Clothesline Literature; Stories Told on a Shoestring

Article excerpt

Clothesline literature

MOST of the small booklets orfolhetos, which constitute what is known as literature de cordel or "clothesline literature" are masterpieces of Brazilian popular art. Their format is small (11 x 15 centimetres) and they have between 8 and 16 or 32 and 48 pages. They are printed on ordinary paper, with pale-coloured jackets. The wood engravings forming the frontis-pieces illustrate the story inside. Folhetos have been produced since the end of the last century, originally in northeastern Brazil where they were sold at markets, cattle fairs, sugar mills and other centres of economic activity.

The folhetos have changed since thosedays. Now, some of their covers have photographs instead of engravings, and they have been influenced by modern reproduction techniques. However, today as in the past, the authors of the stories inside are poets. They write in four-, six- or ten-line stanzas, and rhyme is all-important. To get people to buy the booklets, the poet himself, or a bookseller, declaims just enough of the text to whet the curiosity of passers-by, so that only the purchasers will ever know how the story ends. The vendors often display their wares by attaching them to lengths of rope or string, like clothes hung out to dry, whence the name literatura de cordel by which they are known in Brazil.

The subject-matter varies enormously,ranging from accounts of political events to epics containing echoes of the Chanson de Roland, the Roman de la Rose or the Roman de Renart or, more topically, of the visit of Pope John Paul II to Brazil or a trip to the moon. The ideas behind them are often conventional: the established order is respected, good always triumphs and punishment is meted out to wrong-doers. The authors, publishers and retailers of the folhetos are simple folk who would never dream of breaking rules. However, the texts are not entirely of their own choosing and, as we shall see, some have tried--and still do--to infiltrate a message into the folhetos. This is because the folhetos have such a wide following that they attract greedy eyes. To take one example, some 3 million copies have been printed of the hundred-odd folhetos about Padre Cicero, a village "miracle-worker".

Although individual authors sometimesprint and market their own work with the help of their wives and children, specialized folheto publishers (folheterias) have existed for many years. …