de Cordel." Cordel descended from oral poetry native to the Iberian Peninsula, and took root in the backlands of northeastern Brazil.

In the late 19th century, as printing presses became more common in the region, these poems started to be printed in small books made of ragged paper. The books were ornamented with whimsical woodblock illustrations on their covers and sold at open-air market stalls, hung from pieces of cord for display. "Cordel" means "cord" or "string."

To entice buyers, poets and vendors would perform pieces of cordel stories for the market crowds. The poems have six-verse stanzas and usually follow a simple rhyme scheme. And their subject matter is broad. There are cordel that tell medieval legends, ones that have Jesus and Saint Peter walking through Brazilian villages, and ones about 9/11 and the Iraq War.

Many relate and comment on local and national news. Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva started writing cordels in the 1970s; at last count he had written somewhere around 300. I met him recently at a conference about cordel at the Library of Congress in DC.

To illustrate cordel's importance as a news source, he told me in Portuguese about the 1954 suicide of Brazilian president Getúlio Vargas. He said that, when papers with news of Vargas's suicide reached northeastern Brazil, people there insisted it couldn't be true. They said they would only believe it if they read about it in a cordel.

It took Candace Slater a while to understand the hold cordel had on people. Slater is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and wrote an authoritative book about cordel called "Stories on a String." She started researching cordels in the 1970s because she knew they had inspired so many of Brazil's major literary figures.

At first she was underwhelmed. "I couldn't quite understand what the big excitement was," Slater says. "All the stories seem sort of alike to me, and they seem sort of like fairy tales. I felt kind of guilty about this. But I felt I better find out why this was so important."

She found an answer in stories like "The Monstrous Kidnapping of Serginho." This one tells the true tale of the kidnapping and murder of a young boy in a sleepy town in northeastern Brazil. Cordel, Slater says, provides order and explanations for some of life's more gruesome realities.

"It's so important because it makes sense of the world," she says. "It's so important because it repeats in a language that people can understand and identify with. It gives reasons for the way things should be, and it makes wondrous, because it's poetry, things that otherwise would just be hard, cold, depressing prose."

Cordels have had an influence on Brazilian culture far beyond the thin pages of their chapbooks. Aside from inspiring some of those literary figures that got Candace Slater interested in cordels in the first place, they also have always had a close relationship with Brazilian music. Many cordel writers are also singers and songwriters, and many classic Brazilian songs draw on cordel stories. The contemporary group Cordel do Fogo Encantado reference the tradition in their name and in their lyrical songs.

And there is, of course, the just-finished telenovela with a very similar name–"Cordel Encantado." It's setting–a magical, imagined version of Brazil's northeastern backlands—is straight out of cordel.

There are more direct references to cordel in the telenovela too. In one scene from the show's final episode, crowds at a sumptuously lit open-air market gather around a circle of cordel poets, our friend Gonçalo Ferreira da Silva among them. The poets recite — in typical cordel meter and rhyme — a summary of some of the show's salient plot points. They finish, the crowd surrounding them cheers, and the camera pans off to a man and a woman whose relationship is at the heart of the drama.

Candace Slater thinks it makes sense that the world conjured in cordel still captures Brazil's imagination. She says that, as Brazil races forward as a major world power, cordel's picture of northeastern culture is appealing.

"It's a kind of culture that on one hand people are really happy is gone, in the sense of it was very unjust, it was very poor, it was deeply troubling in the sense of inequalities," Slater says. "But, it's not surprising that at a time of great change, and a certain anxiety about what will Brazil be as a world economic power, the whole idea of this magical kingdom in the far off backlands, where things supposedly haven't changed, is a lot more intriguing."

And, of course, the story of Brazil's rise to economic superpower is sure to be told, retold, and commented on in cordel verses for years to come.