Brazilian literature Part 2

I have now read twenty Brazilian novels in a row by twenty different authors. The oldest one was first published in 1902, the most recent in 2014. Six of the novels were by women. This is the seventh years in a row I have done this and I am not running out of countries. Indeed, I have a list of twenty-three countries for future years. Brazil, however, is the first of the countries that I have not visited. Of the future twenty-two countries, there are five I have not visited and I do not think I am likely to visit them any time soon.

The first two conclusions could apply to any of the previous six. The problem was not scrambling to find enough books but, rather, deciding which books to exclude. As my significant other frequently tells me, I have far too many books. Indeed, looking through what I did not read, I wonder why I did omit certain authors.

The second conclusion is that, like it or not, much of the world is in a mess, as regards the political situation, and Brazil is certainly no exception. This means that it is reflected in its literature. I did not consciously set out to read (or, indeed, to exclude) political books but there they were. The twenty I read had insurrections, a historical president as a character, regional problems, local problems, the influence of religion on politics, women’s issues, military dictatorship, communism, torture of political opponents, global warming, corruption, drugs, prisoners, contract killers and several references to Getúlio Vargas, the president who killed himself while in office. Indeed, one way or the other, politics crept into most of the books, even if it was not the main theme.

Humour was not a big theme. Indeed, only one of the novels – Roberto Drummond‘s Hilda Furacão (Hilda Hurricane) could be said to make much use of humour though Oswald de Andrade‘s highly experimental Serafim Ponte Grande (Seraphim Grosse Pointe) was certainly playful. That is not to say that humour did not appear in any of the others – it did – but was not a key feature.

What did appear was poverty. Brazil has a lot of poverty and while few of the books made any extensive use of the issue as theme, several did mention it. Indeed, the revolution in Euclides da Cunha‘s Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign) was inspired to a great extent by poverty. The slums of Rio and São Paulo did make more than one appearance.

Surprisingly, given that Brazil has a higher proportion of blacks than the United States, race played a relatively minor role. This may well because I read the wrong books or because Brazilian books talking about the black experience have not been much translated. Words Without Borders discussed the issue.

Not surprisingly, the majority of the novels were set in Brazil but four had substantial settings outside Brazil. When I did my Turkey marathon last year, Aslı Erdoğan‘s Kırmızı Pelerinli Kent (The City in Crimson Cloak) was interestingly enough set in Rio. She hated it. None of the Brazilian novels were set in Turkey but Moacyr Scliar‘s Os leopardos de Kafka (Kafka’s Leopards) was set partially in what is now Ukraine and also in Vienna, Nélida Piñon‘s A república dos sonhos (The Republic of Dreams) was set partially in Spain (specifically Galicia), Adriana Lisboa‘s Azul-corvo (Crow Blue) was set partially in the United States, Antônio Xerxenesky‘s F was set partially in Paris, partially in Cuba and partially in the United States, and Bernardo Carvalho‘s Mongólia [Mongolia] was set almost entirely in Mongolia, but did manage to capture violence and kidnapping in its short scene set in Brazil.

I am reluctant to pick a favourite, though I did very much enjoy Mongólia [Mongolia] and Os Sertões (Rebellion in the Backlands; later: Backlands: The Canudos Campaign). I certainly learned a lot more about Brazil though I have to admit reading these books did not inspire me to visit the country, given the violence, poverty, drugs and very hot weather. Perhaps reading books is the best way to travel these days, given all the various problems world-wide.

Antônio Xerxenesky: F

The latest addition to my website is Antônio Xerxenesky‘s F. It tells the story of Ana, a young Brazilian woman who travels to Los Angeles to meet her uncle, a former anti-Brazilian government guerrilla. He realises that she is a superb shot and has her trained with guerrillas in Cuba. She then becomes a contract killer. Much of the book concerns a specific assignment she has been given, namely to kill the very real film director and actor Orson Welles. Neither she nor we know why. What we do know is that she has been instructed to make his death look like an accident and to to kill him on 10 October 1985, which, not surprisingly, turns out to be the real date Welles died (allegedly of a heart attack). Inevitably, things are not as straightforward as they might seem. Sadly, this book is not available in English.

João Gilberto Noll: Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel)

The latest addition to my website is João Gilberto Noll‘s Hotel Atlântico (UK: Hotel Atlântico; US: Atlantic Hotel). Our nameless hero is seemingly a man whose identity is unclear and not just to us. He drifts around Brazil, apparently having no family or friends and no fixed abode. Indeed, he does not have any luggage. He has casual sex with three women and sees three dead bodies of women. He has no specific destination but just arbitrarily heads to the next place. He is nearly killed. His body is deteriorating. He takes on various identities, not wilfully but almost by accident. Several of the other characters are not what they seem and also seem to be drifting. It is all vague and about how we are losing the idea of who we are and where we are going.

Hilda Hilst: A obscena senhora D (The Obscene Madame D)

The latest addition to my website is Hilda Hilst‘s A obscena senhora D (The Obscene Madame D). Our narrator is Hillé,a sixty year old Brazilian woman. Her husband, Ehud, has died and she has now become even more reclusive than she was when he was alive. Ehud was always interested in sex and a normal life, while she was more concerned with metaphysical speculation on life, death, God and her body. Much of her discussion is with Ehud, even after his death. The locals try to comfort her after Ehud’s death but she rejects them, keeping the blinds down and hiding out in her cupboard under the stairs. There are a lot of questions but few answers.

Ignácio de Loyola Brandão: Não verás país nenhum (And Still the Earth)

The latest addition to my website is Ignácio de Loyola Brandão‘s Não verás país nenhum (And Still the Earth). This is the classic Brazilian dystopian novel, published in 1981 (when the military junta was in power) and referencing both the then current situation in Brazil as well as the elements we are now more concerned about such as climate change, global warming, species extinction, desertification, drought and serious levels of pollution. Overpopulation, corruption, rich vs poor, arbitrary power, high levels of crime and lots of random violence are also an issue. We follow the story of Souza ,a former history professor who lost his job and who simply tries to survive, while wondering what is going on, with everything getting worse by the day, both in São Paulo, where this novel is set, and in his own life.

Oswald de Andrade: Serafim Ponte Grande (Seraphim Grosse Pointe)

The latest addition to my website is Oswald de Andrade‘s Serafim Ponte Grande (Seraphim Grosse Pointe). This novel, published in 1933, is an avant-garde, absurdist work. De Andrade switches between various styles – courtroom drama, poetry, dialogue letters, journalism, even dictionary entries – as he tells, in fragments, the story of Seraphim Grosse Pointe, a civil servant, who seemingly kills his boss, his unhappy marriage, forced on him in a courtroom, and his travels to Paris and the Middle East. He has failed love affairs, inadvertently ends up in the Belgian Congo and declares that Christ was born in Bahia. It is all nonsensical, but witty, satirical and completely subversive of the traditional novel.

Moacyr Scliar: Os leopardos de Kafka (Kafka’s Leopards)

The latest addition to my website is Moacyr Scliar‘s Os leopardos de Kafka (Kafka’s Leopards). This is a clever fable, whose unlikely hero, known as Mousy, is a Jewish tailor. He was born near Odessa and, in 1916, is entrusted with a mission by his dying friend, on behalf of Trotsky, to obtain a coded message in Prague. The mission goes wrong but he does meet Franz Kafka and obtains one of his aphorisms, which may or may not be a coded message. After the Russian Revolution, the family emigrate to Brazil and the Kafka aphorism turns up again, this time when Mousy’s great-nephew is arrested by the Brazilian police. It is very cleverly and wittily done, particularly with the Kafka aphorism twice being mistaken for a coded message.

Lygia Fagundes Telles: As Meninas (The Girl in the Photograph)

The latest addition to my website is Lygia Fagundes TellesAs Meninas (The Girl in the Photograph). This novel was set in the late 1960s and published in 1973, during the period of the military dictatorship in Brazil. It tells the story of three young women – Ana Clara, Lorena and Lião – who are studying at university and living in a hostel together, run by (fairly liberated) Catholic nuns. We follow the stories of the three women (not one as the title implies)and their relationships. Lorena comes from a rich family but she is the only one of the three who is still a virgin as she is obsessed with a married, much older doctor who does not seem to reciprocate her feelings. Ana Clara comes from a poor background but has been successful as a model but is now in a harmful relationship with a drug dealer, though engaged to an unattractive rich man. Lião is the revolutionary, her boyfriend is in jail and she is concerned that her group are all talk and no action. The three get on well but very much struggle with their lives which do not seem to improve much during the course of the book.

Helena Parente Cunha: Mulher no Espelho (Woman Between Mirrors)

The latest addition to my website is Helena Parente Cunha‘s Mulher no Espelho (Woman Between Mirrors). This is a feminist, modernist novel. The author and the main character are seemingly two sides of the same coin, with the character, who pushes against the author, but does not push against the patriarchal society in which she has been brought up. We see her both as a child and young woman, bullied by her father and expected to conform to his rigid rules and later as a wife and mother, dominated by her overweight, drunk, unfaithful, bullying husband and even by her wayward sons. Meanwhile there is continued antagonism between the author and character, with each woman defending her approach to life and the patriarchal society. Only towards the end, when her husband and sons have gone off, does the character finally break out…somewhat.

Heloneida Studart: Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]

The latest addition to my website is Heloneida Studart‘s Selo das despedidas (later: Sem dizer adeus) [Seal of Farewell]. This is a grim feminist novel, which starts with the suicide of a woman, Maria das Graças Nogueira de Alencar, from a distinguished family. She leaves her eight notebooks to her niece, Mariana and we follow the content of the notebooks during the course of the book, as well as following the stories of Mariana, Leonor, her younger sister, and Mimi, their mother and sister of Maria das Graças. The three women have all had miserable marriages, boring in the case of Mariana, who is a lawyer but much worse for the other two. We also learn that Mariana and Maria das Graças were both, in family tradition, intended to remain old maids so that they could look after their mother in her old age. Both rebelled. All the women in the book have a miserable time, from being sent to a convent or even thrown out on the street for those who had dared to have pre-marital sex to controlling and often brutal marriages or, in the case of Maria das Graças, being denied any love. Studart does not mince her words, though she herself was married with six sons and and an adopted daughter, saying, for example there is no hate that can compare to that between a husband and his wife.