Brazil’s new literary voice

James Woodall

Behind the global headlines of Brazil’s upcoming sporting events and past economic successes, young novelists are gradually gaining a quiet notoriety abroad for their inventive prose, unique slant and insightful portrait of life in modern Brazil – helped by new translations and the latest publication of Chico Buarque, the country’s most famous musician-turned-writer.

A tangible sense of Brazil’s literary confidence came with the recent publication of a book by one of Brazil’s best-known musicians. Chico Buarque – novelist – was first published in English just over 20 years ago. His fourth novel, Leite derramado, which translates as Spilt Milk and is published by Atlantic in London, is a tour de force of rage and humour, a memory- and sex-drenched inner monologue by centenarian Eulálio Assumpção, dying in hospital in Rio. He has really loved only one woman, Matilde, but she vanished – and her vanishing underpins his pungent regrets about the world and his once-greedy place in it.

The novel crackles with atmosphere and laughter, strumming many of Brazil’s familiar refrains. “My grandfather was a prominent figure under the Empire, a Grand Master and a radical abolitionist. He wanted to send all Brazil’s blacks back to Africa… His own slaves, after they had been freed, chose to remain living on his properties. He owned cacao plantations in Bahia, coffee plantations in São Paulo, made a fortune, died in exile and is buried… at the foot of the mountains, with a chapel blessed by the Cardinal Archbishop of Rio de Janeiro.”

Spilt Milk is, though not obviously so, a memoir of modern Brazil – a saga of property and race, words that might figure in the subtitle of any factual account of the country. The book recalls as much William Faulkner and the unsparing narratives of Paris’s postwar existentialists as it does apparently more closely related Latin-American landmarks, such as Carlos Fuentes’s novel The Death of Artemio Cruz.

Long before Buarque turned his hand to fiction, he was a singer songwriter (at home he is called a composer) of national stature. Fired by the urban music revolution of late 1950s Rio, which gave the world the bossa nova, Buarque began writing songs that bridged the gap between the elite of the university milieu he inhabited (his father was a renowned historian) and the unlettered poor of vast swathes of a nation, then, in the 1960s, beginning to grind its way out of entrenched inequalities in land distribution. It was also ruled by a dictatorship.

Exiled for a year and a half in 1969 for his socialist preoccupations, Buarque became in the 1970s a hero for both the politically disaffected and the poor, a constituency in which he will probably remain better known for catchy but profound music than in the educated Brazilian minority who read his novels. Yet there is no doubt that this man-of-the-people’s shift from samba ballads and political protest to mainstream literature marked a certain, if symbolic, reinvigoration of the Brazilian novel, calling North America’s and (some of) Europe’s publishing attention to a tradition of fi ne writing that might otherwise have seemed obscure.

In fact, the tradition is rich: Buarque has always loved the French and the Russians, but the influence of significant, pioneering Brazilians, such as the 19th-century Joaquim Machado de Assis and the 20th-century Mário de Andrade, struck deep in him, as in many others. Brazil’s literature, especially during and after the Spanish American ‘Boom’ of the 1960s and 70s, which put Gabriel García Márquez on the map, was perhaps a little forgotten; but – behind the scenes – Brazil’s poetry and fiction have been as inventive and original as its music.

Underlining this vigour and variety, Granta – another London imprint and literary magazine – recently published a volume of brand-new fiction by Brazilians under 40. All were born when Buarque’s fame as a singer was at its height and, neatly, began to write and publish at around the same time as he did. The Best of Young Brazilian Novelists (Granta, issue 121) shows a young generation engaging with a hi-tech, interconnected world, and it neither chooses nor needs to put Brazil at its centre.

These writers’ narrators remember their parents’ lives under sundry dictatorships. They take drugs, are inspired by films, travel. Michel Laub writes about pets and a Korean immigrant. In Carol Bensimon’s ‘Sparks’, Cora and Julia listen to Led Zeppelin. In Emilio Fraia’s ‘A Temporary Stay’, Nilo tries to check out of his life by checking in to a London hotel.

Still in Europe, Laura Erber’s ‘That Wind Blowing through the Plaza’ is an ingenious surrealist snapshot of artistic impersonation travelling to Bucharest via London. ‘The Count’ is Leandro Sarmatz’s touching, short and wholly surprising portrait of a Yiddish actor surviving the Nazis. Tatiana Salem Levy’s evocation of Rio in ‘Blazing Sun’ is a sensual search for meaning in a mythic city who’s replaced a lover: “I see people going past on bicycles, others drinking coconut water while sitting on a cement bench or at a plastic table. Rio de Janeiro in the summer says many trite but true things. It says, for example, that complicating something as simple as life is useless, that cultivating pain is a waste of time; that all is worthwhile even if the soul is small.

All the writing here is similarly knowing, sassy, exploratory. It is frontier-crossing, critical of national verities, emotionally frank, sometimes cruel and often funny.

Granta has performed an exemplary act of translation. In the centenary year of Brazil’s most renowned novelist of all, Jorge Amado (Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands is one of his best-known titles), it surely chose the right place at the right time to expose in English a raft of uninhibited Latin-American voices. Brazil’s new writing, whether in the hands of a master musician or literary newcomers, is clearly as colourful and teeming as its famed biodiversity.

About the author:

James Woodall is a writer and editor. His book on Chico Buarque, A Simple Brazilian Song, was published in 1997


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