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from the July 2016 issue

Brazil Beyond Rio

Any attempt to introduce Brazil in a single essay is fraught from the outset. The country is, much like the United States, a continental nation, the site of European discovery tales to rival our own, and host to a series of political upheavals. It is also home to a literary history that has at times looked outward for inspiration, and at others inward to construct, via literature, an idea of nationhood that has often seemed elusive.

Perhaps a solution presents itself in an idea every bit as unwieldy, which is to talk not of Brazil, but Brazils. After all, when Carlos Drummond de Andrade, Brazil’s greatest poet, wrote “I once traveled imaginary countries,” he could very well have been speaking about his own. Nowhere does Benedict Anderson’s idea of imagined communities seem more applicable, as Brazil’s literary and cultural history is riddled with negotiations over what Brazil is and what it is not. Who belongs and who is left out.

In the twentieth century, Brazil’s cultural history was largely one of the centers, historically Rio and more recently São Paulo, gradually acknowledging the rich cultural production of writers and artists who hail from the most remote corners of its territory or who languished unrecognized in the plain daylight of these city centers. The negotiations often took place along racial and class lines.

But let’s return to the literary context. The Brazilian Modernist movement led by Mário and Oswald de Andrade in the 1920s, with its organizing principle of anthropophagy, represented the first concerted effort among Brazil’s writers to construct a literature that represented Brazilian reality and a Brazilian aesthetic. (Fifteen years later, Mário de Andrade would lead an expedition that traveled the country recording various musical and folk traditions that were unknown to most Brazilians, Alan Lomax-style.) The process continued beyond the Modernists, aos trancos e barrancos—in fits and starts. From the 1930s onward, successive generations of writers would produce what came to be known as the romance regionalista: from José Lins do Rego to Guimarães Rosa, to Érico Veríssimo and Lúcio Cardoso, an excerpt from whose Chronicle of a Murdered House appears in this issue. These writers set out to rediscover and to portray the diverse Brazils, often focusing on the rural, to explain the country to itself. This tendency would later give way to more universal works by the likes of Clarice Lispector, Lygia Fagundes Telles, Rubem Fonseca, and others. The Cardoso work excerpted here is just one example of the turn taken by one writer from the romance regionalista to more introspective, and hence universal, works. Nowhere here will you find writers expressing the regionalist concerns of the early to mid-twentieth century. Even Guimarães Rosa’s Grande Sertão:Veredas lays some claim to universality, and the contemporary writers here, even when describing places and people from the region from which they come, are no longer burdened with the responsibility to explain or to create an identity for those places.

This issue of Words without Borders seeks to reconcile these ideas, at once acknowledging the various Brazils while extolling the universality of the writing that comes from each.

Whatever we may think of the Olympics, the games are, in the best of circumstances, a chance for countries to get to know each other. Despite the country’s prevailing reputation for its beaches, for the “marvelous city” of Rio de Janeiro, there is a Brazil, of varied landscapes, that produces a vibrant literature capable of defying any representations of a monochromatic country. This issue aspires to contribute to a broader, more inclusive view of the world’s fifth-largest country by bringing together literary perspectives from the other Brazils and from abroad to shed light on the countries within this country that will often be overshadowed during the August games.

The three contributions by non-Brazilian writers here, through the lens of the outsider, provide new perspectives on Brazil’s northeast and Amazon regions and examine familiar subjects with new eyes. Artur Domosławki, winner of Poland’s prestigious Journalist of the Year Award, brings us a harrowing piece of reportage from Brazil’s Amazon region in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, a chronicle of deaths foretold and the aftermath of the murder of environmental activists in that region. French writer and translator from the Portuguese Hubert Tézenas spins a tale of forced confessions and the murder of rural labor organizers in the northern state of Pernambuco, in a translation by Allison M. Charette. And American writer Naomi Jackson, traveling to the Bahia in Brazil’s northeast, reflects on blackness in Brazil and the pleasure of the soft thud of Brazilian Portuguese rolling off baiano tongues.

The Brazilian writers here stretch back to the mid-century novelists Lúcio Cardoso and João Guimarães Rosa, and extend forward to late twentieth-century writer Caio Fernando Abreu and two contemporary writers: Prêmio São Paulo-winner Ronaldo Correia de Brito and Prêmio Clarice Lispector winner Carlos Henrique Schroeder. Our poetry feature includes work by Prêmio Jabuti-winner Edival Lourenço and two Portugal Telecom Prize finalists, Micheliny Verunschk and Angélica Freitas. All told, these writers represent seven states from North to South.

João Guimarães Rosa, a prodigious writer often considered the greatest Brazilian writer after Machado de Assis, appears here with an excerpt from his masterpiece Grande Sertão: Veredas (Bedeviled in the Badlands). Renowned for its Joycean invention, Rosa’s great portrait of central Brazil, translated in the 1960s and long out of print, is given new life in a brilliant translation from Alison Entrekin. An excerpt from Lúcio Cardoso’s tale of the dissolution of a patriarchal family examines the social dynamics of mid-century Minas Gerais and the pharmaceutical solution to unwanted visitors, in a translation by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson.

Caio Fernando Abreu of the southern state of Paraná comes to us in a translation by Bruna Dantas Lobato. Abreu, who died in 1996 at the age of forty-eight, brings us a tale of a man in search of his mother’s acceptance as he contemplates certain death. In the process, he pays homage to Ana Cristina Cesar, the marginal poet of the 1970s who is being honored posthumously at this year’s Festa Literária Internacional in Paraty.

Contemporary writers Ronaldo Correia de Brito and Carlos Henrique Schroeder capture lost childhood through the lens of tradition and the earphones of a broken Walkman. In his short story “Lua,” Ronaldo Correia de Brito, who hails from the northeastern state of Ceará, follows a film director in search of songs from professional funeral mourners from his youth. Along the way, he converses with Latin American writers such as Juan Rulfo, in a translation by Daniel Hahn. Capturing youth from another angle, Zoë Perry’s translation of Carlos Henrique Schroeder’s “The Time Left” introduces us to Marcelinho, a young kid who knows all too well the perils of living alongside BR-101, a Route 66-like highway that crosses Brazil from the North to the southern state of Santa Catarina where the story takes place.

Our poetry feature, “Brazil in Verse,” is likewise home to regional and thematic diversity, from Edival Lourenço of Goiás, in Brazil’s midwest, to Micheliny Verunschk of the northeast state of Pernambuco and Angélica Freitas from Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. Lourenço pays homage to the important twentieth-century poet Ferreira Gullar, Verunschk’s speaker contemplates existence from the edge of a coral reef, and the Best Translated Book Award-winning team of Angélica Freitas and Hilary Kaplan appear with a poem that transports readers to Ithaca and duty-free shops.

During the latter part of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first, the tireless efforts of many translators, including the late, great Gregory Rabassa, have brought attention to an increasing number of Brazilian writers. Rabassa’s translations introduced Machado de Assis, Jorge Amado, Osman Lins, and many others to English-language readers. Rabassa’s mentorship of a generation of translators ensured that the effort would not end with him. The translators in this issue represent some of the best working from Portuguese today, indefatigable heirs to Rabassa’s project. This issue would not be possible without the close collaboration of Mirna Queiroz, executive director of the São Paulo-based Revista Pessoa, who joined us in the curation of the Brazilian writers featured here.

The writers here distill diverse styles and concerns of Brazil beyond Rio, making a case for further recognition of the work from these territories and, at the same time, demonstrating the universality of Brazilian writing. It is our hope that their work might further the case for Brazilian literature to move from the margins of our literary culture to assume a more central place. And that one day we might speak of Brazilian writers the way we speak of Proust or Kafka—with the familiarity with which we speak of our own. 


© 2016 by Eric M. B. Becker. All rights reserved.

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