Há novos muros de Berlim, novas cortinas de ferro, novas barreiras, ódios velhos renovados. Os famintos e perseguidos batem à porta dos prósperos — prósperos estes muitas vezes às custas dos que exploraram tanto tempo — e as portas se fecham. O diferente é visto com desconfiança ou desprezo. (…) A diversidade é a glória do homem, mas a rejeitamos pelo desejo de uma uniformidade castradora e falsamente segura. Foram quinze meses em Berlim. Storkwinkel 12, Halensee, pertinho da Rathenauplatz. Foi muito bom: temeremos menos, compreenderemos mais e, se Deus for servido, amaremos mais.

— João Ubaldo Ribeiro, Um Brasileiro em Berlim

A couple of weeks ago I was browsing bookshops in Heidelberg in search of a Portuguese-German book, partly in the hopes that it could serve as material for an in-class presentation due January 11th, but mostly because I just felt like it. I stumbled on this book by Brazilian author João Ubaldo Ribeiro about his stay in Berlin one year after the fall of the Wall. I was immediately intrigued as this slim paperback not only promised to give me some badly needed vocabulary practice, but also dealt with German-Brazilian relations head-on.

João Ubaldo Ribeiro had been granted a scholarship by the German Academic Exchange Service DAAD to live in the capital for 15 months from 1990 to 1991 and give the public an “inside look from an outsider’s perspective” via a monthly column at the German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. The book, first published in Portuguese in 1993, unites all the impressions he gathered during his stay — 16 crônicas total.


I don’t think I was consciously looking to disrupt my reading routine when purchasing this book, but either way, that’s what I was in for: Ribeiro’s inimitable wit made for some pretty light reading — unacademic, unpretentious fun. At the same time, however, I was astonished at the amount of subtext he managed to pack into his paragraphs. (Maybe “astonished” doesn’t really capture what I mean. Because most of the time I wasn’t going, “My oh my, there’s a surprising amount of cultural subtext in these structurally simple paragraphs” but rather “THIS IS SO CUTE AND FUNNY OMFG!”)

Um Brasileiro em Berlim, though modest in scope, abounds with carefully crafted accounts of culture shock, linguistic barriers, and subverted stereotypes, as you would expect from an exiled Brazilian like Ribeiro. His gift is that which all writers long for: he has a knack for noticing, describing, and weaving stories out of aspects of life which are usually taken for granted, “hidden in plain sight” as they say — from the Brazilian people’s troubled relationship to their ever-changing, ever-confusing national currency to minuscule gestures through which German retail workers reveal their stubborn inclination to law and order.

Reading this book was, brevity notwithstanding, a painstaking process for me, because after the second chapter or so I had begun to highlight particularly idiomatic words and phrases along with their German translations on the opposite page. This method, sensible though it was, slowed me down considerably, which was only exacerbated by the fact that I had judged a lot of the translations to be too context-specific and so additionally consulted my dictionary. (I’m coming to realize that this is probably a very German way to go about reading a foreign-language book.)

The realization that you can actually grasp jokes in a foreign language you’re monumentally bad at can be an important milestone to overcome some of the alienation you periodically feel as you stutter your way through a lesson. So I admit I might be overselling this book out of a personal affinity, a sense of restored faith. My appreciation for it is anything but “well-founded” — if by that you mean academically-minded. Regardless, as John Williams once said, “to read without joy is stupid”.

So what made this particular reading experience so joyful? For one, João Ubaldo Ribeiro, like any skilled writer, has perfected the art of the pars pro toto: he delivers the bigger picture by way of example; he gives you details, even if they only consist of imaginary conversations. He knows that in retrospect, those little things are what sticks. The moment I clicked with him was in the first chapter, when Ribeiro lectures his daughter upon arrival in Germany that, contrary to her impression, Brazil’s land mass is much bigger than Germany’s. But after she calls attention to the massive size of the airport, he promptly backpedals, admitting that yes, granted, this place is about  five Brazils big.

I also fondly remember Ribeiro’s musings about the plethora of possible meanings of amanhã, the Portuguese word for “tomorrow”: to him it is a matter of linguistic nuance that Brazilians can use this simple adverb to denote such diverse statements as “never”, “maybe”, “I’ll think about it”, “I don’t want to”, “maybe next year”, “let’s change the subject”, and in some exceptional cases, even “tomorrow”. Naturally, this produces fertile ground for misunderstandings, as many naive Germans, unattuned to the Brazilian spirit, will assume the literal meaning of the word on hearing their Brazilian friend make such a promise. Germans, in Ribeiro’s words, “entertain an excessive amount of certainties about this uncertain life, about as big a number as the exasperating amount of prepositions in their language.”


You can argue that Ribeiro didn’t add anything new to the discussion. That neither his frivolous nor his grave observations of the people around him amounted to challenges to the form. And I agree to an extent: this book isn’t visionary. It’s not trying to be. But when the authenticity of an author virtually bleeds through the pages of their book, could you justifiably call it anything but unique? Ribeiro is that kind of writer. He’s the kind of writer who illustrates the remoteness of his hometown by saying that if the apocalypse were to occur, he and the other residents of that rural village would only hear about it five days later. Ribeiro’s mission statement, if he had one, was to convey feelings instead of mere facts, story instead of history; and at that he brilliantly succeeded.

joaoubaldoribeiro
This is Ribeiro speaking at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2013, less than a year before his death. (Source: Ministério da Cultura)

During my presentation on Wednesday, my teacher remarked that it’s a shame we will never get to see what João Ubaldo Ribeiro’s take on Germany’s handling of the refugee crisis would have been. A hint at what he might have said can be found in the last chapter, which the excerpt at the top is taken from. In 1990, Ribeiro found himself among Germans who were still more divided than they seemed in the wake of the fall of the Iron Curtain. He talks about “new Berlin Walls”, “old hatred renewed”, and affirms that man will always be a wolf to man, once he has blinded himself to the humanity in the other.

As the editor of the first bilingual edition of the book comments in his introduction, the issues of identity that Ribeiro untangles in his crônicas don’t have an expiration date. I fear that’s because there really can be no “self” without an “other”, no German people without its alleged adversaries. Reading about burning refugee shelters and seeing xenophobes be elected into positions of power, I’ve found myself wondering why we so often fail to learn from history. Ribeiro is here to remind us: it’s because we’re still in the middle of it.

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