A REVIEW OF BOM-CRIOULO BY ADOLFO CAMINHA
Bom-Crioulo by Brazilian novelist Adolfo Ferreira Caminha (1867-97) was published by D. de Magalhães in Rio de Janeiro in 1895. A translation from the Portuguese by E. A. Lacey was published as Bom-Crioulo: The Black Man and the Cabin Boy by Gay Sunshine Press in San Francisco in 1982 (141p).
A Storm in an Attic Dungeon
G. Wilson Knight says of Shakespeare’s poetry that it has “a turbulent power, a heave and swell, from deeps beyond verbal definition”. Bom-Crioulo’s author, Adolfo Caminha, weighs anchor in similar terrain with the plot and eponymous main character drawing inspiration from Othello. The tragedy of Bom-Crioulo, set on the high seas off the coast of Brazil, is powered by a purple-prose at times gloriously excessive but somehow never gratuitous. You don’t get hot days in this novel, rather you get
Torrential and triumphant, the rays of the two o’clock sun fell obliquely on the house, gilding the roof-tiles, dusting the windowpanes with shining yellow jewels. An unimaginable profusion of light!
It’s a prose style well-equipped to lead the great man Bom-Crioulo, tenderly, convincingly, horrifically, into steep-down gulfs of liquid fire.
Published in 1895, Bom-Crioulo crashed into Brazilian Naturalism like some monstrous Moby Dick of homosexuality, and was roundly denounced by critics as pornographic filth. With the death of its author, Adolfo Caminha, just two years later and aged only twenty-nine, the novel was allowed to sink like a stoven hull. But this lushly hypnotic novel continued to resurface, four editions in seventy years preceding its 1982 English translation by Gay Sunshine Press. At this moment, like some cleansed Botticellian lovely, it scudded to shore as a rediscovered foundational classic of world gay literature.
But even the gayest sunshine is prey to the shifting moods of mother culture. The critical storm clouds are regathering. In recent years academics have again begun denouncing Caminha’s masterpiece—now flipped to reveal its homophobia and racism. The grand tragic love affair at the centre of this novel features a thirty-year-old man and a fifteen-year-old boy. What originally was an abomination of depraved homosexuality becomes, according to Duke University’s Lamonte Aidoo (2018), an abomination of grooming, manipulation and coercion of a minor. So, although a little tardy, academe is proud to announce: memo received and actioned. Dive, Bom-Crioulo, dive!
The current slander being thrown at this fascinating, compelling, original novel isn’t without instruction. It at least highlights the breezy disingenuousness of the attempt to claim Bom-Crioulo as an early gay classic. That required too much eliding and airbrushing to be tenable. A more accurate interpretation might see the book as a misfit, late-in-the-day Greek love classic, one that celebrates, explores, and mourns boy-love’s traditional, soon to be annihilated essence.
“Bom-Crioulo” translates as “The Good Nigger”, the nickname given by admiring shipmates to the escaped slave Amaro. As he appears at the opening of our story, he is one of the most attractive, magnificent, larger-than-life specimens of manhood to be found in literature. With his tragic descent into green-eyed-monster rage and murder, the novel bears obvious comparison with Othello, but the man’s character is more suggestive of a young King Lear. He is “a tall, robust giant of a black man, a colossal, savage figure, defying, with his formidable set of muscles, the diseased softness and weakness of a whole decadent, enervated generation.” And the colossal physique is matched by an equally over-sized passionate nature, seems in harmony with it, even a consequence of it.
At eighteen years of age, after fleeing a slave-plantation, Bom-Crioulo succeeds in eluding the “troops of horsemen” who “chased the errant slave like a wild animal.” When it comes to matters natural, Bom-Crioulo is quite literally a super-man. Upon reaching a river crowded with naval vessels, instantly recognised as his vocation, he “trembled with emotion”, “freedom poured in on him”, “he really felt like crying, crying openly, frankly, before all the other men, as though he were going crazy.” And soon “this freedom widened still further in his eyes, it grew disproportionately in his imagination, making him tremble, as though he were hallucinating, opening rose-coloured horizons, wide and unknown, in his soul.” Caminha’s novel may have some of the trappings of Naturalism but, in E. A. Lacey’s English translation, the poetic prose pours forth a rich profusion from some deep Romantic chasm.
Like all good tragic figures, what makes Bom-Crioulo great also contains the seeds of his destruction. Trying to fit this force-of-nature of a man into a prescribed social role was always going to be a square-peg affair. At first, though, he easily wins the admiration and friendship of his shipmates. Promoted to a new ship, he awed the hardened crew:
...the first time they saw him naked...there was an uproar! That great body seemed absolutely boneless—the broad, hard chest, the arms, the stomach, the hips, the legs, all made up a formidable set of muscles, giving an impression of almost superhuman strength, which worked its fascination on the other sailors, who stared, smiling and open-mouthed, at the black man. From then on, Bom-Crioulo began to be considered a “man to be watched”, exerting, as he did, a decisive influence on the spirit of the crew, who were simply obliged to recognise him as the strongest arm, the brawniest chest on board.
For twelve years Bom-Crioulo thrives, is in his element, “a vast, shining desert of ocean, always unfolding in an endless circle of water...There it was all around him, the highest expression of infinite freedom and absolute dominion.” This freedom, till thirty years of age, included a freedom from mere sexual attraction. He is surprised by his lack of interest in women, reflecting on a couple of dud drunken encounters, but he’s not overly concerned. Neither has he experienced any attraction to men or boys. He is aware of an officer or two who have same-sex attractions, and he finds it a bit odd, but nothing more. Bom-Crioulo is hermaphroditically self-contained, a force of nature unto himself. Like a maturing hurricane, he finds his wildly energetic but calm-eyed perfection of form out upon the open seas. where
Above, in the dome of the great half-sphere of the sky, ablaze with noonday light, the blue, always the clear blue, the pure blue, the sweet, transparent, infinite, mysterious blue.
But looks can deceive, especially in Nature. The clear blue skies harbour invisible energies. Sea-sucked vapours drawn by the blazing sun, restless rising thermals, awaiting only the right moment, a little seed to set in train condensation, coalescence, white cloud, black storm. Eventually, on the horizon of this thrumming infinitude, a pretty little cumulus of a boy appears: fifteen-year-old Aleixo, a new recruit, “the cabin-boy, the beautiful little blue-eyed sailor boy”. He has Billy Budd’s “welkin eyes”, and his beauty instantly enslaves Bom-Crioulo “with the binding force of a magnet”, having “shaken his very soul”. Mighty Bom-Crioulo with ease threw off the vicious institutional slavery imposed by the puling white man, but the manacles forged by the charms of a beautiful boy will prove beyond him.
Adolfo Caminha’s novel was published five years after Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. At the same moment, Herman Melville was writing Billy Budd. The fin de siecle in fact produced a cluster of major works musing upon the beautiful boy. One could add for good measure Henry James’s short story “The Pupil” (1891), J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), and, as a fitting apotheosis, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice (1912). Amidst this heaven-tending knapsack of sublimations and philosophic abstractions, Caminha committed the unpardonable sin of drawing down the Ganymedic fire from heaven and placing it rudely back in its original state of nature. Two years after publication he died of tuberculosis. Raul de Sa Barbosa, in the 1982 introduction, says of Caminha:
Handicapped by poverty, by disease, by his own temperament, by hostility in his milieu, he led a hand-to-mouth existence, brightened only by his love for wife and daughters. Too young and daring to be accepted, too brilliant to be forgiven, he soon burned out...His genius had antagonized virtually everyone who mattered, and his work—polemical, provocative, misunderstood—fell into an abyss of silence.
Wilde and Melville placed their adolescent beauties in safely glazed twenty-year-old containers; James put his prepubescent boy in an inert smock of plainness, the better to allow the Master his preferred dandling and fondling of an overexposed psyche; Barrie’s boys were but fantastical glimmers in a peculiarly smothering but numinous cloud of mother-love; and Thomas Mann’s Tadzio won a final, sublime, insane victory for Plato’s fascistic white horse. For in the modern era the real beautiful boy, the actual living and breathing lad himself, lies many fathoms buried, under art, law, custom, fear—and woe to any upstart Ahab who dares penetrate the veil.
Like Billy Budd and Dorian Gray, blonde and blue-eyed Aleixo stands out for his “significant personal beauty”. The cabin-boy’s journey in Bom-Crioulo is partly a movement from the innocent simplicity of Billy-as-sailor to the cynical knowingness of Dorian-as-cosmopolite. Billy Budd never had to wash his own clothes or want for kindly advice. Similarly, Aleixo’s charismatic beauty and sweet nature make him very popular with shipmates: “He had everything he wanted, absolutely everything. He was a sort of little prince among the cabin-boys, the apple of the officers’ eyes.” By the end of the novel, he has become coolly cynical toward Bom-Crioulo, attracted by other adventures his beauty might afford.
But these are just the suits and trappings of our Greek love story. The first half of the novel presents a pederastic affair of classical proportions. The novel opens with a lurid description of three sailors being flogged for misdemeanours. First, two boys: Herculano, “a beardless adolescent”, is given twenty-five strokes for masturbating; the second boy, Sant’Ana, receives a similar punishment for having spied on Herculano’s “ugly and depressing but very human act.” This sorry spectacle of adolescent sexuality being met with phobic violence is followed by Bom-Crioulo’s turn. He receives one hundred and fifty strokes for having beaten up a sailor who had mistreated Aleixo. He takes his fearsome punishment without flinching, taking pride in both his actions and the deliberately offered gift of his bravery to the boy.
There is no art, premeditation or, god forbid, sublimation in uneducated Bom-Crioulo. Falling in love with Aleixo at first sight, he immediately
called the boy over, his voice full of tenderness, and asked his name.
“My name’s Aleixo, sir,” said the cabin-boy, lowering his eyes, new on the job and unsure of himself.
“Poor little fellow, his name’s Aleixo,” repeated Bom-Crioulo.
And immediately, without taking his eyes off the boy, he said, in the same soft, affectionate voice:
“Well, listen. I’m called Bom-Crioulo, don’t forget the name. If anybody bothers you or does anything to you, I’m here to defend you, understand?”
“Yessir,” said the little sailor, raising his eyes with an expression of gratitude.
“You don’t need to be bashful, not at all. I’m Bom-Crioulo, the prow topwatch. All you have to do is call on me.”
“On more thing,” the black man went on, taking the boy’s hand. “Be very careful with everything you do, so you won’t get punished, all right?”
The beginnings of this relationship would have done ancient Athens or Samurai Japan proud. Aleixo is gradually won over by Bom Crioulo’s attention:
[Aleixo] gradually became accustomed to those little kindnesses, to that warmhearted interest in him, which didn’t blink at sacrifices or balk at spending money on him. And, with time, he developed a definite soft spot in his heart for Bom-Crioulo; he was visibly beginning to feel a sincere, grateful affection for the sailor...
The idea that Bom-Crioulo had suffered physically for him made such an impression on the cabin-boy’s mind and heart that he now considered him a true, unselfish protector, a friend of the weak and oppressed.
The friendship continues to deepen and, a little incongruously, Bom-Crioulo starts to slack off in his work, starts to scorn his duties and the orders of officers. One might have thought this was a time for him to further excel in the manly arts he was helping his boy to learn. The eruption of sexual desire is probably key. Bom-Crioulo’s libido had till now been subsumed in his grand whole-hearted passion for life on the high seas. The business of cathexis was reordering his universe. He now poured his vast capacity for passion into an impressive, if improvised, structure of Greek love. Such a structure can stand a deal of passion but, existing in isolation and ill-understood, it was in fact a very precarious arrangement.
Caminha’s understanding of pederasty’s traditional nature is obvious. At a time when the third-sex activists were developing the first black-and-white rainbow view of homosexuality, Caminha seems stubbornly pre-Christian. The lead up to Bom-Crioulo finally bedding the boy is full of all the sweetness, humour, honour and lust that boy-love is heir to. Or, as Caminha more simply put it, Bom-Crioulo was soon “tormented by Greek carnality.” Not that Caminha is ever wont to leave us with a simple summary, mentioning also, among other riffs, that Bom-Crioulo would “feel that burning desire sting his flesh like the prick of a needle, like spines of wild nettle—a Tantalus-like thirst for forbidden pleasures that seemed to sear his nerves and his whole body, outside and inside.”
Bom-Crioulo’s wooing of Aleixos follows the formula to be found in Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, where he compares the Greek man’s pursuit of a boy to the Victorian gentleman’s pursuit of a blushing maiden:
At times he [Bom-Crioulo] tried to sound out the cabin-boy, seeking to win him over, to get him physically excited. But the boy would act hard-to-get, gently rejecting, like a young girl in love, certain overtures the black man made. “Stop that, Bom-Crioulo, and act serious for a change!”
In the midst of such a storm-tossed, sexually-charged melodrama, this Jane Austen sally is wickedly provocative. No blushing maiden is ever wholly innocent of their inadvertent prickings. Bom-Crioulo tries to lay down the law—this must be resolved! Only to retreat meekly when the boy demurs. But when Bom-Crioulo finally decides he must “do or die”, when “Priapus resolved to end the struggle”, the description of the boy’s acquiescence is psychologically astute and subtle:
A sensation of infinite well-being began to spread through his [Aleixo’s] whole body. He began to feel in his own blood impulses that he had never felt before, a sort of innate desire to give in to the black man’s wishes, to let himself go and let the other do whatever he wanted to—a vague relaxation of the nerves, a longing for passiveness.
“Go ahead!” he whispered quickly and rolled over.
And the crime against nature was consummated.
* * *
Adolfo Caminha was orphaned at the age of ten, and enrolled by his uncle in Rio de Janeiro’s Naval Academy at thirteen. A scandalous affair with a lieutenant’s wife when he was twenty-one saw him forced to choose between his career and the woman he loved. He resigned from the navy and spent the rest of his short, penniless life with this woman and her two daughters, apparently very much devoted. So Caminha obviously wasn’t groping in the dark when it came to earthquake-level affairs of the heart. His descriptions in Bom-Crioulo of the seafaring life are clearly informed by experience, and it’s fascinating to compare the novel’s pederastic details with the evidence presented in Barry Richard Burg’s Boys at Sea (2007). Burg combed the British navy’s courts martial records, from 1700 to 1850, to give our only available glimpse of the inevitable homosexual activity occurring in a completely segregated all-male environment. Caminha’s novel is set some time before emancipation in 1888, as was his own experience, so some similarities should be expected.
In fact, at every point of Bom-Crioulo and Aleixo’s on-board relationship, Burg’s book seems to offer validation. The overwhelming majority of sodomy trials recorded in British naval records were between men and boys. Technically, thirteen was the minimum age for a crew-member, although this wasn’t strictly adhered to, and at eighteen a boy was considered a man. Boys made up roughly 8 to 10% of any crew.
Officers, with their private cabins, were well placed to seduce boys without fear of discovery. Caminha in his novel refers often to rumours swirling about this or that officer, which was also the case in Burg’s findings. Crew members, on the other hand, always had the difficulty of finding privacy. It’s interesting that in the dozen or so instances of men caught having sex with men, they were all sailors, often drunk, and were discovered by a third party. Cases involving boys only came to light when a boy reported a man’s unwanted attentions, generally involving repeated pesterings and assaults up to and including rape. So while the law would punish severely any homosexual activity, and hang any man proven to have committed anal penetration (an obsessive focus of trials), it seems in practice more to have offered protection to boys from the brutes and cads who got exactly what they deserved. In the one case where a consensual man-boy relationship was exposed, the boy’s testimony denying pedication saved the man from a death sentence.
This ghostly limning of a good pederastic subculture is the one expressed in Bom-Crioulo. Conducted quietly and consensually, it seems to have been an option for men and boys serving on eighteenth and nineteenth century ships. From the start, Bom-Crioulo’s close friendship with Aleixo is certainly noticed:
Even the captain knew about his scandalous friendship with the lad. He feigned indifference, as though he weren’t aware of anything...
The officers gossiped about the affair in lowered voices and often laughed maliciously about it between sips of lemonade, in the gun room.
And Bom-Crioulo knew “he wouldn’t be the first person on board to set the example, if the boy were willing to go along with him.” He was engaging in behaviour which “various of his superior officers practised nearly every night right there on deck.” Whether Caminha himself was ever involved in this naval pederasty is not important: his descriptions have the ring of those backed by first-hand observation. And, as a born writer with Emile Zola as a hero, his observations would have been keen. Naturalism’s call to document difficult social realities seems well-served.
But at the same time that Bom-Crioulo embarks on his relationship with Aleixo, he has become fractious toward authority, so he knows he must be very careful. Of the captain mentioned above it is observed: “...you could see in his eyes a certain anticipatory gleam, as if he’d love to catch them in the act.” The potential use of homosexual accusations to pursue private vendettas and political objectives are clearly evident in Burg’s court martial records. It explains Bom-Crioulo’s initial warning to the naive lad, to “be very careful with everything you do, so you won’t get punished.” What’s interesting is how seriously the judges took this possibility of blackmail and corruption—in comparison, say, to today.
All this gives the build-up to the novel’s consummation scene a somewhat haunted quality. After a storm—Bom-Crioulo’s avatar—throws the ship’s normal routine into chaos, night falls, men sleep wither they can, and Bom-Crioulo, “stealing cat-like away” makes his way to Alexio’s berth on the lower deck. It is a Dantean journey through a mass of tormented, slumbering manhood:
There was a sickening prison smell that you breathed everywhere, the acrid odour of human sweat mingled with tar. Black men, open-mouthed, snored heavily, their bodies twisting in the unconscious movements of sleep. Nude bodies could be seen, clutching the deck, in indecent postures which moonlight cruelly spotlighted. Now and then a sleeper’s voice muttered unintelligible statements. A sailor got up from among his fellows, totally naked, his eyes bulging, terrifying in aspect, screaming that they were going to kill him. It turned out that the poor devil was merely having a nightmare. Silence returned.
The miracle is that upon this Raft of the Medusa Bom-Crioulo, acting purely on instinct, could construct such a bright little Greek temple. But that’s exactly what he did. The consummation scene takes place just as the ship is arriving at Rio de Janeiro. Bom-Crioulo immediately sets himself and Aleixo up in a little attic room and for a full year the two enjoy a fine relationship. The boy’s “soul was bathed in the perpetual cheerfulness of those lucky people who don’t have a care in the world.” In the attic he “led the life of a prince!” He and Bom-Crioulo would “tumble about as they pleased on the old canvas bed” and were otherwise “free and independent, laughing and chatting at ease.”
For his part, Bom-Crioulo finds true happiness in this year of attic bliss. His performance at work improves, he develops “a profound peace of mind”. He enjoys the sight of Aleixo “blossoming” like “some rare flower”, and his love becomes “no longer a burning, lascivious relationship” but “a calm sentiment, a mutual affection.” But, ominously, as we near the end of this happy year, Bom-Crioulo’s world is said to rest on “the conviction that Aleixo would not be untrue to him”. Has ever an author rung such a clanging death knell? Dive, Bom-Crioulo, dive!
We are here approaching the midpoint of the story, the Parnassian height from which a major turning-point will set in train the long gruelling drive down to death and destruction. There are hints in paradise; there always are. Bom-Crioulo’s passions were titanic from the get-go, almost begging for an iceberg. A love as big as the Atlantic Ocean will always be prey to storms and tsunamis... Then must you speak of one who loved not wisely, but too well. Hints of a potential for jealousy, particularly early on, are certainly there. But I believe the essential flaw is not to be found in Bom-Crioulo’s character, but in his isolated ignorance. This is the quality which becomes painfully exacerbated in the second half. And by ignorance I don’t refer to his lack of a conventional education, but the ignorance which arises from the lack of a pederastic culture in which to situate his affair. While shipboard assignations between men and boys are common enough, a cultural structure for such relationships, outside of a need for total secrecy, is wholly absent.
Bom-Crioulo is built for adventure, not introspection. He is startled by his sudden soul-shaking love for Aleixo, but rationalises it in fragmented reflections that only sow further confusion. On the one hand he marvels at how he is “dominated by the desire to unite himself to the sailor-boy as though he were of the opposite sex”. He is set on fire by the boy’s difference. Aleixo is sweet, fair, little, girlishly modest—all these qualities are a constant goad and a stark antithesis to our big black he-man. At one point Bom-Crioulo rather overheatedly muses
With breasts, Aleixo would be a real woman! What a marvellous neck, what delightful shoulders—it was enough to drive a man crazy! All the raging desire of the bull when he senses the presence of the female roared within the black man.
But at other times Bom-Crioulo is given to wondering: “How could anyone conceive of love...between two people of the same sex, between two men.” And a little later:
Now he understood clearly that only with a man, with a man like himself, could he find what in vain he had looked for with a woman.
This is modern gay thinking, filling the vacuum left by absented pederastic tradition. His lack of interest in women never troubled him before, while he was happily celibate. Now it has something of the modern gay-dread about it. Bom-Crioulo, disoriented by boy-love, is badly in need of a compass. The man-boy couple has reached land, but is becoming dangerously unmoored in their cosy attic bubble. It is this confused ignorance that will, Iago-like, lead Bom-Crioulo to his doom.
And the need for secrecy starts to have subtly poisonous effects. Once the relationship moves into the privacy of the onshore attic, Bom-Crioulo wants only “a little room under the eaves, Aleixo and...nothing more!” His relationship starts to give him “a sort of solitary spiritual joy—a certain love for the obscure life”. He’s seceding from the manly life of action that had given him joy, meaning, identity. This is a dangerous swerve from the essence of Greek love. On board the ship, man inducting boy into adult life, publicly dedicated acts of honour, kindness and bravery—this is where the relationship began and where it should have flourished.
The very first night in the attic is host to a curious ritual moment. Bom-Crioulo insists Aleixo strip naked before him, “he wanted to see his body”. Although very embarrassed, quite resistant, Aleixo finally complies. It’s dark, only “a pale, dying light, from the wick of a tallow candle.” And “Bom-Crioulo was in ecstasy!”
His whole being was shaken, tarrying over that sensual nudity in pagan idolatry like a worshipper before a gold ikon or an artist in the presence of a masterpiece...he felt himself dominated by an almost blind respect for the cabin-boy, who, in his eyes, the eyes of a mere crude sailor, attained the proportions of a supernatural being.
This intensely religious moment fuses the public cult of ancient Greek kouroi sculpture with The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Sequestration is toxic to the beautiful boy and all who worship him. The locked attic is where Dorian-as-icon turns sour, ugly, evil. Caminha directly references Wilde with his “presence of a masterpiece”. Aleixo further echoes Wilde’s protagonist when he later coolly and cynically drops Bom-Crioulo. It turns out the soul of Aleixo’s divine beauty has lodged not in an external art object but in Bom-Crioulo’s overheated imagination, where it undergoes a similar claustrophobic decay. By novel’s end, lying in hospital thinking of nothing but the absent boy, the former Herculean giant has become weak and wasted, afflicted with “a kind of contagious leprosy”, a “mange”, a “horrid itching of his skin”, while “sores broke out all over his body.”
The dark, closed attic scene also has the sombre tone of an Eleusinian Mystery, where the goal is secret communion with female life forces, the cycle of death and rebirth. We’ve already been told that the previous attic occupant was a man who died of yellow fever, a viral disease whose symptoms—fever, chills, fatigue, loss of appetite—read like a grinning parody of love. It’s directly after this scene that Bom-Crioulo finds he’s losing weight and strength. Critics explain this via the then-popular theory that a man loses vitality with each ejaculation. It doesn’t wash. Throughout the second half of the novel, when Bom-Crioulo is separated from Aleixo and again celibate, his health continues to decline. What ails the big man is to be found in the roots of existence, not a little spilt seed.
Thomas Mann’s Aschenbach, intellectually severed from mere ordinary life, died in a cholera-choked ecstasy of too-intense boy-worship. Mother Nature in the guise of a mephitic fever, surged back in to reassert the brute blood-and-bone realities that the worshiped boy, for the briefest maddest moments, seemed to offer escape from. Bom-Crioulo’s instincts were more ancient Greek than modern European. But, led astray into a bower of bliss, cut off from the palaestra and the battlefield, the hero was rendered incapable of combating the fever of love. His hermaphroditic self-containment, formerly his strength and glory, bifurcates and turns nightmarish Blakean Mental Traveller.
Right before the pivotal midpoint, Caminha gives us a throwaway joke. The landlady Carolina, a good friend to the pair, says, “You two are going to end up having children." No reaction is reported but, coming as it does just before the fatal plot-twist, it has a chilling echo. Two thousand years before, Aristotle reported that a “plot was laid against Periander the tyrant in Ambracia because when drinking with his favorite he asked him if he was yet with child by him” (Politics 1331).
A Greek love relationship was in no way meant to be some kinky substitute for the heterosexual. The paradox of a boy giving himself to a man as part of his journey to manhood is one that requires some skilful charioteering. Its successful implementation is problematic, perhaps impossible, without cultural reinforcement. The bottom line was: a boy’s budding masculinity had to be respected, preferably nurtured and encouraged—and if it wasn’t, look out. Only a few sentences after Carolina’s joke, Bom-Crioulo learns he is to be transferred to another ship. It is in effect a death blow. After one last hug goodbye, the plot is laid and he never sees the boy again.
The second half of the novel kicks off with Bom-Crioulo unable to get shore leave and Aleixo reflecting that “he really didn’t miss the black man that much.” He thinks he might do better, “meet some wealthy man, someone who was somebody.” Mainly “he was bored, really bored with it all; he needed to change his whole way of life.”
It’s a little startling, doesn’t quite gel with his former thoughts and actions, but the fickleness of adolescent boys is not unknown to boy-love lore. It is their right, licenced by the divinity of beauty. Bom-Crioulo thought he had wooed sweet, simple Billy Budd. Turned out the attic was harbouring another Dorian Gray. Not that Aleixo has any of Dorian’s philosophically fluffed desire for wickedness. The description which fits him best: “his life flowed along smoothly, like a light pleasure-craft blown by favourable winds.” Which is all very well, unless one’s craft wafts one into the path of a hurricane.
Aleixo has the sense that Bom-Crioulo’s overwhelming passion will hold him back, trap him in boyhood. It’s not unjustified. Bom-Crioulo wants nothing in life but to love Aleixo, to forever be with Aleixo. He doesn’t seem to have pondered what their relationship might look like in, say, ten years’ time, the boy become a twenty five-year-old man. One of the advantages of the pederastic relationship is the organic, body-based evolution from dizzy erotic love to affectionate non-sexual friendship. Heterosexual romance ties itself up in fraught, frayed knots trying to negotiate this natural process. Men and boys are gifted it as a bitter-sweet but irreducible fact of biology. Bom-Crioulo, unfortunately, has only the strength of his currently felt passion to guide him, a recipe for shipwreck if ever there was one.
As it becomes obvious to Bom-Crioulo that Aleixo is avoiding him, not answering his notes, his jealous rage becomes poisonous. Othello, in his madness, was deluded about Desdemona’s fidelity. Bom-Crioulo, isolated in hospital, in steep mental and physical decline, becomes deluded about gender. Murdering an unfaithful partner belongs to heterosexual tragedy, a fact founded on biology. The unfaithful woman is imperilling her male partner’s germline, in effect murdering his offspring, cutting short his shot at immortality. The evolutionary impetus toward male fury in this area is well mapped. Boysexuals faced with the casual spurning of a fickle boy have historically tended more toward poetry. Laid up in bed, gnashing and stewing, Bom-Crioulo needed some down time with gentle Anacreon:
Boy with a maiden’s glance
I seek you out, but you hear not,
Unknowing that you are the charioteer
Of my soul.
Or the therapeutic grumpiness of Theognis:
Boy and horse, a similar brain: the horse
Doesn’t cry when its rider lies in the dust;
No, it takes on the next man, once it’s sated with seed.
Same with a boy: whoever’s there he loves.
Bom-Crioulo was creating a singular tragedy out of the oldest boy-love peccadillo in the book. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is not quite accurate. Cultural forms—customs, arts, prejudices, laws—contain the lessons of history. Bom-Crioulo going down Othello’s path is playing out the wrong script, the right one having been discarded.
Theognis’s “whoever’s there”, in Aleixo’s case, turned out to be the landlady, Carolina. The sexual relationship that develops between the two is in part a testament to Bom-Crioulo’s success as the boy’s lover. It would be preposterous to imagine Aleixo, at the start of the novel, having the wherewithal to conduct a successful sexual relationship with this lusty middle-aged woman. Now there’s no stopping him. In little over a year he’s matured remarkably. Early on, Bom-Crioulo revelled in Aleixo’s development, watched him “with the pride of a teacher watching a pupil’s development”. So it’s tragic to see the deluded man come to believe his future rested on getting back his original sweet cabin-boy. Socrates believed evil was a form of ignorance and in ailing Bom-Crioulo’s case the want of some ancient wisdom was sore indeed.
My reading of Bom-Crioulo is supported by an important symbolic framing device. The novel opens with a description of the “corvette”, the vessel on which man and boy meet. The very first words:
The glorious old corvette, alas, was not even a memory of what she once had been, romantic and picturesque... Nothing remained of the splendid warlike appearance that had swelled people’s hearts with pride in the good old days when ships were ships and seamen were seamen...she was only the fantastic shadow of a warship.
Shadows upon shadows. The pederasty that had been commonplace on sailing ships in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was, at the time of our story, receding fast into the shadows. And this navel pederasty had itself been but a shadow of its glory days in ancient Greece. Only an extraordinary character like Bom-Crioulo could eschew the opportunistic secret assignation for a boldly improvised Greek love revival.
As mentioned, the death blow for Bom-Crioulo was his being transferred off the corvette, away from this last hold-out against the forces of progress. Fittingly, it came as an anonymous, arbitrary bureaucratic diktat. Bom-Crioulo raged against its inexplicable unfairness. Dispiritedly, impotently, he tried to see it as a mystery of providence: “God’s ways are not our ways! thought Bom-Crioulo.” No client rumination could please the modern State more.
And he is sent to serve on
a steel battleship, famous for its complicated machinery and its impressive artillery capacity: a superb blend of naval advantages, which made that ship one of the most powerful in the world.
Lo, the future has come in. Industrial might, that German specialty, also sees the rise Ulrichs and Hirschfeld, brave new activists of third-sex gay identity. It’s a medico-political movement which doubles down on pederasty’s marginalised state to create a new and separate homosexuality, one that can be gaily promoted as a fun, harmless, bright new prop in a sentimental sitcom. Its role in buttressing normal procreative life involves a clinical severing and sterilising of pederasty’s former complementary role.
Securely locked up in this modern mechanised future, Bom-Crioulo sinks into deranged jealousy and despair. His hatred of authority escalates alarmingly. He continues to waste away because he is cut off from the pederastic life-blood that had throbbed so spontaneously to life in his generous veins. He gets in a drunken brawl, leading to his second set-piece flogging. This time it breaks him: sordid degradation replaces former pride and bravery. He goes to hospital; his body won’t repair.
The final, relentless, dogged steps toward murder take on a hypnotic quality. It’s like witnessing the unbearably drawn-out seconds preceding a car smash impossible to avert. And Bom-Crioulo, all the while, continues to hypnotise himself, swinging back and forth between paroxysms of hatred and “floating in a slow-moving rapture, in a tranquil ecstasy, reliving, chapter by chapter, the story of his love.” And it is jealousy that enables him to fully reinhabit his memories, these disastrous compulsions to regress, to ram his own vitality back on itself. He keeps returning to the candle-lit ritual of the first night in the attic, to
the erotomanic Bom-Crioulo of Misericordia Street, bowing in ecstasy before a nude adolescent, like some savage from Zanzibar before the sacred idol of an African cult.
The siren call of blood sacrifice is all that’s left in this dungeon full of poisonous vapours.
The final scene, Bom-Crioulo’s murder of Aleixo, is curiously flat, not even described—the opposite of Othello’s unbearably detailed strangling of Desdemona. Instead, as Bom-Crioulo grabs the boy out in the open street, the camera pulls back. We lose sight of the man and boy as a crowd of onlookers gathers and obscures the pair. We are, in fact, forced to become part of the gaping crowd, jostling and craning to try and work out what’s going on. We hear cries of “Fight! Fight!” We hear rumours circulate: “tales of murder, of blood, of someone’s head having been smashed in.” We see Carolina looking down from a second-floor balcony and shrieking. When Aleixo’s body is finally carried from the buzzing crowd we see his clothing is blood-soaked, and his “complexion was purplish”. It suggests Bom-Crioulo simply beat him to death. A more horrific desecration is hard to imagine. Caminha’s purple Word has taken on an appalling incarnation. Then again, the dead Aleixo’s “neck was completely swaddled in cloth”, suggesting his throat was cut. As Bom-Crioulo is led away by armed guards, one can be sure we won’t ever see or hear from him again. Having become his own Iago, from this time forth he never will speak word. All that’s left him is a deserved life-sentence of confinement and torture.
Caminha completes his arraignment of the reader as rubber-necker with his penultimate observation: “everyone wanted to see the body, to analyse the scar, to stick his nose in the wound.” Well, fair cop, I guess, but this shrill bit of social criticism sits very oddly with the rest of the book. My first reaction on reading this was: Who cares? At the moment of maximum horror, the brute regression to pagan ritual sacrifice, did Caminha’s nerve fail him? The ritual slayings of Billy Budd and Dorian Gray were lovingly detailed. There seems to be something nervous and evasive in this ending. But it matters not, the scene is still heavy with profound truths.
Firstly, mythological. In the beginning was Bom-Crioulo. “Coming from God knows where”, he was alone, self-sufficient, magnificent. Grown men gaped in awe. His taking on a manly sailor’s role worked a treat at first, as did his boysexual relationship with Aleixo. But, having been waylaid into an underground cult of his own deluded devising, a severe crisis of identity ensued. He was becoming more attuned to the chthonian rumblings of hidden female mysteries. Aleixo’s slaying, I would contend, sees Bom-Crioulo merge with Cybele, the double-sexed Great Mother who slays her son-lover to perpetuate the great round of death and rebirth. His only way forward was back, way back to earliest pagan ritual.
At a social level the final scene is most striking for its public setting. The carefully hidden pederastic affair is finally back in the open, with hundreds of eyewitnesses. Pederasty is returned, albeit savagely and satirically, to its open-air Greek origins where visibility was a virtue. Free-standing beauty on a pedestal, neophyte in the palaestra, acolyte in the Stoa, raw recruit on the battlefield—the boy at civilisation’s dawn inspired greatness of heart and mind via his divine visibility. Ancient Athens was, at its burning core, adolescent; and it’s never been bettered. Two thousand years on, progress in the ascendant, the beautiful boy is dragged from a musty attic and thrown to the mob as mutilated corpse.
Bom-Crioulo contained multitudes. He moved heroically from nature to culture. And he fell. His social manifestation, driven by complex demons, slayed the beautiful boy as free-standing autonomous agent. He didn’t just kill the boy he loved, he killed the thing itself. At the end of the tale all that lingers is the brooding menace of Bom-Crioulo, an alienated, emasculated ruin. Today, from the happiest gay camper to the dourest conservative, we have found unifying worship in this fallen, bastardised Bom-Crioulo. Mind-diseased, mute with inexplicable hatred, he has become a terrifying idol for a godless people, a crushing newfangled Cybele for a timid technocratic age.
Reviewed by Sam Hall for this website, 7 January 2022
If you would like to leave a comment on this webpage, please e-mail it to firstname.lastname@example.org, mentioning either the title or the url of the page so that the editor can add it. You could also indicate the name by which you wish to be known.
This website is getting richer every day, it seems. Bravo.