Child of the Dark
by Carolina Maria de Jesus (1960)
Despite what Robert Levine tries to argue in the afterword, this book is primarily important as a historical document, not as a piece of literature. What’s remarkable is who wrote it — a black, slum-dwelling woman — and not how she wrote it. In other words, what impresses is not the skill with which it was written, but that it was ever written at all.
Carolina Maria de Jesus was a singular woman; only such a woman could have possessed the determination and audacity (and yes, the arrogance) to continue her passion amidst such deprivation and squalor. We are fortunate that she did, so that we have a better idea of favela life, but reading it still feels somehow voyeuristic, especially given that nothing ever improved as a result of her efforts.
She’s not exactly likable either, and it’s a strange conundrum as a moral reader — for writing such a record in these conditions requires a person to truly believe themselves superior to their surroundings, but that sense of superiority is not only off-putting but at times unjustified, given her behavior with her children, lovers and neighbors. It does drive home the corrupting influence of the favela upon all its inhabitants, but it’s also important to realize that our narrator is virtually as unreliable as all of her condemned neighbors.
It also raises an interesting moral question, because in these circumstances of slum-dwelling we say that we want more of the people to behave like Carolina, to raise themselves out of it through an inner drive and self-discipline. But there’s also something contemptible about her attitude toward her fellowfavelados. She lacks almost any compassion for them and is constantly judging and insulting them. There’s a lack of any semblance of camaraderie.
There’s also the issue of her relative luck in being able to rise out of it. Being “discovered” by a journalist was about as likely as winning the lottery, so it’s hard to argue that her rigorous moral character was her salvation. What if it had never happened? She admits herself she probably would have died soon, would have maybe even turned to alcohol. Then she would have been no better than any of her neighbors, even while still looking down on them.
I guess the real point is the loathing that such squalor arouses, not just for those around you but also, eventually, for yourself. Such loathing precludes any solidarity with your neighbor and thus any way of raising each other out of misery. Of course that is a larger point of which Carolina was probably unaware, but that we can arrive at it through her writing is a further demonstration of this book’s importance.
It’s a quick read, if repetitive and eventually numbing, and I’m glad to have read it. I don’t know that I would necessarily recommend it to others — if you’re interested in an introduction to Brazilian slums, I think the movie “City of God” (Cidade de Deus) is a more compelling portrayal. Ultimately they’re probably good to experience in tandem, so that you can see where the favelas began and what they have since become.