Academic journal article Romance Notes

Lab Cannibals: Resistance and Contagion in Sonhos Tropicais

Academic journal article Romance Notes

Lab Cannibals: Resistance and Contagion in Sonhos Tropicais

Article excerpt

THE year is 1887. The precocious Brazilian medical student Oswaldo Cruz listens as his professor praises European achievements in microbiology. The lecturer pauses, takes a sip of Rio de Janeiro's drinking water, grimaces, then examines the cup against the light: "Esta com um gosto estranho esta agua. Aposto que se a examinarmos ao microscopio ... Melhor nao. Onde estava eu?" (20). This sardonic scene from Moacyr Scliar's Sonhos tropicais (1992) reflects the Belle Epoque Brazilian elite's view of their country as a pathogenic landscape barred from progress by its insalubrious environment. As a disciple of modern bioscience and director of public health policy, Oswaldo Cruz (1872-1917) would counter his compatriots' fatalism by focusing on elements of microbiology relating "closely to Brazilian problems," eventually developing a major medical research Institute that would evolve "self-referentially" rather than relying exclusively on European and North American paradigms (Stepan 122). In addition to representing resistance to Cruz's "European science," Sonhos tropicais presents a variant of the modernist cannibal motif by portraying Cruz's successful deglutination of foreign scientific influences via narratives of the protagonist's (and other scientists') deliberate consumption of infectious microorganisms. (1)

Critic Luis Fernando Valente has noted that Sonhos tropicais serves as a reminder that Oswaldo Cruz and the imported notions of modernity he represented were "out of place" in early twentieth century Brazil, functioning less as a vehicle of true social transformation than as a justification for maintaining the status quo (91). (2) Sonhos tropicais does indeed note certain authoritarian elements of Cruz's curriculum vitae. Addressing popular and upper class opposition to heroic medicine's potential for tyranny, Scliar's narrative presents a Foucauldian informed "critique of the tendency of reform to translate into surveillance and coercion" (Burgan 4). The readers of Scliar's novel will learn (or be reminded) that, along with fears of contagion, many Brazilians viewed Cruz's sometimes draconian public health measures as an encroachment on their civil liberties. O povo resented the paramilitary invasions of vaccinators and public health inspectors, while upper crust positivists echoed Auguste Comte's hostility to compulsory inoculation on the grounds that the practice was despotic.

Among Rio's poor and working class there was also a mistrust of mandatory vaccination based on the simple fear of introducing disease into one's body and more sophisticated doubts about the quality of the vaccine. As Scliar's vox populi puts it: "O tal negocio da vaccina e um horro!--E mesmo. Me diseru que os taes doto vao bota na gente sangue de rato podre!" (121). Scliar's novel includes the nationalist left's challenge to Cruz's initiatives, presenting socialist revolutionary Vicente Souza's assertion that the government was transforming "o povo em um viveiro de cobaias" (135). Sonhos tropicais also depicts opposition among certain sectors of the military and the bourgeoisie, where the specter of universal immunization aroused a different set of concerns, namely "fears of otherness and transgression" (Girard 22, 28).3 Here universal, government engineered contagion provoked an upper caste phobia of the erasure of social (and even species) distinctions and separations. Scliar's narrator presents prominent parliamentarian Barbosa Lima echoing Vicente Souza as the former condemns the injection of "pus jenneriano" as a wreckless experiment that would transform bourgeois Brazil's "imaculadas filhas," "ternos filhinhos" and "castas esposas" into experimental laboratory animals (124). (4)

In addition to recounting this historically-documented resistance to Cruz's public health campaign, Scliar adds the voice of the Brazilian folkloric character, Saci to the anti-Cruz chorus: "... Oswaldo. Nao temos a tua arrogacia. Nao nos consideramos, como tu, apostolos da ciencia" (168). …

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